The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Responding to Greta

Greta Thunberg can’t save the world. She doesn’t claim that she can. In fact, the whole of what she is doing is to beg other people to act. She is telling the truth, and doing so with an unapologetic stridency that resonates–and many others are joining her, giving the issue the importance readers of this blog know it deserves.

If her actions carry a hint of hope, if we see in her some suggestion that perhaps we might still pull this thing out of our hat, it’s because the climate strike movement is new, and anything new is good.

But calling for change alone can’t save the world; the powerful still have the option to ignore the call. And frankly, many of them still are.

Last week, I posted a list of things you can do–it’s not my first such list, and I’m not the only one drafting such lists. Lists are good. But mine and those I have read have all so far missed an important distinction, an important way to be relevant to the specific challenge we find ourselves facing today, the challenge posed by tens of thousands of young people marching in the streets.

The thing is, Greta Thunberg can’t save the world, and those of us who rely on her to do so, responding to her with admiration only and not action, betray her as surely do the haters.

She can’t save the world, but we can.

The Powerful and the Powerless

In the realm of climate response, a continuum exists between the powerful and the powerless. It’s true that no one is so powerful as to be able to end anthropogenic climate change by an unaided act of will, and no one with the mental capacity to understand the problem to even the simplest degree is entirely without resources–and yet it’s also true that we’re not all alike. We’re not equals.

And the thing is, different strategies apply to different points along the spectrum.

No matter how much or how little power you have, you can make a difference, but not if you deny the reality of your position. If you put all your energy into changing the things you have direct control over, and all you have control over is what brand of toilet paper you buy, then you won’t get very far. It’s not that personal lifestyle changes don’t make a difference, they do, but they depend on the coordinated action of many people, and rarely succeed unless some other strategy is also being carried out. If personal lifestyle change is all you can do, go ahead and do it, but you also need to join Greta in the streets calling for change. On the other hand, if you happen to be the head of a multinational company or the prime minister of a whole country, joining the marching strikers is silly at best–you’re demonstrating against yourself, you know that, don’t you?

In either case, to act as though your power were something it isn’t is to refuse to act.

The Power of Direct Action

“Direct action” has a specific meaning in activist circles, but I mean something slightly different here. I am referring to actions that you can take on your own authority, actions that definitively reduce emissions all by themselves. For example, if you are the sole owner of a car company, you can decide to produce only fuel-efficient vehicles.

Everybody has some power of direct action. Greta Thunberg, for example, has decided not to eat meat. You can lead a kid to a hamburger, but you can’t make her eat it. Meat, especially beef, does have a large carbon footprint, so in and of itself, hers is a step in the right direction. But we all know it’s not a very big step, that’s why she’s striking–to make sure the bigger steps get taken by the people in a position to take them.

It is, as I said, a continuum, not a binary distinction between the powerful and the powerless, but it’s still important to recognize that not all steps are equal. When drafting a list of the “50 simple things you can do to save the Earth,” there is one very important thing to know; who are you?

Are you a 16-year-old kid? Are you a working stiff struggling to make rent? Do you own a house and a car and take regular transcontinental trips? Are you a business leader? A US Senator? The President of the United States? The more power of direct action you have, the more of your time and energy must be taken up by taking climate-friendly actions.

It’s possible you have more power than you think you do. It’s easy to fall into the habit of doing things as they’ve always been done, without realizing they could be done differently. Ask yourself the following:

  • Do I ever make purchasing decisions for anything larger than my household?
  • Do I ever make investment decisions for more than a trivial amount of money?
  • Do I ever create plans that a team of people will follow?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies at my place of business?
  • Do I ever design, or help design, policies for a government agency, whether local, state-level, or national?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, how anything will be built?
  • Do I have the authority to decide how policies will be enacted?
  • Do I ever decide, or help decide, what someone else will be taught or notified about?

A yes to any of these questions indicates a place where you may be making climate decisions for more than your own personal lifestyle–a place where pleas to save the planet might actually be addressed to you.

You can make a climate action plan for your team, your organization, your event, your town, your state, your nation. Then enact the plan.

Go.

The Art of Influence

Most people, even if they can take some direct action, are going to be frustrated by the limits to their power. To one degree or another, part of your effectiveness is likely to depend on convincing someone to act. You can begin by turning up at rallies and demonstrations, and of course voting (and donating time and money to campaigns and registration drives). But the next step is to target specific people whose actions you want to change.

Who has the power to take what direct actions? What can you do to influence those actions?

The flipside of asking what unacknowledged power you might have is asking who else around you might have the power to change something. Once you have identified someone who can make a change, you can go about providing the necessary combination of pressure and support to make that change happen.

Here we have traditional political activism–marches, emails, petitions, coupled with lawsuits, whistle-blowing, boycotts, and civil disobedience. If you have the talent for organizing, you can get involved with strategy, or you can find existing campaigns to join. It’s not that activism is less powerful than direct action, it’s just that it is a different kind of power and requires a different strategy.

One or the Other

Greta Thunberg is saying some important stuff. Each of us has a fundamental choice in how to respond: we can join her in calling the powerful to act, or we can admit to being the powerful and respond to her call with action.

Do neither, and you are part of the problem. Don’t feel guilty; fix it!

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I Am Not Greta Thunberg

Last week, we joined the local iteration of the Climate Strike. Sort of.

The thing is, you can’t really go on strike if you’re retired (as my husband is), or self-employed (as I am). Anyway, our local event wasn’t organized as a strike–as far as I know, nobody walked out of work to attend. It was instead a demonstration or, probably more accurately, a rally.

I’ve talked about the distinction between strikes and demonstrations before. A rally is something else again. In a demonstration, the focus is external–you want someone, the media, the government, or, broadly speaking, “the Man,” to notice that you’re upset about something. In contrast, a rally has an internal focus–you’re coming together to show each other how you feel. The point is motivation, encouragement, and sometimes organization. An event can be all three at once, of course, but this was a rally.

A Day in the Park

We met in a local park, perhaps a hundred and fifty of us, to listen to live music and to various speakers, as well as video recordings of Greta Thunberg’s speeches and interviews. Local organizations had tables set up offering information and voter registration cards. There were tables of food, mostly donated but some of it brought by attendees. There was plastic cutlery. There was talk of how Friday afternoon is such an inconvenient time, we can’t really expect a lot of people to show up.

Which is about when I started to cry.

Something to Cry About

The advantage of having just lost my sister to cancer, if there is one, is that when I break down weeping in a public place, nobody really holds it against me. And I admit if circumstances were different, I might have held my composure better. But I wasn’t weeping for my sister. After all, lots of individuals die, and the rest of the world goes on. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it should, but it does; life as a whole gets over individual tragedy pretty thoroughly. An entropic biosphere, on the other hand, is something else.

I didn’t weep for my sister but for everyone and everything else. I wept because I didn’t feel free to shout “plastic cutlery? What the hell were you thinking?” or other such railings at the business-as-usual tone of the whole event. And I wept because I am not Greta Thunberg.

A Personal Note

The thing is, that was supposed to be me. I had the same commitment to environmentalism from an early age, and at 16 years old I was making personal lifestyle changes and anticipating a life as an activist. I understood the science of the crisis. I wanted to change the world and I expected to.

Did I?

Not yet, as far as I can tell. In the 36 years since I was 16, the environmental crisis has gotten substantially worse, while most of my time and energy have gone into my personal concerns. For all my good intentions, I have become one of the adults who let Greta down.

It’s true it’s not exactly from moral laziness on my part, and it’s certainly not due to greed or selfishness. I didn’t lose my ideals or abandon my dreams. Instead, the issue is that whatever mental ability allows most people to look at a situation and find their role in it, it’s an ability that I appear to lack. With certain rare and limited exceptions, I just don’t know what I can do to help. And no, pamphlets entitled “What You Can Do” don’t solve the problem. So far, nothing does. So I get very little done.

But the validity of my excuse does not make any practical difference; the climate doesn’t award anybody E for Effort, it just keeps getting warmer until someone succeeds.

If I had started shouting about the plastic cutlery, I doubt I would have been understood. The others would have protested that they have good intentions and frustrating limitations, too, as if I don’t understand, as if I don’t appreciate what they are doing. And it’s not true. I do understand–and I do appreciate. Maryland is taking some real and important steps towards environmental stewardship, and it’s happening through the efforts of remarkable activists–and voters–some of whom were with me that day in the park. These are people who are, overall, more effective than I have been. These are people who organized a successful rally for the climate, something I, honestly, probably could not do, or at least could not have done as well. It was a step in the right direction, one of many steps being taken, and it was a good party. I cheered up eventually, had a good time, and found some organizations that can use my skill as a writer to accomplish something.

But if the climate strike is going to mean anything, it has to include honesty about the crisis we are in. It must include a restless, focused urgency, and–for anyone who is already an adult–it has to include some soul-searching. Who among us can really say “I have done enough” when the biosphere is still dying?

Frankly, I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t weeping, too.

A Shot in the Dark

Greta Thunberg is telling the truth. She’s demanding action, enforcing a kind of societal honesty. The fact that she can get other people to listen to her and join her in her demands is extraordinary. The fact that she can stay focused on her message in the face of hostility, apathy, and flattery is also extraordinary. Very few people could do what she is doing.

But it’s worth taking note of what she isn’t doing, too. She’s not organizing. She is an independent public speaker and climate striker, and while she sometimes cooperates with various groups, she does not lead any organization herself. She doesn’t organize the international strikes and demonstrations that she has inspired–other people, mostly other teenagers, do that. She also isn’t offering or enacting any solutions.

I don’t mean that as a criticism; fire alarms seldom also put out fires, but fire fighters still rely on alarms to wake them up and get them moving in the right direction.

But it’s important to recognize that Ms. Thunberg can’t, all by herself, save us. She is, in fact, begging us to save her.

If we respect her, we have to take further action.

Solving the Problem

Climate change is both a simple problem and a very complex one. The simple part is that burning fossil fuels, plus certain activities that fossil fuels make economically viable (such as destroying the Amazon rainforest in order to produce beef for export), is destroying the world. We have to stop doing those things at once.

But the complex part (aside from the details of the climate response; they don’t call climates a complex system for nothing) is that if it’s done the wrong way, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is likely to cause other problems–some of themĀ  drastic. And it’s not altogether clear what the right way to do it is. We know where we need to go, but how best to get there isn’t obvious, even supposing we were all trying to get there. Then, too, “keeping fossil fuels in the ground” is not something that can be done by a single person acting alone. Large numbers of people all have to act together, each in their own role–political leaders, economic leaders, diplomats, activists, consumers, voters, educators–and all more or less coordinated.

And of course, we do all have to attend to other elements of our lives simultaneously, striking balances among competing interests that we don’t actually know how to balance.

While I believe I do have unusual difficulty with finding a place to be of service, I’m clearly not the only person who looks at this mess and says “I don’t know what to do.”

But we must each do something, and do it hard and fast and well.

Steps to Take

I am not Greta Thunberg. I don’t have the abilities she has. But I have the abilities I have, and I also have a blog. And I also have the power to use language to explore options–I can, perhaps, help with charting a solution.

I therefore offer the following suggested actions:

  • Weeping It’s impossible to act as though something is important without feeling as though it’s important, and feeling as though the planet is important entails rage, grief, and fear. It also tends to involve guilt, shame, and frustration, helplessness. While sitting at a picnic table and literally weeping in public might not be everyone’s style, it’s important to let the uncomfortable feelings happen. Be where you are.
  • Community It’s very difficult to accomplish anything in isolation. Most of us need social support and affirmation. That includes not just encouragement and reassurance, but also actions that might on the face of it seem critical–calling on each other to do better, letting each other know when we’ve missed something. We need to form friendships in which climate action is a shared and acknowledged priority, even when it means not being polite. We need more parties, too.
  • Local Action Many of us are in positions where “green” lifestyles aren’t really an option. There isn’t enough local food production, there isn’t energy-efficient mass transit, there isn’t renewable electricity, communities aren’t walkable, there are laws that make “green” lifestyles difficult or impossible. These challenges are places to start, places to get to work.
  • Political Pressure Much of the work that has to be done requires the leadership of elected officials. We need to make such leadership politically expedient. Send emails, make phone calls, turn up at demonstrations, make sure that friends and neighbors know about demonstrations and help them get there. Make it obvious to our leaders that climate is important to the people.
  • Focused Flexibility We need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a high standard, but we also can’t let rigor become an excuse for inaction. We can’t refuse to take action because the action plan isn’t perfect. We can’t refuse to work with allies because those allies are also our adversaries on other issues. We have to embrace a certain pragmatism. Purity won’t win the war.
  • Voting We have to become single-issue voters. If a candidate is not a climate hawk, we must not vote them into office. We need to contribute time and money to candidates who are climate hawks. As more climate hawks run, we can choose among them based on their stance on other issues we care about.

It’s not that climate is the only important issue, it’s that all the other important issue depends on this one.

 


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About that Climate Strike

The organizers of the climate strike are offering tools that allow websites to participate in the strike. Unfortunately, in order to use them, I’d have to upgrade to a paid version of WordPress, which I’m not able to do.

Instead, I’m going to get creative and make my own tools.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to get involved and to tell everyone you know to get involved–because a lot of people who might otherwise be interested haven’t heard these events are even happening.

The brief explanation: while the worldwide event is being billed as a “strike,” and will, indeed, include widespread walk-outs, actually walking out of school or work is not considered necessary. There are many organized demonstrations you can join, and, whether or not you can attend an event, you can also use social media and any websites or blogs you might be involved with to demonstrate your solidarity with the movement.

To find an event near you, click here.

To find tools to participate online, click here.

The reason this is important is three-fold:

  1. We have to show up to show other people who care about the climate that they are not alone. It is hard to care about something if you believe no one else does–and we need people to care and to act.
  2. We have to show the news media that we are interested so that they will report on climate stories and show the undecided that this stuff is real and important. Seriously, I’ve seen a bump in climate coverage every time there is a really big demonstration.
  3. We have to show politicians that we care and that if they show real leadership on climate, we’ll have their backs in the voting booth.

We have to show up now so that other people do, too.


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One Less

My dog died yesterday morning.

Not Reilly, of whom I have written before, but his older co-dog, Una Mas. Although she’d carried a terminal diagnosis for the better part of a year, and had lately showed clear signs of failing health, I’ve seen “failing health” persist for months. 48 hours ago, I was somewhat concerned–she had fallen for no apparent reason, and seemed to be having a bad day–but I didn’t doubt she’d be around for my book launch party next month. I thought it possible she might hang on long enough to come with us to Maine next summer. Instead, her body simply began to fail in the middle of the night, and she died in the parking lot of the vet’s office in the morning. I can’t quite believe that she’s gone.

Reilly sits huddled on the couch, disoriented, perhaps, by his sudden singularity.

Those of you who know me–and even those who don’t, if you’ve been reading carefully–know this has been a rough year on my end, culminating several rough years, which may be why I have not been as politically active as I’ve wanted to be. I just don’t have the energy. And yet energy must be expended. The global emergency continues.

One of the great things about large demonstrations is that they require relatively little energy from individual participants. For the organizers, of course, it’s a different story, but for everyone else, you just have to show up–and showing up matters. If something’s on your mind and you’re having trouble focusing, that’s OK. You can still help. Even if you can’t get yourself together to do the kind of all-out problem-solving work this moment in history demands, you’re still needed–to turn up to make sure the organizing work of others makes a difference.

So, this Friday is a great opportunity for people like us, a world-wide day of action. To find an event near you, click here. To multiply your impact, reach out to others and get more people to participate.

Change can happen very fast. You wake up one morning, thinking the world will go one way, and by the next morning, there you are–missing a beagle, hit by a hurricane, living in a country you don’t always recognize anymore….

But not all changes, even all sudden changes, are bad. I didn’t know Greta Thunberg was going to come to prominence, but here she is, and people are listening to her. Maybe we have a chance–if enough people show up, if enough people get serious about climate change and act like it.

Be the change. Turn up on Friday.


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Considering 9/11

So, tomorrow is 9/11, a date that has become synonymous with an event. It’s been a long time, now. People born since those attacks are about to start turning 18; they’ll vote next year.

We don’t hear a lot about terrorism these days, not in the US–it’s no longer the dominant issue it was a decade ago, let alone nearly two decades ago, at least partly because violence tends not to be labeled terrorism if it’s perpetrated by white Americans who are not Muslim.

But it’s worth noting that attacks on civilians (not all of which ought to be called “terrorism,” but that’s another topic) are still very much an issue, and that climate change is making the issue worse.

Simply put, we know climate change makes terrorism more likely because it increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters to the point of putting large numbers of people in desperate circumstances–and desperate people do desperate things. Also, climate change makes certain kinds of attack easier to accomplish; during severe droughts, public drinking water is much cheaper to poison, since there is less water in reservoirs to dilute poison and wildfires are easier to start.

I’ve discussed before the way that political problems world-wide often have a climate-related component.

So it’s weird that we still tend to take terrorism (at least terrorism perpetrated by certain types of people) more seriously than climate change, given that climate change causes terrorism.

If you want to do something about the one, you must do something about the other.


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Strike!

For years, now, I’ve been wondering why nobody’s organizing climate demonstrations. Seems a bad time to let the pressure up. Or am I just out of the loop? Are demonstrations happening without me? As far as I can tell, in recent months, most of the energy has indeed not been going into marches but rather into “direct action,” either strikes or deliberate attempts to get arrested in a good cause. And unfortunately, I’m not really available for either. The nature of my work means that for me to strike would hurt only me; writers occasionally change the world by writing, but never by not writing.

But now, apparently, there’s a march scheduled–lots of them! All over! On September 20th!

To find an event near you, please click here.

I have to say this one looks a bit odd. For one thing, they’re calling these events “strikes,” when they are clearly demonstrations or protests. The difference matters.

To strike is to walk off the job in order to force change. We’re most familiar with strikes against specific employers, where workers cease work en mass in order to shut down the company until management agrees to workers’ demands, like pay raises and better working conditions. A general strike shuts down an entire economy for the same reason. For a strike to work, it has to hurt, or threaten to hurt, somebody with the power to make the changes the strikers want. It is a species of force, like boycotts and sit-ins, a non-violent means to take control of a situation and make someone else comply. Such force can be countered with force–not all strikes succeed–but cannot be ignored.

In contrast, demonstrations and protests can be ignored. When they succeed, it is because someone in power decides the protestors are right, because someone in power takes the demonstration as a warning that force will soon be used, or because someone uses the political cover provided by the demonstration to seize power.

Both work–but which one are we doing on the 20th?

Of course, there will be some of each. I plan to demonstrate. I may take the day off work to do so, but none of my clients are likely to stop climate change if I miss a deadline, so I won’t miss any. Others will doubtless suspend work for a day, and some strikes may be genuine applications of force, while others will be symbolic. But I’d like to see the distinction acknowledged as a matter of strategy–because demonstrations don’t always make good strikes and vice versa. And we need both to work right now.

The question is further complicated by the fact that, strategically speaking, the children’s strike for climate is itself a demonstration–for kids and teens to walk out of class doesn’t hurt those in power, it simply grabs their attention. Grabbing attention can be a very powerful thing to do, though. Demonstrations have toppled dictators. They have started wars–and ended them.

Either way, all of us need to know what our mission is on that day, and how what each of us is doing contributes to the whole.

I’ve written before comparing the children’s climate strike to the move, “Amazing Grace and Chuck”. In that movie, children quit their extra-curricular sports in order to demand nuclear disarmament–an effort that, in the movie, eventually proves successful. Now, in our real children’s strike, Greta Thunberg is our Chuck.

My guess is that our objective on the 20th is to flush out Amazing Graze.

 


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World on Fire

The Amazon is burning.

Social media appeared to suddenly take note of the fact last week, followed by mainstream news coverage a few days later. Personally, I found the whole thing too depressing and frightening for words, which is why I resolved not to read up on the subject until I was in a position to do a full investigation of the subject, including reading up on steps I could take to do something about it. Writing this post has become the occasion of my reading.

At least part of the reason for my panic is that I’ve read this story before–a novel I picked up some years ago covered the future of climate change in frighteningly plausible detail and included scenes in which the entire Amazon burned. As in, the rainforest there simply went out of existence, taking human lives, human cultures, endemic species, and a major carbon sink with it. Could something like that happen for real? Maybe: I’ve written before of how a positive feedback loop could make deforestation suddenly become self-sustaining; And Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is building a reputation for himself as a rabid anti-environmentalist. Is the nightmare actually happening as we speak? Maybe.

But maybe not. And while something is clearly going very wrong in Brazil, knee-jerk panic is unlikely to do anything to help. We need to educate ourselves.

Clearing the Smoke to See the Fire

Let’s start by looking at what the news media are saying about the fires, what the current story actually is. Then, let’s look at some varying voices of commentary. Finally, let’s take a quick look at the complex background against which this fiery drama is playing out.

Just the Facts

There is an excellent article on Al Jazeera’s website summarizing the story. Let me summarize their summary, supplemented by other sources as noted.

Fires are normal in the Amazon at this time of year, although most of them are set deliberately by humans to clear land for crops and pasturage. Not all the fires are in the forest; farmers often burn agricultural stubble after harvest. Even the forest fires are not necessarily instances of large-scale deforestation; slash-and-burn agriculture is a very old technique in which a small area is cut and burned and then farmed for several years until the soil becomes nutrient-poor. Then the people start over with a new plot and the old one regrows. Whether slash-and-burn is a problem, ecologically, depends on other factors, and fire can also be used to clear large areas of land permanently. Deforestation in the Amazon is not new, either, unfortunately.

The unusual thing this year has been the extent of the burning which has been much higher than in years past since June at least. This, coupled with the anti-environment, pro-business leaning of Brazil’s president, has led to wide-spread worry that we could indeed be looking at catastrophe.

Many people are now raising their voices against the fires internationally, including celebrities and European leaders. President Bolsonaro has seemed slow to respond to the fires and has recently rejected international aid, citing his concern for his country’s sovereignty.

Some of the Facts May or May Not Be Wrong

I found an article in Forbs, that made some interesting counterclaims about these fires.

  • The images of fire being shared by celebrities and on social media are mostly not pictures of the current fires in the Amazon.
  • The Amazon rain forest is not a major source of the planet’s oxygen and while it is a carbon sink, so are the agricultural lands that are replacing it.
  • Most of the fires are not burning rain forest but rather brush and scrub.
  • Deforestation in the Amazon is currently declining and most of the remaining forest is protected.
  • The current mainstream coverage of the fires ignores political, economic, and cultural realities on the ground. Much of the international pressure is actually counterproductive because it ignores that reality.

Now, I question the veracity of parts of this article. Notably, while mature rain forest does use most of the oxygen it produces, it’s a mistake to use that factoid to downplay the planetary importance of the forest. And while cattle pasture and soy farms do hold carbon and produce oxygen, there is no way they can hold as much carbon as forest does because they have much less biomass. Biomass is made out of carbon compounds, remember. It’s also worth noting that cattle release much of the carbon they consume as methane rather than as carbon dioxide–and methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas.

However, the part about political and economic reality rings true. While I know very little about Brazil specifically, environmental conservation has a long history of foundering through willful ignorance of actual people. These fires are being set by people, and the people have reasons for setting the fires. They either need what the fires can give them, or think they do. While the fires themselves are unquestionably a problem, charging in (metaphorically or literally) without regard to the needs that drive the fires will be ineffective at best.

So while I do not regard the Forbs article as a reliable source of information, it raises some interesting points that certainly bear further research–and the call to avoid knee-jerk, under-informed reactions is almost certainly spot-on.

More than the Facts

I’m not going to present myself as an expert, here. I have a good deal of knowledge of conservation issues generally, and some aspects of the current crisis have been familiar to me for a while, but other things I’m just reading about today. Doubtless there are things, even important things, that I’ve just missed so far. What I’m trying to do is get the information I do have into a manageable, accessible form so that I and my readers can do something productive instead of running around wringing our hands in a panic.

There are a couple of pieces here that deserve careful attention.

Politics

What we’re looking at is the latest iteration of a complex, long-term political problem. Mr. Bolsonaro, remember, was elected. A large part of the issue is something that crops up in virtually all international discussions of climate change: fairness.

Europe and the United States and certain other countries have grown rich and powerful largely by two mechanisms: liquidating our own environmental capital and exploiting the resources of other countries through a combination of force and unbalanced trade. When we rely on historically poorer countries, like Brazil, to leave their wildlands intact as a means of buffering the planet against our excesses, resentment and suspicion are predictable. Arguably, we’re just trying to exploit their resources again, though this time it’s intact forest we want to take–Brazilian nationalism is not necessarily a matter of paranoia or jingoistic pride but is, rather, an understandable reaction to actual foreign bullying.

Doubtless the situation is complicated by moneyed interests and internal cultural disputes. It’s not that Brazil should get a free pass to do whatever its people want in the name of understandable anger–legitimate grievance is doubtless not the only factor in play, nor is there any guarantee that legitimate grievance automatically leads to legitimate response. The rise to power of the Nazis, fueled as it was, in part, by a truly tragic economic crisis, provides a dramatic example of the principle.

But the international response could easily prove counterproductive if it is not lead by people with a deep understanding of what’s actually happening in Brazil.

The People and the Peoples of Brazil

Massive protests against the fires are underway worldwide–but also within Brazil. So while some Brazilians may feel pushed around by foreigners, others are doing their own pushing to protect what they see as their heritage–and demanding help and support from outside. Many of these protestors are indigenous, and indigenous communities are being hit hard by both smoke and the loss of forests and crops to fire. Bolsonaro’s policies generally have been bad for them.

A reasonable question, when we talk about what the people of Brazil want, is who are the people of Brazil? Which viewpoint should outsiders regard as legitimate? It’s an age-old question, one that applies equally well to many other countries.

Are These Wildfires?

If these are wildfires, than how can the government be blamed for them? If these are intentional burns, then how and why are the fires damaging private property? Are the fires legal or illegal–and, if legal, are the laws supporting them just? I’m seeing a variety of answers to these questions. I suspect the real answers depend on which individual fire you’re talking about and when you are talking–a deliberately-set fire can escape to burn out of control.

I have no answers, yet, but it’s worth noting that tackling these questions could be the only way to make sense of the disagreements among editorial slants we see regarding the fires.

What Can We Do?

We may or may not currently be facing catastrophic nightmare–but at the very least, this year represents a surge in the ongoing crisis of deforestation in the Amazon. Something needs to be done.

We can start by saying what not to do.

  • Nothing. Do not do nothing.
  • Panic and make assumptions. Riding in, guns blazing, without a full understanding of the situation, is likely to make a bad situation worse.
  • Demand complete perfection immediately. I’ve seen some people claim that the whole world needs to go vegan because meat production for export is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Probably some are calling for an end to capitalism as well. It’s not that such ideas are bad–they’re not. But these to-do list items are not likely to be accomplished this week, and meanwhile the Amazon is burning.

So, what should we do?

The Guardian (a British publication that does good work) recommends political action in favor of forest protection, financial support of non-profits active in the region, and boycott of products that are derived unsustainably from the Amazon, such as Brazilian beef. It sounds like good advice, but it’s a little vague. Let me elaborate.

Political Pressure

Bolsonaro is showing signs of responding to international pressure, even as such pressure also sometimes seems counterproductive. The solution is to identify the political leaders who seems to be getting results and support them both politically and, if possible, financially. Call your representatives and ask them to block trade deals with countries that are environmentally destructive–and to offer support to those that protect their forests. Might be a good idea to show appreciation for leaders of other countries who seem to be getting results, too. Notice that all this is bigger than Brazil.

Above all, focus your support on political leaders who are doing the well-informed, nuanced work the situation needs.

I suspect the most immediate solutions will be political and are, in fact, underway and in need of support. The other two options are more long-term.

Non-Profits?

The Guardian recommends supporting the following groups (though this is clearly not meant to be an exhaustive list):

I plan to focus on groups that specifically champion the rights of people who live in the forest; protect the people who protect the land. Respond to the S.O.S. messages that have been sent.

Consumer Activism

Yes, cutting back on meat consumption, especially beef consumption, is a good idea, since the global meat industry relies heavily on both pasture and feed production in areas that used to be rain forest. Boycott unsustainably-produced products generally. But don’t stop there. Brazil and other heavily-forest countries do need to make a living somehow, and if cutting down the forests is the only way to do it, then the result is predictable and possibly unavoidable.

Both as a consumer and as a voting citizen, support sustainable economic activity by countries whose forests we want to preserve.

The Guardian recommends The Rainforest Alliance as a source of information on what to buy and what to avoid.