The Amazon Fire Alarm Is Unwarranted

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You probably saw a flurry of recent headlines as actors, athletes, and politicos warned of record-breaking fires in the Amazon rainforest. But there was no such unusual fire. The photos attached to social media posts and cable news stories were sometimes decades old and often not of South America at all. According to Amazon climate change expert Dan Nepstad, 2019’s fires are up 80 percent over last year, but are about the same as 2016 and far less than many other recent years. Deforestation is down significantly—about 70 percent—since peaks in the mid-2000s.

Nepstad would know. He was a lead study author of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chang and co-founder of Aliança da Terra, a network of 600 indigenous people and rural farmers he’s trained as fire-spotters and equipped with fire-prevention tech. But it wasn’t his expertise or their know-how you saw on your timeline or Twitter feed.

In America’s national parks, we use a combination of controlled fires and “prescribed burnpolicies to keep forests healthy and preserve wild spaces. Brazilian farmers use the same controlled burn tactics popular in California to keep their land productive and pests at bay. A few fires are emergencies; most are not.

In the Amazon, as in the world overall, tree-cover is increasing. That’s because wealthier people produce food and fuel more efficiently, and need to scavenge less from their natural surroundings. As warm, poor countries reach similar levels of development to cooler, wealthier countries, they begin replanting, says Matt Ridley in The Spectator. Bangladesh and Costa Rica have recently joined the net-reforesters, and Brazil is predicted to do so soon. 

The Amazon isn’t only a “cathedral of biodiversity” but also a home to 30 million people who are using wildland to build a human civilization, much in the same way North America’s own indigenous, immigrant, and formerly enslaved farmers did in previous centuries. Making their survival a political football infantilizes them, and romanticizing a “natural environment” most of us couldn’t survive in ignores their reality.

The misinformation about the Amazon fires is a telling example of climate apocalypse rhetoric in the United States and Europe. Biological and historical contexts, not to mention human trade-offs, are forgotten amid the idealizing and moralizing of ultra-simplified coverage.

Laura Williams
Laura Williams


Dr. Laura Williams  teaches communication strategy to undergraduates and executives. She is a passionate advocate for critical thinking, individual liberties, and the Oxford Comma.

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