The fires burning in the Amazon Rainforest caused as much of a conflagration on social media as amongst the trees themselves.
Though fire can be a natural phenomenon in any forest, and in some cases even beneficial (notably, the Jack Pine is reliant on regular fires), these fires are almost entirely man-made, largely for the purpose of cheaply clearing agricultural land. Amazonian organisms evolved in a wet environment that is not prone to forest fires. They lack the adaptations other species have to cope with or thrive in fiery environments.
Whether the fires are ultimately an ecological devastation or merely unfortunate, and whether the Amazon rainforest is truly the “lungs of the planet” it is purported to be, is secondary because Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has said some truly ludicrous things about the situation.
Perhaps, however, there is a reason for that.
Because much of the Amazon lives in Brazil, which in turn dominates South America, Bolsonaro’s policies have come under particular scrutiny. Reductions in budgets for forest management and increases in slash-and-burn efforts to clear land for crop cultivation are pointed to as two key factors in the increase in fires.
Bolsonaro has not taken this sitting down. He fired at actor Leonardo DiCaprio, whose efforts to draw international attention to the issue have been particularly irritating to him.
Bolsonaro, without evidence, has blamed the issue on NGO organizations in the region who — apparently incentivized to create an international issue to receive funding — he alleged started the fires that encouraged a $500,000 donation from DiCaprio to the World Wildlife Fund.
There is no evidence whatsoever DiCaprio ever made such a donation, and he has denied doing so.
But the incentive structure underlying these claims is worth talking about. Bolsonaro has also blamed DiCaprio for the fires — allegedly, he has incentivized people to create a supply (the fires) through a demand for international issues.
This is ridiculous. Let me explain.
It is true that demand creates supply, in one broad sense. But supply truly precedes demand in a narrow sense — it is impossible to demand something that does not exist.
When Ford built the Model T, he was satisfying an existing desire for transportation, yes, but not a demand for Model Ts. If you’ve ever seen Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank, you know exactly why this is important. Entrepreneurs commonly fail to consider a key question: What general need or demand is this product serving? Sure, you’ve created a revolutionary method, using parts you found in your backyard, to hypnotize a chicken. It is very impressive that you managed to do this. But you have failed to consider something important: Who, ever, would want to hypnotize a chicken? What possible need is this fulfilling? There is no demand for your specific widget, if it’s not supplying a desire in a certain category of wants.
How this bizarre example is relevant to a rainforest being on fire is because Bolsonaro has failed to consider this reality when concocting his conspiracy. He is suggesting, without evidence, that a real need (clearing land for farming) is somehow less of an incentive than a hypothetical or imaginary need.
In other words: Bolsonaro is suggesting it is more likely that someone would set a rainforest on fire to satisfy a celebrity’s demand for an issue to donate money to than it is that a farmer looking to farm more land is using a fire-prone practice that has existed for literally thousands of years, in an environment where that is being tacitly encouraged.
Why on earth would we believe this? It is a pure conspiracy theory, and frankly embarrassing.
People are, in many cases, incentivized to start these fires. Indigeneous people in the area are reliant on their crops to survive and make money. Similarly, loosening regulations and cutting budgets for forest management makes fiscal sense, according to the current government of Brazil, by saving the government money and allowing citizens more opportunity to make it.
There are alternatives.
If the international community is truly concerned about the security and health of the rainforest, it is incumbent on it to put their money where their mouth is. Whether Brazil’s government would be amenable or not is another question.
“Why shouldn’t Brazil pay for it itself?” you might say. “It’s their rainforest, it’s their responsibility.”
It is true that much of the rainforest is in Brazil.
If we grant that it’s purely their rainforest, the corollary is it’s their choice how to use it, not their responsibility to manage it at our insistence. Thusly, we find ourselves in the situation we are now, where their choice is to use it to grow their economy. If it’s their forest, the international community does not suddenly gain sovereignty over the rainforest because it’s partially on fire, contains numerous endemic species, or contributes a significant carbon sink.
If the rainforest is a benefit to all of us, and in some sense is under responsibility and ownership of the “global community,” then it is incumbent on all of us to protect it. That means money. Forest management costs money; not burning down rainforest costs money if burning down rainforest is your only way to make money. It’s easy to speak from our armchairs about how easy not burning down trees is, as we write notes to ourselves on paper, with our laptops sitting on wooden tables, in houses and buildings made of wood.
Much of the conversation has gone on this way, which perhaps helps explain Bolonaro’s defensiveness. Admitting that his government’s policies have played a role in the fires may only embolden many who feel it is their right to demand he fix the situation, irrespective of the realities on the ground.
He’s a politician. If he admits responsibility, he loses; if he denies it, he wins. The simple logic of that equation explains why trying to assign blame is not a winning strategy here, and in the meantime, the forest is burning.
The hostility that has erupted here is unfortunate. Likely it will stand in the way of any collaborative solution. But if we agree that protecting the rainforest is to everyone’s benefit and responsibility, then it only makes sense that we all participate and take ownership of the situation.