The Amazon is burning; thousands and thousands of man-made fires are producing thick clouds of ash and smoke that envelope downwind cities, while ravenous flames harm indigenous communities and vital rainforest ecosystems.
Much of the dialogue about this global crisis has devolved into distracting debates that ignore the larger issue of a climate crisis. There’s an ongoing argument about the amount of oxygen the Amazon produces (20% was widely and incorrectly cited). Contrarians point out that “the Amazon has always had fires!” (National Geographic explains why that irrelevant fact fails to lessen the extreme threat to one of our planet’s most vital resources.)
These tangential disputes distract from the grim reality behind the fires: deforestation in the Amazon is directly responsible for these fires and shows no sign of slowing. In fact, it’s growing at an alarming pace – 2019 had the highest deforestation rate in a decade. Recently-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro seems ready to reverse years of hard-won protections for short-term economic gain as he contends with a national unemployment rate of 12%; meanwhile, soy and beef exports (industries directly responsible for deforestation) are thriving.
Just as the Amazon’s ecosystems benefit the entire planet, so, too, will the repercussions of this human-led destruction go far beyond Brazil’s borders. And of course, the responsibility for these fires hardly lies with Brazil alone.
China, the European Union, and the United States are all greatly implicated through mass consumption of the soy, wood, and beef harvested from the Amazon. According to the World Bank, the U.S. buys 14% of Brazil’s exports, the E.U. buys 19%, and China buys 22%, becoming the single largest importer of Brazilian beef.
In addition to global consumer demand, developing geopolitical relations influence events in the Amazon. China is the world’s largest importer of soybeans (most of which are used as livestock feed) and previously relied on American soy production – until President Trump declared a trade war and China placed a 25% tariff on U.S. soy imports. The tariff spiked demand for Brazilian beef and soy exports, thereby incentivizing Brazilian farmers to leave sustainable farming practices behind in favor of quick economic gains.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Richard Powers interrogates the logic behind unchecked global deforestation and concludes, “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” This idea succinctly captures the absurdity of the short-sightedness that allows humankind to continue unchecked consumption of products that are directly – and perhaps irrevocably – harming the only habitable planet we know of.
In the wake of the fervent (albeit delayed) outcry over the Amazon fires, a slew of strongly-worded, well-researched articles implored readers to accept individual responsibility for this environmental degradation and take action by limiting meat consumption (in turn decreasing global demand for soy).
The case for this type of action is sound – animal agriculture (raising cattle and growing soy to feed cattle and pork) drives deforestation in the Amazon, accounting for 80-90% of cleared land). Cattle are a non-efficient food source and a significant contributor to climate change; the global cattle population makes up the third-largest source of Co2 emissions behind the U.S. and China.
However, it’s unclear how likely consumer-led change is to occur in any of the nations involved. In Brazil, attempts to curb deforestation and control cattle production are riddled with loopholes and characterized by a lack of political will. China’s meat consumption is projected to grow by 20% in the next five years and shows few signs of slowing, despite a 2016 national campaign by the Chinese government to encourage citizens to eat less meat for environmental reasons.
China currently consumes 28% of the world’s meat while the U.S. accounts for 14% of global meat consumption, but Americans still eat significantly more meat per capita than almost everyone – including Chinese consumers – at four times the world average. However, researchers point out that the American diet has become more sustainable as chicken consumption overtakes beef and pork consumption, thereby reducing the land and resources required to meet American appetites.
But shifts in the American diet will have a negligible impact on the climate crisis if China increasingly outsources greenhouse-gas intensive meat production to the U.S. and other countries in an effort to meet growing national demand for beef and pork. In short, the net environmental impact of meat consumption is severe, and growing, regardless of country-level shifts in diet.
Food production – which accounts for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions – and land use are critical components of the climate crisis. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body on climate science, published a report titled “Climate Change and Land,” underscoring the urgent nature of addressing global food production and consumption trends.
In the fight to protect our planet it is also critical to examine the institutions that financially back industries in the Amazon. Many of the banks and firms responsible for enabling rapid deforestation are headquartered in the U.S. and the E.U. Another indispensable facet of consumer-led change is to demand that forest management in the Amazon be given back to indigenous communities.
Given the geopolitical controversies that have unfolded over protecting the Amazon and the reluctance of any of the involved governments to demonstrate visionary leadership or take responsibility, it is clear that consumers in the U.S., China, Brazil, and the rest of the world must lead the charge for change. Through a combination of individual action and continued pressure on the companies, financial firms, and elected officials that represent our interests, we can work to influence the economic and political systems that encourage the exploitation of our world’s most precious resources – before it is too late.