The Amazon is Burning and Why It’s Not About You

September 6, 2019

By now the news is out and the story’s been told, retold, reshared and refreshed more than a hundred times over. The Amazon Rainforest, the epitome of life and the sanctity of nature, is going down in flames. Early indignance as to why this topic took several weeks to become a headline has given way to horror and devastation, photos surfacing on almost every news site, often revealing clouds of smoke between slivers of the fire itself, thin stripes of orange slinking through the tree lines. This is a headline the environmental movement has both been dreading and waiting for: a “See that? Now can we talk?” that is getting the international attention needed and desired. But, what do we actually talk about when we talk about the Amazon Rainforest? 


We talk about how the Amazon is a carbon sink, how approximately three billion trees convert carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and use it as fuel for growth, sucking up the extra human activity driven CO2 emissions. We talk about how this carbon sink is currently failing, how the amount of carbon the trees are able to store has fallen by a third in the last decade. We talk about how the “lungs of the earth” are dying and so will we by default. 


We also talk about the significance of the Amazon’s place in our water systems. How, without this grand forest, there would likely be droughts all over Brazil and beyond, throughout the majority of the continent. And what would this mean for us? How would this affect the vegetation, our crops, our people? 


We talk about the resources, how we need the Amazon, how these resources will not just come back, not like a particular building that’s been burned to the ground, how its historical magnitude is cause for donations in the range of millions, while our equally significant cathedrals of trees fall hard and fast. These are the things we talk about when we talk about the Amazon Rainforest and when we talk about its rapid, painful, tragic demise. 




What we don’t talk about: the thousands of species who reside from the canopy to the forest floor in all 1.4 billion acres. The amphibians, reptiles, mammals, birds that aren’t adapted to fire, surviving and escaping it. “Most will die,” says National Geographic. “From flames, from heat from flames, from smoke inhalation.” In the case of life or death, faster-moving animals, such as several bird species and jaguars, may be able to move in time; meanwhile for anteaters, sloths and small frogs there’s little to no chance. And this is not to mention the many eggs left in nests and habitats that will most definitely burn. 


After the fire, the Amazon’s flora and fauna will likely feel the effects for years following the fires. Parts of the canopy will be cleared, allowing for greater intakes of sunlight throughout parts of the forest. This will fundamentally change the ecosystem within, and not for the better. Burnt trees will become too dark for species to use camouflage, and much of the vegetation, specifically the fruits, will no longer be available for consumption. The ground, once soft and moist, perfect for muffling sound during a stealthy hunt, will be too hard and the crunchy leaves too loud for success. Entire species may have to either flee the area or will entirely die out. 


There is, of course, always room to discuss how the Amazon fires will cause changes in the earth’s climate and how this will affect us all. However, to focus the conversation solely around these concerns encourages damaging environmental rhetoric and hinders environmental action for non-humans. Deep ecology is defined as an environmental movement in which the inherent value of all living things is recognized. The movement takes an ecocentric stance, claiming we should care about the Earth and all living things for their own sake, not for our own. This concept is crucial for an all-around successful environmental movement, and it is crucial right now as the Amazon fires continue to spread and ravage. This is not just about us, it simply cannot be. Home to so many plants and animals, the Amazon needs us for them. And as there is discussion of carbon sinks and water systems, I cannot help but think of the animals in ground zero, caught in waves of smoke and flame. Where are those headlines? 


Anthropocentrism runs deep in many facets of environmental advocacy. In our strive for seeing the bigger picture, for understanding how everything fits together, the details getting lost along the way are not mere side notes, but casualties. And since when is it acceptable for a casualty to be casual? These animals need us, and they must be included in the grand portrait of the planet. There is no story larger than this. 


Rebecca is a junior Art and Environmental Studies and Sustainability double major.

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