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Burning Down The House


By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema

I looked down upon a sea of green that spread out below me in every direction as far as my eyes could see. It wasn’t water we were flying over, it was a tightly-knit canopy of trees covering the Amazon basin. I had flown out of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, destined for Rio Branco in the western part of Brazil adjacent to the border with Bolivia.

As we got closer to the largest city in the state of Acre, the clearings in the forest made way for expansive deforested areas that were now savannas, farms, pastures for grazing cattle, and suburbs of the core city. The cutting down of the forest is an irreversible action. After losing the complex biodiversity of the forest, the clear-cuts will never again rejuvenate into the dense ecosystems that had evolved over the eons.

We should heed the advice of the Amazonian native peoples before they have become completely Westernized and their extensive botanical knowledge has been lost. Ecosystems are being devastated and the native peoples are under siege, being displaced from the forests they have fought so long to guard and protect. Research has shown that the tribal lands of indigenous peoples have some of the lowest rates of deforestation — better than federally protected national parks.

There are numerous groups who partner with indigenous communities to protect tropical forests and strengthen traditional culture. The Washington based Amazon Conservation Team was founded by ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, and works to preserve tribal knowledge derived from their deep relationship with the forest. An enlightening documentary about their cross-cultural plant-based work titled The Shaman’s Apprentice is worth seeking out. Another worthy non-profit is Amazon Watch whose website is wealth of information.

The destruction of the forest and the assault on the native Amazonian peoples has accelerated under the policies of the current president, Jair Bolsonaro. The ultra-right-wing corporatist got into power by leading a successful impeachment campaign against the previous president, Dilma Rouseff, Brazil’s first woman president. Bolsonaro followed up by stealing the national election away from a popular past president Lula da Silva of the Worker’s Party who was running once again for president against Bolsonaro. Before the date of the election, Lula was framed by a corrupt system of partisan federal judges for unsubstantiated charges of accepting bribes. Having lost his case, Lula is now wasting away in prison. Meanwhile Bolsonaro has become a partner-in-crime with our own corrupt regime in Washington. An excellent new doc about the Brazilian corporate coup can be streamed on Netflix, The Edge of Democracy.

Bolsonaro has opened up the rainforest for international business. Soon after his election, the transnational company, Cargill, announced it was building a new soy terminal port in Porto Velho in the Amazon, increasing its soybean export capacity almost twofold. It appears that increased rainforest devastation is calculated into the business plans of Cargill, as well as being the strategy of other agribusiness, mining and logging companies, and cattle ranching operations.

The media has recently alerted the world to slash-and-burn fires in the Amazon, Africa, and Indonesia. As a result, all the world will be paying close attention to the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City starting the week of Sept 23. At the top of the agenda will be the global transition to renewable carbon-free energy and a net carbon zero economy. Leading up to the Summit, there will be a series of Global Climate Strikes in cities across the world. The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg who just recently arrived in NYC will be instrumental in drawing support and media attention for the youth movement that she catalyzed in Europe, and is rapidly spreading worldwide.

In conjunction with the UN Climate Summit, the Naro will premiere Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. It’s the newest film from the award-winning team behind Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. It’s a a cinematic meditation on modern industrial society’s massive re-engineering of the biosphere. The film highlights the photography of Edward Burtynsky whose work has been widely exhibited in art museums including a 2016 exhibition at the Chrysler Museum. Anthropocene will show on art screens across the country on Wednesday, Sept 25 with an introduction by Chrysler Museum curator of photography, Seth Feman.

The film follows the research of an international body of scientists, the Anthropocene Working Group who argue that the preceding geological epoch gave way to the Anthropocene Epoch in the mid-twentieth century as a result of profound and lasting human changes to the Earth. Co-director Jennifer Baichwal says that the film is “a part of an attempt to get it out of our echo chambers. That is why the film is nonaccusatory. It’s very experiential. It’s not an environmental rant. It’s not a polemic.” The images speak for themselves – a view of a planet that’s been altered on a massive scale. 

But there are also effects of climate change that are not so easily visible. The cover story of the current issue of National Geographic, ‘The Arctic Is Heating Up’, contains important articles with new research data about permafrost melt. Not only is it happening much faster than predicted, there’s mush more carbon sequestered in the permafrost dating back to the Pleistocene Epoch than had originally been estimated. In fact twice as much carbon is stored in the permafrost as contained in our atmosphere. And as the Arctic tundra thaws, a cascade of events in the form of a negative feedback loop has allowed the rapid release of carbon gases and methane back into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates.

The article concludes that we will soon reach a tilting point of no return. The lowest range of the Paris Climate Agreement of a global increase of 1.5 degrees celsius is now essential to avert a cascade of events into climate catastrophe. But we’re heating up fast. With the new data from thermafrost research, the most recent study estimates that we have less time than we had thought to transform our entire worldwide power system and economy to green renewable energy. The new modeling necessitates a target of 2044 for the worldwide cessation of carbon emissions. Otherwise it’s a completely different planet than we have now.

We’ve been under the assumption that we had more than 25 years to transition away from fossil fuels. Even with the expectations of the Paris Climate agreement, countries have not mobilized the necessary political will to implement new policies. And with continued Republican obstructionism, the U.S. is lagging far behind. Regardless of what one thinks about the Green New Deal in its present form, it’s an initial working blueprint for implementing the systemic changes necessary for transitioning to a new carbon-free economy. We must educate ourselves and get behind those progressives who have the fortitude to stand up to the abuses of Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry – and who have the vision to legislate for carbon-free energy policies.

Many scientists have speculated that Homo Erectus evolved their larger cerebral cortex a million years ago through the controlled use of fire for cooking. This behavioral adaptation made possible an efficient, high-caloric diet that fueled the growth of our neural networks. Advances in the technology of fire led to the metallurgy of The Bronze Age and The Iron Age. In the modern era, the invention of the internal combustion engine and the extraction of fossil fuels ushered in the industrial revolution. Two centuries of the massive burning of carbon-based fuels have released eons of sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.

Fire has provided us with the attributes of what it means to be human. Out of all the animal species, we are the ones who are the keepers of the flame. But unless humans can learn to live in harmony and have respect for Mother Earth, our misuse of fire will soon lead to our downfall.

* This article was originally published here

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