Why we care more about a cathedral than a rainforest

Why we care more about a cathedral than a rainforest

“Some fires matter more than others, and while the fire in the Amazon hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention or money, the impact of the devastation is far, far greater”

No two fires are the same. What’s the difference between the Notre Dame cathedral burning down and the single largest rainforest in the world burning down? One is simply a fire, no more or no less. It’s black and white. And the other one, while still also a fire, is a kaleidoscope of complex machinations that include greed, extreme political ideologies, competing interests and corruption.

It’s a lot easier to put out a fire that’s just about smoke and flames. It’s also takes little or no time to get to the bottom of the cause of the fire, a cause that goes undisputed. Within three minutes of the Notre Dame cathedral catching fire last April, it caught global media attention. Billionaires offered to pay for the iconic building’s restoration.

Because of such swift interventions, there was no loss of, or injury to, life and just the cathedral’s roof was lost. Meanwhile today, fires so ferocious that they can be seen from space, rage in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. They have been raging for several weeks now, and the loss of land, trees and wildlife is so catastrophic that the damage could be irrevocable.

But where is the media attention, there has been some, but not to the level of a life loop on Sky News, and where are the billionaires with their water hoses an cheque books?

Some fires matter more than others, and while the fire in the Amazon hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention or money, the impact of the devastation is far, far greater. And it’s not just Brazil and the rainforests’ inhabitants that will lose out, it’s all of us.

Known as “the lungs of the earth”, more than 20% of the world’s oxygen is produced by the Amazon rainforest. Covering more than 5.5m square kilometres of land, the Amazon is a vital carbon store that slows down the pace of global warming.

It is also home to about 3m species of plants and animals, and 1m indigenous people. To paint an even clearer picture, this remarkable place has 390bn individual trees. In terms of those 1m people wholive there, they make up between 400 and 500 indigenous tribes. It is believed that about 50 of these tribes have never had contact with the outside world.

And yet, despite all of these people, and all of that wildlife, 74,000 fires have raged there since the beginning of this year. In the last week alone, almost 10,000 fires have been recorded in the Amazon region — you would need a lot of badly-put-out cigarettes and random lightning strikes to start that many fires.

But of course, these fires are anything but accidental, and that is why they, and our reaction to them, differ so greatly to the fire at Notre Dame.

These are purposeful, deliberate manmade fires. Instead of evoking an outpouring of empathy, nostalgia and active generosity, a conflict between far-right ideologies and science-based fact erupts. The statistics quoted above, about the number of fires this year, come from Brazil’s very own space agency.

The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) said its satellite data showed an 84% increase in the number of fires on the same period in 2018. Some people aren’t too keen on these scientific findings. Last week Brazil’s populist far-right president Jair Bolsonaro sacked the head of INPE.

While many scientists, researchers and environmental activists place the blame for these fires squarely on human hands, by those seeking to claim land for cattle grazing and economic development, President Bolsonaro has found another culprit for the 74,000 fires.

On Wednesday, he speculated that the Amazon fires could have been caused by nonprofit organisations, which are experiencing a lack of funding, to “generate negative attention against me and against the Brazilian government”.

This is the same man who, lastyear, swore he would explore the economic potential of the Amazon if he were elected. He’s been in office since January and there have been a lot of fires in the Amazon since then, if you consider satellite imagery, scientists, and space agencies as trustworthy sources of information.

“The vast majority of these fires are human-lit,” said Christian Poirier, from Amazon Watch.

Farmers and ranchers always used fire to clear land, said Mr Poirier, and are likely behind the unusually large number fires burning in the Amazon right this very minute. Amazon Watch also pointed to local media reports that found evidence of a coordinated “fire day” that was organised for last week.

Fires are “just the most visible symptom” of Mr Bolsonaro’s policies, and “reflect the irresponsibility of the president”, said Brazil’s Climate Observatory. Fires sparked by greed, and fuelled by corruption, are far harder to put out than accidental ones. And they are even harder to remedy when fake news takes precedent over scientific fact.

The job that concerned citizens now have on their hands is not how do we put out fires, but how we make sure we elect people who are interested in sustainability, respect fact and are pro-human, as opposed to just pro-business?

Mr Bolsonaro is the same man that defended Brazil’s gender pay gap, which stands at 23%. The basis of his argument is that men don’t have to take time off work to have children. He also abolished his country’s human rights ministry, in order to create a new department that oversees women, family and human rights, as well as those of indigenous people.

Damares Alves is the minister over this department and she believes that women were born to be mothers, and in 2016, told an evangelical congregation: “It is time for the church to tell the nation that we have come. It is time for the church to govern.”

Meanwhile, Mr Bolsonaro is well-known for misogynistic remarks, telling a congresswoman in 2014: “I wouldn’t rape you because you’re not worthy of it”.

The president of a country with a population of 209 million people, who received 55% of the popular vote to, also likened homosexuality to paedophilia.

The problem is never the fire, the real problem is who we elect to be in charge of the fire, and even more so, why we elect the people we do. Do we vote for those who go low and play to our deepest fears and greatest prejudices? Or do we vote for the visionaries who seek not only solutions, but to unite too?

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