Phillipian Commentary: Don’t Just Plant a Tree– Save One

Over the past couple of weeks, I have clicked through countless Instagram stories from peers, celebrities, and news outlets bringing attention to the fires ravaging the Amazon rainforest. The largest rainforest on Earth, the Amazon is home to millions of species and is a crucial part of the ecosystem. While small forest fires are often part of a normal seasonal cycle in the Amazon, this catastrophe comes as the result of land-clearing fires set by farmers for agricultural use (National Geographic)[a][b]. These fires threaten the balance of Earth’s biodiversity and climate, as the Amazon’s contributions to the carbon cycle help stall the growing threat of climate change. I believe that the state of the Amazon reflects the overall nature of destructive eco-capitalism prevalent in our culture around the world. Simple policy change won’t stop occurrences like these fires—but massive changes in our consumer culture will.

As the rainforest burns, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who earlier scrapped agricultural regulations within the Amazon, has looked, without evidence, to blame environmental N.G.O.s for the fires. Meanwhile, I’ve noticed many social media critics blaming Bolsonaro’s right-wing policies and ‘pro-business’ attitude for the fires.

Although President Bolsonaro has heavily emboldened deforestation efforts with his anti-regulation policies, business-backed fires had occurred in the Amazon long before his presidency. While some anti-deforestation efforts were put in place by recent administrations, hundreds of years of agricultural destruction still marked the rainforest. While there has been a severe uptick in man-made forest fires since the Bolsonaro presidency began—a whopping 79% increase in fires since 2018—this uptick can also be attributed to the country’s post-recession reliance on agricultural business since 2014. The population itself became more fixated on business over environmental protection, resulting in the election of an anti-environmental figurehead like Bolsonaro.

Above all else, however, our habits as consumers are at fault. According to Forbes, farmers set fires in the Amazon primarily to clear land for cattle ranching and soybean production, with China, the United States, and the European Union making up a high demand for exports. As consumers, we are complicit in environmental destruction across the world, including these devastating fires. Without making sustainable farming a priority, the Amazon will continue to burn as the demand for meat and other agricultural products remain high globally.

It may be easy to Tweet lamenting the Brazilian president and corporations for the fires, but we are the ones who empower corporations and world leaders—respectively, we give them our money and vote for them. [c][d]Society as a whole needs to overhaul our unsustainable consumerism so we can push these governments and corporations to change the nature of eco-capitalism. Many may roll their eyes when environmentalists argue that individual consumers must eat less meat or pursue other sustainable choices, but it is undeniable that each of us is partially responsible for the way our society functions today.