We live in a world on fire

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

WASH­ING­TON — A ques­tion for this mo­ment: If the Earth’s lungs were on fire and the doc­tor re­fused to treat it, would there be cause for a third-party in­ter­ven­tion?

This is a rhetor­i­cal query for now, but it surely nags the con­science of an out­raged in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity as the Ama­zon rain­for­est is ablaze in Brazil and at least two other coun­tries whose bound­aries in­clude sec­tions of this cru­cial ecosys­tem. Most mad­den­ing is Brazil’s at-times lack­adaisi­cal at­ti­tude to­ward the in­ferno — ac­tu­ally a col­lec­tion of more than 26,000 sep­a­rate fires — and its pres­i­dent’s ini­tial re­jec­tion of $22 mil­lion in aid from the G-7 na­tions.

It isn’t as though Brazil, which con­tains 60% of the Ama­zon rain­for­est, or other coun­tries with smaller hold­ings suf­fer the im­pact of such de­struc­tion in iso­la­tion. This rain­for­est, the largest in the world, is of­ten called the Earth’s “lungs” in part be­cause it ab­sorbs about 2.2 bil­lion tons of car­bon diox­ide an­nu­ally, thus re­duc­ing green­house gases that con­trib­ute to global warm­ing.

What, if any­thing, should the rest of the world do to save a crit­i­cal or­gan in our planet’s body?

Be­fore some read­ers start chok­ing on the word colo­nial­ism, let’s take a deep breath (while you can) and stip­u­late that we’re not go­ing there (al­though Brazil’s pres­i­dent has). Colo­nial­ism de­scribes the oc­cu­pa­tion of ter­ri­to­ries and the use, abuse and, ef­fec­tively if not wholly, the en­slave­ment of na­tive peo­ple. What is sug­gested by the line of ques­tion­ing herein is: How can the world help sovereign peo­ple pre­serve and pro­tect the treasures within their bor­ders for the ben­e­fit of all mankind?

It’s a fair ques­tion. If Jack and Jill shared a set of lungs and Jill de­cided to fill her half with smoke, most peo­ple would think Jack had a right to seek re­dress. If Jill re­fused to co­op­er­ate, de­spite clear ev­i­dence that her ac­tions were caus­ing Jack harm (es­sen­tially the ar­gu­ment against se­cond­hand smok­ing), then other mea­sures would be jus­ti­fied. But as ex­e­cuted by whom and by what power?

In a sim­i­lar vein, Brazil­ian Pres­i­dent Jair Bol­sonaro es­sen­tially has stoked the fires now sweep­ing through his chunk of the river basin. He has done so since tak­ing of­fice in Jan­uary by cut­ting bud­gets and staff in gov­ern­men­tal en­vi­ron­men­tal en­force­ment in­sti­tu­tions and by pro­mot­ing de­vel­op­ment, log­ging and agri­cul­tural ex­pan­sion.

Fires have a way of get­ting away from peo­ple — as these have. Al­though some Ama­zo­nian fires are nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring dur­ing the dry sea­son, there have been far more this year than in pre­vi­ous years. Bol­sonaro ini­tially blamed non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions for set­ting the blazes to dis­credit him. But re­cently, fol­low­ing weeks of in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion and do­mes­tic protests, he has be­gun to take the is­sue more se­ri­ously.

Even so, his wounded ego and chau­vin­is­tic pride ap­par­ently wouldn’t al­low him to im­me­di­ately ac­cept the G-7 aid pack­age. On Tues­day, Bol­sonaro re­treated a bit from this po­si­tion, sug­gest­ing that he might con­sider the pack­age, but only if French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron apol­o­gizes for com­ments he re­cently made prais­ing the Brazil­ian peo­ple and ex­press­ing hope that they “soon have a pres­i­dent who is up to the job.” Macron, who has de­scribed the Ama­zon fires as an “in­ter­na­tional cri­sis,” had also re­leased a state­ment Fri­day calling Bol­sonaro a liar.

Bol­sonaro, who has ac­cused Macron of pro­mot­ing a “colo­nial­ist men­tal­ity,” in­sists that for­eign in­ter­ven­tion is re­ally aimed at “in­ter­fer­ing with our sovereignt­y.” This de­fen­sive pos­ture may look para­noid to some, but it is also at least some­what un­der­stand­able in the con­text of Bol­sonaro’s his­tor­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion. Like Pres­i­dent Trump, he has ap­pealed to con­stituents’ (and vot­ers’) sense of marginal­iza­tion to juice his rat­ings.

Other na­tions, mean­while, are doubling down. Ger­many and Nor­way are with­hold­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in con­tri­bu­tions to the Brazil­run Ama­zon Fund, which col­lects money to com­bat de­for­esta­tion. France has threat­ened to pull out of the Mer­co­sur free­trade deal be­tween the Euro­pean Union and four South Amer­i­can coun­tries, in­clud­ing Brazil. Ire­land has threat­ened to do the same.

Such rea­son­able mea­sures are what civ­i­liza­tion de­mands. But as ex­treme weather in­ci­dents in­crease and other cli­mate chan­g­ere­lated con­di­tions worsen, peo­ple’s sur­vival sense may de­mand more di­rect ac­tion and new ways of bal­anc­ing sovereign in­ter­ests with global pri­or­i­ties. Earth’s lungs may re­side mostly in Brazil, but they be­long to the world. There’s no deny­ing that.

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