WILD OLIVES, France — An old New Yorker cartoon has a couple sitting among flowers on a mountainside gazing upon a see-forever view under sunny skies flecked with wispy clouds. Birds and butterflies swoop by. And the guy says something like, “The world is shit.”
I get it; I’m even beginning to bore myself. A Mort Report meant to range widely, with stabs at humor, has descended into a one-note screed about a Machiavellian miscreant back home in America. Friends of sound mind know better than to invite me to dinner.
True, this is still a pretty good world. Yet in Biarritz beyond the horizon, President Emmanuel Macron welcomed leaders to the G7 summit with an alarm-bell tweet: “Our house is on fire!” He meant it literally.
Amazon, for most people these days, evokes Jeff Bezos’ empire of books and canned beans. But in the real Amazon, half the size of Europe, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is getting away with a crime to end all crimes: planetary ecocide.
Fires in Brazil to clear land for cattle, crops and timber approach 80,000 since Bolsonaro took power in January — 85 percent above last year’s rate. Black smoke turns day to night in São Paulo, thousands of miles away from the Amazon. In the last eight months, flames consumed 4.6 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon.
Those figures are from the prestigious National Institute for Space Research, but new ones will be suspect. Bolsonaro sacked its director for reporting that fires soared 278 percent in July over the same month last year, saying he was unpatriotic for damaging Brazil’s reputation.
The Amazon emits 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen, and it traps carbon. Waterways it shelters add moisture that keeps it healthy. If this vital lung were to collapse, scientists calculate, atmospheric damage could equal what was done over the last 150 years.
At the summit, rich-world leaders pledged $20 million to help fight the fires, only four times more than Leonardo DiCaprio donated on his own. The big dog among them skipped the session on climate change. Donald Trump’s aides say he had private talks with Angela Merkel and Narendra Modi who, in fact, were with everyone else at that session.
Bolsonaro tells critics to butt out of Brazil’s business. Colonial days are over, he says, and all that land is too valuable to be left to half-naked Indians and do-gooder environmentalists. He has savaged laws, enabling wealthy developers who put him in power to burn and bulldoze.
When Pope Francis, among others, recently voiced concern, he replied: “Brazil is a virgin that every foreign pervert desires.” That raises a crucial question: How much can a domestic pervert in a single country be allowed to defile when an entire planet is struggling to survive?
Bolsonaro has removed so many constraints that Norway and Germany are scrapping a decade-old $1.2 billion conservation project because of his meddling. Brazil’s neighbors suffer. Bolivia and Colombia now fight their own fires. Venezuela, near collapse, is otherwise occupied.
Clearing the Amazon diverts waterways. Fewer trees mean less moisture. Crops are impacted across most of the continent. “If Brazil were damming a real river, not choking off an aerial one,” The Economist observed, “downstream nations could consider it an act of war.”
That is just South America. Forests that have been decimated over recent decades across Africa and Asia are vanishing fast. Countless lost species of flora and fauna might have provided cures for cancer, heart disease or dementia.
Emmanuel Desclaux, a world-class paleontologist at the University of Nice, has studied climatic ups and downs over the past million years. This time, he said, is different. The Earth’s real lungs are its seas, now warming and acidifying so fast that even massive financial aid would be a drop in the ocean. That leaves the forests.
“Nature is resilient, but humans aren’t,” he told me. “There are too many people now, and we are outstripping the ability to replace oxygen. At some future point, everyone on Earth will suffocate. What troubles me so much is that we are doing this consciously.”
Desclaux doesn’t venture a guess about when that would happen. But, he said, “It won’t be within the political mandate of politicians who will have to answer for it.”
Nathaniel Palmer, a Rolling Stone reporter on an Antarctic expedition, noted that climate scientists increasingly avoid speaking publicly because so much of the news media gets things wrong. Oversimplifying, he wrote, allows vested interests to sow confusion.
One expert he quoted had a simple response for climate deniers: If you want a demonstration, put a plastic bag over your head and secure it around your neck.
Bolsonaro perseveres with backing from Washington. A tropical Trump, he fires up rallies with bombast. He eased gun laws and extols the days when death-squad militias hunted down dissidents. He once famously told one critic she was too ugly to rape.
Writ large, the Amazon exemplifies Trump’s own headlong looting of American wilderness, watersheds, oil and mineral deposits, aquifers, wetlands and coastlines. Former lobbyists and land rapists oversee the government agencies meant to protect them.
U.S. foreign policy no longer pushes the big four “developing” nations, known as BRIC, to protect the environment. The B is Brazil. In Russia, Putin depends on oligarchs who savage ecology for oil and gas. India and China compete to plunder raw materials in poor countries.
“COP” — a U.N. framework meaning conference of the parties — began to confront climate change in 1997. After 20 meetings, the 2016 Paris Agreement offered hope. Then Trump withdrew the United States. Others broke promises. Today, COP-OUT is closer to it.
Beyond climate, the Amazon crisis is an immediate threat to people who have thrived there for at least 13,000 years, living in balance with its ecology. Whole communities are driven off and sometimes tortured by murderous armed gangs with apparent official backing.
Bolsonaro dismisses them as backward sub-humans. But anthropologists say Amazonian tribes devised a precise sun calendar 13,000 years ago. Some migrated north to build an elaborate city at Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. Rituals and paintings suggest links to Hopis and Zunis who trace back to Chaco.
Back in 1859, John Stuart Mill argued that responsible nations had a duty to cross borders to protect people suffering from their governments if intentions were moral and not territorial. In recent decades, aid agencies seized on this idea as “humanitarian intervention.” As Syria demonstrates, however, this can be devilishly complicated.
Brazil takes this concept to a different level. Bolsonaro flips a finger at the outside world as he amps up plunder that imperils human survival. In a stunning display of ego, he said Brazil would accept G7 funds only if Macron apologized for his “gratuitous” criticism of a sovereign state.
After the summit, he provoked fury with a Facebook exchange. A Brazilian supporter posted a photo meme of his wife next to Brigitte Macron, 27 years older, saying the French president was simply jealous. Bolsonaro wrote (in translation): “Don’t humiliate the guy. LOL.”
At the closing press conference, Trump skirted a question about whether he still thought climate change was a hoax. He replied with a paean to America’s new role as energy superpower and boasted about opening the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling.
“The United States has tremendous wealth…under its feet,” he said. “I’ve made that wealth come alive.” Oil and gas enriched America, he said, and he would not waste that windfall on alternative energy — a “dream.” When the reporter pressed for an answer on climate change, Trump turned his back and walked away.
In America, as in the Amazon and everywhere else, that economic wealth under our feet requires stripping away the natural wealth on top. Heedless gluttony racks up immediate profit. But then what?