Over the past few days, the internet has been swarming with reports about the record-breaking volume of wildfires raging across the Amazon in Brazil. News of the inferno gained even more steam after eerie photos and videos began to appear on social media on Monday, as plumes of smoke from the fires were carried by winds to São Paulo and caused a mid-day blackout in Brazil’s largest city. Now, from Madonna to my aunt, nearly everyone is posting about the scale and global relevance of the disaster in the Amazonia—a disaster that was sparked long before such posts began to appear and will presumably last long after they’re buried under the rubble of our feeds.
As the tragedy in the Amazon unfolds, we should take a moment to consider our response to it, particularly through the lens of social media.
According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), since the beginning of the year, 72,843 wildfires were detected in the Amazon, this constitutes an 83 percent increase compared to the same period in 2018. Since last Thursday, the agency observed more than 9,500 fires in the region.
In São Paulo, skies turned completely dark at around 3pm on Monday, August 19, as smoke from the Amazon fires traveled nearly 2,000 miles and hovered over the city for several hours.
While in some cases it is natural causes that spark the fires, a great many of them result from human activity—either accidental or intentional torches in order to clear land for mining and farming. Many have pointed a blaming finger at Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who since his election in January has repeatedly echoed anti-environmental sentiments and bluntly encouraged the razing and mining of the rainforest. Bolsonaro’s regime has enacted numerous policies favouring development in the Amazon and refused to uphold penalties previously used against those who engaged in illegal mining and deforestation. Scientists confirm that since Bolsonaro was sworn in, the Amazon has been suffering loses at an alarming rate.
The destruction of the Amazon will have catastrophic implications on both local and global climate, and would drastically reduce our chances of successfully tackling the climate crisis. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the recent flood of information has fuelled people across the globe to raise their voice against Bolsonaro’s disastrous policies and dereliction of his duty to protect the world’s most precious rainforest. But is blasting hashtags on social media the way to do so? Is it enough to #PrayforAmazonia?
There were several occasions recently when extensive social media campaigns were successful in galvanizing support towards a humanitarian cause. One such example was the uproar against Brunei’s gay sex death penalty and the sweeping Facebook-based donation campaign to end separation of migrant families at the southern U.S. border. In both cases, social media played an important role in bringing the issues to people’s attention and, to a certain extent, contributed towards a resolution.
But the inherent problem with hashtag-rich social media-based activism is that, in the vast majority of cases, they end up being a transient fad. Brunei’s LGBTQ community is still severely oppressed, migrant families are still being separated and detained under abhorrent conditions at the border, and the Amazon will, most likely, continue to be ravaged by developers and be stripped of protections by Brazil’s government once we are done Tweeting and posting.
There are numerous actions we can take to resist the destruction of the Amazon that go beyond hurling our short-lived panic over the issue on social media. One simple yet crucial step would be to reduce our intake of beef, considering that cattle ranching is currently responsible for roughly 80 percent of the Amazon’s deforestation. Creating a shortage of demand could potentially put a serious dent in the ranching industry and, over time, slow down its expansion.
Catastrophes like the burning of the Amazon or climate change or the war against migrants often seem too large to grapple with, and it’s understandable why social media may seem like the only possible recourse at our disposal. But if we want to do more than give ourselves a virtual pat on the shoulder and actually drive change, we ought to take our action one step further. The first place we must look to as we do that is our own backyard—thinking what is it about our lifestyle that contributes to the overall problem and should therefore be challenged.
Therapy is no place for a lie, so I had better begin with truth. The new year will demand that the media output is accordingly hopeful. The first theme of this inexpert climate therapy column was supposed to be “hope”. New year, old problems but with a chipper twist of enthusiasm for wrenching out our bad habits and saving the planet. In 2019 you will be met with a screen full of tips for wellness and newness. Few column inches will be consecrated to the fact that last year you did not solve the environmental challenges humanity faces. Few media outlets will remind you in the first fortnight of 2019 about the problems we didn’t leave behind in 2018.
I tried to start the new year on a positive note like the rest of them but I’ve a drone in my bonnet. The week before Christmas some pesky, “brainless” (The Sun), “eco-warrior lone-wolf” (The Sun again), “fat idiot” (WTF, Jeremy Clarkson) was zipping around the fringes of Gatwick airport. My family was scheduled to fly out and join me in Norway for Christmas, so we collectively held our breath for the lone-wolf to stop driving through the sky (drone, not Santa) in time for Christmas.
While the cat and mouse palaver unfolded, I happened to be on the phone to Liam Geary Baulch, an Action Coordinator at Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion is an activist organisation which practices non-violent civil disobedience to protest inefficient government action against climate change. Geary Baulch is an artist and activist who focuses his research on the mental health of activists and climate scientists. He was pleased to talk to me about the feelings that climate change brings up but which we push deep down and have allowed to fester beneath our social conscience for decades.
Climate scientists and activists have written in the press for a number of years about their climate change related distress, and yet little has been done in the way of a public therapy session. Geary Baulch and I talked about the trauma of losing our planet’s biodiversity. We discussed hope and how to mobilise the public through emotive campaigns. I wondered if it was fair to condemn one group of people for deploying emotionally charged public speech and praise the other when it suits my agenda.
And then I asked, “it’s not you guys behind the drones is it?” A selfish question to a person already carrying the weight of emotional labour for another. Geary Baulch graciously corrected me, letting me know that Extinction Rebellion puts their name to their actions. Extinction Rebellion did have reporters ring in that day with the same question, though. Doing something is more hopeful than sitting ducks. A tale of hope and action is attractive.
People find Extinction Rebellion’s emotive language and approach to climate action comforting. Geary Baulch explains that the Extinction Rebellion talks across the country have created crucial support systems for members of the public who need to talk about their emotional responses to climate fear. “That human, emotional level of dealing with this is how we have grown. Whenever we’re doing actions physically on the ground, with people on the streets, that’s when our reach expands massively. I think there is something inspiring about it.”
On April 15 of 2019, Extinction Rebellion will stage their International Rebellion Week. I hope this year the media will make more space to cheer on a growing number of climate activists demanding systemic changes against climate inaction.
Phone call with climate activist over. Try to write about hope. Drink a beer and take a nap because it’s December 20 and no one else is replying to emails. Most of my writing takes on shape in the moment between wakefulness and napfulness anyway.
The image of the drone followed me into my lull. Was an “eco-warrior” out there making a stand against people like my family who were pumping carbon into the air to join me for a Christian festival of pretending? Still now the drone mystery has not been settled, but people were excited at the prospect of someone taking radical action against polluting infrastructures. It is like an arty b-list film where the plot is never resolved and instead it is the unfolding of the protagonist’s self-awareness which takes centre-stage.
I could not write about hope without addressing the reality that I have not changed my consumer habits enough this year. I still take planes, buy plastic, recycle sloppily, eat meat and fund H&M’s natural resource depletion. I feel the familiar dredge of guilt rather than a wave of fresh hope.
Guilt can root itself so deeply in ourselves and our relations that we barely notice it is there, and this prevents the actions for change that we urgently need to take. We are caught in our own systems and things and systems of things. Is it unreasonable to expect us to identify that beneath the noise, we feel desperately guilty about our environmental inertia? Lots of us are not doing enough, aside from refusing a plastic straw in our gin and tonic, to prevent the climate catastrophe rearing up on us.
We feel guilty before we achieve change. Guilty for not quitting, or starting, something we should. We do feel calmer once we start our homework, our tax return or begin an overdue, difficult conversation. Until we talk about our collective and individual culpability we cannot begin to dig up the insidious guilt that steels us against progress. We should begin the new year backwards, by addressing the old lies we tell ourselves: that it will be ok, that science will solve it and that the human disposition for pretence has nothing to do with solving the climate crisis.
Humans made this mess, some humans more than others. A human approach to understanding the emotional complexity of inaction is worth a run. My top 2019 tip: a novel public resolution to solve a sticky problem is all the newness we need this year.