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  • Elena Jean

Everyone is talking about the Amazon rainforest being up in flames. What does this mean?

Image credit: Amazônia Real

Right now, it seems like everyone is talking about the Amazon being up in flames. I can’t go online without seeing it emblazoned across my screen. Unending waves of environmental horror and sensationalism is striking the internet.

Something about this particularly upsetting news is rubbing me the wrong way. The current messaging — that “The end of the world” is here, the “planet is burning” — tells me that we don’t really know what’s happening, but that we’re scared.

When I saw the first images, I felt a strong emotional jolt. The Amazon holds a special place in my heart and memories. I was incredibly lucky to see a fraction of its wildest parts when I was just 18. I spent time with an indigenous community, known as the Shiwiar people, who live beside the winding Pastaza River. I trekked deep into the jungle, gazed up at the largest trees I’ve ever seen, and saw some of the most beautiful expressions of life.

Me in the jungle, at 18, photographing ants walking along a buttress root.

The Amazon represents one of the last, truly wild and rich biodiversity strongholds. I deeply care about places like this — for their wonder and mystery, and for their role on the planet. To think that the Amazon is in peril, that it could disappear forever… I can’t accept that.

The current messaging — that “end of the world” is here, the “planet is burning” — tells me that we don’t really know what’s happening, but that we’re scared.

When I turned to Google to learn more about what’s happening, I saw article after article using the same tag lines: Earth’s lungs are on fire”, “unprecedented, record fires”, “On the brinkThe Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point”, “#prayforAmazonia”…

Is half the South American continent actually on fire?

Numerous media sources (like this one, and this one) show images “from space” which depict what looks like nearly half the South American continent on fire. In reality, half the continent is not on fire, but these fires are still incomprehensibly massive. Apparently, the smoke has covered nearly half of Brazil and is spilling over into Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.

The one, reliable fact continuously repeated by the media is that the fires are 84% greater than they were at this time last year. But, how serious is this increase? I read that “some scientists” are claiming that the burning is so significant that it could trigger the beginning of a transition from rainforest to desert.

Notable humans, like Christian Poirier, the program director of non-profit organization Amazon Watch, have been quoted saying things like:

“This isn’t hyperbole. We’re looking at untold destruction — not just of the Amazon but for our entire planet.”

Notable organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund, say that if the Amazon is “irrevocably damaged”, it could start emitting carbon instead. Carbon, as we know, is the major driver of climate change (now rebranded as the “climate crisis”).

On top of this, the President of Brazil is repeatedly being blamed for the entire catastrophe. One man clearly at fault, for apparently, he encouraged his Brazil’s farmers to clear their land using these fires. Some people are saying that this could even be part of some greater, insidious plan.

Image taken in 1989, being shared as an image from 2019’s “Great Amazonian Fires”

And of course, social media is largely increasing the coverage of the fires — but it’s also contributing to a continuous stream of misinformation. As an example, social media celebrities like Jaden Smith and Logan Paul have shared this image of the supposed fires. But the image isn’t from this year. In fact, it’s over 30 years old, taken in 1989 according to The Guardian.

So, where the hell is the “real news”? Where are the known facts? How serious are these fires? It seems to me that sensationalism, catastrophizing and clickbait are having an absolute heyday.

What’s really going on?

I think the real answer is that not many people actually know what’s going on. Everyone is frightened. And like a troop of baboons at the sight of danger, we’re sounding an alarm. Judging by size and speed of the public outcry, spreading not unlike the fires themselves, this news is emotionally upsetting for many people.

At best, are these fires 84% greater than last year’s annual fire sweep? Or at worst, are these fires truly devastating to this beloved ecosystem? Will we see irreversible destruction to the Amazon in coming weeks?

In the end, it’s not the misinformation and sensationalism that’s, as I said, rubbing me the wrong way. It’s that, despite the issue receiving mass media coverage, it feels damn hopeless. What’s the solution? How can we save the Amazon from burning up? From what I hear and research… we can’t.

So, what do we do?

The fear of not really knowing the answer, of not knowing what the next few weeks, or year, will bring… This is almost scarier than knowing. It makes us want to turn away. Us humans, we don’t like the unknown.

Despite all of our technological fancies, scientific breakthroughs, global development and blah blah blah… Now, in the 21st century, we still aren’t able to quantify the impacts we’re having on this planet. We only seem to understand for sure what we can see. It seems that the flames engulfing “Earth’s lungs” is sending a distress signal to our collective conscious. Where as, on the other hand, the invisible “climate crisis” has still got us befuddled.

So, with this mind-bender in consideration... Knowing that we don’t really know what’s happening. We don’t know what our current impact or status of ecological meltdown is. What can we conclusively say?

Here’s where I’ve landed.

The word “conservation” itself implies that we be conservative. It means that regardless of the information we have available to us — to know our status and make future projections — that we choose to be risk-adverse and conserve what we have. It’s standard practice for those seeking longevity and abundance. We choose to be conservative, because we can’t for certain know when we might lose what we have.

Me at 18, looking up at the Amazon’s stunning, sprawling trees.

I’m not okay with the idea that we could lose the Amazon. I don’t know if I’ll see that in my lifetime. The thought of that possibly happening is unbelievable; and yet, here we are discussing it in the mass media. Good thing, because anything is possible.

This is why I choose conservation. It’s why I choose conservation every time — over science, wealth, “progress”, etc. When given the choice, please choose to live more conservatively, cleanly, and in touch with the planet. This planet is worth more than anything. With so much at stake, we should not continue to take significant environmental risks.

If you’d like donate to help conserve what we have, please visit these sites:


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