The climate is an expression of life. We forget this at our peril. The horrifying floods and land-slides that recently wrecked havoc in southeastern Brazil need to be seen as more than just natural disasters. They must be recognised as man-made because the more we humans erode the Amazon and other living pillars of the natural world, the less stable is the sky above and the ground below.
Now that we have entered an era of climate disruption, calamities on this scale will become more commonplace and impact wider and wider swathes of society. Residents of poor peripheries already feel this because they have been pushed into the most vulnerable and degraded landscapes. Middle-class urbanites, by contrast, could until recently have gone about life in their air-conditioned bubbles pretending nothing changed, while the super-rich were well informed enough to foresee the problem but responded as selfish individuals by building apocalypse bunkers.
The latest carnage shows even money cannot guarantee a safe escape. A monstrous deluge — of double the average rainfall for the entire month of February in just nine hours — caused flooding and brought deforested hillsides down onto the main road between São Paulo and the coastal resorts of São Sebastião, Ilhabela, Ubatuba and and Bertioga. At least 65 people died, 4,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and countless wealthy Paulistas who had sought a carnival-week sanctuary from the city’s noise and crowds were cut-off. Their get-away had suddenly turned into a confinement. Stranded holiday-makers began panic-buying. The price of bottled water surged tenfold.
The solution is not just to bulldoze the collapsed mud and rebuild the road. Catastrophes like this will happen with increasing frequency unless Brazilian society recognises that it has to restore the country’s run-down natural infrastructure. At this stage in human history, that is the most pressing challenge facing all countries. If the 20th century was an era of concrete and steel, the 21st must be an epoch of tree-planting and protecting biomes that are essential to climate stability.
The Amazon, Atlantic Forest, Pantanal, Cerrado, Caatinga and Pampas do not just absorb carbon dioxide, they help to regulate rainfall, temperature and the chemical composition of the air we breathe. Trees, of course, play a role, but most of the work is done by the smallest lifeforms, bacteria bacteria — trillions and trillions of creatures that are constantly recycling, discharging gases and ensuring the atmosphere of the Earth is uniquely habitable. Every time, humans drain a swamp, cut down a forest or pave over a grassland, we are weakening that capacity.
Conversely, those who protect and nurture the rainforest and other centres of life are contributing to the stability of this global life-support system. This is a fundamental tenet of modern biogeochemistry and Earth System Science, though many forest communities have known this for much longer. Not for nothing does indigenous intellectual Davi Kopenawa Yanomami claim his people “hold up the sky.” Outsiders may consider indigenous people to be guardians of the trees, but they see themselves more as a part of the forest and part of the organic material in this living pillar.
In this way, we can see the struggle for the Amazon as being a fight between, on the one hand, those who run down the forest on behalf of short-term, individual market interests, and, on the other, those who want to strengthen the forest for the sake of a living, interdependent, sustainable bio-society. Everything that happens in the Amazon is thus a climate story, a political story and a survival story.