Read Chapter 11-Environment, of the textbook International and Global Studies. Submit a one to two-page and single-spaced analysis reflecting your understanding of the reading. For your direction, read the assigned chapter. Write a short essay describing your understanding of the reading, the main points of the issue, and how the chapter affects or explains the current global trends on the topic. Submit your paper to canvas.
Read Chapter 11-Environment, of the textbook International and Global Studies. Submit a one to two-page and single-spaced analysis reflecting your understanding of the reading. For your direction, rea
Chapter 11 Reading The Amazon The Amazon is a powerful symbol for environmental destruction, given the issue of deforestation and species loss. Changes to the forest are so profound that they might have implications for planetary climate. Most works on the Amazon begin by describing the staggering size of the largest tropical rainforest on the planet and the river that gives it its name. If one end of the Amazon River were laid on the coast of Brazil, it would span the Atlantic Ocean and end in Africa. Or if the Amazon River Basin were overlaid upon the United States, it would cover most of the country (Hanson 1944, 4). It has “one-fifth of the freshwater flowing off the face of the earth” (N. Smith 1999, 4). Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela all lay claim to parts of the river basin. Marajó Island, in the mouth of the Amazon, is the size of some small European nations. The Amazon has many tributaries that on their own would be major world rivers, such as the Negro. At its mouth, the river is farther across than the distance from France to England; that is, it is wider than the English Channel. But hearing such statistics, while impressive, is not the same as seeing it in person. Travelers can canoe through the Amazon and look down through crystal-clear waters to see trees beneath them. The trees have evolved to keep their leaves, and one can see fish flitting through the branches, feeding on the trees’ fruit. Life seems to fill every imaginable niche in this environment. The Amazon is tens of millions of years old and home to a vast number of species. From the air, you can fly for hours over green expanses of forest, which gives the land a surface impression of uniformity. But some geologists hypothesize that the forest has expanded and contracted through time, which has created pockets of forest with particular species called refugia (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 109); for scientists, these can be thought of as biological islands with plants and animals unlike those in other areas of the forest. The suggestion is that this geologic history may help to explain the immense richness of species that the Amazon possesses. From electric eels and bird-eating spiders to blue morpho butterflies and manatees, the Amazon is full of unexpected creatures. It is home, for instance, to the strangest of birds: the hoatzin. The national bird of Guyana, the hoatzin eats leaves, smells foul, has claws on its wings when young, and flies poorly. The capybara is the largest rodent on the planet and wanders the Amazonian forest looking like a guinea pig on growth hormones. Scientists are constantly discovering new species, such as the discovery of a new species of tamarin in the summer of 2009. It is perhaps telling that it was discovered only sixty-five miles from Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon. There is currently no good figure for the total number of species in the Amazon. The region is too vast, and the resources devoted to an inventory to date have been far too small. But from the trees that define the forest to the insects that live upon them, the Amazon is immensely rich in species. The scale of the Amazon River Basin, which amazed early scientific explorers from Richard Spruce to Henry Walter Bates, long made it difficult to imagine that such a vast environment could be endangered. But far to the east, another forest’s death has served as a warning. When the first Portuguese explorers arrived, they encountered the Atlantic Forest, which stretched from northern Argentina to northern Brazil. Despite its great length, it seldom reached over 200 miles in thickness, except in the very southern edge of its range, where it stretched into Paraguay. After discovery, the Portuguese first exploited the coastal region and then gradually moved to the interior, mostly settling in areas near the ocean so that they could export their main crop—sugarcane— to the mother country. Most of the country’s major cities now lie in the region of the country that was once covered by the Atlantic Forest. Perhaps less than 7 percent of the original forest remains—a fraction of a forest that “once covered 466,000 square miles—an area larger than Texas and California combined—along the Atlantic coast of Brazil” (LaFranchi 1998, 12). Some of this forest is in unexpected patches. There are monkeys living on patches of forest at the edge of the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, and diminutive owls nest an hour outside of São Paulo, the largest city in South America. Despite its shrunken area and the fact that many sections are now second growth, the Atlantic Forest remains astoundingly rich in species. For this reason, the Atlantic Forest is a World Biosphere Reserve. According to the Nature Conservancy, the Atlantic Forest is home to “around 20,000 species of plants, representing 8 percent of the earth’s plants. In fact, in the 1990s researchers from the New York Botanical Garden counted 458 tree species in 2.5 acres—more than the number of tree species in the entire U.S. eastern seaboard” (Nature Conservancy 2006; see also LaFranchi 1998, 12). This wealth of plant diversity supports a corresponding diversity in other species. The forest has twenty-one species of primates found nowhere else in the world. What is amazing about the Atlantic Forest is that patches of it are so accessible. One can take a path at Praia Vermelha at the base of Sugarloaf that winds around the base of this tourist attraction and holds a small remnant of the Atlantic Forest. Most of the people on the trail are Brazilians because few foreign tourists know of this site. They come to see the huge butterflies and small monkeys in the heart of Rio de Janeiro, one of South America’s great cities. As Warren Dean (1995) has argued in his magisterial history of the Atlantic Forest, what remains is a ghost of an ecosystem. Yet “international interest in the Atlantic Forest is heightened by conservation biologists’ growing attention to the world’s remaining centers of biodiversity” (LaFranchi 1998, 12). The argument has been made that saving the Atlantic Forest is hopeless and that the remaining areas of the forest will not survive past the middle of this century. Attention should therefore be focused instead on the Amazon (LaFranchi 1998, 13). But the incredible biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest makes people reluctant to abandon it, and some surveys have found positive news about the biological health of the forest. The Brazilian government is placing renewed emphasis on protecting and restoring it. But challenges remain: there are now plans by ENRC, a British-Kazakh mining company, to build a railway right through one of the few remaining areas of virgin Atlantic rain forest: “ENRC’s aim is to transport iron ore from a mine in the interior to the port of Ilheus, despite the region being named by Unesco as a priority region for conservation” (Lang 2013). The Atlantic Forest serves as a warning of what could happen to the Amazon. It is possible to kill an entire ecosystem. The Amazon became an international environmental issue in the 1980s as people began to realize that if deforestation rates continued, this ecosystem could be destroyed. At the same time, a global tide of species loss made biodiversity a focus of popular attention. Geographically, the diversity of species increases sharply near the tropics. Most of the world’s species exist in a band 30 degrees on either side of the equator. Some environments, such as the dry scrublands of northeastern Brazil, are surprisingly rich in species (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 103–4). But overall, the tropical rain forests are home to the most remarkable biodiversity on earth. As Richard Leakey notes, the result of this natural law is that much of earth’s life lives in a surprisingly small space: “Termed the ‘latitudinal species-diversity gradient,’ this bold signature of nature has been known to biologists for many years. . . . Tropical rain forests are especially rich in biodiversity: they cover one-sixteenth of the world’s land surface, yet are home to more than half its species” (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 103). As one might expect, tropical rain forests are central to current discussions surrounding biodiversity and species loss. In a recent UNESCO publication, the authors concisely defined biodiversity as the “total variability among genes, plant and animal species, and ecosystems found in nature” (Skutnabb-Kangas, Maffi, and Harmon 2003, 53). In other words, biodiversity is a measure of the richness of life in an environment. It also seems to correlate with cultural and linguistic richness. Environments that foster a wealth of cultures and languages seem to be the same as those that create remarkable biodiversity (Skutnabb-Kangas, Maffi, and Harmon 2003, 9, 38–39). The Amazon and Papua New Guinea are rich in both languages and species; indeed, the island of New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse region on earth, with over a 1,000 languages (Skutnabb-Kangas, Maffi, and Harmon 2003, 26). But these biological hotspots are under mounting pressure at the same time that languages and cultures are being assimilated at a rapid rate. Deforestation, overhunting, and dams are rapidly changing the ecosystems in the Atlantic Forest, the Amazon, and the Congo River Basin, as well as Southeast Asia’s forests. One particular problem is that the areas of our planet with the greatest biodiversity are also those undergoing the most rapid population growth. One recent study found that biological “hotspots” cover 12 percent of the earth’s surface, but the 20 percent of the earth’s population that lives in these lands are growing at an annual rate of 1.8 percent rather than the 1.5 percent in other regions of the planet (Cincotta, Wisnewski, and Engelman 2000, 990). As the authors stated, this finding suggested that “substantial human-induced environmental changes are likely to continue in the hotspots and that demographic change remains an important factor in global biodiversity conservation” (Cincotta, Wisnewski, and Engelman 2000, 990). The authors also noted that the ongoing decline in human fertility globally provides hope for species preservation. Still, their finding highlighted the problem of human-caused extinction, as global population growth impacts entire ecosystems. Extinction Our world has endured mass extinction before. Over the multibillion-year history of life on our planet, there have been five great extinctions in which most life quickly disappeared: “This handful of major events, from oldest to the most recent, are: the end-Ordovician (440 million years ago), the late Devonian (365 million years ago), the end-Permian (225 million years ago), the end-Triassic (210 million years ago), and the end-Cretaceous (65 million years ago)” (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 45). For at least one of these extinctions, there is a clear explanation. Most scientists now agree that 65 million years ago, an asteroid or comet collided with the earth in the ocean off the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. This created a firestorm of energy, unleashed a massive tsunami, and heated the entire planet, which then slid into months of darkness. This event wiped out many life forms, of which the most famous were the non-avian dinosaurs. Other events are more mysterious, such as the end-Permian extinction. There are many competing theories for this remarkable event, which came within a hair’s breadth of wiping out all life on earth: in less than 100,000 years, more than 90 percent of all species disappeared from our planet. Perhaps because it was even more devastating than the end-Cretaceous extinction, this event has become a focus of popular attention. Two successful books, Peter Ward’s Gorgon (2004) and M. J. Benton’s When Life Nearly Died (2003), have attracted wide readership. Part of our fascination with this mystery may come from our understanding that life and environments are ephemeral. This can explain the thrill that came in 2005 with the (now doubtful) “rediscovery” in Louisiana of the ivory-billed woodpecker, long thought extinct. It also perhaps describes the almost personal sense of loss that people have when they hear that a species has vanished. In December 2006 a team of scientists announced that a major survey of the Yangtze River had failed to find a single baiji, the Yangtze River dolphin, which led them to declare it “functionally extinct” (Hutzler 2006). This did not mean that the last of these dolphins, once believed to embody a Chinese goddess, had died out. Rather, it meant that any survivors were now too isolated and too dispersed for the animal to have any hope of survival (Hutlzer 2006). This white and nearly blind animal had survived in the Yangtze for perhaps 20 million years. Now it is irretrievably gone; the news received global coverage. In the case of the baiji, pollution, heavy ship traffic, and dams gradually undermined its ability to survive after World War II. But not all changes take decades. Pollution, hunting, and deforestation can destroy ecosystems with astounding speed. Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin describe the experience of two scientists who discovered a ridge in western Ecuador called Centinela. It was an environment as rich as it was vulnerable: “Among the riot of diversity that is nurtured by this habitat, Gentry and Dodson discovered, were ninety unknown species, including herbaceous plants, orchids and epiphytes, which lived nowhere else. Centinela was an ecological island, which, being isolated, had developed a unique flora. Within eight years the ridge had been transformed into farmland, and its endemic species were no more” (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 243). Centinela is but one example of a larger process of extinction, which is not confined to western Ecuador but is taking place across the planet. Scientists now argue that the current sweep of extinction is so dramatically different from that in the recent geological record that it should be recognized as something distinct. Some scientists argue that perhaps as many as 100,000 species a year go extinct (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 241). This devastation constitutes a “Sixth Extinction” comparable to the greatest mass extinctions in our earth’s history (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 232–45). As Paul Martin has described, the damage inflicted by our industrialized society is only one part of a longer process in which humans have destroyed large mammal and bird species from North America to Australia (Martin 2005; Stone 2001, 111–20; Leakey and Lewin 1996, 170–94). Jared Diamond made the environmental damage of ancient cultures the major theme of his work Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005); this book carefully described how past societies so thoroughly damaged their environments that civilizations or cultures suffered. The world lost dramatic species—from the moa, the largest bird that has ever lived, to the mammoth, which disappeared in North America shortly after the first humans arrived. Given humanity’s dependence on its environment to survive, this destruction may seem difficult to understand. As Diamond’s students asked him, what passed through the mind of the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree (Diamond 2005, 419)? But these extinctions were only a forerunner for the far broader damage now being done to our modern world. No part of our planet seems to be safe from species loss. Frog species are going extinct at a rapid rate globally for reasons that are hard to understand but may have something to do with an invasive fungus spread by human activity. In the oceans, overfishing threatens multiple species. Even where species survive, commercial fisheries are collapsing under the pressure of mounting global demand for fish. The cod fishery in the North Atlantic, for example, was scientifically managed into oblivion (Kurlansky 1998, 144–233). This trend is a global phenomenon, but not all regions are equally affected. At the core of this process is the loss of tropical forest, which is taking place with stunning speed, as Diamond describes: “For example, destruction of accessible lowland tropical rain forest outside national parks is already virtually complete in peninsular Malaysia, will be complete at current rates within less than a decade in the Solomon Island, the Philippines, on Sumatra, and on Sulawesi, and will be complete around the world except perhaps for parts of the Amazon Basin and the Congo Basin within 25 years” (Diamond 2005, 498). Such forest loss will inevitably be accompanied by large-scale species loss. Leakey describes what scientists envision may happen if tropical forests continue to shrink at their current rates, according to current models. If only 10 percent of tropical forests remain, the “arithmetical relationship based on the theory predicts that 50 percent of species will go extinct—some immediately, some over a period of decades or even centuries” (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 240). Such an immense catastrophe is difficult to fathom. In the past, there was little concern about preserving dying species. The last thylacines (Tasmanian tigers) died in Australian zoos because nobody bothered to breed them. Of course, saving even a single species can be an overwhelming task that requires an immense amount of resources; it can be very expensive, and there often is no margin for error. Yet the total scale of the extinctions is overwhelming: “[H]alf of the freshwater fish of peninsular Malaysia, ten bird species of Cebu in the Philippines, half of the forty-one tree snails in Oahu, forty-four of the sixty-eight shallow-water mussels of the Tennessee River shoals, and so on” (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 243). Some rare species, such as the Nepalese rhino, require both large amounts of territory and constant protection from poachers. There is no way that a global response to this problem could focus on individual species. Instead, any such effort must focus on the broader problems that many species face. (For a list of these challenges, see Diamond 2005, 486–96.) There is no consensus, however, that the cost of doing so is worthwhile. (For a short list of the arguments used against environmentalists, see Diamond 2005, 503–14.) Popularly, most people agree that the loss of a species is a tragedy. But preserving species often comes with a cost, whether it be preserving old-growth forests to save the spotted owl in the U.S. Northwest or fighting the illegal ivory trade to preserve elephants in Kenya. This has led to a tension between people advocating for environmental preservation and people who argue that employment and development have to be equally valued. One example of this stress can be seen in the March 2010 vote at a UN wildlife meeting to continue to allow fishing of the Atlantic bluefin tuna even though its stock has been depleted almost 75 percent. Part of the reason for this decision, as described in an Associated Press account, is that “Japan won over scores of poorer nations with a campaign that played on fears that a ban would devastate their economies. Tokyo also raised doubts that such a radical move was scientifically sound. . . . ‘Let’s take science and throw it out the door,’ Susan Lieberman of the Pew Environment Group said sarcastically” (Associated Press 2010). In spite of environmentalists’ quantification of the economic value of biodiversity (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 124–25), there remains a larger antienvironmental critique. The Antienvironmental Critique The argument of the antienvironmental movement can be broadly summarized around several key points. The environmental movement has created a narrative of constant environmental decline, even though there has been significant progress. Its strong political agenda has also warped its use of science. Critics argue that environmentalists do not create a nuanced or qualified picture of environmental trends, which are often complex and contradictory. Instead, they tend to create a bleak vision of the future as a political tool to mobilize support. Historically, however, many of their predictions have proved to be wrong. The success of the movement owes as much to its political work, especially within the educational system, as it does to the power of their arguments. These critics argue that the pendulum has swung so far in the environmental movement’s direction that development and employment are often threatened. In this narrative, the environmental movement is elitist and disconnected from the concerns of the working majority of Europeans and Americans. Many of the policies that the environmentalists advocate are simply not practical. For example, renewable energy sources have been touted for decades as an alternative to fossil fuels. But there are serious obstacles to their adoption, which the environmental movement glosses over; instead, the movement tends to blame its failures on big business in revisionist historical accounts that rely heavily on conspiracy theories. At root, these critics argue that much of the environmental movement is antiscience and antigrowth—if not antihuman, as Fred Smith (2002, 295) describes: “Environmentalists see the world in ‘terrible toos’ terms: There are too many of us, we consume too much, and we rely too heavily on technology that we understand too little about.” From Smith’s perspective, the environmental movement has a clear political agenda: to increase government involvement in the economy. Much of the criticism of the environmental movement has a strong free-market component. These authors argue that the solution to environmental problems is not more government regulation but rather privatization. For example, one of the most influential pieces of environmental writing was Garret Hardin’s 1968 Science magazine article “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In this work, Hardin argued that resources held in common, such as fisheries, tend toward disastrous overuse because individual actors can benefit from actions that are collectively disastrous. In response, Fred Smith has argued that this should not be seen as a market failure but rather a call for more privatization. This is true for many issues, including efforts to address species loss: “Note also that while many species of wildlife are threatened, domesticated species—pets as well as livestock—are prospering” (Smith 2002, 297). Smith argues that if people see economic benefits from endangered species, such as elephants, then they will work to preserve them (Smith 2002, 308). Of course, keeping track of wildlife can make efforts to privatize this resource difficult, but technology may be able to provide some of the answers: “‘Beepers’ or computer chip implants that would signal the location of larger wildlife (manatees, whales, Siberian tigers) might well have value” (Smith 2002, 310). Rather than being the problem, Smith suggests, the free market is ultimately the solution to most environmental problems. Habitats need private owners to serve as stewards: “By extending the institutions of markets and private property throughout the world, humanity will gain the proper incentives to save nature and better ability to do so. Ocean reefs in the South Pacific, Andean mountaintops, elephants in Africa, the shoreline of Lake Baikal—all deserve stewards, property owners, who can protect them from misuse” (Smith 2002, 316). To most environmentalists, such a position is anathema. They would point to the many situations in which private property owners are making decisions that are profoundly destructive to the environment. In the 1980s, the poster child for environmental destruction might have been the cattle ranchers of the Amazon. Today, it might be the major soy farmers, who are also replacing the forest, partly to produce biodiesel. There are larger philosophical issues involved: does biodiversity only have value if it provides economic benefit? What are the economic benefits of the species that provide oxygen, purify water, and pollinate the plants we eat—in short, what is the value of the ecosystems that make the earth a livable planet? Leakey and Lewin (1996, 124–44) have described this debate in detail. Yet it would be a mistake to characterize the antienvironmentalists’ arguments as uniformly naive. Bjorn Lomborg One of the most influential critics of the environmental movement has been the Danish author Bjorn Lomborg. A statistics professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, Lomborg is a former member of Greenpeace who is profoundly critical of the widely held viewpoint that the world’s environment is consistently worsening. In particular, he attacks the statistics that the environmental movement uses to advance its arguments regarding everything from deforestation to biodiversity loss. His arguments have drawn a powerful backlash from within the environmental community. Because Lomborg is an academic published by Cambridge University Press, his work posed a serious intellectual challenge. There are numerous websites and articles that examine Lomborg’s arguments (Nisbet 2003). Much of the criticism directed upon him has come from scientists, who allege that his work is sloppy and does not properly draw on peer-reviewed works. But his arguments have been influential and widely read, and they are worth considering in detail. Lomborg harshly criticizes biologists and ecologists who argue that the earth may be losing 40,000 to 100,000 species a year. From his perspective, there are no careful studies to support this assertion, which is largely driven by the political goals of the environmental movement: “Although these assertions of massive extinctions of species have been repeated everywhere you look, they simply do not equate with the environmental evidence. The story is important, because it shows how figures regarding the extinction of 25–100 percent of all the species on Earth within our lifetime provide the political punch to put conservation of endangered species high on the agenda. Punch which the more realistic figure of 0.7 percent over the next 50 years would not achieve to the same degree” (Lomborg 2001, 249; for a description of similar arguments, see Leakey and Lewin 1996, 235–36). Part of Lomborg’s argument is that not all biodiversity may be equal. The biodiversity of wild cousins of domestic crops may be more valuable than that of nonfood plants. Biologists tend to focus attention on large animals, while the majority of animals that probably go extinct are small and uncharismatic (Lomborg 2001, 250–51). Lomborg admits that it is true that extinctions have been increasing in the historical period. But there is no good evidence for the widely used figure of 40,000 species a year going extinct. In fact, this figure was arrived at in the 1960s using very crude guesswork from then-predominant theories about diversity (Lomborg 2001, 250–52). Lomborg argues that this data has not been supported by careful surveys since this period by groups such as “World Conservation, which maintains the official Red List of threatened animals” (Lomborg 2001, 254). Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that rain forest loss has been nowhere as large as widely predicted. In contravention of older theories about habitat and species loss, patches of rain forest have proved to be unexpectedly robust at preserving species. The best example of this is the Atlantic Forest, which is one of the most degraded tropical rain forests in the world. Yet extinctions have not taken place in this rain forest at anything near the rates that would be expected (Lomborg 2001, 255). Lomborg does not deny that extinction is a problem but proposes that environmentalists exaggerate it: An extinction rate of 0.7 percent over the next 50 years is not trivial. It is a rate about 1,500 times higher than natural background extinction. However, it is a much smaller figure than the typically advanced 10–100 percent over the next 50 years (equal to some 20,000 to 200,000 times the background rate). Moreover, to assess the long-term impact, we must ask ourselves whether it is likely that this extinction rate will continue for many hundreds of years (accumulating serious damage) or more likely will be alleviated as population growth decelerates and the developing world gets rich enough to afford to help the environment, reforest and set aside parks. (Lomborg 2001, 255–56) From Lomborg’s perspective, one of the reasons for hope is the fact that economic growth can create the wealth that will permit environmental stewardship. Lomborg has similar views about the issue of tropical deforestation. He contrasts the dramatic warnings about forests’ destruction with his perspective that the planet’s total forest cover is remarkably constant (Lomborg 2001, 111). He does state that some countries, such as China, have had significant losses of their forests. But he suggests that focusing on individual countries can be misleading: “Countries such as Nigeria and Madagascar have admittedly lost well over half their original rain forest, and Central America may have lost 50–70 percent. But overall, they are only home to about 5 percent of the world’s tropical forest” (Lomborg 2001, 114). He sees a clear dichotomy between trends in northern latitudes and in the south: “The temperate forests, most of which are in North America, Europe, and Russia, have expanded over the last forty years. On the other hand, quite a lot of tropical forest is disappearing” (Lomborg 2001, 113). Still, Lomborg says, predictions about the decline of the tropical forests are badly exaggerated. The rates of forest loss are low enough that as people’s incomes rise, nations will have the resources to address the problem. Private land management can also reduce the pressure on tropical forests, such as the use of plantations to meet the world’s demand for paper. Lomborg argues that the future is not one of gloom but optimism (Lomborg 2001, 117). Southern Critiques of Environmentalism The ideas that Lomborg articulates are clearly coming from the perspective of an author in the developed world. But there are also significant objections to the environmental movement in the developing world. One can clearly see these arguments around the Amazon, the largest remaining tropical rain forest in the world. As mentioned earlier in the chapter, the Amazon came to prominence as an international cause in the 1980s, driven by rising concerns about global warming and the publicity associated with the death of Chico Mendes, an environmental and union activist in Brazil’s Amazon. At this time, there was a great deal of media attention devoted to Amazon, which attracted the support of public figures such as the rock star Sting. In environmental publications, the Amazon was described as being “the lungs of the Earth”; this was the region that generated oxygen for our planet. In response to these concerns, there were thoughtful efforts to see how developed nations could help South American nations address the issue of deforestation. One popular answer that policy makers suggested was “debt-for-nature” swaps. Under these agreements, wealthier nations would forgive the debt of poor countries, which did not have the capacity to repay their debt in any case. In return, these nations would set aside certain areas as nature reserves. It seemed to be a win-win situation for all. Within developing countries, however, such efforts were sometimes viewed as being very threatening. To understand why, you have to consider the historical and cultural context that shaped South American governments at the time. This is not to deny the serious damage that was being done to the Amazon. In 1990 documentary filmmaker Adrian Cowell released five videos that formed the Decade of Destruction series. Watching these videos, it is as if someone had gone into the Wild West of the United States in the 1870s with a video camera in hand. Cowell’s work documented the environmental and human costs of Brazil’s Amazon policy. Viewers have been moved to tears watching the tragic encounters between native peoples and settlers, or gunmen and squatters. Yet the beliefs and attitudes held by people in Brazil and other Amazonian countries are not invalid. If one were to summarize the views of many Brazilians and combine them with the writing of various authors on the Amazon, a skeptic’s viewpoint might be described as follows: Europeans have long imposed their views of an exoticized nature onto the Amazon, beginning with the first ideas of El Dorado, who led the first Spaniards to descend the Amazon. Europeans and North Americans continue to impose these images upon the Amazon, in part because it is a politically safe way for them to address environmental issues (Nugent 1994, 15–21, 214–15; Slater 2003a, 41–68). Nobody in the United States, Germany, or Japan has to lose a job to fight deforestation in the Amazon. Mark Hertsgaard has described how one cartoonist portrayed this attitude: Life without a car is literally unthinkable for most Americans, an assumption comically skewered by cartoonist Tom Toles. His cartoon opens with four people agreeing that the greenhouse effect threatens global catastrophe and that carbon dioxide production therefore has to be reduced. But when one person says, “The biggest problem is automobiles,” a silence falls over the group. “Somehow,” the narrator dryly observes, “the discussion always stops at this point.” The solution the four finally hit upon is to tell South Americans to stop burning down their rainforests. “Yeah,” one character says with relief, “the South Americans.” (Hertsgaard 1999, 105) This cynical viewpoint captures the widespread attitude of many people within South America toward both Europeans and North Americans (Christianson 1999, 189–91). From their perspective, northern countries have largely deforested their nations as part of the developmental trajectory (Nugent 1994, 19; Christianson 1999, 182). But now that Brazil or Peru wants to follow in their path, northern countries are telling them that they cannot do so. The governments of Amazonian nations argue that they are preserving far more of their old-growth forest than the United States or Europe has (Stewart 1994, 23). Moreover, these nations owe immense sums to these rich countries. There is no realistic hope that they can repay these debts unless resources such as the Amazon are developed. In the United States, the federal government is fighting to preserve a small fraction of its original forest cover that is old growth. While the Amazon is being developed, nations like Brazil have set aside large areas as nature reserves. South American governments also argue that the Amazon is not as vulnerable to development as environmentalists have proposed. One of the reasons that the Amazon is so species rich is that, historically, the forest has waxed and waned, with periods when much of the Amazon Basin looked more like a savanna with divided patches of forest (Leakey and Lewin 1996, 109). Nor is the forest in some primeval state. The indigenous people have modified this forest for thousands of years. Some authors use the term “cultured forest” to capture the extent to which the forest’s composition has changed. Native peoples burned extensive areas of forest. They created plantations of their favorite fruit-bearing crops, some of which have endured for centuries (N. Smith 1999, 32). They even created canals to connect different branches of rivers together, as have more-recent settlers (Raffles 2002, 26–27, 34). After disease and slave raids caused the Amazon’s population to collapse, the forest reclaimed many of these fields and plantations. But the impact on the soil and plant composition was profound, so that local peoples can readily identify areas where native peoples once lived even centuries after they have left (N. Smith 1999, 24–28). The Amazon is not an untouched wilderness that is easily destroyed by human contact. Rather, what Europeans took to be wilderness had been emptied of people by European diseases and slave raiders after contact. Many government officials and businessmen in Brazil believe that the people who have seized upon the Amazon as an environmental issue have only a vague idea of the region’s nature and history. In a 2007 article for National Geographic, Scott Wallace interviewed Blair Maggi, a soybean “king.” Maggi’s attitudes probably represent those of many Amazonian elites: To Maggi, deforestation is an overblown issue, a “phobia” that plagues people who can’t grasp the enormity of the Amazon. “All of Europe could fit inside the Amazon,” he says, “and we’d still have room for two Englands.” What does he think of [Sister] Dorothy Stang’s vision of small growers carrying out sustainable projects in complete harmony with the land? “Totalmente errado—completely wrong,” Maggi says, adding that without heavy subsidies such projects run counter to the march of history and are doomed to failure. “All business tends toward concentration. . . . Unit prices fall, and you need huge volumes to survive.” (Wallace 2007, 64) Of course, many of the poor squatters might have a different vision of the future. But that view, too, might not necessarily be defined by environmental concerns. For South American critics, the current effort to impose the environmental values of the developed world upon South American nations represents a modern form of imperialism. It is true that developed countries are no longer using military means to impose their control. Now, they implement their will by threatening to deny World Bank loans or funding for packages that serve key national interests. The idea of debt-for-nature swaps is particularly disturbing, because it represents a threat to national sovereignty. The United States has a long and sad history of interventions in Latin America, ranging from Haiti to Nicaragua and Colombia, and European nations have no greater legitimacy among southern governments and populations. How, then, do these northern nations have the authority to tell South America how to use land within its own territory? We do not personally subscribe to the South American viewpoint described here—quite the opposite. But it is important to hear these voices. Many of the feelings surrounding this topic are raw. South Americans surely know how they are being portrayed abroad, and it angers them. There are clear cases when the people are articulating simplistic arguments, such as the man who successfully ran for governor in one of Brazil’s Amazon states with the slogan: “For every peasant, a chain saw.” But more thoughtful arguments are also voiced by Brazilians and Peruvians, as well as by some North American experts. Environmental issues must be discussed in a social context if they are to persuade the people involved. As Adrian Cowell’s work makes clear, the people responsible for much of the environmental damage in the Amazon are the poor and the dispossessed, who act not from malice but from need. Simplistic narratives of the Amazon’s destruction ignore the larger social and economic factors that drive deforestation. Without more nuanced views, it is difficult to gain the support of people who actually live in the Amazon, many of whom are now urban dwellers. The advocates for the forest need to understand different perspectives in order to craft broad alliances. It is true that there are “pro-growth” or “antienvironmental” sentiments in many developing nations. But dramatic growth can come with an equally dramatic cost, as China is now learning. Environmental perspectives do not break down on a clean north/south line, and environmental concerns are becoming more powerful in the developing world. Atmosphere and Climate It is possible to bring together all of the world’s nations to address environmental issues, which is necessary if humanity is to combat the pollution of the planet’s atmosphere. One positive example is provided by the global effort to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used in everything from refrigerators to Styrofoam cups (Kolbert 2006, 182–83). In the 1980s, researchers realized that in the upper atmosphere, CFCs broke down into chlorine, which served as a catalyst in reactions involving ozone. Although ozone is a poisonous gas at ground level and commonly thought of as a pollutant, in the upper atmosphere it serves to protect the planet from dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation. In the mid-1980s, scientists documented significant holes in the earth’s ozone at the poles. In 1987 the world came to together with the Montreal protocol, which began the phased elimination of CFCs, despite significant opposition from industry. The result has been that the global release of CFCs has plummeted. It will take probably more than half a century for the hole in the ozone to heal, given the level of damage that was done and the length of time it takes for the chlorine to break down. But there is evidence that the holes have stopped growing and are beginning to shrink (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment 2004, 98–107). In this case, a global coalition was able to prevent an environmental disaster. A similar effort will be needed to prevent the worst possibilities of global warming, which is widely perceived to be humanity’s greatest challenge. Global warming is the heating of the planet driven by rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Atmospheric gases trap heat, without which it is unlikely that our planet could support life: The greenhouse gas effect is indispensible for life on the Earth; it is the weakness or excessive strength of the effect that is a matter for concern. The effective radiative (blackbody) temperature of a planet without an atmosphere is simply a function of its albedo (the share of incoming radiation that is directly reflected into space) and its orbital distance. The Earth (albedo 30 percent) would radiate at 18 degrees Celsius, compared to 57 C for Mars and 44 C for Venus, and all these planets would have permanently frozen surfaces. A planet ceases to be a perfect radiator as soon as it has an atmosphere some of whose gases . . . can selectively absorb part of the outgoing infrared radiation and reradiate it both downward and upward. (Smil 2008, 172) In other words, greenhouse gases are essential to life on our planet because they capture sufficient heat to maintain the planet’s temperature sufficient for liquid water to exist. The problem is that humanity is changing the balance of these gases in our atmosphere by increasing the level of CO2. This chemical is released through the burning of fossil fuels, as well as by deforestation. The loss of forests is particularly serious because it not only releases carbon but also changes the planet’s reflectivity, or albedo (Smil 2008, 178). At the same time, methane is a potent greenhouse gas released by our farming practices, in particular our reliance upon cattle. CFCs and nitrogen dioxide are also greenhouse gases (Smil 2008, 177). Combined, these chemicals are increasing the quantity of the sun’s energy that our atmosphere retains.
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