The Amazon Rainforest is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, and home to a tremendous diversity of animal, plant, and fungal life. Preserving the Amazon should be considered one of our generation’s greatest priorities, if we are to ward off the worst effects of climate change. One man just played a tremendous role in moving that preservation a giant leap forward, and…I have mixed feelings about it, or at least, HOW he did it.
Setting The Scene
Reports earlier this year made it clear that the combination of increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall resulting from climate change, along with fires in the Amazon and decades-long deforestation practices (mainly to create room for cows to graze, and to grow food for cows – mostly GMO soy and corn) were having a notable and lasting effect. The multiple stressors on the ecosystem have combined to put the Amazon on a path toward a critical tipping point in which the ecosystem may very well become more like an African Savannah than a dripping wet rainforest. This would decrease the amount of carbon sequestration by an amount that is hard to fathom, right when the world needs carbon sinks more than ever.
Fires have become more commonplace in the Amazon, hard to imagine for a place that gets as much rain as the Amazon does. But the thing about rainforests is that the soils tend to be thin. The nutrients and biomass are predominantly in the vegetation itself, not the soil. Soils in deciduous forests in, say, the Eastern United States or central Europe, are much thicker and more alive — and thus more resilient. Once you clear the trees in a rainforest, the thin soil can dry out pretty quickly, a process that can lead to desertification. This, in a nutshell, is what’s happened in the Amazon for decades now. Clearcuts around the edges start the process. Cattle grazing and creating GMO monocrop agriculture growing food for cows then further dry out and thin the remaining soil, and the resulting ecosystem is much less resilient to fires, which then spread much further and faster than ever before. The land turns from rainforest to semi-permanent grassland. As the nutrients disappear and the soil thins out, it can no longer support cattle grazing, so more land is cleared — land that will be useful for that purpose for a few years before it also loses its life-supporting capabilities. And the process has repeated ad nauseum.
The rise of Jair Bolsonaro (dubbed “the Trump of the South”) as Brazil’s president concerned environmentalists worldwide, and with good reason. Bolsonaro’s policies toward the Amazon seemed to be, “do what you wish.” Accusations of intentional fire setting and land clearing were widespread during Bolsonaro’s time in office, but oversight and investigations into the potential arson were effectively nonexistent. It was maybe indirect but clearly a wink-wink nudge-nudge type of approval, backed by lack of enforcement. Cattle and food for cattle replaced rainforest at a rate that was likely unprecedented in world history.
It’s a familiar problem — short term jobs vs the environment. It becomes a political tool that is too easy to wield by politicians looking to score points on economic growth, an issue that is important to more voters than climate change is. We’ve seen it again and again — for example Dick Cheney’s 2006 “Clean Water” law that allowed oil and gas drillers to keep the chemicals they use to lubricate their drilling equipment and extract oil and gas a secret. It helps prevent community outcry around toxic chemicals (see the documentary Gasland for more on this), and thus spurs short term job growth in unsustainable industries. Short term economic gain = political points, and huge financial gifts to those who fund your campaign. The same was true in Brazil under Bolsonaro, and short term, unsustainable jobs (pardon the pun) trumped the entire world’s economic and environmental health in the minds of many Brazilian voters.
Bolsonaro just lost his re-election bid, and will be replaced by Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a man who promised to keep good watch on the Amazon and help preserve it and its carbon drawdown. Lula da Silva’s campaign received a significant boost from Andre Janones, a little known figure in Brazil, who argued that Brazil’s political left had to take the gloves off and fight fire with fire.
According to Reuters, Janones acknowledged using tactics such as “ad hominem attacks, exaggerations, and even physical confrontations with opponents.” In an interview, Janones said that in order to win, Brazil’s left leaning parties needed to “steal a page from Bolsonaro’s playbook.”
“…we need to save democracy,” Janones said. “Look at the scenario we’re living in.”
Bolsonaro is no stranger to this kind of tactic. He used it to win last time, and throughout this campaign this time around, his ads frequently incited fear and were intended to drive division within Brazil by beating the usual drum of “crime will explode, the economy will collapse, churches will be shut down, and everything you’ve earned will be taken from you” if a leftist comes to power, according to Fabio Malini, a professor of new media at the Federal University of Espirito Santo.
As an aside, and to be fair to Bolsonaro, it wasn’t his playbook — it was the result of decades of think tanks funded by oil and gas magnates that produced some winning formulae for political fights. Steve Bannon became the most well known emissary for these practices, as he coached Bolsonaro to use the same tactics that brought ultra-right leaders in Italy, the US, Brazil, Great Britain, and many other places to power. Many of these tactics involve provoking anger and fear by using deception and the deliberate spread of misinformation. Not sure I need to say more on this — there’s a treasure trove of examples of this, reaching into every target demographic and every corner of the internet. Here at CleanTechnica, we mostly watch out for this type of thing when it affects climate (we cover the deliberate misinformation, use of red herrings, bad reporting, and outright lies that create fear, uncertainty, and doubt about climate change and the solutions to it). But…Obama as a Muslim, Obama as not born in America, Hillary running a pedophile pizza shop (a fake story, but a real pizza place that was literally then attacked by a QAnon believer with a real AR-15 and hundreds of rounds of real ammo)…the list goes on and on.
Bolsonaro was even widely accused of using government money to deliberately spread this type of misinformation. Opponents described Bolsonaro’s “Cabinet of Hate,” akin to government-controlled media becoming pure propaganda for the incumbent.
Janones used these same tactics to attack and undermine Bolsonaro. He just went ahead and accused Bolsonaro of being a pedophile, citing a podcast interview Bolsonaro did in which he visited the home of underage Venezuelan girls and seemed to acknowledge that they were prostitutes. Given how much the QAnon conspiracy theory has worked its way through the American electorate (particularly among the uneducated), it’s clear that the insinuation of pedophilia is one that tars any reputation, even if completely unfounded. The fact that there was one piece of evidence that could potentially bolster the claim that Bolsonaro is a pedophile seemed to prove effective. Janones also used old footage of Bolsonaro speaking at Masonic lodges to insinuate that Bolsonaro had struck a secret deal with the “godless” Masons, and spread this information across Evangelical Christian communities throughout Brazil.
According to Brazilian political journalist Octavio Guedes, Janones’ efforts were “fundamental” for the defeat of Bolsonaro.
Even just writing this story, I feel like I need to take a shower. Politics is clearly a blood sport, as much as I wish it weren’t.
Will the American political left follow Janones’ lead? Will Janones start to travel the world coaching left-leaning politicians to hit below the belt in order to win at any cost, a la Steve Bannon? It’s worth noting that Michelle Obama famously said, in 2016, citing then candidate Donald’s lies and dirty tactics, that Democrats would not take the bait and stoop to the low levels Donald Trump was using (taking the high road) to try to support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the final days of the 2016 race. At that point, the race seemed like Hillary’s to lose, and the polls showed she should have won, so perhaps Democrats didn’t feel the desperation to start punching below the belt or taking the gloves off.
With the fate of the Amazon (and with it, global stability) at stake, Janones took the gloves off and hit hard below the belt, and according to analysts, it worked.
I celebrate the preservation of the Amazon, but I do not feel good about this race to the bottom. I wrote an article about a nonpolitical way to save the Amazon a while back — this is my preferred global world view. But mine is decidedly and unfortunately less effective. This turn of events with Janones, while helping accomplish a similar goal, makes me feel like I’m watching a heavyweight bout, where for several rounds now, it seemed the referee turned a blind eye to the brass knuckles hidden in the gloves of one boxer, and where now, the other fighter finally got the point and added a small blade to his own.
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