This week in Black Twitter, fried chicken phenom Popeyes solidified their position as the ultimate Fast Food Chicken Sandwich savants, igniting a debate between fan favorite, Chick-Fil-A, and just about anybody selling a breaded piece of chicken on a bun through a makeshift window. This lighthearted but lengthy debate overlapped ongoing dialogue of the sports variety, with the streets still buzzing about the partnership between Jay-Z and the NFL. Staying “woke” is easy when there’s no requirement for you to focus. And our lack of meaningful focus is evidenced by how even our serious discussions center around music and entertainment, sports and fried meats. We’ve been boasting about our ability to walk and chew gum so long we’ve apparently forgotten how to do either one with any efficiency. Because while we were enjoying our distractions, the real story snuck in right under our noses. The Amazon rainforest, the largest and arguably most important rainforest in the world, has been burning wildly for the past three weeks and you likely haven’t heard a thing about it.
Here’s what we know, a stretch of the Amazon rainforest about the size of the United Kingdom is currently engulfed in flames along with every life-form inhabiting it. This is the 74,155th fire seen by the Amazon just this year, about a 50% increase since 2018. And the month of August has been a particularly fiery one for the forest with a seven-year record-breaking 32,932 fires, 264% more than the area saw in August 2018. Although the Amazon’s natural moist, humid air has historically been its own form of fire-resistance, 50 years of deforestation have cost the jungle one-fifth of it’s forest. And with Brazil’s newly elected, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro taking office in January of 2019, Brazil’s deforestation efforts have intensified substantially. How much? Well, as of July 2019 the Amazon was losing an area the size of Manhattan every single day, and with Bolsonaro leading the charge away from environmental protections and towards agribusiness, there’s no sign of slowing down.
On Monday, August 19th, Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, plunged into darkness around 3pm as a cold front changed the direction of the winds, delivering a Black cloud of smoke particles to the citiy’s doorstep. This drastic day to night phenomenon caught the attention of social media users around the globe, triggering the hashtag #PrayforAmazonas. As word spread of the cause of the city’s daytime darkness, President Bolsonaro and his newly appointed Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, fell under serious scrutiny. Having proudly earned their reputations as climate change deniers, the pair immediately pointed the finger at non-government environmental groups, arguing that those claiming to save the environment are now hurting it intentionally to spite them. And while all evidence debunks this wildly defamatory claim, the irony of scapegoating indigenous people with the destruction of their own lands is not missed. There are comparisons to be drawn here between Brazil’s president and the one we endure right here on American soil. Bolsonaro isn’t just a climate change denier like Trump, along with all of his newly appointed cabinet members, he’s also a nationalist like Trump, and a bit of a racist. His disdain for indigenous Brazilian populations coupled with his ability to intentionally target protected lands inhabited by these people is government sanctioned terrorism at best, and we know a thing or two about that.
So what does that mean for the Amazon? Well, it definitely isn’t looking good. The Amazon rainforest is more than 2 million square miles, housing indigenous communities and 10% of the earths’ animal species. Not only is it the producer of 20% of the worlds oxygen, it creates a natural barrier against carbon emissions and plays an integral role in carbon dioxide regulation, oxygen production, and the water cycle. The destruction of the Amazon, primarily due to cattle ranching for U.S. beef exports, will forever change the Amazon as we know it. Not only has it accelerated global climate change (what do you think happens when 1/5 of your lungs suddenly become a chain smoker), but it’s inching dangerously close to a situation known as “dieback” which is as ugly as it sounds. As the fires continue to burn, the trees release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, resulting in decreased carbon absorption and dry, brittle trees, trees more susceptible to fire. At the other side of this scenario, we see an Amazon that no longer looks or behaves like a tropical rainforest but more like a savannah. And we’d be kidding to pretend losing 20% of anything, especially our oxygen, wouldn’t be felt round the world.
I know what you’re thinking, why does this matter to me and what else is new — a common sentiment for citizens of the Western world. We have a tendency to get trapped in our undiagnosed nationalism. We may not openly express our devotion and adoration for this country the way confederate flag toting Trump supporters do, but we behave in a way that is equally dismissive of the events taking place around the world, especially the ones we contribute to. We may read through a couple headlines, post a thought or two to show ourselves somewhat knowledgeable, but for the most part, world news is out of sight, out of mind to many Americans. Black Americans in particular have a tendency to become so consumed with all of the flatulence up and down the news feeds that we can barely smell what’s cooking until it’s been burnt. And this time what’s cooking could kill us. The destruction of the Amazon is important to know about for two reasons, the first being that we have contributed to it and the second being that we’ll pay for it just like every other citizen of the planet. We are seeing first hand what happens when for-profit industries not only infiltrate government, but actually become government. The people become pawns of their pockets.
This is one issue that undoubtedly will impact us all. It won’t be solved by hashtagging or double tapping, it cannot be placed on the back burner where all meaningful matters go to die. We can no longer dismiss what we’re seeing as some other generation’s problem, our consumptive culture has caught up with us. How many millions of us ran to Popeyes to participate in a viral chicken eating debate with zero concern for where and how that poultry is sourced? Likely the same millions who can’t resist a 60% off sale at a big box clothing store or a new iPhone release. Writing congress and boycotting agribusiness supporting deforestation efforts would be impactful if our day to day lives weren’t our own undoing. Materialism has become our mantra. We buy for the purpose of maintaining our identification within American society, not to fulfill our basic human needs, and we have little to no concern with how those purchases affect the rest of the global community. Consumption is one thing, consumerism is something else altogether, and if we think we get to participate in this overconsumption of goods while playing coy with the rest of the world, we’re just as dishonest as our deranged dictator. Our Western freedoms have turned into freedom from accountability. We haven’t lit any fires in the Amazon but we provided every incentive for big business to do so. So that makes this is our problem, whether we live in São Paulo or San Francisco. We don’t fight systemic injustice without an earth to fight on, and we can’t afford to forfeit either fight. Are we woke yet?