Over the past few days, the internet came ablaze with the late-breaking news that the Amazon Rainforest is burning. Concerned teenagers filled Twitter and Instagram with “pray for Amazonia” and cries that “the planet’s lungs” are on fire. The spectacle social and news media has presented to young privileged people is that the Earth is dying and these fires are part of it. But the hysteria around these fires, and forest fires in general, is wholly unjustified. The Amazon and most other forests have very specific burn seasons that can become extremely intense if those of former years have been relatively mild. There is no reason for the Brazilian government to take any extreme action against this part of the Amazon’s cycle. But the pictures, to a coastal urban citizen, are shocking; the mainstream media has not hesitated to exploit that shock.
If you grew up in a city or suburb, or a place with a slim amount of forest, the intricacies of forests and their environmental habits are unsurprisingly foreign. Most North Americans and Europeans have their deepest connection to nature in state parks on weekend camping. Thus, we’re all familiar with Smokey Bear and his tagline “only you can prevent wildfires”. This cartoon creature’s intent and ultimate effect are both positive. Artificially lit forest fires, outside of very specific instances, are dangerous and harmful. But the impression Smokey gives to people from the time they are children is that forest fires are always harmful. This is simply not the case, especially for forests with a lot of diverse plant life, such as the Amazon.
Burning Is Beneficial
Looking at the pictures of the burning Amazon, a sense of tragedy and loss hits most people in the face. But if you look closer, in most of the pictures, it isn’t actually the forest that’s burning. Most pictures show flat grasslands adjacent to or between patches of the Amazon Rainforest burning. In pictures that do show parts of the Amazon ablaze, it’s very noticeable that the vast majority of trees are left standing. Healthy trees don’t typically burn in forest fires. It’s the brush and dead fuel that’s burning. This is an entirely necessary process. It clears out brush that prevents new trees from growing and which can make forest fires worse in the future. These fires also cause ash, which provides the necessary nutrients for saplings to flourish in their new space.
This isn’t just true of the Amazon Rainforest. Firefighters in North America and all over the world regularly set forest fires intentionally. It’s completely counterintuitive, but also completely necessary. When dry brush builds up too much in any forest and lights, it can get out of control very quickly. The point of purposefully setting forest fires is to make them controllable– to get rid of the underbrush while maintaining the ability to keep homes and agriculture safe. It’s important for us all to remember that 2019 is an El Niño year, and thus many natural disasters become more severe. The intensity of the fires in the Amazon is partly a result of Brazilian forest services neglecting to set controlled fires. The long length and severity of this year’s dry season, which has occurred cyclically over the span of nearly three decades, also is contributing.
Misdirected Amazon Fears
It’s wrong to expect the average Twitter user to have a deep knowledge of South American agricultural and environmental practice. Very few people need that in their everyday life. This is why it’s so easy to exploit the internet’s love and care for the environment and misdirect it in order to snap up some quick site engagement. Climate change is an important issue, rightly at the forefront of so many conversations. But genuine alarmism and misplaced worry for natural cycles of the planet is harmful. Not only does it hurt the psyche of the first-world teenagers who read the false panic in the news, but it also contributes to a lack of knowledge about how the world works.
The real news lies in exactly why the Brazilian forestry departments are not maintaining controlled burns. Neglecting safety in this way is a severe problem. Letting forest fires get this severe puts villages and agriculture at risk. The real story is the fire encroaching onto farmers’ land because of unseasonal dryness. It is the human impact outside of the Amazon.
The rainforest will be fine. It will survive its fire season as it has since the forest first sprang up, but the people around it may not. The Earth’s Lungs will breathe just fine, but there are real people being smoked out of their homes. It is not culturally responsible to care about the spectacle of fire and ash, which is ultimately healthy for a forest of The Amazon’s health, over the real people these fires hurt. The world is in a sad state when trees become more pitiable than people.