So now we know: the idea that the Amazon rainforest is burning on an unprecedented scale and that these fires will rob humanity of one of its key sources of oxygen is fake news. It is hard to think of any other global event this year that has been as awash with misinformation as the rainforest fires. We’ve been told these fires are a calamity, an act of ‘ecocide’; they’re proof of humanity’s contempt for the environment; they will blacken and possibly even destroy ‘the lungs of the world’, as the rainforests are referred to, given they produce 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen. It’s all untrue. We are being misled.
Everything – from the photos of fires being shared by heartbroken celebs to the wild claims about these fires harming the whole of humanity – is false. Some of the photos of the fires being tearfully shared on social media are 10 or 20 years old. Many are not pictures of the Amazon at all. Some are from south Brazil, others from India and Sweden. The idea that millions of glorious, oxygen-producing trees are been burnt to a cinder by evil humans is nonsense, too. To the extent that there has been an increase in fires in the Amazon – and this itself is a deceptive claim – many of this year’s new fires are of dry scrubland, where trees have already been felled.
It is untrue that the fires are historically huge or unprecedented. NASA says the Amazon fires are ‘slightly below average this year’. Many are pointing out that we are witnessing the highest number of fires in the Amazon for seven years. But as meteorologist Jesse Ferrell reports, prior to 2012 there were many years in which the Amazon had worse fires than this year’s: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010. As Ferrell says, there are always fires on Earth: ‘Thousands of fires are continually burning across the Earth every day of every year, and they always have.’ The idea that what is currently happening in the Amazon is shockingly unusual or apocalyptic or proof of man’s fascistic disdain for his environment is an entirely politicised interpretation of a perfectly normal event.
The claim that the Amazon rainforest is the ‘lungs of the world’, producing 20 per cent of the Earth’s oxygen, is also bunkum. It has been cited everywhere, by people who want us to believe that these fires will have a dire impact on all of humanity and perhaps on the very survival of our species. But as even the Guardian felt moved to report, ‘it is not clear where this figure originated’. Climate expert Michael Mann says ‘the true figure is likely to be no more than six per cent’. The Guardian also points out that the crops being planted in place of felled trees in the Amazon – by farmers who are talked about as pure evil by Western greens – will also produce oxygen, and ‘quite likely at higher levels’ than the trees they replace. So the ‘oxygen crisis’ is complete fantasy.
More broadly, it simply isn’t true that mankind is at war with forestland. As made clear by a substantial report in Nature, published last year, the world’s tree cover has increased over the past 35 years. In three decades, 2.24million square kilometres of trees – an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined – have been added to the world’s already existing tree-covered land. The study, involving satellite analysis of the Earth from 1982 to 2016, found that while there has been some tree loss in subtropical areas, this has been ‘outweighed by tree-cover gain in subtropical, temperate, boreal, and polar regions’. Part of this vast expansion is down to China’s historic tree-planting programme. The UN refers to it as mankind’s largest ‘tree-planting crusade’, in which China’s forest coverage has increased from 8.6 per cent in 1949 to 21 per cent in 2017. So much for the Chinese being evil polluters. All these new trees to have swarmed the Earth since 1982 will be producing oxygen, so the apocalyptic Western middle-classes can calm down about not being able to breathe.
In the words of Michael Shellenberger, one of the critical voices on the increasingly hysterical discussion of the rainforest fires, ‘Everything they say about the Amazon… is wrong’. Out-of-control fires, trees disappearing, oxygen in crisis, the climate being pushed to the edge – it is all wrong, all based in fear, not facts.
Perhaps the most destructive myth is that Brazilians and others are engaged in ‘ecocide’. This emotive word, cynically designed to invoke thoughts of the evil of genocide, is designed to demonise human activity that impacts on the environment. It is motored by an arrogant, intolerant view among Western greens in particular that says people in the developing world who do what we have already done – fell forests, clear land for agriculture, elevate human needs over a sanctified view of nature – are guilty of a crime and deserve to be punished.
There is a neo-colonial instinct behind this accusation. It is a slur wielded by privileged Westerners who have already benefited from industrial revolutions and decades of modernisation against emergent economic powerhouses who want to do likewise: Brazil, China, India. Worse, it sets these nations up for outside intervention. The G7 has already agreed to send resources to resolve the rainforest fires, and some Western greens are fantasising about armed forces – ‘green helmets’ – going around the world to save nature from the destructive activity of the developing world’s inhabitants. What an ugly, borderline imperialist notion. The global condescension of the modern environmentalist movement is captured perfectly in this suggestion that we should treat foreigners as criminals simply because they want what we already have.