The Amazon rain forest is on fire, or more accurately dotted with lots of small fires. So is the massive rain forest that covers much of the Democratic Republic of Congo. So are parts of the Arctic. And Indonesia.
None of this is good news. But it’s also not quite cause for hyperventilation, which is still going to be something people can do, since the varied and various “lungs of the earth” are going to emerge from these catastrophes more or less OK.
Forests, no matter how big, don’t exactly supply the world with oxygen. Trees “breathe” it out, sure, but other processes use most of it up in the immediate vicinity. That’s a good thing, because otherwise the atmosphere would eventually have way too much oxygen and we would all die.
Technically, we could get rid of the Amazon entirely with almost no measurable impact on the Earth’s oxygen supply. Most of the planet’s oxygen gets produced by tiny organisms in the ocean. So we don’t need to worry about running out of air to breathe just yet.
But there are a zillion other reasons why we need the Amazon and should not destroy it, or the forests of the Congo and the Arctic or anywhere else.
And focusing on those would be a good bit more productive than the social media-fueled hand-wringing that has turned a bad year for Amazon fires into a global crisis and an omen of the impending destruction of humanity.
The Amazon is important mostly because it is very large and very biodiverse. It takes up a good chunk of the entire continent of South America — enough to shape weather patterns not just there but around the world — and is home to as much as 10% of all plant and animal species on earth.
Unfortunately, it’s also disappearing at an alarming rate, and not always in such a visible, tweetable fashion. Most of the destruction in the Amazon happens when people move in looking for new farmland. Illegal logging and mining are problems as well.
But this sort of thing isn’t just happening in Brazil — or Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and Bolivia, which also share pieces of the Amazon basin. It’s happening almost everywhere, including to a certain extent here in Charleston.
The Earth’s ecosystems aren’t all as vast and complex and fragile as the Amazon, but they are all essential to the preservation of countless species and they all work together at a local and global scale in ways that we still don’t fully understand.
Degrading them — whether for residential development, mining, industrial agriculture, highway construction, landfills or any number of other potentially problematic human activities — carries a lot of risks.
And as each part of a system falters or breaks down, it can throw another part out of whack, causing a disastrous domino effect.
So the answer isn’t necessarily some sort of heavy-handed government intervention to put out fires around the world — although it’s definitely frustrating that Brazil’s president doesn’t seem interested in any kind of assistance.
We’d be better off focusing on conservation that starts in our own backyards and on living a lifestyle with fewer direct and indirect environmental impacts.
Eating less beef, for example, might reduce the incentive for ranchers to burn down the Amazon. The United States doesn’t really import much beef from Brazil, but supply chains are global and meat production tends to be destructive here too.
Supporting local policies that fight suburban sprawl or encourage the planting and protection of trees in urban parts of town would also help prevent the degradation of local ecosystems and provide a better buffer against an uncertain climate future.
And if you’re still concerned about the fires in Brazil, which is a reasonable and healthy thing to be concerned about, a number of non-profit organizations are working hard to protect rain forests there and elsewhere in the world. Just do some research before donating.
The world really is burning in a sense. We as a species are altering our planet in unprecedented ways. We also have an unparalleled capacity to protect it and repair it.
So let’s take a deep breath of the Earth’s still very plentiful oxygen and start making some adjustments for a more livable, sustainable future.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.