The difficulty of writing about the Amazon wildfires

7 mins read

The complexity of the event has lead to some misunderstandings, and to an array of accidental misinformation being spread on social media and even some official news outlets.

Despite the fact that the Amazon wildfires are currently, and hopefully will for as long as possible continue to be, in the news, they are not exactly new. It is thought by researchers that non-negligible rates of CO2 released by fires could be measured starting in 1987.

What is new about the 2019 Amazon wildfires is their increase. I’d also argue that the number of people who deeply care about the environment is relatively new, so there is a much bigger group of people who are now ready to pay attention to the decade-long problem.

This means that Amazon wildfires have, in a way, “become news” as their magnitude has increased along with the general public’s interest. They have always been important, we are just beginning to acknowledge it. This is hard to convey, as when we read a news article, we assume that the topic is, well, new.

Credit: Porto Velho, Brazil August 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
Photos of the Amazon ablaze trigger an emotional response much more effectively than statistics about deforestation

New topics are much more likely to attract readers’ attention and thus, framing the wildfires as freshly discovered natural disasters like one would a storm, is a way to instil a sense of urgency in the general population.

Therefore, forgetting to mention the history of Amazon wildfires might not be a mistake but a smart way to get people involved. It is difficult to convey the type of crisis that the Amazon wildfires present. When we are faced with emergency in our daily lives, most of the time it is short and intense; we get an adrenaline rush and need to think quickly.

Crises rarely involve something thousands of kilometres away that we cannot see and that has been going on for decades. Unless we are ourselves powerful world leaders, the crises we are used to require quick, immediate action from us, not long-term lifestyle changes and a re-evaluation of whether our politicians are taking climate change seriously.

So condensing all of that into a short text or social media post, is a bit like having to say “hey guys so there is this thing, it’s an emergency but not like a run away type emergency, more like we should really think twice about our consumption habits and policy decisions type emergency. Also it’s not new, but kind of, but not really, but yes, do something about it.”

This disaster is different from a naturally, or even accidentally occurring forest fire. Firstly, it is not a natural disaster, but a man-made one. Forest fires are not a natural or necessary part of the Amazonian ecosystem.

They may happen accidentally as in any forest, but this is not what is happening. The rainforest is being burned to create land for farming. Therefore, the language used to describe the fires is very important as people need to understand that it is not just a question of putting out the fire and providing humanitarian aid to all the people who have lost their home, even if this is an important first step.

We need to be talking about the reasons pushing people to burn the forest, not about the burning forest. Long-term policies and strategies need to be put in place. Global changes have to be made for the criminal fires to stop happening.

A reoccurring miscommunication lies in the titles claiming that the world’s appetite for beef and soy is causing the fires. This might seem harsh as it is after all a step in the right direction, but those titles could lead to the misunderstanding that people’s direct consumption of soy is a major cause of the Amazon fires.

It is important to remember that most people who come across an article or social media post will only read the title or first sentence, and that climate is an issue that most people have not been given a chance to educate themselves about.

Humans are not eating the vast majority of the soy that is farmed in the Amazon; they are eating cattle that is fed with that soy. In a somewhat counter-intuitive-seeming way, eating less meat, especially less beef, and replacing it with soy and other plant-based nutrients would be incredibly beneficial to the situation in the Amazon, and to slowing the rate of global warming as a whole.

Using language that depicts beef and soy as equal culprits of this situation is risky. Soy is famously known as an alternative to meat and dairy, and is highly associated with vegetarianism/veganism in people’s minds. This could lead people to think that this means vegetarianism/veganism is no better than eating beef.

This use of language encourages a pessimistic point of view, where no options are good enough so there is no reason to bother trying to save the planet.

Guilt and despair are not emotions that help people take action. Perhaps the language we use when talking about climate emergency issues should be focused on solutions and the actions individuals and communities can take rather than conveying that our planet is deteriorating before our helpless eyes.

Photos of fires in the Amazon make us terrified. The way we talk about it should make us empowered and determined to save it while we still can.

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