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The Amazon Fire and Phony Environmentalism


“As with the opposition to GMOs and nuclear power, Morales’ free pass sadly proves that most environmentalist groups are not really about the environment. They are more about identity politics and, more importantly, about the hipness of being feel-good activists.”

The Amazon is on fire. Is this a catastrophe? Of course it is. Who is to blame? It’s complicated. Global warming certainly seems to have to do with it. As such, there have been desperate attempts to speed up and strengthen the Paris Agreement. I have long believed that the Paris agreement is not a particularly good idea, for reasons that are well explained by heterodox environmentalists such as Bjorn Lomborg and Matt Ridley. The Paris Agreement achieves too little and asks too much. Emerging economies (such as Brazil) are told not to develop—all in the name of environmentalism. They are told so by countries that are already developed and, thus, have the luxury of choosing to slow down their economies. This is a strange form of progressive colonialism: to please Mother Earth, First World countries are bossing Third World countries around, asking them not to pursue the luxurious lifestyle that Europeans and North Americans have. In the face of the Amazon fires, this game is being played all over again, with French President Emmanuel Macron patronizing Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro.

What is to be done? Bjorn Lomborg has long argued that the alternative is not to slow down economies (as the Paris Agreement requires). Instead, the alternative is to continue development plans, while making huge investments in science and technology so that cleaner and more efficient sources of energy are found and developed. Unfortunately, conventional environmentalists (the same ones who are tearing their garments over the Amazon fires) do not like this idea. It is rather strange that Greenpeace opposes GMOs and nuclear power, when in fact, these technologies are associated with cleaner sources of energy. Although Brazil is a major producer of GMOs, in order to better preserve its Amazon forest, it would need more, not less, GMOs. The Amazon fires are likely being started by farmers in order to clear land for cultivation. GMO production, in fact, decreases the likelihood of farmers clearing land because the crops become more abundant, thus making land use more efficient and, in the process, decreasing the need to wipe away forests to create more arable land.

But, it seems that conventional environmentalists are not really interested in these arguments. They prefer to look hip protesting Amazon deforestation while drinking a cup of organic coffee at Starbucks and tweeting—all the while—from a smartphone. Sadly, environmentalism seems to be more about snobbishness than hard consideration of facts and rational argumentation.

For example, let us compare how the media and most environmentalist groups are treating Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Admittedly, Bolsonaro is a climate change-denying troglodyte who buys into the conspiracy theory that the fires are being started by NGOs. He undoubtedly deserves condemnation. But what about Evo Morales? His plans for land exploitation have been almost as aggressive as Bolsonaro’s, and that is also to blame for the Amazon fires, given that large chunks of forest are being removed on the Bolivian side. Yet, somehow, though some sensible environmentalists do criticize Morales, most prefer to give him a free pass.

How does that happen? To a large degree, it has to do with identity politics and political marketing. Bolsonaro campaigned as a South American Trump: very macho, ex-military, deeply homophobic, of European descent, and no friend to policies such as affirmative action and being ecologically sensitive. Morales, by contrast, constantly presents himself as the indigenous leader who fights white colonialism, dances in rituals to Pacha Mama (the Andean goddess representing Earth), and speaks the mystical language of ecologism. Culturally, he is not really a native (he has had far more associations with the traditional criollo elites of Bolivia). However, much like Peru’s Alejandro Toledo, Morales seized the opportunity to assume an indigenous identity for political gain.

So, being (or pretending to be) indigenous, constantly wearing flowers around his neck and chewing coca, it seems impossible that Morales would ever be guilty of anything against the environment. Everybody knows that Pizarro and the conquistadors are the Earth-hating bigots, whereas Atahualpa and the Native Americans are the good guys when it comes to the environment (needless to say, this is also a myth).

As with the opposition to GMOs and nuclear power, Morales’ free pass sadly proves that most environmentalist groups are not really about the environment. They are more about identity politics and, more importantly, about the hipness of being feel-good activists. It is all just a show, and the environment has also become another focal point in the society of the spectacle.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is an assistant professor of ethics and behavioral science at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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