A healthy civilisation can only be one that harmonises with and integrates into the totality of life, enhancing not demolishing it.

Acceptance speech – José Lutzenberger

I’m accepting this prize not just in my name but for the Brazilian environmental movement, including those who are fighting for social justice, especially in the rain forest, now threatened with total obliteration within the next twenty years or so, unless present trends can somehow be reversed immediately.

We have no time, we must act now.

Among those who defend the tropical rain forest, many are still stressing the extremely important aspect of the loss of biological diversity. But this doesn’t seem to impress and motivate those who have the power to act and to contribute to significant changes. To placate environmentalists, the Brazilian government is presenting them with maps that show dozens of little green dots on Amazonia, representing biological reserves or “gene banks”, as they also like to call them. Some researchers are helping them in this policy by experimenting with small islands of forest, left intact, but surrounded by seas of devastation, some of which carried out by themselves for the sake of the experiment. They try to determine the minimum area of an intact ecosystem necessary for the survival of a given species. Sounds rational, but, if we accept all those little parks and reserves, and the philosophy that goes with it, then we accept that everything that is white on the map can be cleared away.

Of course, parks and reserves, “gene banks” and so on are necessary. We must protect what we can. Today, parks are often the only way of saving certain species or ecosystems. But to me the, idea that we have to save parts of Nature against our own destructiveness seems obscene. It is an avowal that something is profoundly wrong with our civilization. Shouldn’t we also try to find out what is wrong with our present culture and how we can re-educate ourselves before it is too late? A healthy, sustainable civilization can only be one that harmonizes with and integrates into the totality of Life, enhancing it not demolishing it.

Modern industrial society has embarked on a course that, if allowed to continue much longer will, in the end, destroy all higher forms of life on earth. One of the main aspects of how we wrongly deal with the world is reductionism, that is, facing only one issue at a time and thinking in straight lines. Looking for the minimum size of a certain ecosystem and then aiming at preserving only that minimum is a typical-example. It completely leaves out the overall view of how those little green spots interact as parts of the whole, the biome and the ecosphere, and what will happen once they are left alone in an ocean of devastation.

For the sake of this argument let’s practice a little reductionism ourselves. We will leave out an important practical experience, namely that the few existing parks in Brazil today are all insufficiently protected. Most of them are being severely devastated. Quite recently great fires have almost wiped out two of our most important nature reserves. The government doesn’t care. They keep saying there is no money for parks.

So let us suppose the new parks in Amazonia will be well protected, there will be no clearings, no hunting, no fishing, no fires. But when 99% of the rain forest will be gone, the rain forest climate will be gone. Our reserves will die. And how will the disappearance of the world’s rain forests, not only the tropical ones, affect world climate, especially in subtropical, temperate and subarctic regions, that is, mostly in the so called First World?

Current discussions on and preoccupations with world climate are very much centered on the greenhouse effect and the ozone hole. But, apart from being an important sink for carbon dioxide when intact and a source of up to one thousand tons per hectare when it is cleared, the rainforest participates in other important mechanisms for climate control. Its fantastic evapotranspiration recycles rain water five to seven times as the prevailing winds move the clouds and masses of warm air from the Atlantic to the eastern slopes of the Andes, where they split, one half going north to northern Canada and into Europe, the other half south, to the southern tip of South America. Where the forest disappears and scrub or naked soil takes its place, evapotranspiration is replaced by hot updrafts that dissolve incoming clouds. If the present rate of devastation continues in the East, in the states of Para and Maranhao, it could soon trigger a collapse of the whole system, perhaps before 30 or 40% of the forest is cleared.

If the tropical rain forest disappears and the greenhouse effect makes the planet as a whole slightly warmer, it is, therefore, quite possible that northern and southern latitudes become colder, not warmer. Already we are having unusually cold winters in the south of Brazil.

Rather serious climatic changes could happen quite suddenly, not over decades and centuries. In the case of ozone, linear projections foresaw a slow and uniform depletion over several decades and all over the world. Instead, we now have the “ozone hole” that comes and goes every year and becomes bigger and bigger. This kind of sudden effect we only get to know when it happens. Then it is too late.

What if devastation of Amazonia triggers sudden change in prevailing atmospheric circulation patterns? Or if the Gulf Stream that keeps Europe warm is somehow affected? We all remember the collapse of the Peruvian fishing industry, when there was a sudden change in sea currents. Not only the fishing industry suffered, millions of sea birds starved to death.

This crises had another sad consequence. It is partly responsible for the devastation of Amazonia. When Peru ceased to deliver fish meal for cattle feed – what lunacy, feeding fish to cattle! – a new market opened for soybeans. In the south of Brazil enormous soybean monocultures were promoted and subsidized. This was the end of our remaining subtropical rain forests and hundreds of thousands of small farmers and farm workers were uprooted. For them and people uprooted elsewhere, by the alcohol for fuel program and by the big landlords in central Brazil and North East, the “Polonoroeste Project”, with World Bank money, that is, with taxpayers money from the First world, opened western Amazonia for settlement. This triggered one of the worst forms of devastation in Amazonia, a devastation that now continues and spreads out on its own impetus and is almost impossible to stop.

Fortunately even governments are now becoming aware and preoccupied with the danger of serious climatic change, as became clear in the two world climate conferences: in Toronto, THE CHANGING ATMOSPHERE, 27 to 30th June 1988, and Hamburg, CLIMATE AND DEVELOPMENT, November 07-10th, 1988. But real danger is still seen as lying some fifty years in the future. One of the presentations in Hamburg even dealt with how agriculture should prepare for the coming changes, instead of proposing changes in agriculture now in order to diminish the effects of modern agricultural methods on the factors controlling world climate. But most scientists at these conferences were in agreement that the climatic irregularities we have been experiencing all over the world are the beginning of the greenhouse effect.

Perhaps we should be rather surprised that things are not worse. Considering how modern industrial society massively interferes with the mechanisms of climate control – carbon dioxide, ozone, evapotranspiration, albedo, areosols and dusts in the air – it is amazing how resilient the atmosphere still is. But, as we saw, sudden changes can happen anytime.

But we need no cataclysmic changes, such as a new ice age or the melting of the polar caps and rise of the oceans to be in serious trouble. The continuation and aggravation of what we already see, for instance, several summers in succession like the last one in North America would be catastrophic. Humanity cannot afford a situation where we have no secure harvests anymore, even if weather is very nice for the beaches.

Since arguing in terms of the beauty and diversity of the great symphony of life, of which we humans are only a small part, does not seem to impress the powerful, perhaps the impending climatic perils that were never as visible as they are now will make them act.

The devastation, for whatever reason, of the worlds tropical rain forests is totally
irreversible. We will not be able to remedy the unpleasant consequences, but we might still be able to prevent the continuation of the devastation.

We can always learn from our mistakes. But do we have a right to risk mistakes that have unacceptable and irreversible results?

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