Brazil’s environmental minister doesn’t know anything about the environment

Brazil’s environmental minister Ricardo Salles appeared on an interview with right-wing Youtuber and self-proclaimed philosopher Stefan Molyneux in a video titled “The Amazon is not Burning” (link to the video). I feel the urge to ignore their arguments completely and just go straight to ad hominems , focusing on their ideological and financial biases and shady pasts. But, while this would be fun, I feel like we will have to talk about their arguments, because we’re going to be hearing this kind of bullshit a lot in the coming years and we should be prepared to respond.

Let’s pass over the straw man argument with which the host opens up, claiming that people are accusing Brazil of intentionally burning the whole Amazon forest “end to end”. Nobody is saying that the whole Amazon is burning, this is just a ridiculous mischaracterization of environmentalists’ concerns. No need to spend more time on this, but let’s just point out that this fallacious question comes from a “philosopher” who wrote a book on logic. /facepalm

Salles’ main talking point

Salles points out that 84 % of the Amazon rainforest is preserved, and that therefor only 16% have been used by humans in the last 500 years. He made sure to stress these two numbers 84% and 500 years constantly throughout the interview. And he had a good reason to do so, it’s a smart way to confuse people who don’t know a lot about the Amazon, even though we are about to find out, both of these figures are completely irrelevant, without further context.

First of all, talking about a 500 year period is pointless. Serious deforestation in the Amazon began as late as the 70’s. The vast majority of forest loss occurred in barely 50, not 500 years. This makes the situation look much more alarming, but that’s not all.

Repeatedly cheering at the fact that 84% of the forest remains would be funny considering it comes out of the mouth of the environmental minister of one of the most powerful countries on Earth, but it’s actually really tragic. Saying that 84% of the forest remains, doesn’t tell us anything about its health, or chances of survival. Scientists are aware that there is a tipping, a point of no return, after which a large portion of the forest will irreversibly collapse into a savanna. The Amazon forest creates around half of its rain, so if we keep on removing trees we’re going to end up disrupting the water cycle that allows the forest to exist. At what level of deforestation is this tipping point? We can’t know exactly, but the studies suggest that if we get to as low as 80% or 75% we could trigger the collapse of the ecosystem, especially considering the extra pressure from the warming climate. But Salles claims that ” There is no risk whatsoever. “, without mentioning a single fact that has to do with the ecology of the Amazon…

The economic importance of the Amazon

There are many other bad arguments made by Molyneux and by Salles, but we’re only going to look at the most important one, since it relates to pretty much every case of deforestation around the world. People who want to support deforestation usually use this false dichotomy between economic development and forest preservation. While it is true that the extraction of timber, gold, oil and the production of beef and soy are clearly a good way to make money, this is not necessarily a good strategy for Brazil’s economic future.

The living forest doesn’t just have an esthetic value, it actually has a very high economic value. On one hand there is already a booming local economy focused on the rather sustainable harvest of forest fruits and nuts. Millions of people depend on the forest for their livelihoods. But the bigger problem is the fact that Salles, just like any capitalist, prefers to completely ignore the ecosystem services provided by the forest. The Amazon doesn’t create rain just for itself, but it also drives a huge amount of water for the agriculture sector of Brazil and of surround countries. Some of that rain goes as far North as the United States. Destroying the forest is likely irreversible, and the damage caused by the drop in precipitation alone, would be devastating to Brazil’s economic future. And this type of argument is really not unique to Brazil, everywhere deforestation is justified by economic development, but the long term consequences are completely ignored in favor of short-term profits.

So there we go, I won’t address other points made in the video, if you want to give yourself a headache I invite you to listen to the whole thing, it’s only 30 minutes, but I warn you, it will be long 30 minutes.

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