The Great Burning of 2015

The World is Silent on the Megafire in Indonesia, the Latest Disaster in Our Race Towards Ecological Oblivion.

Indonesian Fires

October 31, 2015

EVERY NOW AND THEN on this site, we venture past the boundaries of air travel. Below, taken from the October 30th issue of the Guardian, is a reprint of George Monbiot’s excellent, if infuriating piece about the catastrophic forest fires in Indonesia, and the media’s utter indifference to them.

These fires happen every year, as what’s left of the world’s rainforests are bulldozed up and set ablaze, releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere, so that we all can enjoy cheap hamburgers and palm oil. This year, though, the burning is off the scale.

I’m glad (I think) to have visited the forests of Borneo, Guyana and Ecuador, as well as the coral reefs in places like Palau and the Red Sea. Experience it while you can. Future generations will not have the chance. Flying above the Amazon, I’ve also seen the great, snaking flame-fronts of the seasonal clearcutting fires, some of them many miles long. I’m not sure which is more impressive in its own way: nature itself, or the efforts we took to destroy it.

And I use the past tense, because really, the game is over. It’s a done deal. We had a roughly twenty year window of opportunity, and during that window virtually nothing meaningful was accomplished to curb greenhouse gas emissions or the forest burning that helps drive them. And, let’s be honest, nothing meaningful will be done.

These fires, together with China abandoning its one-child policy, are among the final the nails in our ecological coffin. Within most of our lifetimes, “rainforests” will have become little more than scattered patches of fenced-in forest for package tourists to marvel at. Those now-endangered animals that haven’t gone extinct will exist only in zoos and small-scale reserves. To say nothing of how humans themselves will be affected, but the sea level rise and climate change that this destruction will unleash — indeed, is already unleashing.


I’VE OFTEN WONDERED how the media would respond when eco-apocalypse struck. I pictured the news programmes producing brief, sensational reports, while failing to explain why it was happening or how it might be stopped. Then they would ask their financial correspondents how the disaster affected share prices, before turning to the sport. As you can probably tell, I don’t have an ocean of faith in the industry for which I work. What I did not expect was that they would ignore it.

A great tract of Earth is on fire. It looks as you might imagine hell to be. The air has turned ochre: visibility in some cities has been reduced to 30 metres. Children are being prepared for evacuation in warships; already some have choked to death. Species are going up in smoke at an untold rate. It is almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century – so far.

And the media? It’s talking about the dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to the James Bond premiere, Donald Trump’s idiocy du jour and who got eliminated from the Halloween episode of Dancing with the Stars. The great debate of the week, dominating the news across much of the world? Sausages: are they really so bad for your health?

What I’m discussing is a barbecue on a different scale. Fire is raging across the 5,000km length of Indonesia. It is surely, on any objective assessment, more important than anything else taking place today. And it shouldn’t require a columnist, writing in the middle of a newspaper, to say so. It should be on everyone’s front page. It is hard to convey the scale of this inferno, but here’s a comparison that might help: it is currently producing more carbon dioxide than the US economy. And in three weeks the fires have released more CO2 than the annual emissions of Germany.

But that doesn’t really capture it. This catastrophe cannot be measured only in parts per million. Orangutans, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, the Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger, these are among the threatened species being driven from much of their range by the flames. But there are thousands, perhaps millions, more.

Rainforest canopy walk, Brunei. Photo by Patrick Smith.

While it lasts: rainforest canopy walk, Brunei. Photo by Patrick Smith.

One of the burning provinces is West Papua, a nation that has been illegally occupied by Indonesia since 1963. I spent six months there when I was 24, investigating some of the factors that have led to this disaster. At the time it was a wonderland, rich with endemic species in every swamp and valley. Who knows how many of those have vanished in the past few weeks? This week I have pored and wept over photos of places I loved that have now been reduced to ash.

It’s not just the trees that are burning. It is the land itself. Much of the forest sits on great domes of peat. When the fires penetrate the earth, they smoulder for weeks, sometimes months, releasing clouds of methane, carbon monoxide, ozone and exotic gases such as ammonium cyanide. The plumes extend for hundreds of miles, causing diplomatic conflicts with neighbouring countries.

Why is this happening? Indonesia’s forests have been fragmented for decades by timber and farming companies. Canals have been cut through the peat to drain and dry it. Plantation companies move in to destroy what remains of the forest to plant monocultures of pulpwood, timber and palm oil. The easiest way to clear the land is to torch it.

President Joko Widodo’s policies are contradictory: among them are new subsidies for palm oil production that make further burning almost inevitable. Some plantation companies, prompted by their customers, have promised to stop destroying the rainforest. Government officials have responded angrily, arguing that such restraint impedes the country’s development. That smoke blotting out the nation, which has already cost it some $30bn? That, apparently, is development.

Our leverage is weak, but there are some things we can do. Some companies using palm oil have made visible efforts to reform their supply chains; but others seem to move more slowly and opaquely. Starbucks, PepsiCo and Kraft Heinz are examples. Don’t buy their products until you see results.

On Monday, Widodo was in Washington, meeting Barack Obama. Obama, the official communiqué recorded, “welcomed President Widodo’s recent policy actions to combat and prevent forest fires”. The eco-apocalypse taking place as they conferred, which makes a mockery of these commitments, wasn’t mentioned.

Governments ignore issues when the media ignores them. The media makes a collective non-decision to treat this catastrophe as a non-issue, and we all carry on as if it’s not happening.

At the climate summit in Paris in December the media, trapped within the intergovernmental bubble of abstract diplomacy and manufactured drama, will cover the negotiations almost without reference to what is happening elsewhere. The talks will be removed to a realm with which we have no moral contact. And, when the circus moves on, the silence will resume. Is there any other industry that serves its customers so badly?


Full versions of this article can be found at the Guardian, and at


Notes: “Government officials have responded angrily, arguing that such restraint impedes the country’s development.” Ah yes, the D-word. It always drives me crazy that seemingly anything and everything, no matter how destructive, can be justified as long as it’s in the name of “development.” What does that even mean, exactly?

Canopy walk view, Brunei. Photo by Patrick Smith.

Canopy walk view, Brunei. Photo by Patrick Smith.

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15 Responses to “The Great Burning of 2015”
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  1. Dave Stone says:

    I feel helpless and despondent at the continuing destruction of our planets rain forests. If we just stopped to consider what the world consists of and what sustains the life support systems on our planet we should stop this destruction while we still can. We will tip the ecology of this planet over the edge in a runaway collapse of the life giving elements that still exist on earth. Once this begins we will not be able to prevent the process,and all species of plants will begin to degrade and die. The earth is a self sustaining eco system that has evolved over countless millions of years. in the last one hundred years we have destroyed a major proportion of these life giving elements. A collapse of this eco system is fast approaching unless we stop now. Our destiny is in our hands and we need to act now.This needs to be accomplished at government level by the electorate holding our government to task and making them act on this. It is up to us to elect governments that will take up this cause and really listen to the concerns that are being conveyed.

  2. Senator-Elect says:

    Bravo for publishing this!! But it is too sad for words. Whatever fate lies in store for humanity, we will have deserved it.

  3. Richard says:

    The Associated Press finally picked up on this story, which — to their credit — was published by my local online news source:

  4. Ben says:

    Making matters worse is the very strong El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean currently. El Niño brings drought to Indonesia making fires even worse and more volatile.

  5. Dan Prall says:

    During a 12 day dive trip in east Nusa Tengarra, Indonesia in September, I saw forest-clearing fires on almost every island we visited. The local people live on the edge, and are still on the “need more children” mode to survive. That means more land must be cleared for agriculture.

    Even so, they add a lot less to the carbon load than all but the poorest Americans.

  6. Mo says:

    Oh, so someone is paying attention. While I do sympathize with the point on population, focusing on China’s one-child policy is a bit unfair. That policy caused a lot more trouble than it solved in the long term. And China is actually a lot better off than many of the countries that have not tried at all to curb population growth despite an alarming rate of starvation and poverty. It is easy to tell someone else not to have kids when you’re sitting on your couch eating Cheetos made from palm oil, genetically modified corn, and chemicals. It;s also easy to tell other people not to screw up the planet when they were just later to the game than us, without offering them some kind of help. Having said that, you are right that the extremely sad part about all this is that all of this “economic development” is short term and doesn’t help the poor people who need to most. It probably does drive a few more paying jobs, but for the most part, all the money goes to a wealthy few; and the poor are left to live in the superfund sites that are created — well, they’d be superfund sites if anyone cared to clean them up. Want to really get depressed? Search on gold mining in the Philippines and Sulawesi.

  7. Fry says:

    I’m glad at least someone is acknowledging the obvious. We’re well past the point of no return, and it’s going to get all lot worse a lot faster than anyone expects.

    It was always a big ask to expect humans to stop acting like humans. We’ve conquered nature and the planet, yet we’re still acting like savannah-dwelling apes living on the edge of survival. Our ancient belief structures are no longer relevant to a world in which we are the dominant species.

    • Rod says:

      Agree completely. Our technical cleverness far outstrips our ability to grasp or care about the big picture. We’re ingenious, but we ain’t wise.
      And yes, it’s too late.

  8. Elena says:

    Thank you for sharing. I live in Singapore, the tiny red dot had been suffocating for two months. Along with parts of Malaysia and even Thailand. The long awaited rains brought a respite this past week.

    The response from Indonesian government is a joke, they are unable to control the fires for whatever reason. This is a locally made documentary that highlights the hardship at ground 0

    As for Singapore, it has been terrible but nothing compared to what is happening in areas of Indonesia that are ablaze, wildlife exterminated, precious forests burned to the ground – truly an environmental disaster.

    When the haze returns, which they say it will, I will be jumping on board of SQ to take a quick hop to Bali, blue skies there, it is downwind. The irony is not lost on me.

  9. James Wattengel says:

    The presentation world population is reached 7.3 billion a couple of months ago. At current growth rates it will be 10 billion in a few years. The long term sustainable population is estimated to be 5-6 billion. But no one is sure.

    Forrest fires in Indonesia, Brazil and elsewhere are only one of many symptoms of too many people.

    While it is necessary to attack symptoms like Forrest fires, the only real solution is to arrest and reduce population growth.

    Stop using quatitatve measures like house starts and increased car production as indicators of “progress”. Develop QUALITATIVE measures for human progress.

    Also stop blaming countries like Indonesia when they are just copying what the so-called developed countries have been doing all along.

  10. MS72 says:

    blaming the media is unjust, they respond to the money coming from advertisers, who study ALL OF US. Government tries to manipulate us, incentivize us, but in the end, gov’t gives the people WHAT WE WANT. You gotta move PEOPLE to end the waste, ONE PERSON AT A TIME, EVERYWHERE YOU GO. Hopefully, social media can help, but I gotta wonder if all those “smartphones” are reading this blog or “KATCHING UP WITH THE KARDASHIANS”.

    uh, solving simple math problems to prove i’m human is a start at getting good discussion. How about an essay question?

  11. frank says:

    I’ve been to these countries many times and for extended periods.

    The problem facing ‘D’ developing countries is simply that the people there are bored. Given the chance they are as equally smart as we in the west are. I’m just stating a fact and not trying to be arrogant. The vast majority have no disposable income and live ‘hand to mouth’. As a consequence they have no fun or downtime at all. Yes they can watch TV from the multitude of satellites flying overhead, but as their neighbourhood consists of nothing more than places to exist, there is very little to do except work, sleep, eat and work some more.

    Now this is the issue; When you have nothing fun to do in your life, nowhere to visit (and why would you?), you either smoke or drink. But the rewards are small. So you take to procreating as that generates lots of pleasure and then the population grows and the problem just keeps getting worse.

    The big taboo is population growth. No-one wants to talk about it.

    Given the circumstance these people live- nah ‘exist’ in, if we were put there, we’d do the same. It’s just human nature.

    Europe is beginning to see the results of overpopulation- ‘swarms’ of people are leaving areas that are not sustainable (middle east) and ending up in our neighbourhood. What to do?

    I must be honest though that every time I step outside Singapore’s Changi airport into the 30 degree heat, the smell of burning trees across the water from Indonesia brings back fond memories.

    • Rod says:

      I agree with what you say about population, i.e. that it’s a taboo subject in the growth-obsessed ideology our political leaders have embraced. Taboo or laughed out of court as a non-issue.
      Whereas it is, in fact, THE issue.

      But the fires aren’t being lit by bored pyromaniacs. They’re being lit by Agribusiness in order, as Patrick says, to provide the rich part of the world with even more deadly palm oil and hamburgers.

      It’s a sort of planet-wide case of lung cancer, for vegetation is our source of oxygen and our dump for carbon.

      We’re a mighty strange species.

      • Patrick says:

        Exactly. Ultimately this isn’t about poor Indonesians struggling to survive, it’s about agribusiness on a huge scale — big corporations and their distant, often middle-class consumers who want everything for the lowest price possible. Cheap meat, cheap processed food, cheap wood.

  12. Rod says:

    Thanks, Patrick. Much of the media is either directly controlled by — or lives from the advertising of — the financial interests who lie behind these disasters. So we may expect them to largely ignore this elephant in the living room.

    George Monbiot has soldiered on, year after year, telling the truth.

    I recommend “Moby Duck” by Donovan Hohn. A scary but fascinating look at only one aspect of the disaster.