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