Climate change

Wildfires in Australia and Brazil, animal agriculture and climate apocalypse

Greta Thunberg tells us: Listen to scientists. So let's hear for what activist and biologist Paula Brügger has to say about forest fires and how they affect our planet.

Spoiler: there is something very simple we can all do now to slow down climate change

How can we dance when our earth is turning?
How do we sleep while our beds are burning?
(Beds are burning by the Australian band “Midnight Oil”)

Is there any relationship between the wildfires in Australia and those in the Amazon? Which are the causes and origins of each?

The answer to this question is “yes” and “no”. Yes, because one way or another, there has been anthropic influence on both. And no because the triggering factors of such fires are quite distinct. While Amazonian ecosystems are essentially formed by dense, humid forests, in Australia much of the country is covered with a vegetation that has evolved and thrived subjected to fires (a similar situation occurs in the Brazilian Cerrado, the world´s richest savannah, currently being destroyed by animal agriculture). In Australia, fires can be friendly because, as many species are fire tolerant and fire resistant, fires help to enrich the soil and promote new sprouting, among other beneficial effects. In fact, many species (e.g. Eucalyptus spp) rely on fire to survive. Thus, while investigations into the possibility that these fire outbreaks have been criminal, fires in Australia are part of its natural history, and is often caused by lightning bolts. On the other hand, in the Amazon, the recent episode that shocked the world has a well known criminal origin, associated with deforestation, deflagrated by the execrable “Fire Day”. In Australia the magnitude of the fires became devastating because the country was already undergoing a long and severe drought (here in southern Brazil we are also experiencing a very unusual drought period…). This, coupled with high global temperatures and other climate change phenomena, has resulted in this catastrophe that is already being rated as one of the worst in Australian history. It´s important to state that small-scale controlled fires are historically practiced in forests like the Amazon by traditional communities. Indigenous peoples, for example, have been practicing the controlled use of fire to open small areas that will be used for their annual crops (not for agribusiness!). Besides, in this ancient practice the amount of area burned is always small, usually up to about 3 or 4 ha.

Are wildfires in Australia an announced tragedy? 

Yes, these current wildfires can be considered an announced tragedy for several reasons. Two of these have already been very briefly addressed in the previous question: the historical, natural susceptibility of various Australian ecosystems to fire; and the warnings that have been bluntly made by the scientific community for over two decades about the magnifying effects of climate change in those contexts. In other words, it was already predicted that fires would be more frequent and more dramatic in intensity in that country. Several factors contribute to this including the warming of the Indian and Antarctic oceans, changes in global water balance, etc. There is, however, a third issue that concerns the political (and cultural) universe. These days we see in newspapers and television justified criticism of Prime Minister Scott Morrison who openly supports coal mining, most likely pressured by the powerful lobby of that productive sector. However, while mining is indeed an important flagship component of the Australian economy that has a huge negative impact on climate stability, there is another, less obvious, one that refers to another production process: livestock.

Is there a connection between the wildfires in Australia and animal agriculture?

Yes, for sure, and not just in this case. It is now well documented that livestock is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, either directly or along its associated production chains. It is also the leading cause of biodiversity loss, shifts in land use (and landscape change), deforestation, desertification, pollution and depletion of water resources, and a host of other problems. According to Agrifutures, “Livestock is a well-established and important industry in Australia and is present in all states and territories. The country is the world’s seventh largest beef producer with a herd of 25 million head, representing 55% of the country’s agricultural farms. Australia produces grass-fed beef and grains”.

Australia also has a significant sheep and goat herd. It is easy to understand that in order to produce so much meat there is a need for major changes in land use either in terms of direct occupation or through deforestation which promotes soil degradation (soil death as a biogeochemical component) and many other harmful effects that result from the conversion of natural ecosystems into pasture or grain crops for to feed animals reared for human consumption. The problems triggered by such actions are weaved one to another in a framework that involves habitat loss, biodiversity loss, and changes in water balance, to name a few.

Such transformations feedback deleteriously: loss of biodiversity – from the bottom to the top of trophic chains – affects biogeochemical cycles (such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, etc.), and evapotranspiration, which in turn affects several other so-called “environmental services” (I really dislike this term stemmed from instrumental rationality).

I am not a climatologist. But as a biologist I can see that the main factors affecting the global climate are not primarily related to GHG emissions, but to those mentioned earlier, responsible for the annihilation of homeostatic and resilience mechanisms: deforestation, conversion of forests and other natural ecosystems to pasture and commodity plantations; consequent quali-quantitative changes in biomass (decrease on one hand / increase on the other) and loss of biodiversity, which affects biogeochemical cycles and global water balance. Let’s just contemplate the fact that cattle, for example, is not able to perform the same ecological functions as does the megafauna / wild animals; and the mechanisms of evapotranspiration in a forest (or savannah) and in a soybean plantation differ greatly. Currently 96% of terrestrial mammal biomass is composed of us, humans, and the animals we raise (for consumption and other purposes). Only 4% of the terrestrial mammal wildlife biomass remains. This is an unequivocal proof of the negative impact of livestock on biodiversity. And there is the gigantic loss of the ecological role of this faunal diversity in regulating biogeochemical cycles, as mentioned before. Such quali-quantitative changes make much sense in a systemic view (still rare in the dominant mechanistic science) and are in consonance with the “Gaia Hypothesis”, a scientific theory strongly anchored in the biogeochemical functioning of the planet, that is, life and the physical components of the Earth are inextricably interrelated forming a complex system capable of maintaining a certain global homeostasis, including climate stability. Interdependence, feedback, and emerging properties – terms closely associated with the deep ecology paradigm – are keywords here.

OK, so the world is this  massive, interrelated web. What, then, can individuals do as part of this great complex system?

Let’s go back for a moment to the Amazon rainforest, which influences the climate of the two terrestrial hemispheres. Roughly three quarters of the rainwater that falls on the forest returns to the atmosphere through the evapotranspiration of plants, thus forming new clouds and new rains. If the Amazon rainforest disappeared – in addition to damages to this mechanism – all the carbon trapped in the biotic compartment of the ecosystem would be transferred to the (abiotic) atmosphere, increasing carbon dioxide concentration and aggravating the greenhouse effect. Furthermore, this would also pose a heavy burden to the oceans (acidification and consequent damage to marine life). Forests, in addition to serving as “buffer systems” in terms of heat, are also important sources and sinks when it comes to the chemical balances of the atmosphere, storms being the main mechanisms for redistribution of atmospheric gases. Gases near the crowns of the trees and lower layers are transported to higher altitudes and may influence the global chemical composition of the atmosphere. These latest data (and many others) are from studies that I used to quote in my university classes in the beginning of my career, in the 1980s. What have we done with all this crucial information? Which/when/ is the point of no return? Australia was the biggest (per capita) meat consumer in the world according to OECD (2013). Despite a decrease, this consumption is still very large. Many farmers in Australia have suffered mammoth material losses from such fires. Some are economically ruined. This could signalize a paradigm shift for the more attentive – that their production processes do not conform to what science and ethics postulate. I made a recent post on Facebook about the harsh reality of being a kangaroo in Australia. Considered pests, they are shot down by farmers who see them as competitors for food and other resources in the dry season. I once saw a shocking photo of a joey (cub), fallen from his mother’s pouch, die with his head crushed by a farmer’s boot. His or her life was not worth a bullet. Now… over a billion dead animals. Over a billion silent voices. How many more? Immeasurable suffering. And for those who cannot think or feel the world in an altruistic way, it is worth emphasizing that nature does not take revenge, as many proclaim. Thinking like that is as foolish as saying that if I jump or fall from the tenth floor – and die – the ground is to blame for hitting me. Everything is interconnected, that’s all. We are just “a thread in this web of life” and every thread will be damaged in the global wreaking of life. It’s time to change. It is time to return the Earth to animals: “It belongs to them” as well, as says the lyrics of Beds are burning. According to E.O.Wilson, half of the planet should be destined for wildlife. Instead, a quarter of the earth’s surface is currently used for grazing ruminants and a third of the global arable land is used for growing livestock. Hegemonic political-economic systems are based on greed and must of course change. But it’s easy to blame governments only. Let’s do our part. Let’s go vegan.

*Paula Brügger is the coordinator of the Ecological Justice Observatory at Santa Catarina State’s Federal University

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