Ewan MacKenna: 'The Amazon burns - but catastrophe is only real when it knocks at your door'
The late, great George Carlin used to be at his brilliant best when talking about the environment.
A famous comedian but oft-overlooked philosopher, one night he got into a rant about the concern over plastic. He saw this as self-righteous and that if it wasn't degradable then the planet would simply incorporate it into a new paradigm of the earth plus plastic. He even noted that maybe its creation was the answer to the age-old conundrum of why we exist.
"The greatest arrogance of all is save the planet," he continued. "Are these people kidding me? We haven't learned how to care for one another, and we're gonna save the planet? Besides, there's nothing wrong with the planet. It's fine. It's the people that are f***ed."
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That all came to mind as our reaction to the Amazon burning was another insight into our lack of understanding.
Having spent many years in Brazil, some back home dared ask how locals feel.
To talk about a country of 200 million as a single unit is impossible, but there are trends. The reality for many is that they don't care, as it's merely something to shake their heads at briefly on the evening news before moving on to more pressing problems. In this nation, the notion of a longer-term concern is often a luxury, and very different to that of a short-term worry. Thus the west might talk about catastrophe, but here it can't be when it's still on down the street.
Recently a friend in Rio got in touch looking for advice. A beautiful singer-songwriter who speaks three languages fluently, she was thinking about prostitution as a way to survive. Regardless of the skill-set, she was unfortunate enough to be born into a time and place with 14pc unemployment, with a murder rate that might reach 70,000 this year, and where 55 million live in poverty. For all the easy statistics, she's the life behind them.
As for the Amazon? Well, catastrophe is only real here when it knocks on your door.
When Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazilian president just shy of a year ago, there was silence. It reminded us the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
At that point, global leaders knew he was a fascist - a term overused by those in opposition to the right, but that must not be avoided when apt - as his track record was plenty long and plenty publicised.
There were his calls for a return to a dictatorship he said had previously got it wrong by not killing enough; his in-parliament dedications to torturers; his view that gay children should be whipped straight and that if his own son was of such a persuasion he'd be better off dead; his claim migrants are the scum of humanity and the army should deal with them; his reference to black people as fat and lazy and that activists of that race should be in a zoo; his bile directed at a congresswoman he said wasn't worthy of his rape.
But if that didn't flash a warning light to those peering in, neither did the environment. During canvassing he looked into a camera and said: "To those in Roraima [a northern state where many of the blazes are raging], I am Jair Bolsonaro and in 2019 we will destroy the indigenous reserve of Raposa Serra do Sol. We will give guns to all the landowners". And, as a climate-change denier, he also promised to merge the ministries of the environment and agriculture when the latter serves a purpose around speeding up the removal of rainforest.
Still there was global silence. There's been precious little action either, and it's hard not to be cynical and consider the panic of some leaders is about trendy and popular support.
If Bolsonaro was a clever man there were ways for him to either show up the first world or, better again, work with it for the sake of the entire world. Instead he resorted to his usual insults, in this case about the age of Emmanuel Macron's wife and the fire in Notre-Dame cathedral. But the contempt has worked both ways. Don't you think the idea the Amazon belongs to humanity, followed by a G7 offer of a combined €20m to help a bankrupt country fight a natural disaster, is insulting too?
This isn't to excuse Brazil for it also has a responsibility and, while fires aren't new, they are no longer officially frowned on or even really policed, with farmers given a carte blanche in the hope of growing big agribusiness. However it's not to allow the wealthy world to excuse itself either via hypocritical words and threats.
If the Amazon cleans air, that's only one part of the equation. It wouldn't need to be cleaned at such a rate if it wasn't being made so filthy. This falls mostly on the G7. Or it should. For while the lungs of the earth are wheezing, they are busy sucking hard on another fat cigar.
When it comes to greenhouse gases released per capita, the United States and Canada stand at four times the emissions of Brazil; Japan and Germany are at more than double the rate; France, Italy and the UK range from between 40pc and 60pc more than their level. In fact, for all of Leo Varadkar's predictable do-good rhetoric, Ireland doesn't actually do much good. Our emissions are at more than two-and-a-half times those of the people we make demands of.
How Brazil manages to do so much better isn't always the most ethical. When the bins there are put out, various groups sort through the trash, pulling aluminium cans from filth to recycle for a pittance, while old men replace mules when pulling carts laden with other scrap metal they can trade in to get some food. It can be grim, but they do their part. Meanwhile in places like Ireland, we moan about bin costs, and then moan some about the Amazon. It's as if the problem isn't the mess those best off leave, rather the low-wage Latin cleaners cutting their hours.
Back in June, Britain made an announcement that summed up so much in this sphere. They set a target to be carbon neutral by 2050, smugly patting themselves on the back when none of these targets is ever met. If Bolsonaro had wanted to mimic, he could have set their own a target to put out the fires and sat back and let them burn. It would have held up a mirror to those demanding action. It would have been hugely revealing.
As Carlin once put it: "Environmentalists don't give a s**t about the planet. Not in the abstract they don't. You know what they're interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They're worried that some day in the future they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn't impress me."