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Deliberate deforestation of Amazon rainforest exposes anti-climate capitalism

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Satellite image of fires burning the Amazon rainforest on August 11 and August 13, 2019. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

The outbreak of thousands of fires in the Brazilian rainforest starkly exposes the refusal of the world's business and political leaders to take the threat of climate change seriously. For the past 30 years, at successive climate summits, they have piously pledged to curb greenhouse gas emissions, never really intending to make more than token efforts to do so.

Their duplicity was on display at the recent G7 conference, where the countries' leaders collectively promised to donate $20 million to fight the Brazilian inferno. That's about as effective as arming the firefighters with toy squirt guns.

Of course, even if they had increased their contribution to $20 billion, it would still have been a useless gesture. Most of the fires were deliberately ignited, and will continue to be ignited after the current blazes are extinguished, regardless of the amount ostensibly contributed for firefighting.

That's because the big international mining, logging and farming corporations that the Brazilian government has invited to exploit the country's jungle need thousands of acres of open land. And that requires the equivalent acreage of deforestation, which is most easily accomplished by setting the forest alight. The country's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, like most of his predecessors, makes economic development a top priority, even when it involves the discharge of massive amounts of harmful carbon dioxide and methane, and the eventual depletion of indispensable oxygen.

Here is where the nub of the climate crisis is exposed. The damaging effects of these emissions are not confined to the country that emits them. They ultimately impair the well-being of everyone on the planet.

Capitalism vs. the climate

To deal with such a worldwide menace calls for worldwide unity in mounting effective countermeasures. Unfortunately, we live on a planet whose population is dispersed among 195 separate countries, with different sizes, systems of government, laws, leaders, languages, religions, and climates, as well as differing levels of poverty and inequality.

As if all these barriers to forging a global convergence were not formidable enough, there's another one that is even more daunting. It's the main reason why our business and political leaders have remained so adamantly inactive in confronting climate change: because the world's predominant economic system is based on the perpetuation of economic growth, and thus inherently on the perpetuation of global warming.

Capitalism can only thrive -- or even survive a few decades longer -- while economic growth remains unlimited and continuous. It's a disastrous fantasy that assumes our planet's natural resources are inexhaustible when they clearly are not. As thousands of world scientists have pointed out many times over the past 50 years, "Earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing populations is finite. And we are fast approaching many of these planetary limits."

These repeated warnings by climatologists have gone unheeded by world leaders because they conflict with the basic precept on which capitalism is founded -- that corporations must be left free to accumulate the largest possible amounts of profits, power and prestige. Regardless of how much the planet's climate is contaminated.

Politicians and CEOs who adhere to this ultimately cataclysmic ideology -- the vast majority of them -- are never willingly going to make any serious attempt to curb its devastating damage to the climate. To them, capitalism is a sacrosanct creed that must always be followed, even if it leads inescapably toward a colossal lemming-like march to the abyss.

Corporations set political agenda

It is only with this revelation that we can understand what has really been happening in Brazil. It's an all-too common event in a world in which corporations wield complete political as well as financial power. A world in which most governments serve the interests of big business rather than interests of the voters who elect them.

In such a world, dominated economically and politically by capitalism and splintered among so many countries, the president of just one country is free to chop and burn down the planet's "lungs" without any fear of being stopped by the other 194 countries that are being adversely affected.

Hypothetically, the countries whose corporations are deforesting Brazil, and thereby accelerating the climate crisis, could order them to stop doing so. But in a world where governments basically permit corporations to pursue profits however and wherever they can -- and even help them do so -- that hardly ever happens. Only when a corporation's excessive greed becomes so blatantly obvious and injurious that it can no longer be excused will some political constraint be exerted, and occasionally fines imposed.

Given the global dominance of capitalism, then, it is difficult to conceive bright prospects for the future. If we had a world government with a worldwide democratic socialist economy -- sort of a globalized Sweden -- instead of 195 disparate and often feuding nations, capitalism would not even exist, and neither would climate change.

Instead, we have a predatory global economy in which profit-making and avarice prevail. If something can be exploited, developed, produced and sold for a profit, it keeps getting produced and marketed, regardless of the many baneful and catastrophic consequences.

We therefore live in a world in which:

  • Deforestation is profitable.
  • Extracting and burning fossil fuels is profitable.
  • Global warming is profitable.
  • Depleting non-renewable resources is profitable.
  • Pollution is profitable.
  • War is profitable.
  • Illness is profitable.
  • Poverty and inequality are profitable.
  • Offshore tax havens are profitable.
  • Junk food is profitable.
  • Low wages are profitable.
  • Unsafe workplaces are profitable.
  • Purchasing politicians is profitable.

Conversely, any program or policy that would benefit most people, but not make a profit for the rich and powerful -- e.g., clean air and water, fair wages and pensions, elimination of poverty -- will be rated very low on corporate and political "to-do" lists, especially in countries (and provinces) ruled by ultra-conservative autocrats. Corporate-controlled governments, far from curbing the economic and environmental ravages of these corporations (such as SNC-Lavalin and Bombardier), instead lavish them with billions in subsidies derived from workers' tax payments.

Despite these somber reflections, I still cling to some semblance of hope for the future. But the grim reality is that capitalism and a clean climate are clearly incompatible.

Climatologists give us another 11 years before reaching the crucial tipping point beyond which any further effort to avoid Armageddon will be futile. The likelihood of capitalism being toppled before 2030 may seem absurd, but miracles occasionally do happen.

Let us pray.

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer's apprentice, reporter, columnist and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist included 14 years as a labour relations columnist for the Toronto Star. He was part of the world of politics between 1959 and 1962, serving as the first provincial leader of the NDP in Newfoundland. He worked closely with Tommy Douglas for some years and helped defend and promote medicare legislation in Saskatchewan.

Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

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