Amazonia’s Fires and the Cultural Climate of 2019

An 84% increase in fires has been recorded in Brazil so far this year. I’ve largely avoided looking at the images. They’re too spectacular, too beautiful, too wretched.

Beautiful and sublime photographs of disaster are nothing new. Neither is worry about their effects. Photographers argue that such beauty is needed and that they’re not disaster photographs anyway—they’re business as usual photographs.

Tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho
Porto Velho, August 24, 2019 © Ueslei Marcelino

The image of a palm tree choking in smoke and about to be engulfed by roaring flames captures something of the environmental cultural climate of 2019.

From struggles to stir any interest in climate change and other environmental issues, environmentalists have stopped being unattractively reasonable and phrases like ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate emergency’  and ‘ecological crisis’ are now the conversation openers.

It’s a shift in urgency which might be traced to the IPCC’s warning in October 2018, that carbon emissions needed to fall drastically by 45% by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5°C. And the 2019 announcement that 1,000,000 species were threatened with extinction.

Rebellions and strikes rally against what is already happening to the planet and the worse things that are yet to come. Here too, the burnt Amazonia captures a catastrophe and loss belonging to the worst environmental imaginary.

An aerial view of a deforested plot of the Amazon near Porto Velho
Porto Velho, August 22, 2019 © Ueslei Marcelino

If there’s hope, it’s in the realisation that the camera is ultimately pointing in the wrong direction. Like climate change and the sixth mass extinction, the fires in the Amazon are manmade and mostly deliberate.