Working Notes: Fire in the Amazon

The Lungs of the Planet are Smoking

In 1516, Sir Thomas More published his classic Utopia, in which sheep devoured people as land devoted to subsistence livelihood was enclosed for pasture land. We face a contemporary dystopia in the Amazon rainforest as fires expanding cattle ranching destroy a precious ecosystem and violates the human rights of indigenous peoples:

“We did not ask if he had seen any monsters, for monsters have ceased to be news. There is never any shortage of horrible creatures who prey on human beings, snatch away their food, or devour whole populations; but examples of wise social planning are not so easy to find.”

My last post reflected my outrage at the assault on the Brazilian Amazon, as  President Bolsonaro encouraged open conflagration in defiance of those who would protect the Amazon as a treasured ecosystem. An international outcry quickly ensued.

Here, I reflect on the overall situation, preparing remarks for a panel  at Ramapo College on the open burning of the Brazilian Amazon just as climate protests erupt around the world. See my working notes, shared in Google Drive.

My role: explain aspects of the political ecology background.  The event, a sort of teach-in, features my hero, Dr. Eric Weiner, who has worked for decades with native people on ecological restoration with carefully calibrated economic benefits — exactly the way it should be done. Aim at improving livelihood, not pursuing economic growth per se. From Sky News:

Students hold placards during a strike to raise climate change awareness at Cathedral Square in Christchurch, New Zealand

In case you missed it, 2018 was the 4th hottest year since the 1880s, following 2016, 2015, 2017. See State of the Climate, 2018 (Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, September 2019). Let’s not quibble but continue the spunk of Greta Thunberg and the youth whose future is on the line. That is why we are here, at this event and on this page.

Meanwhile, at the U.N., Greta speaks truth to power as the delegations from the USA, China, Russia, and others fail to hear. Greta gets it right, but, as I see it, she is way too optimistic. The flagrant Bolsonaro assault on the Amazon provides a vivid case study of the collision of economic growth and the future of the planet .

The forces that propel climate catastrophe will overwhelm the burgeoning resistance, as I have been saying consistently for over 12 years now: See my 2007 Statement of Concern and 2013 review of positive trends, my utopian speculation, and a visionary website.

China has become a significant investor in infrastructure and industrial expansion in Brazil, thus backing Bolsonaro’s development initiatives and turning against soy farmers in the American Midwest:

Boycotting US soybeans by turning to Brazil’s bumper harvest seems like an ace in the hole for Beijing, since soybeans alone account for 10 per cent of total US exports to China. Moreover, destabilising US agricultural exports could turn the traditionally conservative and soy-dependent American Midwest against the Republican Party in November’s midterm elections.

China is actively expanding its economic footprint in Latin America, undermining the historic role of the USA. I vividly recall as a visitor to New Orleans gazing at the convoys of freighters carrying grain bound for China down the Mississippi, but those days may be over:

In addition to gaining more access to soybeans and other natural resources, China will be flexing its economic power in a country that traditionally has been under U.S. commercial influence. But that influence has been waning in recent years, as has the relationship between the U.S. and China, which remain locked in a months-long trade war that has limited the amount of U.S. soybeans being sold to China. If the trade war between the two superpowers rages on — perhaps even if it doesn’t — China will be looking increasingly to South America, and Brazil in particular, to satisfy its immense demand for soybeans as well as other agricultural products.

Bolsonaro’s term is just starting, but his approval rating has already sunk to 23% after winning 55% in his recent election. As reactionary regimes run roughshod over the future, the time to stand up has come.

Rainforests: From Sink to Source

Consider this recent article from Carbon Brief:

Tropical forests now emit more carbon than they are able to absorb from the atmosphere as a result of the dual effects of deforestation and land degradation, a new study says (my emphasis and link).

Now read the article from The Intercept that reveals Operation Amazon,  Bolsonaro’s militaristic strategy to colonize the Amazon rainforest into a money-making commodity. See Vox article as well. Business Insider examines the infrastructure within Operation Amazon, including the extension of BR-163 and a hydroelectric dam. See historical background paper. View maps and videos of the fires. Mongabay provides data and analysis:

Some Respsonses

Economic pressure against deforestation is building: Principles for Responsible Investment, a group of 230 investors with $16.2 trillion in assets has threatened hundreds of companies “to either meet their commodities supply chain deforestation commitments or risk economic consequences.”

The EU and the South American common market (Mercosur) is on the verge of a historic trade deal that will solidify Brazil’s export market. However, Austria and others threaten to veto the agreement due to the Bolsonaro fires in the Amazon.

Advocates have cited BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm, as the major source of capital that destroys the Amazon rainforest:

BlackRock’s investments drive deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, and its financial backing helps embolden the destructive and violent agenda of President Jair Bolsonaro. We demand you cease financing the continued destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Humanity is counting on you.

The Amazon Fund provides external financing for projects to prevent such abuses as open burning and violation of human rights in the Amazon. Already, Norway and Germany have threatened to withdraw contributions in response to Operation Amazon and Bolsonaro’s attacks on the Amazon.

Activists advocate that Bolsonaro face trial for ecocide at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. Note that Bolsonaro’s term is just starting, but his approval rating has already sunk to 23% after winning 55% in his recent election.  I would be happy with an impromptu public trial for ecocide and crimes against humanity.

Follow the fine example of Gabon in the African Congo Basin in its Results-Based Payment Partnership:

The 10-year [$150 million] agreement will reward Gabon – in the form of results-based payments – for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation. The agreement will also reward them for the absorption of carbon dioxide by natural forests. It will retroactively honor performance from as far back as 2016. Monies from those and future results will be paid out annually.

Cattle Ranching

Brazil’s cattle population is around 232 million and Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beefFollow the supply chain. Yale School of Forestry offers an article on cattle ranching in the Amazon:

Cattle ranching is the largest driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80% of current deforestation rates. Amazon Brazil is home to approximately 200 million head of cattle, and is the largest exporter in the world, supplying about one quarter of the global market. Low input cost and easy transportation in rural areas make ranching an attractive economic activity in the forest frontier; low yields and cheap land encourage expansion and deforestation. Approximately 450,000 square kilometers of deforested Amazon in Brazil are now in cattle pasture. Cattle ranching and soy cultivation are often linked as soy replaces cattle pasture, pushing farmers farther into the Amazon.

The Natural Resource Defense Council provides extensive coverage of the encroachment into the Amazon, concluding with an appeal to consumers to boycott beef from Brazil.
Cattle ranching at one steer per hectare encroaches far more than soy: 80% to 10%. Further, as three billion consumers move up the food chain and more beef/person is consumed, the soaring demand for beef could mean an annual withdrawal of rain forest triple the size of New Jersey per year through 2030, as I extrapolate using data from Brown.
Brazil also exports chicken and pork, making Brazil a major source of protein for the growing global middle class consumer. Examine the list of countries that import beef, poultry, and pork from Brazil. See also data on global meat production.
The conversion of rainforest to industrial agriculture could explode. See U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization for report on global meat production and consumption. The rainforest assault reveals the cost to the planet of meat consumption. Adopt a plant-based diet.

Soy Production Expands in Brazil’s Cerrado

Soya cropland lies southeast of the Amazon in the Cerrado savanna, but the expansion of soy farming by large corporations like Cargill, displaces cattle ranching, driving the ranches north into the Amazon. Cargill has been criticized for the corporation’s forest encroachment.

Brazil's Cerrado is a 200m hectare forested savanna © Mighty Earth

Chinese soybean purchasing shift from USA to Brazil was initially as dramatic as advertised. China has recently returned to USA soybean market, with prices depressed. Trace the supply chain for soybean. The US Department of Agriculture has recently issued a report on the soybean trade war.
Long term could involve a major shift in supply to China: One of the five prongs of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative connects China to Kazakhstan for import of soybean to China, escaping all this trade disruption — a typical national response when trade in agriculture staples is interrupted. Starvation is bad for authoritarian regimes (except perhaps North Korea).
China also is actively exploring for niobium (current price: over $42K/metric ton) in northern Brazilian Amazon.  According to the Wall Street Journal, China will help fund road extension to colonize a remote area occupied by Munduruku and by Yanomami people:

Chinese leaders and the country’s state-owned enterprises have, for years, been trying to lock up vital natural resources around the globe, according to Margaret Myers, director of the China and Latin America program of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue.


Livelihood = Home + Community + Earth Care

My prior focus has been directed toward the dysfunctions of capitalism, both in this blog and expanded recently in my reactivated website. The second part of this project defines a long term strategy to limit the scope and proportion of capitalism within a fuller notion of the economy.

The post on the Braudel Trilogy has provided background toward an alternative economy that inverts and shrinks capitalism. No, this is not Socialism, the ownership of the means of production by the government. Rather, the emphasis is to decentralize economic life, bring it closer to home and to community, disclose and expand ways of value production outside of capitalism, and to protect the Earth. A guiding light is the masterpiece by Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America.

So, the name to this three-level arrangement, Livelihood, tells the story. The term, often associated with subsistence-based economies, suggests that a small-unit approach works best toward promoting a living, local economy.

Followiing Braudel, I define three layers to material and cultural life while remaining within capitalism:

Home: the Household

Home is where you live and love. As in, after work, you go home. Home is where the heart and hearth is. Home envelopes a major part of our lives from childhood through old age. Capitalism has no metric or, frankly, little use for the value produced at home. So let us start by recognizing that having a vibrant, comfortable, secure home is where we need to start an expansion of value in our lives.

Economists include home as households, where the consumer buys goods and services, takes on the debt of a mortgage, and where labor is “reproduced,” by raising a family. Leisure emanates from home life. Vital statistics on births and deaths are kept but the essential value of homelife, largely the (dis-valued) domain of women, is not within the purview of capitalism.

Appreciate (investments should appreciate) more fully just how important your home is, how valuable it is, how much time you spend there, and what a treasure (asset) your home provides. Leisure, neglected in economics but not culture, occurs at home. Take better care of your home, embrace it, improve it. The true value of your home and the world within it exceeds the value capitalism places on housing.

Home produces immense real value. Labor happens within the home, but is not counted in the GDP statistics. Women do most of this work, so this activity is systematically dis-valued by the metrics and the norms of a market society, i.e., capitalism.

You can easily gain more value from your home. Home investments, such as in energy, likely provide the best investment that you can make. Time devoted to maintaining your home is not taxed. Look at your paycheck to realize how much money is diverted.

Go home.

Community: Commerce, Civics

Braudel entitled his second massive volume  “Commerce.” The original definition of commerce was a convivial activity involving face-to-face communication, not the abstraction of anonymous monetized transactions.

Communities form a vital but largely unnoticed social capital, an enduring set of relationships that serve our direct needs. At this level, monetized transactions make sense, vibrate, take on a human face. We worship in community, find care, and togetherness. We share. Embrace community life (Putnam).

Commerce, embedded in social relations in Scottish villages, was idealized by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations. To the ancient Greeks, the agora, the place where commerce was transacted was a vital community-building space. The Medieval City that wrested material life from the barons of feudalism, the marketplace took place within or just outside of the nascent trading towns: “Stadt Lucht macht Frie,” meaning “City air makes you free.” Commerce and community need to be integrated, accompanied by an active exercise of citizenship, the essence of democratic practice.

Karl Polanyi advocated a socially and culturally embedded market at a human scale. We all have experienced the excitement of a marketplace, perhaps a local farmers’ market.

For a decade, I served as the founding Trustee of the Economic Development Corporation of Jersey City, New Jersey, a non-profit contracted to perform economic development services for Jersey City, not a trivial charge.  This is a tough turf with a history of corruption to be overcome. The path-breaking success of the EDC has been for me a formative personal experience.

The waterfront facing New York City provides the most dramatic achievement but the activity within neighborhoods (also politically potent wards) was invaluable and essential.  Working with banks and small businesses was a core activity. The entire enterprise gives me insight into the lived experience of local economic development. I claim some credibility here. Toxic dumps (the first Brownfield projects) now provide thriving economic zones. I chaired the first Free Enterprise Zone. Did I mention that I did this work on the ground in Jersey City? Cred.

There are technical aspects to community-building that must nurture the local economy. Much of our economic lives surrounds us. Like our home, our community must be valued, protected, safeguarded, and nurtured. This will be explored soon on my website.

All such activities, despite Adam Smith, have little to do with contemporary capitalism. Like the home, the community has not been appreciated as the economic the economic entity that it surely is. You and I know this.

The community/commerce/civic nexus provides the building-block to counter the larger domain that Braudel called the World System. To that we must turn next.

The Earth: The Civics of Earth Care

As cosmopolitan citizens of the Earth and our species, the level of our capability to participate have been greatly exceeded. Once we have lost that capability, abstractions replace direct contact, allowing trans-national corporations to run amok over us — and the only planet we inhabit.

Start with representation, where democracy becomes indirect and diluted, and where we have lost control. Globalization, international relations, even at the state or provincial levels exceed our capacities to understand, much less control. We must respond strategically: “Think globally and locally but act strategically” (Bookchin).

I will point out how Adam Smith, a shrewd Scottish nationalist and professional philosopher, handled this dilemma. I will argue that Smith has been greatly misunderstood so that instead of a hero of neoliberal capitalism he, like John Maynard Keynes, advocated localism and community. Again, my purpose is to invert capitalism and to rebuild from the local base around Livelihood. This is not socialism, but citizenship.

I will take a dramatic step here. I regard the external political economic forces as displacing our legitimate place in the world with their placing us within their Matrix of profit and control. We must resist respectfully and intelligently:

Three principles will guide our bottom-up approach to globalization:

  1. The perspective of a cosmopolitan localist provides our critical analysis. We build on our home as a base.
  2. The analysis must be informed, systematic, and smart: thus strategic.
  3. The nation-state now belongs to the forces supporting globalization, not localization. The global system has been formed from the top-down, including the U.N. and global capital since World War II. This arrangement is outside of our control.

Our assertive cosmopolitan localism guides our contesting the forces that rip us apart, replace local autonomy with global remote control, rips off the surplus value produced locall, and, perhaps worst of all, precludes our taking action to instill Livelihood in our homes and communities.


Our response to the dysfunctions and contradictions of capitalism builds on our cosmopolitan citizenship, an expression of our active, expanded liberty. These are the steps to take:

  1. Build Livelihood in our communities and regions. Resist the domination of outside authorities. Go local. Think as a strategic, engaged cosmopolitan citizen within a potentially hostile world.
  2. Appreciate our homes, our families, that which we love and care for every day. This is our personal foundation.
  3. Nurture our communities around locally-supportive commerce and engaged citizenship. Extend this action and spirit to our neighboring communities and the bio-regions that nestle us on Earth.
  4. Care for Earth but recognize the political, economic, communicative, and ecological forces that will displace our autonomy with their attempt to place us within their Matrix.

The outline above, like the critique of capitalism, provide a manifesto of sort that needs to be spelled out.