Brazil’s Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, covering an area nearly the size of Britain. Only today, it isn’t so wet. After a summer of drought, catastrophic fires are raging that have devastated 2.4 million hectares of land already this year. (That’s more than has burned in California, Oregon, and Washington combined.) Its precious wildlife, including the world’s largest population of jaguars, are suffering irreparable damage.
What’s causing the destruction? The proximate causes seem quite different from what is causing the fires in California, but if we trace them back through enough layers, we get to the same deep cause and, therefore, to the same deep solution.
Since 2019, catastrophic fires have afflicted the Amazon, the Congo basin, Australia, Siberia, Argentina, and countless other places. While some on the political Right were in denial that anything unusual was happening, today the entire political spectrum is in agreement that something is horribly amiss. In the US, the Right offers candidate explanations like poor forest management, while Democratic politicians emphasize climate change. What they both agree on is that the current state of affairs in abnormal, unacceptable, and requires action. This, at least, is progress.
In fact, both sides are approaching the same truth from different directions. Let me start at forest management, pass through climate change via a back door, visit the blatantly criminal behavior behind fires in the Amazon and Pantanal, and arrive finally at the core of the issue.
Right-wing articles on the US fires commonly invoke the phrase, “Forests have to be properly maintained to prevent catastrophic fires.” Often their conclusion is that burdensome government regulation has prevented the timber industry from culling dead trees and managing forests wisely. The problem, of course, is that subject to market forces, timber companies have historically and up to the present managed forests according to profit, not wisdom. A further problem is that, superficially at least, it can’t be right that forests require human management,. Prior to twelve or fifteen thousand years ago, there were no humans at all in California, but nature took care of itself just fine.
The story is not so simple though – forests then as now required management. In pre-human times the management was accomplished by other species such as, in North America, beavers, salmon, and especially megafauna. The continent teemed with gigantic herbivores like mammoths and mastodons, who devoured sprouting trees, stripped bark, trampled vegetation, and pushed down trees like bulldozers. These “ecosystem engineers” created mosaic landscapes of forest and savanna, and made the forests less dense. After their disappearance soon following the arrival of humans, the humans replaced them as ecosystem engineers, using controlled burns and many other methods to maintain productive, resilient, biodiverse landscapes that were resistant to catastrophic fires. As Kat Anderson describes it in Tending the Wild:
Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.
A similar scenario took place in Australia tens of thousands of years earlier: human colonization followed by megafauna disappearance, followed by the exquisitely developed controlled burns and other ecosystem management techniques. On both continents, even when megafauna disappeared, other ecosystem engineers flourished: migratory birds, apex predators, beavers, insects, and so on.
In the last few centuries, forests and other ecosystems have come to be managed not for health, but for profit. Today we see signs of a turnaround as policymakers begin to recognize the necessity to reduce the fuel load in forests; sometimes they even consult traditional peoples who remember the old ways. Too often, though, profit motives pervert forest thinning practices, steering them toward producing salable lumber rather than forest health.
Furthermore, fuel load is much too narrow a focus in understanding today’s catastrophic fires. A century or more of deforestation and other land abuse has lowered the resistance of forests to fires and created drought conditions that exacerbate them. It’s commonplace to declare that climate change is harming forests, but it may be more accurate to say that harm to forests causes climate change, which then harms forests even more.
Forest clearcutting affects climate far beyond the oxidation of stored carbon. Without leaves, leaf litter, and roots to protect it, exposed topsoil washes away and the rainwater has no chance to sink into the earth. The resulting floods are inevitably followed by droughts. Why? A healthy forest transpires groundwater, maintaining moist conditions and extending the rainy season. Globally, at least 40% of rainfall originates from plant transpiration; in the Amazon it is 70%.
Forests also contribute to local, regional, and global cooling as the transpired water evaporates and rises into the atmosphere. Its latent heat is released when it condenses higher up, some of which radiates out into space. Furthermore, healthy forests emit ice nucleating compounds and particles, increasing cloud cover, creating rain, and reflecting sunlight back into space. Old growth forests perform these functions especially well (only 1% of California’s old growth forests remain). Here is a passage, slightly modified, from my book on climate:
Kenya, which has lost most of its forest cover over the last half-century, is also suffering persistent droughts and higher temperatures. Regions in Kenya where the daytime temperature in the forest might be 19 degrees record temperatures in nearby, recently cleared agricultural land of 50 degrees.… In Sumatra, land cleared for palm oil plantations was 10 degrees hotter than nearby rainforest, and stayed hotter even when the palm trees matured.
A real, living forest interacts with the water cycle in complex ways that science is just beginning to understand. (Much of the following is sourced from the fantastic book Global Deforestation, by Runyan & D’Odorico.) One way is by converting humidity to rain. Water vapor in the atmosphere doesn’t necessarily fall as rain, but may instead persist as haze in what is known as a “humid drought.” One reason for the formation of haze is an overabundance of small condensation nuclei, which prevents water droplets from becoming large enough to fall as rain. Pollutants, smoke from forest fires, and dust from desiccated soil are among the culprits in haze formation. Over forests, the condensation nuclei are mainly biogenic, including plant detritus, bacteria, fungal spores, and secondary organic aerosols originating as volatile organic compounds emitted by vegetation. These aid the formation of precipitation-bearing clouds rather than haze, and allow cloud formation at higher temperatures than abiotic nuclei do. Recent research confirms the increased cloud cover over and near forests. These lower, thicker clouds have a greater cooling effect than high-altitude clouds. According to one researcher, a 1 percent increase in albedo from forest-generated clouds would offset all warming from anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Healthy forests not only recycle rainfall, they also draw it in from the ocean through the biotic pump mechanism. Evapotranspired water vapor condenses to create low pressure zones, which draw new moisture-laden air in from the oceans and affect global wind patterns and, therefore, patterns of rainfall. When forests are damaged or destroyed, earth’s physiology is compromised.
In the western United States, the damming of rivers and the near-extermination of beavers has also done incalculable damage to forests and the climate. Dams prevent seasonal floods, alter silt distribution, lead to downstream erosion, and thwart migratory fish that transport marine nutrients to the forest and play a key role in food webs. Beavers create wetlands, augment biodiversity, and slow down water to mitigate floods and sustain water tables. In fact, extinguishing any species will weaken the whole forest (or any ecosystem), just as your health would suffer if you destroyed one type of tissue or cell. After centuries of habitat destruction around the world, it is amazing that Earth is still clinging to health.
Criminality and Ignorance
My Brazilian friend Alan Dubner described to me the “cascade of criminality” that is destroying the Amazon. First come the loggers, using sophisticated methods to evade government enforcement of logging bans. What’s left easily dries out and can be burned by cattle ranchers, who graze their cattle on what is trying to grow back. Then come the soybean plantations, exhausting whatever fertility remains in the soil. What’s left is basically a desert, useless to anyone but the mining companies who finish the ruination.
The more of the Amazon that is destroyed, the less rain it can pull in from the Atlantic ocean, and the more vulnerable it becomes to fires. The declining rainfall affects the rest of Brazil, from the Pantanal on south. In fact, the power of the Amazonian biotic pump is such that its destabilization alters weather patterns around the world.
The Pantanal is affected not only by changing weather patterns, but also by big hydroelectric dams and progressive encroachment by cattle ranchers. The great wetlands of the Pantanal become highly flammable when they dry out, giving unscrupulous landowners and speculators the opportunity to set fires. The renowned Brazilian environmentalist Marina Silva wrote me the following comment: “Orchestrated tragedy. This is what is happening in the Pantanal here in Brazil. Dismantling of environmental policies, cutting of resources to fight deforestation and fires, all of this in an action by criminals, the result could not be different.”
“What needs to be clear is that the fires in the Pantanal and in the Amazon are not accidental. They are part of a project and a worldview that despises the environment, which the government agrees with and encourages. It does not matter if it is the territory with the greatest diversity of mammals in the world, the largest humid area on the planet and with the greatest presence of jaguars.”
Let’s take a step back for a moment. The criminality Marina Silva speaks of is especially damaging because of conditions brought on by other criminality in other areas, for example the Amazon. Yet, we can’t entirely blame criminality for the world’s fires. After all, most deforestation and forest degradation is perfectly legal. The problem lies in the mentality and the economic forces underlying the destruction of forests, whether criminal, legal, or even unconscious.
Illegal logging and burning is on the same spectrum as the “poor forest management” conservatives blame for the fires in the US. To varying degrees, both suppress rather than participate in natural processes. They partake of the pattern of domination: physical domination built upon the conceptual demotion of living forests into mere things. The conservatives are, in a sense, correct, except that the “poor management” goes way beyond fire suppression to encompass modern society’s entire relationship with the forest. Furthermore, this poor relationship generates many of the conditions for which progressive politicians blame climate change. In a sense they are right too, except that climate change encompasses much more than greenhouse gas-induced global warming, and it is just as much a consequence as it is a cause of forest degradation.
Reverence and Relationship
While engineers, ecologists, and especially indigenous people can offer techniques to properly steward forests and restore them to resiliency, the transition to a healed world requires something much deeper than better techniques. More important is to learn to inhabit the source from which indigenous land stewardship practices arise. That source is a way of seeing, conceiving, and relating to nature. It is also a way of understanding ourselves: who we are and why we are here.
Fundamentally, the source of wise forest management is to see and know nature as a being, not a thing. That’s the best I can put it, but it isn’t good enough. The words themselves entrap me in error. Nature is not something separate from ourselves, and not even “things” are just things. Let me say then that traditional and indigenous cultures live in a world where being is everywhere and in everything, and humans are no more or less sacred than trees, mountains, water, or ants.
On the most obvious level, the view of nature-as-thing greatly facilitates the clearcutting, mining, stripping, and profiteering, just as dehumanization of other people allows their exploitation and enslavement. It’s the same basic mindset. But there is another problem too: the mindset of nature-as-thing prevents us from coming into the intimacy of relationship that is necessary to tend, heal, and cocreate with it to mutual benefit. It is like the difference between a doctor who treats you impersonally, as a “case,” and one who sees you as a full human being.
Last month, the state of California committed to a 20-year program of forest thinning which seeks to reduce fires through brush clearing, logging, and prescribed burns. This program is fraught with possible unintended consequences. When we understand a forest as an organism, a being, rather than an engineering object, we recognize engineering concepts like reducing fuel load as, at best, a first step. After all, a healthy forest requires rotting vegetable matter to nourish fungi, invertebrates, etc. that are crucial elements of forest ecology. How do we know how much brush to clear and how many logs to remove? We can only learn that through attentive observation and long relationship. Here, the experience of local first peoples can be invaluable, as they have built up that knowledge over countless generations. To learn from the inevitable mistakes that will occur in the forest thinning program will require humility, the kind that comes when one knows one is relating to a complex living being. Otherwise, we stumble from one error to the next, as when, in an effort to increase carbon sequestration, we plant ecologically and culturally unsuitable trees that end up dying a few decades later, leaving conditions even worse than before.
Another word for the attitude that I named as the source from which indigenous land stewardship practices arise is “reverence.” To revere something is the opposite of reducing it to a thing. Modern, educated people have long lived in an ideological matrix that says nature, at bottom, is merely a whirl of generic particles bumping around according to mathematical forces. What is there to revere? It says that purpose, intelligence, and consciousness subsist in human beings alone. The burning of the world calls us to awaken from this delusion.
From the attitude of reverence, we see things invisible to the engineer’s eye. We ask questions the utilitarian never asks. Paradoxically, in the end, the knowledge thus gained we be more useful – not just to the forest, but to ourselves – than anything we could accomplish from the exploitative mindset.
In truth, we are not separate from nature. What we do to the other, we ultimately do to ourselves. When the forests are sick, we are sick. When they burn, even if we escape the flames, something burns within us too. The social climate mirrors the geological climate. We may not recognize this truth as indigenous people do, but we are the land. Is it not obvious, looking at today’s political landscape, that a fire rages out of control?
I can’t easily draw a causal connection here, but it seems significant that uncontainable wildfires are contemporaneous with inflammatory rhetoric, heated debates, flaring tempers, burning hatred, seething distrust, and smoldering resentment. Just as dried out, fuel-laden forests burned out of control with a mere spark, so also have our cities burned as the spark of police murders touched the ready fuel of generations of racism; decades of economic decay, and months of Covid confinement. Our social ecosystem is as damaged and depleted as the forests that are so prone to fire. The matrix of complex relationships that we call community has to a great degree collapsed into simplified relations with impersonal institutions, mediated by money and technology. Social networks may give the appearance of community, but they lack the interdependency that marks a real community (or ecosystem). We can see now how fragile – or how inflammable – such a society is.
I won’t be so bold as to say that addressing our social separation will quell the fires. Yet, one can see how the project of land healing through reverence and relationship is congruent to the project of social healing, which, too, depends on restoring reverence and relationship.
The Doorway Called Enchantment
I live in the northeast of the land people call the United States. Here, fire is not much of a threat, yet. A few weeks ago I was walking with my brother in the woods behind his Pennsylvania farm, where the sloping land gives way to mountainside. We crossed a creek, a bare trickle in some places, dry in others. John told me that he had been here with an old-timer who said that in his youth, this creek was so deep and strong, even in August, that there were only a few places one could cross it. What happened to this being, this creek? Some locals say it is because too many wells were dug, drawing down the water tables and drying out the springs that feed the creeks. Others say it is because of the repeated logging of the mountain, going back to colonial times. Or maybe, I thought, it is again a long-delayed result of the cascade of changes following the extermination of wolves, cougars, and beavers. All these activities are an insult to the land and to the water, oblivious to reverence.
Ultimately, to stop the fires and turn onto a world-healing path, we must turn from domination and subjugation to reverence and respect. Sometimes that means adopting the role of a protector for vulnerable, precious beings, like Marina Silva is doing in Brazil. (Here is an organization she works with, along with others I mentioned in my 2019 article on the Amazon fires.) Sometimes it means stepping into the role of nurturer or healer, like the people reintroducing beavers, practicing regenerative agriculture, and building water retention landscapes. For someone in the corporate or financial world, reverence might steer them to choose life over profit in a moment where it takes a little courage to do that. That courage is a dilute version of the courage of South American indigenous activists who risk torture and murder by landowners, logging companies, mining companies, and their paramilitaries, because it puts something else above maximizing personal self-interest. It is thus an important act of solidarity.
Reverence brings courage. Reverence brings knowledge. Reverence brings skill. Reverence brings healing. It is the fulcrum of the great turning of civilization toward reunion with nature. Today the word has religious connotations, but this is not the kind of reverence that worships an idol. It is the reverence of the lover who looks into the eyes of the beloved and sees infinity.
If reverence brings all these things, then what brings reverence? It will not do merely to exhort people to be more reverent. The gateway to reverence is enchantment. A few days ago I stood with my son Cary, age seven, at Rhode Island’s last undeveloped coastal pond watching turtles. We felt what it was like to be those turtles. We could hardly stop watching them. In that moment, the thought that we would harm them for anything less than a sacred purpose was horrifying and absurd. We knew them as precious in and of themselves, not for any use to us. Few people, dropping into that moment, could escape that enchantment. Yet, every day, we participate in systems that treat turtles and much else as resources to exploit, or make them collateral damage in other exploitation. We cannot avoid this participation, for we live in that system, and that system lives in us. More and more of us no longer feel at home in it though. It cannot easily accommodate our reverence, our enchantment, and our true purpose of service to life.
Mining company executives or members of ranchers’ death squads might be far away from the doorway of enchantment. The principle of enchantment-borne reverence does not substitute for legal action, nonviolent direct action, and so on. However, a healed planet will not result from a succession of desperate holding actions. We need to ground ourselves in directly experiencing earth as obviously precious as the turtles were to Cary; to know her as a being and as an organism, and we need to spread that knowledge. Then we will have the clarity, the courage, the skill, and most importantly, the allies in unlikely places, to defend her vulnerable parts, to preserve and strengthen her organs, and to transition away from systems built on the mythology of earth-as-thing.
valerie ariel says
Thank you – beautiful re: the turtle – and what you’ve given us here. I had read something the other day by an elder of a tribe in CA who told in his way of the fires and devastation since Forest Service has taken things over. He recalled the days when indigenous people took care with methods that had worked for centuries – how frustrating it has been for them when they have the wisdom and heart and that continues to be ignored, subverted.
I was immediately struck by the photo. I’ve seen one painting like that photo and another a black and white photo in a frame both with the long fence trailing off in the fog. One was sent to me by a partner’s sister after he was found robbed and shot in the back of the head. Another was sent to me after dad died. For me this is the place between worlds – where we cannot forget the way ahead that it is not broken or lost – this is the bridge that calls us to courage to brave the unknown – to keep communication open – to see and dream and accomplish what seems so impossible at this moment – to move ahead – each step full of heart and trust and highest intention – the only enemy being to stop, to give up to forget that we can carry on and make a difference.
Jean Wilson says
Thank you, Charles, for another beautifully-written and insightful article.
I would love to see the words “forest management” replaced by “forest CARE”, and forest carers. As you say, words can make such a difference.
Howard Switzer says
I agree, reverence for life is a critically important first step, recognizing our debt to the Earth Mother and her children, and that we have allowed a system that does not have any reverence at all for life to rule the world. As you have noted, production is turning life into dead stuff. The “system” has been identified, it is a fear-based system, as Bucky Fuller pointed out years ago, based on the fear of there not being enough to go around. That fear-based system has tortured and murdered humanity to make sure it is feared as well, the fear projected. And, as you say, it is a system that most of us participate in since we are given little choice. I think once we recognize the root system, the primary operating system, it becomes clear what needs to change. The fear must be overcome. We have an uncaring profit-motivated society because we have an uncaring for-profit money system, it is institutionalized usury and has profoundly negative psychological impacts on society and its agents as I have pointed out many times, Charles. The solution is a love-based money system. All that means is that money is created and issued for the for public purpose, for the general welfare, things like healthcare, education, a viable income etc. which, along with banning fear-based money, the economics of greed, will create the economics of care. It is about adjusting the ‘first cause’ of money. As you say, first people will have to obtain a reverence for life. Perhaps seeing the threat of losing all life as the catastrophe continues to unfold on an ever grander scale will arouse humanity’s reverence for life. I can only judge from my own experience, and the fact that I have gained such a reverence for all life, and that I along with others have identified the root problem of money, gives me hope. We have enormous opposition to overcome both physically and psychologically. We need to honor our connections.
Mighk Wilson says
I’m reminded of Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization. Empathy versus entropy. The newer generations give me hope. Thank you Charles.
Wow. Thank you.
Thomas P Tortorich says
An excellent framing of the core issues no doubt. I can always count on an Eisenstein peice to get the wheels of my mind turning. I am left with some unanswered questions, and that is good. In this case, what are the solutions? What actions will change the point of view and perspective of our species, at the level of the collective unconsious? I think part of the New Story is a shift into more solution-oriented thinking.
I’ve been noticing recently that it’s really common for books and documentaries in the Global Change genre to describe the problem for 75% of their length, then tuck the solutions away into the last 25%.
What if we could reverse that proportion? Simply spend more time thinking about possible solutions.
Forest Fires, the age of separation …. in a sense, all part of the same old story.
Time for some Gene Roddenberry thinking….
What, specifically, does the future look like?
How do we get there?
This narrative and this language and this piece are very powerful and I appreciate it very much. It helps me process and understand and will inherently inform my own narrative as I continue on with these types of dialogues.
Excellent article, I knew most of the dynamics of forests working in rainforest education. However I liked your link with the social situation and forest fires, a link I haven’t considered before. It’s high time that we change our view of nature. I believe that ultimately the only remedy for the planet is a recognition that we are one with it. We destroy nature and we destroy ourselves. Let’s all plant trees again and care for our forests and other natural resources.
Alexander Reid says
Real Forest care, RE: charleseisenstein essays/world-on-fire/
Emerging trends in social filtering by the big players means the bop market are not seeing this message nor are they seeing any content the overseer deemed for our eyes only. Virtual cloud emerging networks are exploding with startups like SaveNatureFREE cloud and GroupsStartup virtual network Real caring means getting away from self promotion that make you so famous and popular that you lose something. Real Forest care takes 2 friend agreements that you will make this agreement to add 2 to the local hub. I say only chance here because without this mass emerging unity and activist working together all the rest is a wasted effort that has not the united front that we need to show them how loud our voice really is. by following up on our pledged to the planet (p2tp) we get the numbers required to make it happen. Great rewards in store for local members who start a local P2Tp hub nonprofit co-creation, co-visioning, collaborations are hot!
Alexandra Hatfield says
Thank you for another eloquent and revealing essay. I am in agreement.
We have some grieving to do as a people and we have some heart opening to do too.
In my experience of guiding people enacting a wilderness solo fast I witness that an open-heart is essential for the enchantment. Folk living on the land without food and other attachments for 4-days and nights evokes many things including belonging and an open-heart. This act of communion with the Earth also lessens the activity of the concrete mind who’s essential nature is to split, polarise and differentiate.
Thank you for continuing to share your interweaving awareness of our relationships with all. Your essay helps to widen awareness of our mutual interconnected. We do not exist is separation. Aliveness is not living in fear. Life flows on currents of Love. Our ability to inhabit our self awareness, our sense of beauty and awe and our co-creative shared living interbeingness in relationship with all can be grown through practice, awareness, ritual and attention. This ability is inside us all. Are you ready to wake up this loving Awareness?
Charles, you neglected to mention the single-most devastating element contributing to the demise of our forests: geoengineering, weather modification, “solar radiation management,” raining toxic chemicals down on all living things, 24/7. Was that a mere oversight? When will you find the courage to call out our government’s nasty little secret?
Robert Jenusaitis says
Something that you did not mention, and I believe is crucial, is geoengineering which I believe is an ongoing practice which must be stopped. There is VERY little discussion of this in the mainstream.
Curry First says
Reverance for reverence; let’s do it now and in meaningful manner.
I took your words with me into the forest and reverently greeted the mosses and trees.
Felipe Mardones says
beautiful, thank you charles. Yes, see the turtles like Cary. Perhaps, seeing Cary through the eyes of the turtle.
Thank you, Charles. I agree wholeheartedly, especially with the need for reverence.
“We need to ground ourselves in directly experiencing earth as obviously precious” Absolutely! And to me, the main way we can do this is by reconnecting with our own private piece of the Earth which is our body and all the feelings and emotions that we find there – through various mindful practices involving presence, acceptance and compassion.
Newton Finn says
“If reverence brings all these things, then what brings reverence? It will not do merely to exhort people to be more reverent. The gateway to reverence is enchantment.” I agree that you have framed the key question for human survival, which would also entail the survival of most all living things that humans are in the process of destroying. But I’m not sure that “enchantment” is a strong enough term for that which elicits reverence for life, nor is this transformational process sufficiently captured in what, to me, are overly-abstract concepts like “interbeing” or “oneness.” I would much prefer that we go back to the language and concepts of Albert Schweitzer, who spent an intellectual lifetime distilling reverence for life as the elemental, universal value and then introducing it into Western civilization which had, unlike the East, paid little attention to it. Damn nice essay, Charles, nevertheless.
Pauline Cadieux says
Thank you Charles for drawing the connection between the fires ablaze in the world’s largest tropical wetland and the incendiary state of our global political, economic and environmental climate. Your words and insights offer a powerful invitation into reverence for our living Earth and as such already provide an important gateway to healing. My heart soars when I imagine how much more beautiful healing could happen if as parents we were all inspired to take time and nurture our own children by regularly sharing the kind of enchantment you and your son Cary experienced with the turtles?!
As a footnote on your reference to people stepping into the role of nurturer-healer in particular by reintroducing beaver – and for anyone interested in knowing more – here’s a link to one such organisation, The Beaver Believers, which my good friend Nichole was inspired to work with https://www.thebeaverbelievers.com/