No Rain in the Amazon

U.S. journalist Nikolas Kozloff’s No Rain in the Amazon (2010), a work that focuses principally on the devastation being wrought by capitalist relations on the peoples and ecosystems found in the South American countries of Peru and Brazil, is a more considered set of reflections on the present socio-environmental crisis than is to be found for example in the works of Bill McKibben or Mark Lynas—to name two well-known hegemonic commentators on global environmental matters.1 This difference arises from the fact that Kozloff presents his analysis of social and environmental destructiveness within a mildly critical framing of the processes of neoliberal capitalism, one which includes concern for exploited Southern proletarians and threatened indigenous peoples within its general regard for the life-world imperiled by the capitalist system. Kozloff correctly notes that “we are surely living in an ecological dystopia now”; this dystopia will only worsen considerably if it is not interrupted, just as the future reproduction of present trends will ensure that “chronic hunger [will] be the defining human tragedy of the twenty-first century.” To use reason in contemplating Kozloff’s findings, then, could in theory contribute to the possibility of overcoming these negations, their direness notwithstanding.

Reviewing climatological reports, Kozloff warns that future climate change will likely bring with it more frequent and intense El Niño meterological events. This climatic phenomenon, which follows from the warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, brings about dry conditions in Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and the Brazilian Amazon; by increasing oceanic temperatures, it results in decreases in plankton populations, thus disrupting marine food chains, and provides bacteria like Vibrio cholerae with more amenable growth-environments. For countries like Peru and Ecuador that face increased rainfall and flooding from El Niño events, the return of the phenomenon threatens greater incidence of diarrheal conditions, dengue fever, and malaria. In this sense, as in its disruption of agricultural production and hence food security by means of drought, increases in the frequency of the emergence of El Niño would demand that governments of affected societies dedicate greater resources to addressing public-health emergencies. Beyond consideration of these realities, as of the numerous non-human animals endangered by extended El Niño conditions (primates, frogs, manatees, tapirs, turtles, the spectacled bear, the jaguar), remains reflection on the 2005 drought in the Amazon, which, as Kozloff reports, released 5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere—the equivalent of Europe and Japan´s annual emissions. The 2010 Amazon drought, an El Niño-induced event which Kozloff could not consider in the work, released 8 billion tons—that is, as much as does China each year, being the present country-leader in carbon emissions.2

Turning specifically to consideration of Peru, Kozloff immediately reveals why it is that the country is considered to be among the most vulnerable to the projected future effects of climate change: because two-thirds of its population reside in the arid coastal region and depend upon the Andes glaciers for water. Kozloff tells us that Peru, home to 71 percent of South America’s glaciers, has reportedly seen a 22 percent decline in glacier surface area over the last few decades. These alarming threats to water supplies aside, the loss of glacial ice in the Andes also threatens sudden outburst floods from lakes formed by the retreat of glaciers, like those that destroyed much of the city of Huaraz in 1941. Moreover, as Kozloff writes, there is fear that warmer overall temperatures could grant better growing conditions to late blight, a fungal disease that could threaten the all-important Peruvian potato crop just as it did that in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. On the other hand of socio-environmental realities determined largely externally by the history of imperialism are those induced at least partly internally, such as the widespread logging of mahogany trees and the material poverty that leads many Peruvians to clear the rainforest to make way for coca production. These export-oriented trends, which Kozloff rightly observes as responding to the consumer demand from relatively affluent Northerns made possible by the globalized market, are of one hand with former President Alan García’s mass-awarding of concesions for oil and gas exploration in 70 percent of Peru’s Amazonian rainforest.

In Brazil, Kozloff’s second case study, the situation is perhaps even more dire than in its western neighbor. Beyond the bleak future that global warming itself promises for the Amazon rainforest, the mass-expansion of cattle-ranching which has brought Brazil the dubious distinction of leading global beef has required the clearing of vast stretches of the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands. The implications for the health of the Amazon system itself, great regulator of the global climate, are clear; removing large sections of this highly photosynthetic biome only to replace them with pasture for methane-belching beasts is self-evidently highly irrational—in keeping with dominant trends. Beyond these threats, the Amazon, like its adjoining cerrado grassland biome, is further imperiled by the expansion of mass soy monocultures and agrofuel crops, these being driven by the mass money-making schemes of capital. In his diagnosis of this web of problems, Kozloff is right to emphasize the close relationship these destructive interests have with Brazil’s developmentalist State authorities and to stress the responsibility that Northern international financial institutions bear for having provided funding for these schemes; he is moreover correct to recognize in the reign of cattle-ranchers and agribusiness the unresolved perpetuation of the social inequality and class privilege that has marred Brazil’s historical development. Kozloff’s discussions of the effectively enslaved laborers who carry out the desires of the Brazilian oligarchy and of the MST countercurrent speak to this.

However valuable much of Kozloff’s reporting and analysis may be, there is more to take issue with in No Rain in the Amazon. For one, Kozloff significantly over-represents state ministers and representatives as figures to navigate his exploration of the crisis, with voices from civil soceity largely absent. Brazilian ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is portrayed as a “Third World defender” for resisting notions that Southern societies must not mimic the historical development of the North, when his policies of facilitating the degradation of the Amazon stand greatly and disproportionately to harm Southern peoples through their exacerbation of climate catastrophe—just as China’s capitalist development threatens to worsen the lot of residents of several Pacific island-societies that face annihilation by rising sea-levels. Similarly, Kozloff’s claim that the Obama administration “takes global warming more seriously” than did Bush is now seen to be an entirely absurd one—though it was also foreseeably a false one at the time of the writing of the book. On the other hand, Kozloff does righteously engage in a critique of neo-liberal institutions like the World Bank and IMF as well as of those Northern consumers whose appetites for meat, leather, cocaine, and soy drive much of the destruction observed in Amazonia, and he does at times concede that economic growth and the “free-trade model” are inherently unsustainable. However, at no point does he suggest that corporations be dismantled, that workers and communities take control of production, that capitalism be abolished. The most he can recommend is that the World Bank be reformed and persuaded to finance “alternative development schemes,” that a “Manhattan project for conservation” be undertaken, and that environmentalists continue with the “provocative” traditions of Greenpeace and use of the courts.

In essence, Kozloff holds it to be the politicians and capitalists who are principally to respond to the possibly terminal threats posed by capital-induced climate destabilization. In his conclusion, he claims that “international capital is [itself] going to have to radically rethink its entire modus operandi” in light of the climate crisis. Here he is rather mistaken; capital, like the State, can offer no resolution to the socio-environmental darkness it promises. Instead, the prospect for the successful aversion of climate catastrophe depends critically on the intervention of the multitudes of subordinated humans who consciously and convivially unite their collective efforts against the mindless destructiveness of the capitalist system. Toward this end, Kozloff’s stress on the need for a greater sense of urgency and the related exercise of solidarity among Northerners with Southerners are key.

To close, then, as Kozloff does No Rain in the Amazon, citing an Arhuaco elder: global capitalism is “waging a war on the earth [and its peoples], and it must stop!”

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1Bill McKibben, Eaarth (Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees (National Geographic, 2008) and The God Species (Fourth Estate, 2011)

2Damian Carrington, “Mass tree deaths prompt fears of Amazon ‘climate tipping point,’” The Guardian, 3 February 2011

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