The Quietly Burning Earth
An enormous environmental disaster is unfolding in Indonesia today.
Posted Nov 02, 2015
Yesterday, October 30, 2015, the environmental journalist George Monbiot wrote, “A great tract of Earth is on fire and threatened species are being driven out of their habitats. This is a crime against humanity and nature.”[i] We’re all implicated in the disaster, as I write below. While it’s happening, Monbiot observed, the world carries on as if all is well. The media seem consumed by the usual banalities: the Duchess of Cambridge’s outfit at the James Bond premier, Donald Trump’s campaign antics, and Halloween. Meanwhile, widespread fires are consuming much of the tropical forests of Indonesia, and smoke is engulfing the region, including many cities. Some people have even choked to death. Animals and people alike are on the run.
Monbiot calls it “almost certainly the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century—so far.” The fires are currently putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the entire U.S. economy. Over just three weeks they have released more carbon dioxide than Germany does annually. Habitats of orangutans, leopards, sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos, and Sumatran tigers are being obliterated, and these are just a sampling of species being driven to the brink. There may be thousands or millions more. Indonesia’s precious, ecologically rich forests are on the way out.
Trees are burning, but so are vast areas of peat (soil-like material of decomposed vegetation). Peat fires can release methane (a potent greenhouse gas), carbon dioxide, ozone, and pollutants such as ammonium cyanide. Even neighboring countries are being affected by the plumes of smoke.
One of the two main forces driving the fires is natural: the intense El Niño cycle that’s reducing rainfall in Southeast Asia. But the other is human: the forests of Indonesia have been under siege for decades: clearcutting of hectares by the thousands for timber and pulp, canals cut through the peat to drain areas for other uses, and plantation companies clearing the rest so that it can be planted with monocultures of pulpwood, timber, and palm oil trees. Clearcutting leaves remaining forests fragmented, which causes them to dry out faster and thus burn easier.
Ultimately, this is a very human disaster—the cycles of dryness must be expected. Although some of the fires are natural, many are set by the plantation companies as a way of quickly and easily clearing land for more plantations.
That’s where we come in, and where we may be able to help. Many of these fires, and a lot of Indonesia’s loss of tropical forest, is a result of the clearing of forests for monoculture plantations of palm oil. You may have heard of some of the campaigns that have been mounted to try to slow or stop this scourge. There’s “Say No to Palm Oil,” Rainforest Action Network’s palm oil campaign, and Greenpeace’s palm oil campaign. Palm oil grown where tropical forests once stood is an incredibly cheap edible fat, and if you look at the ingredients of processed foods in your supermarket, you may be shocked at how many of them contain it as a main ingredient. We’re eating a lot of this stuff that’s born of former rainforest.
Even when the fires don’t rage out of control during dry periods, the transformation of intensely rich tropical forests to monotonous miles of palm oil trees that have all the biodiversity of a suburban lawn takes place at breakneck pace while we continue to purchase palm oil–containing products.
By buying these products, we’re all contributing to forest destruction in Indonesia, including these fires raging out of control—an “eco-apocalypse” according to Monbiot. Click one of the links above to learn more about what you can do to stop contributing to the destruction. Send a signal to these companies that you won’t accept the destruction of precious forest in return for cheap oil.
Some palm oil is better—read the campaign materials to find out more. Many companies have been reforming their supply chains to avoid the most destructively produced palm oil or to substitute it for an oil produced in a more eco-friendly way. But Monbiot writes that some, including Starbucks, PepsiCo, and Kraft Heinz have been slow to respond, and he urges people to avoid buying their products.
The fact that this disaster is unfolding without the knowledge of us worldwide palm oil consumers—who are nevertheless very much taking part in it—is a perfect example of the dissociation phenomenon I write about in my book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment. The modern economy is ingenious at separating our consumption choices from the harmful outcomes that follow. We can buy a candy bar or margarine with palm oil or palm kernel oil blissfully unaware that our choice, added to the choices of people looking for similarly cheap food, result in eco-apocalypse. This ignorance and the huge gulf between us and the consequences, including today’s fires, propel society ever onward to environmental calamity. Check Invisible Nature for ideas about how to respond to the dissociated conditions of modern life.
Learn about my book: Invisible Nature
Read more of my posts: The Green Mind