My stomach churned as I read the latest screed against protecting the Amazon by self-proclaimed eco-modernist Michael Shellenberger. In his Forbes op-ed titled Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It’s The ‘Lungs Of The World,’ Is Wrong, he criticized public figures who shared inaccurate information about the threats facing the Amazon, such as “we are harming the lungs of the planet” or the “unprecedented” fires. By Shellenberger’s logic, such statements amount to little more than romantic anti-capitalist-fear mongering when what we should be doing is promoting industrial soy agriculture, which will somehow magically keep the Brazilian economy going and help protect the Amazon forests. It is this sort of false narrative that is actively destroying the Amazon and contributing to a climate where land-hungry settlers are willing to kill Indigenous people for their land. By overlooking the assassination of Indigenous activists and land right activists in the name of expanding extractive activities, Shellenberger is placing profits over people and selling a false environmental narrative that harms us all.
Shellenberger begins by attacking public celebrities who shared photos that were either not from the Amazon or actually dated back to years earlier:
“Celebrities, environmentalists, and political leaders blame Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, for destroying the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, which they say is the “lungs of the world.” Singers and actors, including Madonna and Jaden Smith shared photos on social media that were seen by tens of millions of people. “The lungs of the Earth are in flames,” said actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” tweeted soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. “The Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” tweeted French President Emanuel Macron. And yet the photos weren’t actually of the fires and many weren’t even of the Amazon.”
As a scholar and former journalist, I agree that inaccurate or misleading photos can detract from a story, and we should always strive to use accurate visuals to avoid sending mixed messages. But focusing on celebrity social media is a distraction from the underlying politics. When Cristiano Ronaldo shared a photo of a fire at the Taim Ecological Station in the Rio Grande do Sul that dates back to 2013, it didn’t nullify his call for immediate action nor diminished the threats. It simply tells us that celebrities need to be more careful when using social media.
A second argument Shellenberger levels against the Amazon advocates is even more dangerous because it hijacks scientist’s social authority to promote his own political agenda:
I was curious to hear what one of the world’s leading Amazon forest experts, Dan Nepstad, had to say about the “lungs” claim.
“It’s bullshit,” he said. “There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.”
What about The New York Times claim that “If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity’”?
Also not true, said Nepstad, who was a lead author of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but so do soy farms and [cattle] pastures.”
Oxygen produced in the Amazon is indeed reused locally, and most global oxygen originated in ocean phytoplankton. Nepstad’s credentials as an IPCC scientist with expertise on Brazil lends weight to Shellenberger’s criticism. Yet eco-modernists (like Shellenberger) have made a career out of these Jedi mind tricks, such as reframing environmental science to support political arguments about how free-market capitalism and technology can save the planet.
Shellenberger uses the scientific expert to confirm that Amazon fires and oxygen claims are bullshit. Then, he is free to dismiss any other arguments that invoke the “lungs of the world” as false. It’s a subtle but important sleight of hand reminiscent of the iconic Star Wars scene where Imperial stormtroopers stop Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker at Mos Eisley. You can almost hear Shellenberger in that same role: “These Amazon forests aren’t the lungs you’re looking for. You can go about your business as usual. Move along.” And just like the Imperial guards, readers are tricked into thinking there’s nothing to see in the Amazon. Those are simply misguided celebrities talking nonsense about issues they don’t understand.
“But the “lungs” myth is just the tip of the iceberg,” claims Shellenberger.
Enter the next expert, conservativeVeja news journalist Leonardo Coutinho, who Shellenberger touts as “one of Brazil’s leading environmental journalists.” Sure, images of fires raging across Brazil look bad, Coutinho suggests, but current fire rates aren’t at a historic high (partly true, but ignores others factors). He also suggests people playing up fire threats are far from the Amazon, thus raising doubts about outsider claims. To reinforce this point, Coutinho notes that fires were worse under the social democratic policies of Lula (2003-2010), but no one complained (which is false). Therefore, the neoliberal policies of Bolsonaro are better for the Amazon, and this upsets liberals. Such neoliberal policies include undermining environmental protections in the Amazon; promoting more industrial ag expansions ; undermining Indigenous territorial rights; and promoting private capital firms to buy up Brazilian land and assets. Shellenberger ends his twisted narrative by claiming that both Nepstad and Coutinho agree that “foreign media, global celebrities, and NGOs in Brazil” are to blame for promoting “a romantic anti-capitalism” that sees industrial agriculture as the real threat to the Amazon.
I study global environmental politics for a living. We debate many issues, but there is one indisputable truth: industrial agriculture, ranching, logging, mining, and mega-dams are the primary causes of global deforestation and biodiversity loss. While Nepstad’s idea about working with local farmers to control and prevent fires is good, his claim that industrial soy cultivation can help save the Amazon is a capitalist fantasy.
For example, a 2001 study on the impacts of industrial soy noted that the primary development model in Brazil was essentially “a blind flight towards ever-greater and more widely-dispersed areas of soybeans” and argued that Brazil’s environmental governance systems were “incapable of detecting many of the most severe consequences of soybeans, especially the ‘dragging effect’ through which infrastructure built for soybeans accelerates other destructive activities (such as ranching and logging).” Similarly, a 2004 World Bank report on deforestation in Brazil found that medium and large scale cattle ranching was the key driver of deforestation in the Amazon, with ranching activities occupying “nearly 75 percent of the deforested areas of Amazonia.” Moreover, a 2005 study on Brazilian agricultural trends reached a similar conclusion — agricultural expansion was driving Amazonian deforestation, and all available data pointed to “an increase in forest clearing” in the future.
So it came as no surprise that much of what Shellenberger argued for was false or misstated, as discussed in detail by Rhett Butler from Mongabay news. These distortions were significant enough that Nepstad’s Earth Innovation Institute took the unusual step of issuing a public rebuttal to the article. “Many of those statements were taken out of context and have helped to spread misinformation about the extent and cause of the fires.” Nepstad’s own views on the Amazon fires are far more nuanced.
At nearly 7.9 million km2 (1.9 million acres), the Amazon Basin is not just unique; it is enormous — the continental US would almost fit inside it. The Amazonaccounts for nearly 50% of the remaining tropical forests worldwide, and estimates suggest there are almost 30 million people who call the Amazon home, including many uncontacted and isolated tribes who live deep in the jungles and are especially threatened. The Amazon also represents aglobal biodiversity hotspot with many native species found nowhere else on Earth. We don’t need to look further for pressing reasons to protect the Amazon.
Death by Omission
By only focusing on weak claims in support of the Amazon, critics ignore the more significant threats. The neoliberal globalization that Shellenberger promotes only sees one value in the Amazon: an extractive frontier to exploit for profit. It’s no coincidence that Bolsonaro is backed by the same extensive ranching and farming interests destroying the Amazon. And he was clear about it: once elected, he would strip Indigenous land rights and expand agricultural exports; a worrying global phenomena, especially with the rise of reactionary right-wing politics, from Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte. As a 2019 Global Witness report on risks to land defenders noted, “Our report found that on average more than three activists were killed every week in 2018 defending their land from invasion by industries like mining, logging and agribusiness.” The report went on to note that “In 2019 this has already triggered a series of invasions of indigenous lands by armed bands of land grabbers, with communities living in fear of future attacks.”
So, what is to be done? First, we can act in solidarity with Indigenous demands for stronger legal protections and lands rights by pressuring political officials to make these changes. These political battles are going on all over the world, not just in the Amazon. Second, we can deepen our political and ecological understanding of the world, to see how the Amazon deforestation, the melting Arctic ice, the violence against land defenders, and the increasingly aggressive weather conditions (such as hurricane Dorian) are all interrelated problems connected to extractive capitalism.
Finally, we need to transform our political convictions into direct actions. The people and institutions who benefit from destroying the Amazon, violating Indigenous rights, and obstructing climate change action threaten us all. If we truly believe that another world is possible, then we need to fight for that future before it is too late. Challenging the false eco-modernist narratives promoted by Shellenberger won’t save the Amazon, but it is a necessary step in the broader fight for a more just and equitable future.
Chris Crews is currently a researcher with the Institute for Earthbound Studies. He has a Ph.D. in Politics from the New School for Social Research in New York City. You can follow his work via Twitter @doctorcrews.