The Amazon rainforest produces up to 20% of the oxygen on earth. It is the world's most effective carbon sink. It is an ecological jewel of unparalleled value. It is of enormous planetary importance. And right now it is being destroyed at a rate that beggars belief. Deforestation has gotten 50% faster year-on-year. The number of forest fires in the Amazon has doubled, to 79,000, in 2019. And there are still four months remaining. Since August 15 (yes, this August) another 9,500 fires have been lit across the Amazon basin.
It's almost always raining in the Amazon – hence its verdancy – which is why loggers and farmers try to illegally slash-and-burn as much as they can during the dry season (July through October). And since this past July was the driest on record, the flames they lit raced up the trees to lick the sky, and jumped across roads and rivers, turning green into black. All so that soybean farmers and cattle ranchers can stake out more space to produce food for export.
These industries are, in a literal sense, endangering our planet's capacity to produce oxygen. Think of it this way, if a speculative fiction writer had written this in a novel, it would have been panned for lacking nuance. It is just too on-the-nose. And yet, here we are, living in an infinitely complex world that has birthed a problem of such startling clarity and consequence that it could well be the basis for a nursery rhyme. A very sad nursery rhyme. Still, the benefit (if you can call it that) of having our moral responsibility spelt out so clearly is that at least now there is nowhere left to hide: our decisions from this point will either propel us towards a future in which we can breathe, or they won't. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro showed the world many faces this week; most of them duplicitous. He described the scandalous deforestation data as "lies" and accused environmental NGO's of starting the fires in order to make him look bad. His mendacity is truly something to behold. He had joked earlier in the week that he intended to accelerate the development of the Amazon; the punchline arrived a few days later in the form of leaked government documents which revealed that he hadn't been joking. The president (and his cabinet of climate change deniers) have been roundly criticised by the international community – most notably by Germany and Norway who have suspended their aid programs for Brazil. Later in the week, when it appeared that international pressure was growing, Bolsonaro relented and admitted that while there was in fact a problem, Brazil lacked the resources to fight the fires. In this column we've touched on Bolsonaro's bigotry, lies and fetishisation of military dictatorship . He is a uniquely dangerous man: the uncaring custodian of a resource that lies within his purview but is crucial for every living creature on earth. We were warned of his worst qualities, repeatedly, in the run-up to his election. And yet, in the pages of major newspapers around the world, we were told that Bolsonaro was the "pro-business candidate" and that he would do wonders for Brazil's economy. Instead, we have the more predictable (and predicted) outcome; there is egg – no, soot – on the faces of many in the media.
At the core of this story is a question about how much we're willing to sacrifice for commercial profit. These kinds of questions, once the province of academia and co-ops, have now become standard fare for boardrooms. The Business Roundtable, a non-profit organisation comprising exclusively American big business CEOs, updated its core statement on "the purpose of a corporation" . Its erstwhile slavish and legally-binding focus on shareholder interests has now been diluted to include the interests of "all stakeholders" in the community. This is a startling and positive change to behold, but also ultimately a meaningless one - until it is mirrored in legislation .
Still, it is an admission that the shareholder primacy principle, established by the Michigan Supreme court in 1919, may be unfit for purpose in our globalised world. As an interesting aside, the case in question was Dodge v Ford Motor Company. Having revolutionised the production process, Henry Ford's company had accumulated an eye-watering amount of capital. Ford wanted to spread the benefits of the industrial process by opening more factories to employ more American workers, raising the wages of his workers and lowering the cost of his automobile. But that was eating into the capital buffer, and his shareholders took him to court – successfully – to prevent him from using that money charitably.And if you'll permit one more historical digression, Ford's story is yet another example that "what's good for business is not necessarily good for humankind". The man was an absolutely vile anti-Semite and a full-throated supporter of Nazi Germany (Adolf Hitler described him as an "inspiration" and even kept a portrait of Ford in his office). And even after America entered the war against Germany, the Ford Motor Company continued to make good money doing business with the Nazis.
Matteo Salvini's holy war
Italy's government has collapsed , and to be frank with you it's a miracle that it lasted this long. Last year's election produced a ruling coalition that was pronounced doomed even before the negotiations had been finalised. Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), an upstart party that defied most political labels (or policy logic) formed the government with the anti-immigrant (especially if they are African) Eurosceptics of Lega. M5S placed a mostly-unobjectionable Giuseppe Conte in the prime minister's office and Lega standard-bearer Matteo Salvini became his deputy.
Since then, Salvini has displayed a Johnsonian level of patience and commitment to national stability. That is to say, he has big-noted himself at every opportunity (mostly through repeated attempts to illegally block refugee rescue ships from Italian ports) and has white-anted his boss incessantly. Italians obviously loved this performance because M5S's popularity has sky-rocketed. It's all fun and games, till it's not. This week the coalition collapsed and Conte resigned (but not before sharing some choice words about his insubordinate subordinate).
Italian President Sergio Mattarella has given all the parties time to form majority government , and now the centre-right Democrats are shaping up as a likely new dancing partner for M5S. Lega have galvanised their base but may have sentenced themselves to a lengthy spell out of government with their behaviour. Or, being Italy, they could be in power again next year. Anything's possible in the dysfunctional pantomime set in motion by one Silvio Berlusconi.While modern day Rome was melting down U.S. President Donald Trump was doing his best Caligula impression. In front of the cameras and on Twitter the president was irrepressible. The sore-point this week was his request, apropos of nothing, to buy Greenland from its Danish administrators. Anyone who has looked at a globe from the top and is familiar with climate change will know that Greenland is becoming hot property in both the literal, and the commercial and military sense. The apparent joke took on a sharp and surreal edge when the obvious Danish response (no) provoked a fit of anger from Trump. He cancelled a planned trip to Denmark and called Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen "nasty". Was that it? Of course not. Trump then accused America's Democrat-voting Jewish community of disloyalty, described himself as the "king of Israel", pondered about serving as president for another decade, and told reporters that he was "the chosen one" for taking on China. He got off one good joke (swapping Greenland for Puerto Rico) but even that revealed a deep disdain for American deeply-troubled incorporated territory, and its inhabitants. It appears that in another quantum breakthrough this week the process of presidential ideation, dissemination and disintegration is also now approaching light-speed. Within just one day of Trump's Greenland pronouncement a Republican supporter group had started selling t-shirts emblazoned with a map of America that included Greenland as a state. Unfortunately the t-shirts also came with the slogan "Support President Trump and his efforts to help America grow", which sent us scurrying for a German dictionary to double-check the definition of 'lebensraum'.
BTS and the DMZ
For decades it seemed as though Korea could only be unified at the barrel of a gun. But the proliferation of mobile phones in North Korea (not to mention the roaring black market trade with China) has introduced a steady stream of "evil bourgeoise" culture into the pariah state. A recent study of defectors revealed that 90% of them had consumed the ubiquitous southern pop prior to crossing the border. Rock and roll put a few cracks in the Berlin Wall; the same might be happening with K-pop.
Making music like they used toIf blisteringly loud K-pop doesn't expedite the long-awaited unification of your neighbourhood, maybe it can at least help you stave off dementia. Another study (show this one to the oldies) at the Albert Einstein College of Music is probing whether group dancing classes help protect precious cognitive ability in the ageing. Fascinatingly, such activities might actually prompt structural changes in your grey matter.
America to lock up migrant children indefinitely
There's not really too much more to this one. The US Department of Homeland Security has withdrawn from a court agreement that placed a 20-day limit on detaining the children of families waiting to have their asylum cases heard. The influx of border crossings (and a steadfast refusal by the DHS to adequately resource their facilities) had meant that the 20-day limit was being breached in most cases anyway.
A lesson in repressionHot on the heels of India's lockdown of Kashmir, the Indonesian government has tried its hand at cutting off an entire region from the world. An increasingly turbulent situation in West Papua has prompted Jakarta to block internet access for everyone living there. The troops have been sent in – a worrying sign for West Papuan activists who have a habit of disappearing forever whenever Indonesian troops are around.
Quote of the week
" I don’t think [the series] was very good for me "
– Hit novelist George R.R. Martin explains that the HBO series based on his novels was not hugely helpful for his writing process . Same here.
Headline of the week
Blow to 10,000-hour rule as study finds practice doesn't always make perfect – The Guardian (take that, Malcolm Gladwell)
The Dutch mightn't be known for their sense of humour but this is right up our steeg: a big beach party for the night that Britain crashes out of the European Union. German beer, French wine, and Dutch chips are the order of the day.
Some choice long-reads
- The Guardian throws out a lure to get to the bottom of a fishing crisis in the North Sea (all the cod is gone),
- The Economist grapples with whether corporatism or competition is the problem with American capitalism, and
- Financial Times climbs a smoke stack to see whether carbon-capture technology can actually save the coal industry.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A story that didn't get nearly enough attention this week was the results of no-click searches. An internet research firm found that last month the majority of Google searches did not result in clicks. Google has become so adept at stripping other people's content off their websites that it has completely altered the framework of how the internet operates. At what point can we stop calling it a search engine?