Our planet is facing a huge systemic problem

“At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
― Chico Mendes

The year 2019 was the year of fire. The news cycle was full of images of the huge fires that laid a path of destruction in Australia, the Amazon, California, and other places around the world. Yet, in the following years this had largely disappeared from the mainstream media coverage.

While from 2020 to early 2022 we were facing a global pandemic, the old problems hadn’t disappeared. They are still here. Fire. Heat. Dust. Recurrent, and stronger every year.

Are we living in a dystopian movie? Sometimes, it seems so. Pandemics, wars, giant fires. All here. Present and accounted for. Things have gotten bad.

In 2020, California experienced its first “gigafire”. The state was covered by an orange hue due to all the forest fires burning around. What’s worse, these blazes are changing in their essence, their properties getting more destructive. Fires apparently even generate their own weather now.

The Amazon is experiencing the highest levels of deforestation in many years. Scientists are predicting the worst. If we don’t do something soon, a tipping point could be reached. The rainforest would become history, turning into a grassy savanna.

The world is burning. And it will continue to burn, if we don’t do something about it.

How bad is the damage around the world?

“When this world is burning how can there be laughter and how can there be joy? Why do you not seek the light, you who are surrounded by darkness?” — Buddha in the “Dhammapada”

According to famous conservationist David Attenborough, the natural world now covers only 35% of the planet. When he was a kid in the 1930’s, the percentage was almost double that number.

In the past decades, we have lost much of the green covering of the Earth. With it went many species of plants and animals. Others are on the brink of extinction.

Much of biodiversity is irreparably gone. And even while one third of the planet is still wildlife, much of that is not super healthy. Only 3% of the world’s ecosystems are still intact, and undisturbed.

We are facing numerous tipping points. Climate is changing. Nature is disappearing. Fires are burning. All this is humanity’s doing.

Scolding hot blazes are wreaking havoc all around the globe. Lots of places are up in flames.

  • Amazon — This year, forest fires reached a 15-year high. In August 2022, over 30 thousand fire spots were registered. Since that region is too humid to sustain fire, it is evident that most of these were set by humans.
  • Australia — In 2019 to 2020, a series of megafires engulfed much of Australia, destroying huge swaths of forests. Over 3 billion animals were harmed by these fires.
  • California — One word describes it, gigafire. Out-of-control megafires are becoming very common in California, and much of the American West.
  • Congo — Huge wildfires are burning in big swathes of the Congo Basin. In Angola alone, there are more fires than in the Brazilian Amazon. Much of this is due to people starting the fires. The Congo is also the site of various insurgencies, and frequent military clashes occur there.
  • Indonesia — Borneo, Sumatra, but also the other Indonesian islands are experiencing many forest and jungle fires.
  • Mediterranean — Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and many other places around the Mediterranean have been experiencing big wildfires almost annually.
  • Siberia — Around 3.2 million hectares of forest have burned down in Siberia and the Russian Far East since the beginning of the year 2022. In fact, the fires in Siberia are bigger than all the other fires in the world combined.

There are two main causes of this increase in forest fires. One is general climate change, which makes it easier for fires to start, and then harder for them to get extinguished.

Another reason is humans setting the forests on fire on purpose. This usually happens in order to clear the land for agriculture, grazing, or mining.

The results have been devastating.

Yes, the last few years were full of fire. And we ain’t done yet. According to a United Nations report, wildfires will increase by a third from now until the year 2050. Strap in! We are in for a bumpy ride.

What can we do?

It doesn’t help screaming about a problem, if you are not offering solutions. Luckily, we still haven’t reached a point of no return. We are fucked, but still not that fucked. There’s hope.

However, the hope will quickly disappear if we don’t roll up our sleeves and start doing something. There are some positive examples. Not everything has gone downhill in the past few decades. This can guide us.

One such good example is Costa Rica. This Central American country has managed to regrow its rainforest. Stewart Maginnis, global director at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) described what happened:

“In the 1970s and 1980s Costa Rica had one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America, but it managed to turn that around in a relatively short period of time.”

Costa Rica was at the brink, but clawed its way back up. It has managed to double the size of its rainforests in just a few decades. Of course, the country is still experiencing problems with forests being cut down, but the trend is inspiring nevertheless.

If we want to take a step back from the edge of the cliff, we need to focus on certain things. That means putting our conservationist hats on. Plant more trees. Protect nature, and work on saving biodiversity. And of course, reduce wasteful consumption.

All this is mixed in with the general work on combatting climate change. After all, if we manage to keep the global temperatures down, then the forest fires won’t be as big, as frequent, or as destructive.

Are we doing enough? I don’t know. It seems as if everything were falling apart, and it might be too little and too late. Yet, I want to remain at least a tiny bit optimistic.

Amid all the doom and gloom, we also need some positive messages. Renewable energy is starting to make a big splash. About 30% of the world’s energy is now produced from renewable sources.

There are of course problems with these alternate sources. Solar, or wind are highly variable on the weather, and storage is still quite inefficient. If this energy storage problem gets solved, it could create a further boost.

A lot of new technologies are being created to help solve the climate crisis, and also reduce forest fires. Many of these have to do with space. Unlike what many detractors are saying, the public and private space industries are part of the solution.

For example, one company is creating tiny satellites to detect forest fires early, before they become large fires. As the CEO Meir Chen says:

“We want to be able to detect events within a time frame that allows people to do something about it right away.”

There are many other innovations people are working on which could help tackle the problem. A so-called “firetech” industry is on the rise, and lots of potential solutions are being put on the table. One idea is to create swarms of drones to help put the fires out.

This is of course something we can solve only if we put our heads together. Different organizations have to cooperate, using new technologies, both on the ground and in space. Better coordination and data sharing is a must.

It’s important not to bury our hand in the sand, but also not to despair. Shouting doom and gloom won’t help anybody. Only concrete actions will.

Instead, according to psychologist Michael Mann the better option is to lead people down the path of engagement.

“If you lead people down a path of engagement, there’s a snowball effect that can lead to greater and greater engagement. So even if that initial action really isn’t doing much to actually solve the problem (like changing light bulbs, using recyclable shopping bags, or driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle or electric vehicle), it leads us down this path of engagement where we realize, “Oh, well you know, that was easy enough to do. Maybe I can do this too.””

You should not think of yourself as a helpless victim of the system. You have agency, and your actions matter. If you are overcome with eco-anxiety, it’s time to act.

According to climate activist Clover Hogan, this will help you feel better:

“If you’re into fashion, why not look at the fact that a third of the world’s microplastics come from the textile industry? If you’re motivated by your gut, why not rethink that 50 percent of fresh produce is wasted in America?”

Yes, fires are burning everywhere, and every year it seems to be getting worse. The positive news is we still haven’t reached the tipping point. There’s still some time left. There’s still hope.

Let’s get to work.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on “Medium” here.
Credit: 1; Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

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