It’s an adage among ecologists: everything living is connected. What happens to one biological population has what economists might call a multiplier effect, cascading down a chain of causes and effects to shape the lives of other biological populations in far-flung places.
In practical terms, this means we can’t divorce events in one environment from their connection to the whole. There’s no splendid isolation in nature.
As we watch the unfolding catastrophe in Brazil, where a fiery inferno is consuming broad swathes of rainforest foliage acres at a time, we must stay alert to the ways this devastation will have lasting effects far beyond the Amazonian river basin — even to farms in the Midwest.
To understand this counterintuitive truth, it’s important to grasp the global significance of the Amazon. It’s no exaggeration to see the Amazon rainforest as a “weather engine.” Approximately 20% of all freshwater emptying into our oceans, for example, comes from the Amazon and its tributaries. The dense jungle foliage there is the largest component in a natural carbon sequestration system that takes in about a quarter of the world’s carbon.
Even a slight change in this fragile balance can have lasting consequences for global climate. And what’s happening in the Amazon right now is far from a modest disruption. Satellite images revealed almost 10,000 separate blazes raging at one point, accelerating a trend that has destroyed about 17% of the Amazonian rainforest over the past five decades.
In Brazil, where most of the forest lies, illegal land clearing seems to have been the source of the conflagration. Farmers looking for more territory to develop see deforestation as an opportunity to get cheap, uninhabited, productive land to develop. Their new President, Jair Bolsanaro, has shown little determination to curb their efforts, and has only recently made moves to fight the fires with the urgency the situation requires.
That’s too bad, because what happens in Brazil doesn’t stay in Brazil. Deforestation in the Amazon basin means less carbon is sequestered, and more ends up in the atmosphere. That will intensify the effects of climate change, warming the planet by degrees. It will reduce the availability of water and heat the soil, making droughts more common.
Because of the strategic importance of the Amazon and the extent of the damage, the effects will extend from the Brazilian breadbasket to the American breadbasket. Imagine an invisible river extending from Brazil to the United States, a delicate thread bonding the two. These fires will fray that fabric, and limit the flow of water from one place to others. That’s the nature of the water cycle–events in one place will have lasting effects in remote locations.
If the fires aren’t contained, Midwestern farmers could experience devastating damage: scorching temperatures, intensified drought conditions, and less productive soil.
That’s why the global community of farmers should be concerned about what’s happening in Brazil. What happens thousands of miles away will shape our future. It’s a lesson from ecologists farmers neglect at their own peril.