The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taming fire let humans thrive. Now man-made flames in the Amazon threaten us all.

We turned a great creative force into a great destructive one.

A fire burns along the road to Jacunda National Forest, near the city of Porto Velho, Brazil, on Monday. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

Every year, dust from the Sahara Desert is lifted by the wind and carried aloft into our atmosphere. Grains traverse the Atlantic Ocean and settle over the Amazon rainforest, supplying the trees with phosphorus that is washed away each winter during heavy rains. For millions of years, the winds have brought land to South America from a continent away, and every year, this dust helps the forest stay healthy.

For 55 million years, the trees in the Amazon have been participating in this cycle; far more recently, our ancient ancestors began to walk on two legs. This dance of rain, dust and growth cycled along as we evolved. Then humans learned to use fire.

Fire was the first great human invention. Early hominids first learned to harness the power of flame when they began to cook their food and make clay pots. Evidence of hearths were found as far back as 400,000 years ago in South Africa. Humans used fire to burn bones and wood, create tools and stay alive. But there is no time in humanity’s short existence when we haven’t also been aware of fire’s ability to destroy us. We even created myths that warned that if fire fell from the sky, it was because the gods were angry with us. If a volcano erupted and blanketed a town with lava, we must have done something wrong.

This time, it’s no myth: The Amazon is burning, because of human actions. And once it’s gone, we can never get it back.

The jungle is so rich in biodiversity and trees that it accounts for 6 percent of the oxygen output for the entire planet. It is the largest and most diverse rainforest on Earth. The Amazon’s nearly 3 million square miles of land contains billions of trees of over 16,000 species.

Every year, fires burn in the Amazon, but unlike other wildfires that these blazes resemble, they’re not caused by a warming climate: Humans are setting these fires solely for the purpose of using the land to make money. The images of the forest alight and billowing with dark smoke are almost too much to handle. Like a photo littered with hundreds of galaxies, it’s almost unfathomable to understand our place in these conflagrations. Bearing witness to these extreme events as an outsider can feel voyeuristic, almost like looking out into a world we don’t recognize. Astronaut Luca Parmitano tweeted as he saw the blaze from the International Space Station, “the smoke is visible for thousands of kilometers.” Climate writer Eric Holthaus tweeted, “These fires are a crime against our planet.”

And yet, we still seem so indifferent. The fires in the Amazon, cumulatively, have received less media coverage than the fire at Notre Dame this spring, for instance: Media Matters reported that the fire at Paris’s historic church got 15 times the coverage that the burning rainforest has. On Monday morning, the Group of 7 leaders agreed to fund firefighting measures with a budget of $20 million. Notre Dame raised 1 billion euros in a matter of days. Perhaps Notre Dame is an easier place to grieve: It’s a human-made place of worship, a marker of a time in history, a work of art. It’s an easy place to understand. The Amazon, though, is a dense, lush, sprawling landscape that spent millions of years evolving, home to indigenous people and a diverse ecosystem and, most important, one that many people never get to see in their lifetime. That’s much harder to relate to. But maybe our ability to look away from disasters like this is a symbol of our own ambivalence about doing anything to fight the climate crisis in general.

Why can't we stop climate change? We're not wired to empathize with our descendants.

Fire is itself a social tool that calls on us to gather around it. Fire can make us feel safe. We build hearths in our homes, we build campfires, watch the flames dance and listen to the wood crack as it keeps us warm. These gathering places help us tell stories — and to be silent. Fire is for contemplation. The ability to wield the creative and destructive force of fire helped us evolve as a species.

Last week, there was so much smoke from the fires that the skies were blacked out in parts of Brazil and Bolivia. Day turned to night while the fire raged. Fire, like most destructive forces, can also bring renewal. But not in this case. The Amazon holds about 10 years’ worth of our planet’s carbon dioxide. This is the major gift of trees: They give us air to breathe, and in exchange, they serve as banks that hold on to carbon. We keep them alive, they help us keep the ecosystem in check. It’s an agreement we’ve had for millions of years. But if we kill too many of them, the whole cycle is thrown out of whack. There is no phoenix rising from the ashes of these fires — once the Amazon is gone, that’s it.

We have to face what we’ve done. No god threw a lightning bolt from the sky to punish us — we did this. Unlike Notre Dame, the Amazon isn’t a cathedral we built, but rather a cathedral we were gifted. Now we are watching it burn, together.

So much of what makes us human exists in the parts of ourselves that we cannot put words to. Our wildness exists in the vastness of our beings, like so much of the land on our planet that we choose to protect or choose to destroy. It is in those places where we find something especially valuable and we must keep it safe. Jane Goodall once said, “In 200 years people will look back on this particular period and say to themselves, how did those people at that time just allow all of these amazing creatures to vanish. There is still a lot worth fighting for.” She’s right. If we want to change things, we must begin by looking directly at the darkness — and at the flames. This is where we live now.

Read more:

Notre Dame is no stranger to catastrophe

We saw the glow of fire in the distance. Four hours later, it was at our front door.