Our Home Is (Literally) On Fire: On the politics of disasters

From the Amazon to Scottish flat blocks, fire disasters are political. One writer explores how a fire above his home connects to a fire in his other home, Brazil

Feature by Sam Gonçalves | 25 Oct 2019
  • The Amazon on Fire

During the summer, I woke up at 5am to the sound of someone kicking the door to my flat. Still a little drowsy I walked over to it, slid the security chain on and opened the door with the smallest possible gap. Out on the stairs a firefighter yelled at me to get out, there was water cascading behind her and a maze of hoses on the floor. She started pointing to specific spots for me to step on and make my way downstairs. As I got out to the parking lot with the other residents we were told the flat right above mine was on fire and the firefighters were struggling to contain it.

No one was seriously hurt, though some tenants had to be taken to hospital due to smoke inhalation. One of them lived directly above the burning flat and had to climb up onto the roof of the building to escape the smoke. 

In the two weeks that followed we couldn’t return to the building due to some safety concerns. During that time, while feeling an overwhelming sense of anxiety and chaos, I found myself repeatedly going to the internet, a place where those feelings are both soothed and empowered. Around that time there was one thing you couldn’t escape online: the devastating and multiplying fires happening in the Amazon.

The Brazilian rainforest is not naturally prone to fires. It’s human intervention that causes them. Cattle ranchers and loggers will run clandestine operations in order to turn rainforest into acquirable and profitable terrain. In the last year, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research has seen an increase of 84% in the number of fires ravaging the Amazon. Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, is one of the main causes for this increase. Being “pro-business” at all costs, his administration has overseen the weakening of policy and regulation protecting the Amazon and its people.

The burning of the largest rainforest in the world is a global crisis with a global fallout. Scientists believe that if it continues to burn at this rate, the Amazon will start a death spiral and recovery will be impossible. As I did my own kind of spiralling online, well-meaning perspectives came flooding in response to the rainforest crisis. In a desperate plea for action, many were suggesting that economic sanctions were put on Brazil from the international community. A few even suggested military intervention. An end-of-world mood had been set on social media and it seemed like it was our duty to play the heroes.

But this is not the first time an intervention was suggested or carried out on Brazilian soil. The very first one happened in 1500 with the arrival of Pedro Álvares Cabral in South America, a continent now defined only in contrast to its northern neighbour. Back then, however, no thought was given to the depletion of natural resources. Latin American land was syphoned off for centuries, its riches stolen, and its people enslaved, raped and murdered in the name of progress and civilisation. 

Beyond a playground for atrocities and genocide, colonies were seen as inferior in every way. The thinking was that the indigenous people couldn’t be trusted to organise a society; they had to be taught, they had to be civilised. This approach continued on far past official colonial rule. Recently declassified documents by the United States show the American government threw its support completely behind the Brazilian military coup in 1964. The justification of it, also found in these documents, was about control – Brazilians couldn’t be trusted to elect and run their own government. For the sake of a civilised world, the adults had to step in.

To this day the effects of colonialism, slavery and capitalism can be seen ripping apart every natural resource and shackling every thought of independence in the Global South. Bolsonaro himself built his platform by exploiting the vulnerabilities of Brazil’s young democracy. The military dictatorship, which he fervently defends, has emboldened world destroyers like him for over 50 years. 

We can point to many issues with military intervention or economic sanctions in Brazil, among them that all the hurt caused will filter down to the poorest and most vulnerable Brazilians – never, at all, to the people actually responsible for these crimes. But the most fundamental issue is that these interventions would simply further the colonial structures that inspired the catastrophe in the first place. It is not surprising that those floating the idea of military intervention in Brazil did not for a moment consider dismantling their own country’s beef industry, for instance. This is colonial thinking with a new coat of paint.

While I couldn’t go back to my flat, the online freefall I was in led me to several related articles about fires that have happened on my street. Over the last ten years, that one street had seen its fair share of incidents of this type, one which resulted in the death of a woman back in 2011. On the next street over, however, parallel to where I lived, I could not find records of any recent fires. The difference? My street scores dead low on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Specifically, on housing it scores the lowest (worst) possible number. Meanwhile, the other street (literally a minute’s walk away) scores quite high and is a reasonably affluent area in the city.

The bigger story these flat fires tell is one of shocking inequality that can be found in Scotland and the UK. It is the story of how income and inherited wealth make the difference on the type of housing you can access and, therefore, the type of risk you’re in of making it through a fire. By furthering these widespread inequalities, we are lighting a figurative match that can set real fires. 

Colonialism has lit its own match. It has shaped the world around reckless consumption and proud disregard for every life it doesn’t consider “civilised” enough. So, in order to save the Amazon, we need to understand that we are not the “saviours” in this story. We need to subvert the patronising systems that impose white expertise on native life. Like the economic inequality in Scotland being responsible for some of those flat fires, colonial oppression and “first world” economic interest is responsible for the Amazon fires. In both cases, we can’t fix the problem by repeating the same behaviour that got us here. 

In no way am I advocating that we cross our arms and do nothing about the climate. We must challenge our leaders and companies. We must strike. We must look at our power around the world and find ways to dismantle it. We must fight for justice in every instance of human rights abuse perpetrated by our government. While we do that, we can also learn from the groups throughout the world organising around climate justice. We can take a page from the people fighting Bolsonaro’s policies every day while they are targeted by them. We can support the native people of the Amazon, to whom the slogan “our home is on fire” carries a lot more weight. We can begin the learning on how to share the world.