A Return to the Heart

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

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“It’s a daily apotheosis of science and poetry: The forest breathes and saves the planet every day. But with deforestation having exploded during the first year of this extreme-right government, the Amazon is now closer than ever to the tipping point, the dramatic moment when the forest will become a savanna.” —Eliane Brum

 

Close your eyes for a moment. Bring your awareness to your breath. Take five full inhales and exhales. One of the first things you will notice in doing this simple exercise is that one always follows the other. In other words: every contraction is followed by an expansion. We see this in every expression of nature and Newton’s third law—in every birth, breath and heartbeat. It can be seen on an epic scale when we look at the five mass extinctions, each allowing the next epoch of life to be born.

 

The great question of today is whether or not we can stop ourselves from authoring the sixth mass extinction. This is a battle that is being fought in many arenas, but the frontlines are indisputably those of the Amazon Rainforest. In our new issue, Eliane Brum tells the story of four women who are risking their lives every day to defend the Earth’s cradle of biodiversity. “If you say the Amazon belongs to Brazil, why aren’t you fighting to defend the Amazon?” says one such warrior, Juma Xipaya. “You don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, you don’t know what it’s like to have your homes invaded, you don’t know what it’s like to be kicked off your land.”

 

Over a month ago, I wrote a newsletter drawing the connection between the Amazon as our planet’s lungs and the respiratory virus that has choked our world. And while that metaphor may still hold, Brum makes another, perhaps more poignant one: “The Amazon serves as the planet’s heart, pumping not blood, but 20 trillion liters of water into the atmosphere every 24 hours.”

 

The lungs may be how we breathe, but without the heart, oxygen would never reach the rest of the body. And who can read Xipaya’s story, how her people have lost life and limb to save the Amazon, or of Maria do Socorro Silva whose body has been poisoned like the forest, and not see these acts as anything but heartless?

 

Speaking of heartless: the coronavirus is revealing gross truths about our treatment of animals. Just this week, Democratic House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson revealed that farmers may need to euthanize 60,000 to 70,000 pigs per day as slaughterhouses close down. And a new report on big livestock revealed that meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein but use 83% of farmland and produce 60% of the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle ranching accounts for 80% of the deforestation in the Amazon.

 

How can we cut out our only heart and hope to survive? After so much expansion, we are in a moment of contraction—and we have a choice as to what the next expansion will look like. We can yet again let it be defined by endless economic growth in an effort to go back to the way things were, or we can start to listen to scientists and the wisdom of indigenous leaders. As Sarah Eagle Heart suggested in our Future Earth Day project: we can make a return to the heart.

 

Consider donating to Sarah Eagle Heart’s foundation Return to the Heart.

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