All You Can See is Death

Flying the Amazon fires, "all you can see is death"
Source: Natalie Gallon (CNN)

Few weeks ago when I was in Jakarta for quite some time, I had everyday lunch break with my colleagues; a routine I rarely did. While waiting for my food, I checked my phone and stumbled upon an article covering the Amazon Fires. I held my breath as I looked at the headline photograph: The rainforest being wrapped in plumes of smoke as fires rage across the parts of the rainforest. Realizing that The Amazon has been called lungs of the planet, my lung suddenly was hurting and my eyes watery. I immediately closed article and put down my phone on the table as I knew it was going to trigger a burst of sadness. I tried distracting my thought by touching food served on the table and engaging myself on colleagues’ lunch discussion only to realize that they had been conversing the pros and cons about government’s plan to move the Capital to East Kalimantan and how it would (not) solve problems that Jakarta has been bearing for so long.

I slowly retracted my intention to jump into the discussion and prefer savoring my food while listening to their arguments. Most of their arguments were pertaining to moving the Capital will make palpable distance to their family, tear life they have built here, and only trigger new problems. Until they asked my two cents, “Do you think moving the Capital will serve greater good?”

I tried to quickly compose a reasonable answer but my mind still was on the Amazon. I ended up blurting without direction,

“To be frankly honest I have the least strong stance to utter a valid argument as I am currently not a permanent Jakarta resident and I don’t think I would be significantly impacted much as you guys. However moving the capital would only seem to me to be what David Harvey refers to spatio-temporal fix: solutions to capitalist crises through temporal deferment and geographical expansion. Besides  we are always on a losing side.”

They looked at me in a demeaning way until one popped a question,

“Who is this David Harvey anyway?”

A strange queasiness bloated in my stomach.

Later that night after work, I braved myself to browse what was pended at lunch on current event in the Amazon. As I could expect from the picture I saw at lunch: It is burning massively. To add the torture, I let my curiosity guide my fingers to browse recent photographs of the Amazon. A photograph on The Atlantic portrays an aerial picture of a fire on a piece of land in the Amazon rainforest. A photograph of burned area in the Amazon is vividly captured on BBC News. The trees are on fire and melt down are presented on The Verge. On The Guardian there is also a video of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro saying that the wildfires are set up by some NGO to raise instability in the region after he slashed their funding meanwhile environmentalist put the blame on him saying his policies have only jeopardized the forest more.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazonian Forest, August 2019,
source: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images (The

I noticed that the Amazon has been receiving a tremendous pressure of deforestation since 2010 where wildfires are seen commonly happening in the Amazon. But this fire that happened on 27th August was on a whole different level at a rate scientists have never seen before. The Amazon has been historically fire resistant because of its natural environment, but it has been reported on mainstream news outlets that The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) forest fires recorded more than 74.000 fires that are happening so far this year – an 84 per cent increase on the same period in 2018 which is a huge jump in the number of forest fires. The way they were spreading is driving concern. Scientists also state that these wildfires burning the Amazon are not natural. It is predicted that the rainforest will take more than a century to fully recover. A century

I kept hopping articles from one to another until my eyes got caught on an interesting opinion article goes by The Amazon fires mark the end of REDD+. I read it slowly and stopped at this following paragraph:

“But REDD faltered from the beginning, experiencing a failure to launch, especially at the scale at which proponents advertised. While there have been some “successful” showcase projects in Latin America and Southeast Asia, by and large REDD has failed to deliver on its promises. Yet for some reason, disappointment in the REDD mechanism is a taboo subject in many development and conservation circles.”

Then today when I finished my morning jog, out of bad habits I checked my Twitter timeline and found out that Kalimantan is burning, too. I saw a video of gigantic smoke shrouding a rainforest in Central Kalimantan. The adrenaline rush I just have had from running instantly dissipated. I felt suffocated by merely envisaging the smoke and the haze, let alone feel the roaring fire scorching all the living beings there. However, whatever it is I feel it cannot be refuted that these brutal photography and videos of man-made tragedy/natural disasters are innocuous to some people simply because they are not psychically bound to the area. I myself could only see, and retweet, and reply, and comment, and sob, and weep.

We thought we are safe in our small shells. But we are not. 

On 27th August Antara News delivers that West Kalimantan Police had arrested 52 suspects in land and forest fire cases in the province. The police found some plantation and industrial forestry (HTI) companies intentionally burn their land concession areas or allowed it to occur in their land and harming the environment. ASEAN specialized Meteorological Center detected trans-boundary haze in West Kalimantan and Serawak Malaysia. National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Agus Wibowo stated that there are hotspots with moderate to high level in six provinces which happened in Riau with 201 hotspots, Jambi 84 hotspots, South Sumatra 126 hotspots, West Kalimantan 660 hotspots, Central Kalimantan 482 hotspots, and South Kalimantan 46 hotspots.

Those hotspots are spread across the REDD+ project forests which supposedly act as the spearhead in tackling climate change and deforestation. However, the deforestation seems inevitable no matter how adamantly efforts have been carried out. In 2009 a project called FORCLIME (Forests and Climate Change Program) was launched in East Kalimantan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the forest sector while improving the livelihoods of Indonesia’s poor rural communities by assisting Indonesian government to design and implement legal, policy, and institutional reforms for the conservation and sustainable forest management through financial cooperation. In 2010 Central Kalimantan was decided to be REDD pilot province as part of the Norwegian REDD Deal in which Norway had offered US$1 billion to Indonesia to reduce its deforestation. Same year in 2010 Jambi was chosen to take part in the A$30 million Sumatra Carbon Partnership sourced jointly by Indonesia and Australia through The Indonesia Australia Forest Carbon Partnership as an initiative of the Australian Government to support REDD programs. In 2011 UK’s Climate Change Unit funded Asia Foundation’s environmental governance program which focused on improving forest and land governance in Indonesia specifically in North and East Kalimantan through donor-supported programs. And many more similar initiatives implemented as part of REDD+ projects across Indonesia seem on the verge of failing.

A simple logic I can use is that the more efforts (fund) we use (spend) to conserve forest and empower local community, the lower the deforestation rate is getting. But the reality is practically laughing at my simple logic.

But REDD faltered from the beginning, experiencing a failure to launch, especially at the scale at which proponents advertised.

The article is compelling as my eyes read the article to the end but my mind got stuck processing any words after the paragraph I cited. It echoed in my mind and reverberated strongly with my research thesis that I had done three years ago that had greatly impacted me not only academically but also spiritually. 

My research teaches me

Weathered Signboard of REDD+ (source: personal documentation)

In 2013 I started conducting a research on forest conservation and carbon trade policy. My locus research was community participation in the implementation of the one and only REDD+ project on the island of Java. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus), as the name explains itself, is a voluntary mitigation approach to tackle climate change that has been developed to reduce emissions and enhance carbon stock by incentivizing developing countries. The term ‘plus’ refers to conservation of forest carbon stocks, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks. In short, developing countries (including Indonesia) should be rewarded for keeping their forests instead of cutting them down. On a long term it is expected that any party (including individual) who conserves trees by enhancing its carbon stock would be financially rewarded.

REDD+ is a very perplexing subject. It has covered many topics from legal, community, biology, ecology, forestry, to social and economy and has brought many controversial debates. REDD+ projects are mostly experiencing solid adversity. In a forest where I conducted my research, community participation was considered low and deforestation rate had been ameliorating for the last five years. I had once a discussion with one professor in an Australian university, he challenged me to name one successful REDD+ project in Indonesia in order to get his supervision. Deep in my heart I knew it was quite impossible to perfectly fit the criteria of success of REDD+ projects. And it is true among environmental and conservation circles that saying failure of REDD+ is considered a harsh taboo.

Upon the completion of my research I felt slapped and upended by my own field findings. Dealing with meandering bureaucracy, unclear set-up indicators, absence of social and environmental safeguards, and weak law enforcements had swallowed me in the mud of hopelessness. Not to mention the rogue wave of aloneness, inexorable weariness, and a subtle remorse every time I heard my own conscience whispering a rhetorical question into my ears, “Why had I chosen this topic?”

I had enlisted few things that made me so vexed. First, data I mustered shows that the carbon stock enhance didn’t reach as expected due to extreme deforestation from illegal logging and forest encroachment. Second, during my staying I had observed inequality, wide social gap and education, and systemic poverty which were rooted deeply since Reformation era. I was totally in shocked to find out that community financial assistance was managed by patronizing extortionists. Why would someone poor extort from the poor? That question still haunted me to this day. Third while the financing of this project was sourced from public private partnership with a total amount of US$1 million in four years time span, the community participation didn’t fully take place. There was no women and marginalized groups empowerment program. The only empowerment program was focusing on the income improvement to avert illegal logging and forest encroachment which contributed very little to the success of the program. Fourth and probably what I abhor the most is that the here environmental issue has been mostly used as political vehicle to reach power and recognition.  The local community involved to be the main actor was in fact slightly impacted socially and economically. Fifth, this is really personal: I felt hopeless. I was a student doing a research only to observe and gather some data without having an impact to alter the outcome. It was like watching a wretched building crumbling down and there was nothing I could do about it and it pained me a lot. The summary of my research could be accessed here on Mongabay in Bahasa Indonesia.

After three months well-spent on the field, I came back home feeling edgy and tense. The restlessness tightened its grip on me and I never felt so daunted to finish what I started. I had intentionally left my paperwork undone and all data I had had unprocessed. In spite of doing piles of works I needed to finish, I focused more on other things such as working and involving myself in community activities to make me feel better. I felt a lot better when I got more occupied. I still do.

All my friends consoled me that I had only to complete what was left of my research, and that was all. But I couldn’t lie to myself that this research had profoundly served something more meaningful in my life rather than mere academic requirement. Then my scholarship coordinator reached me out asking how my thesis was going. She gave me a friendly reminder of my remaining scholarship due. Problem was every time I got back to work on my research, it would amplify the uneasiness I was dealing with. There was a tiny part of me that kept contradicting my work.

I still clearly remembered why I took this course. I could still clearly recall my answer when a panel of scholarship interviewers asked me about the significance of my research. Au contraire I was so upset I could neither fulfill my own promise nor live up to my own principles. In the end I still finished my research and graduated satisfyingly just because I had to, not I wanted to. I had to admit that I was helped by many kind people including from the national park staffs and local community. Before I parted, few people in the national park approached me and said, "Take this as a lesson. Your coming here isn't to change anything, but to learn something for your life. It might be only a research thesis, but it's part of our reality."

It was depressing to swallow things beyond our control. And this bitter truth advise has fractured a tiny part in my heart beyond repair. And it was one of the reasons I took a break to Australia (only to be pounded more heftily by life). The joke on me. But since then I realized that I am in an incessant journey of acceptance, including to embrace this part.

So reading these engrossing articles about forest fires has basically triggered me a relapse of unbearable haplessness I once have had, and here I am venting it out. 

I strongly believe the idea that humans are meaningfully separate from nature is rather old-school. Nature holds a great meaning to human existence. Our capability to alter our surroundings and be shaped by it is an attestation that we are connected with our physical surroundings. Since long time ago we have been benefitted from nature in many ways.

Somehow we tend to only pursue what we perceive functional and beautiful to our standards. We more often are afraid of things we don’t comprehend. Nature preserves heaps of mystery and beauty. All living creatures are unique and needed in their own way. For instance in marine environment, a green sea turtle living in Euphotic zone is as important as a Moray Eel living in Abyssal zone. They hold same ecological value. As Darwin once points out that venomous snakes and great white sharks, and other dangerous animals and plants with peculiar structure are part of the ecosystem, and of great beauty of nature.

We are connected in a cycle that influences each other. That’s why nature has its own law and order. This connectedness is elaborated with what Ervin Laszlo meant by reality which is characterized with a deep oneness of the plenum and the flowing out of the cosmos and takes the recognition that the other us not other, that we are a part of it, a planetary species. Food chain and pyramid of energy are abstractions that we play major role in reshaping environment. It’s like life and death are as normal as consuming and being consumed.

Aristotle develops a notion that all things in the natural world – living and nonliving – is organized through a natural ladder called Scala Naturae which explained ‘lower’ forms of matter to ‘higher’ forms of matter. This ladder emphasizes that every single thing has its own place on the ladder and each species cannot switch places that implicates species are immutable. Aristotle ranks humans on the top because humans have the ability to think rationally while the others don’t. Humans and animals are able to move freely, but plants and minerals relatively aren’t. Scala Naturae covers inanimate matter (minerals) as the ‘lowest’, then up to plants, then animals. The highest things on the ladder are humans. Aristotle also made an extensive observation on animals which allowed him to rank different kinds of animals on the ladder.

Interestingly Scala Naturae has been used mostly to justify humans as the top species that can think and move based on logical thinking; the ability most of the time we take for granted. It implanted the notorious superiority that humans are the apex predator. Plato once defined ‘man’ as a ‘two-footed featherless animals’. We are basically animals: a thinking animal, a social animal. The frailty and the wildness always lie deeply within us, nevertheless we humans often perceive themselves as nature conqueror since we sit at the top of food chain; a center of the universe, hence anthropocentrism. In a simple way, anthropocentrism is a belief that human beings are the most important entity in the universe. Rob Boddice in Anthropocentrism: Humans, Animals, Environment (2011) elaborates it as below:

“Anthropocentrism is expressed either as a charge of human chauvinism, or as an acknowledgment of human ontological boundaries. It is in tension with nature, the environment, and nonhuman animals (as well as nonhumans per se). It is in apparent contrast to other-worldly cosmologies, religions, and philosophies. Anthropocentrism has provided order and structure to humans’ understanding of the worlds, while unavoidably expressing the limits of that understanding. It influences our ethic, our politics, and moral status of Others. Yet these expressions leave some doubt about the extent to which the concept and its history understood. “
It is proven historically how major human cultural changes have reshaped nature and definition of anthropocentrism: 1) the agricultural revolution, 2) industrial revolution, 3) globalization revolution. Since the time of advanced hunter-gatherers, it is believed that a greater impact occurred on the environment than did early hunter-gatherers. They used fire to convert forests into grasslands (the first practice of slash-and-burn cultivation), contributed to the extinction of some large animals, and altered the distribution of plants as they carried seeds and plants to new area.

However some early growers also implemented shifting cultivation in tropical regions to respect and understand nature. After a plot had been used for several years, the soil became depleted of nutrients or reinvaded by the forest; therefore the growers cleared a new plot. They learned that each abandoned patch normally had to be left fallow for 10 – 30 years before the soil became fertile enough to grow crops again. While patches were regenerating, growers used them for tree crops, medicines, fuel wood, and other purposes. In this manner they had practice sustainable cultivation.

The modernization and industrialization built humans an asymmetrical relationship with nature. Many literature and documents are attributed to this topic. Through modernization and industrialization anthropocentrism has been considered not only human centeredness but also conditioned to regard itself as superior species. Eccy de Jonge in Spinoza and Deep Ecology (2004) states that anthropocentrism also represents human will to dominate human world and nonhuman world. That’s why more development and infrastructure have been focusing on ravaging natural resources to fulfill human’s needs.

Anthropocentrism is considered problematic because by necessity it needs to be a strategy that some humans adopt for their own purposes: an intersubjective egoism which many, but not all, humans possess. Yet again, according to Jonge, this view of anthropocentrism does not put human beings at the center of the universe but only certain humans: those who, for one reason or another, choose to dominate others. In my opinion it won’t only lead to ecological devastation, but also power competition.

What I consider problematic is that some anthropocentric philosophers support cornucopian point of view which rejects claims that Earth’s resources are limited or that unchecked human population growth will exceed the carrying capacity of Earth and result in wars and famines as resources become scarce. They argue that technology will be developed as necessary to solve future problems of scarcity. They see no moral or practical need for legal controls to protect the natural environment or limits exploitation.

However, there is also prudential anthropocentrism stating that obligations toward environment can be justified in terms of obligations towards other humans. One simple instance, pollution can be seen really detrimental because it negatively affects the lives of other people. Therefore pollution must be reduced.

Deep Ecology
I first heard Deep Ecology when I was a sophomore in college. I didn’t realize I was going to have a syllabus that included environmental philosophy in Environmentalism class. Initially I was introduced to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and personally enamored by her determination in delivering specific details on her book which was over four years in the making. Even though it was only an excerpt in my module book, I didn't stop reading her book. A part of many chapters that I never get tired of reading is Earth’s Green Mantle:

“Water, soil, and the earth’s green mantle of plants make up the world that supports the animal life of the earth. Although modern man seldom remembers the fact, he could not exist without the plants that harness the sun’s energy and manufacture the basic foodstuff he depends upon for life. Our attitude towards plants is a singularly narrow one. If we see any immediate utility in a plant we foster it. If for any reason we find its presence undesirable or merely a matter of indifference, we may condemn it to destruction forthwith. Besides the various plants that are poisonous to man or his livestock, or crowd out food plants, many are marked for destruction merely because, according to our narrow view, they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many others are destroyed merely because they happen to be associates of the unwanted plants.”
Silent Spring focuses on the documentation of detrimental effects that the haphazard use of pesticides has on the environment and has been considered as the first awareness that raised green movement. Carson concerns on the chemical pesticides used in farms that have far reaching effects on the environment which she describes as ‘biocides; as their effects are not only limited to the specific pests that they aim to exterminate but also to environment. I perceive this as an excessive way to yield production in benefiting from nature.

Then I indulged myself in learning environmental philosophy from its prominent writers and bumped into Deep Ecology. Deep ecology is an alternative to anthropocentrism; an antithesis if I may say. It refers to an egalitarian and holistic environmental philosophy founded on phenomenological methodology. Michael P. Nelson summarizes a Deep Ecology as an experience that by way of direct experience of nonhuman nature, one recognizes the equal intrinsic worth of all biota as well as one’s own ecological interconnectedness with the lifeworld in all its plenitude.

Deep ecology was invented by Arne Naess in his famous 1973 English-language article, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary.” Naess highlights the arrogance of human-centered instrumentalization of nonhuman nature. He criticizes shallow paradigm which he finds to be typical of mainstream environmentalism as a merely extension of anthropocentrism for conserving wilderness and preserving biodiversity because they are invariably tied to human welfare and prizes nonhuman nature for its use-value. Think it as somebody says he loves you but turn out he only says so to only use you. Isn't it equal to a manipulation?

Anyway, Naess proposes Deep Ecology as an urge to move toward seeing ourselves as part of the whole biosphere. He introduces “the ecological self” as an awareness of our relationship to a larger community of all living beings. There are eight basic principles in Deep Ecology:

1. Inherent value: The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life one earth have value in themselves. These values are independent if the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Diversity: Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Vital Needs: Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. Population: The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

5. Human interference: The present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

6. Policy change: policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. Quality of life: The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Obligation of Action: Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.

Instead of forcing the Deep Ecology, Naess has inspired others to engage in deep philosophical questioning through example. Naess has spent some time in his secluded boreal hut in Tvergastein where he wrote many of his books and his personal ecosophies. The environmental sociologists Riley Dunlap and William Catton Jr. gave the clearest expression of an emerging eco-centric approach by contrasting what they called the ‘Human Exemptionalist Paradigm’ or HEP with a ‘New Ecological Paradigm’ or NEP. The former they argued is based upon the assumption that humans are so unique in their possession of culture as to be exempt from environmental forces and processes affecting other species, whereas the latter paradigm stresses the complex interdependence of humans with other species and the material embeddedness of human society within wider bio-physical processes and eco-system dynamics. I think the latter has a closer value with Deep Ecology. 

For some extent I try to cultivate a personal feeling every time I bond with nature: that we are both subjects of exploitation of class struggle. This reminds me of what Karl Marx said about nature. Francis Wheen in Karl Marx wrote that Marx sought to position his historical materialism as compatible with the historical naturalism of his contemporary Charles Darwin, whose Origin of Species Marx read with great enthusiasm. Marx wrote that ‘Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history’, and ‘this is the book which contains the basis in natural history of our view’. Marx wants to be able to acknowledge that humans are part of nature and that ‘man’ is a natural being, while also maintaining that humans alone are ‘social’ and ‘historical’ beings.

Based on this (class) struggle over-exploitation, over-production, and consumerism has become the center in anthropocentrism. The more we consume, the more we erode nature. However, one couldn’t defy the gravity of life and the necessity to live up to it. Implementing more environmentally friendly lifestyle often shackles, let alone deep ecology. When I was younger, I was ebullient in campaigning for environmental cause and awareness. I often lambasted people I considered exploitative and anthropocentric; a thing that I wasn’t proud of. I discovered that even in a simple movement political agendas remained behind the curtain; ceremonial formality, frictions, and conflicts. I couldn’t bear the idea coming to my mind that in these days of human-driven climate change, politics is always behind the stage. I felt my activism no longer vocalized my concern and it got on my nerve. It’s like we have been trying to reduce our emissions without ever completely shutting down the spigot of air pollution.  

Furthermore green lifestyle transitioning requires more efforts especially in financing which has been intricately threaded on so many aspects in life. I learned that to some action must be taken voluntarily, not by force. For example one refuses to take public transportation because he considered it unreliable. One refuses to reduce single use plastic bags as he considered it reusable. The other problem is that many environmental issues are turned into commodification and fetishism commodity. It's like we couldn't escape completely from this vicious cycle. After all many has supported this as long as it for a good cause, it is still a good start.

I picked up some lessons really personal to myself to grow self-awareness of loving the environment and the Nature itself. I should start with an acknowledgement that I am part of nature and undeniably connected to it, not separated.

The fires spread in the forest and the failing policy are a few examples of how deleterious Nature can be as the reflection our imagery, and how selfish and futile we humans can be. Nevertheless we are doomed anyway.

Then to appreciate the Nature, maybe, just a maybe, we can start by loving our environment the way we love ourselves. We cannot win fight fire with fire.