No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet
by Nikolas Kozloff
Palgrave MacMillan, 2010
reviewed by Javier Sethness
No Rain in the Amazon, by journalist Nikolas Kozloff, focuses on the devastation wrought by capitalism on the peoples and ecosystems of Peru and Brazil. The work is a more thoughtful account of the socio-environmental crisis than that offered by noted environmental commentators such as Bill McKibben and Mark Lynas. This difference reflects Kozloff’s more critical analysis of neoliberal capitalism. Unlike McKibben, Lynas, and many others, Kozloff’s concerns regarding environmental destruction are not separate from concern for exploited Southern proletarians and threatened indigenous peoples.
Reviewing climatological reports, Kozloff warns that climate change will likely bring more frequent and intense El Niño events, leading to drought in Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and the Brazilian Amazon. Paradoxically, it will also increase rains and flooding in countries like Peru and Ecuador. El Niño reduces ocean plankton populations, thus disrupting marine food chains, and facilitates the growth of bacterial conditions like cholera as well as parasitic diseases like malaria and dengue fever.
So by simultaneously disrupting agricultural production and increasing disease-burdens, more frequent and intense El Niño events will force governments of affected societies to dedicate unprecedented resources to public-health emergencies—resources they do not have, thanks to capitalism.
The 2005 drought in the Amazon, as Kozloff reports, released 5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere—the equivalent of Europe and Japan’s annual emissions. The 2010 Amazon drought, an El Niño-induced event which Kozloff could not consider in his book, released 8 billion tons— as much as China, the world leader in emissions, releases every year.
Turning specifically to Peru, Kozloff reveals why it is among the countries most vulnerable to climate change: two-thirds of its people live in the arid coastal region and depend upon Andes glaciers for water. Peru, home to 71 percent of South America’s glaciers, has seen a 22 percent decline in glacier surface area over the last few decades. As well as threatening water supplies, the loss of glacial ice can lead to flash floods from lakes formed by glacial retreat, like those that destroyed much of the city of Huaraz in 1941. Moreover, as Kozloff writes, warmer temperatures could promote late blight, a fungal disease that might threaten the all-important Peruvian potato crop just as it did in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century.
In Brazil, Kozloff’s second case study, the situation may be even more dire. Beyond the direct damage caused to the Amazon rainforest by global warming itself, the vast expansion of cattle-ranching that has made Brazil the world’s biggest beef exporter has involved the clearing of extensive stretches of the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands. This has stark implications for the health of the Amazon system, the great regulator of the global climate. This clearly shows the blatant irrationality of capitalism: large sections of the “lungs of the planet” are destroyed to make pasture for methane-belching beasts that will in turn be slaughtered for consumption.
The Amazon, like the adjoining cerrado grassland biome, is further threatened by the expansion of massive soy monocultures and agrofuel crops, driven by big agricultural firms. Kozloff emphasizes the close relationship between destructive agribusiness and Brazil’s government. He stresses the responsibility of Northern financial institutions for funding these projects, and shows that the power of cattle-ranchers and agribusiness is part of the oligarchical system that has distorted Brazil’s development. Kozloff’s discussions of the effectively enslaved laborers who work for the Brazilian bourgeoisie, and of the oppositional Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) are important reading.
But Kozloff’s account has flaws. He over-emphasizes the role of government reformers, while saying little about the role of civil society . He views ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as a “Third World defender” for resisting Western approaches that would restrict Southern development so as to avoid environmental destruction, despite Lula’s policies that facilitated the degradation of the Amazon and hence greatly threaten Southern peoples. Similarly, Kozloff’s claim that the Obama administration “takes global warming more seriously” than Bush can now be seen as absurd—a development that was nonetheless foreseeable when he wrote the book.
Kozloff rightly critiques neo-liberal institutions like the World Bank and IMF, as well as Northern consumers whose appetites for meat, leather, and soy drive much of the Amazon’s destruction. He even concedes that economic growth and the “free-trade model” are inherently unsustainable.
But how does Kozloff propose to deal with this crisis? He claims that “international capital is [itself] going to have to radically rethink its entire modus operandi” in light of the climate crisis. He thinks the World Bank should be reformed and persuaded to finance “alternative development schemes,” that a “Manhattan project for conservation” be launched, and that environmentalists should continue with the “provocative” traditions of Greenpeace and use the legal system.
In essence, Kozloff hopes that politicians and capitalists will respond rationally to the potentially terminal threats posed by capitalism’s destruction of the biosphere. This is a vain hope: capital and its state can offer no resolution to the socio-environmental darkness they are causing.
Instead, climate catastrophe can only be prevented by the multitudes of subordinated humans consciously uniting their collective struggles against the mindless destructiveness of the capitalist system. As an Arhuaco elder quoted by Kozloff says: global capitalism is “waging a war on the earth [and its peoples], and it must stop!”
Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He maintains the blog Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism; his first book, Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, will soon be published by AK Press.