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Disobedience in Paradise: can we extend a loving frame of mind in time for the Amazon?

Rupert J. M. Medd, words,
Walter Wust, aerial photography,
Hélène Guyot, illustrations,

UNITED NATIONS, NEW YORK, September 21, 2019…More than 30 scientists and researchers gathered at the eve of the UN Climate Action Summit at the UN’s headquarters to call on the scientific community at large to save the Amazon. For context, the Amazon boasts the title of the largest rainforest in the world and a place of immense natural and cultural wealth and diversity. It harbors more than a fifth of the species on Earth, including over 2,300 species of fish which are found across the basin, more than in the entire Atlantic Ocean. The Amazon also plays a critical role in global water cycles. Its rivers hold one fifth of all the fresh water of the planet, and the Amazon River is the largest tributary to the world’s oceans. The Amazon is also a source of enormous cultural diversity with more than 35 million people living in this magnificent ecosystem… The Amazon is a critical buffer against climate change. It absorbs about 20% to 25% of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon that forests remove from the atmosphere every year. The entire Amazon stores nearly 100 billion metric tons of carbon—about a decade’s worth of global emissions.

Suddenly a seismic linguistic shock is felt ~~~~~ And Paradise is Lost:

The Amazon rainforest is at grave risk of destruction, as made apparent by the widely covered forest fires.

Daily since 2019, living-dead Google Earth images of burning forest infernos are before our eyes – even the Arctic regions are succumbing to their worst wildfire seasons on record with massive blazes in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska. Here is seen the Amazon forests, fires that are now assumed to be largely under control.

My purpose here is to write straightforwardly on environmental destruction in general but using the Amazon Rainforests as a focus. As the forests are being reduced yearly to highly visible infernos and razed soulless landscapes, what happens also below the surface of our oceans is invisible to most but an identical massacre none the less. For a happy-go-lucky, sport-hippy character like myself, I can think of nothing worse than people reading my words and feeling a sense of helplessness. It is just that nobody with my knowledge on Latin America’s environmental history could shy away from the absolute lawlessness and ecological and social violence taking place. From the paradise depicted in the writings by conquistador-chronicler, Pedro Cieza de León (1520?–1554?) to the current apocalyptic reporting emerging from blog writers, journalists, Indigenous communities, NGOs and activists, I ask myself, how did such a complete inversion occur in only 500 years? 

            For sure, my most difficult task writing this is to find the edges of hope that ageing public figures such as James E. Lovelock, Lynn Margulis (RIP), David Attenborough, Leonardo DiCaprio and so on mention – at the end of all their talks. And we know that we are on the very edges today fighting something unthinkable. I often smile imagining the urban rose in Ben E. King’s song Spanish Harlem (1960), “It’s growing in the street right up through the concrete / But soft and sweet and dreaming.” Certainly a deeper form of ecological imagination is truly a big issue here as the current widespread employment of slogan-jargon rhetoric for the masses by politicians really demeans our collective intelligence. And yet this has already been normalised, totally void of evidence. In turn, this amasses a powerbase as people, strangely, critically question less. Today, there is huge attempt to camouflage the ecological violence while in the same instance, in Rob Nixon’s words, “clearing a path for it in a language scoured of emotion.”

            It is interesting this use of language as, to be brief, a language rooted in our planet’s living biospheres is something that I am working on as part of an educational curriculum – something positive. It takes the form of an ecolinguistic capability that will help us all relate in greater depth to other species as well as the marvels that we have before us in the shapes of land and oceanscapes. “Language is the skin of my thought” wrote Indian author-activist Arundhati Roy. We can consider this immersion as a multidirectional permeability, of fusing our bodies to their environments, to our ancestors, fellow species and elements of the greater biosphere. It is about embracing life-processes as a whole.

            Over recent decades, this conscious movement to supersede historical narratives of abundance>degradation with twenty-first-century narratives of reconciliation and sustainability remains more ideological than a present reality. Healthy and protected ecologies and the increasing number of murdered ecoactivists are far from being at the forefront of political concerns or policies, even though the human destruction of rainforest systems alone—including biodiversity—is already at 62 percent, meaning a tipping point for the planet has been reached. What this shift does signify, however, is a response to the growing awareness of the world’s environmental crisis—and this point is demonstrated by the uses of prefixes that form both verbs and verb derivatives now in common use. For example, “de” is superseded by “re” and, thus, “deforestation” is replaced by “reforestation”; “destruction” by “reconstruction”; “depleted” by “restock”; “disappeared” by “reintroduced”; “demystify” by “remystify”; and ultimately all “disharmonious” activities and cultural attitudes toward Earth engage a global collective stewardship centered on “reconciliation.” This does not mean that deforestation rates are decreasing. In fact, they are hugely increasing but this linguistic shift confirms that frontline writers acknowledge the long global history of environmental destruction and today they are actively choosing to narrate alternative and locally based solutions toward processes of regeneration.

            This is important now as the savagery and misery inflicted on our planet is so often camouflaged by very confusingly thin and opaque language and as part of cultural production processes. Examples are image-infused war reportage; sun on earth to depict the nuclear bomb, or naming the world’s first atomic detonation “Trinity” and its spectrum of light as a mediation between the earthly and divine forces. All the while, the facts hide away how any such actions such as forest destruction, damming of river systems, hydrogen/nuclear bomb testing in the oceans, plastic pollution and so on are categorical attacks launched on life itself – directly for some, indirectly for others but all our lives nevertheless as the collapse of our planet’s resilience intensifies.

            I often recall the words of Irish poet and mystic, W. B. Yeats in his poem The Stolen Child: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.” Putting the ethical issue aside of wanton environmental lawlessness, the perpetrators have acted with absolute impunity for centuries. We must never fool ourselves into believing that the fires raging throughout the Amazon forests have ignited some form of a new environmental consciousness about the overall destruction underway. This is because this tragic history is already centuries old and the forests have always been victims to the economic trends of resource requirements – it just happens to be currently about monocrop cultures such as soya beans and beef, water and Amazon oil. However, it is the scales of the destruction that are colossal today. 70,000+ fires is unimaginable to all of us. What is more, it is unlikely that a single meaningful case will be brought against any individual for having provoked such fires.   

            And so we mostly live in a state of denial or what I call the globalisation of indifference. A reimagining of what it means to be a human on a shared planet is clearly what climate collapse is demanding of us all. It implies telescoping rapidly in on the finer details of culture and society; it means totally discrediting our long histories of colonialism, racism, social hierarchies, the dichotomies of nature/culture and advanced/primitive peoples, xenophobia and the unlawful treatment of fellow species – all of which have asserted themselves into the modern framework as the sole and universal cultural norms that define what it is to be human. Marginalised groups – women, people with brown bodies, of alternative spiritualities have always existed outside of this statement of the human species. Are we really assuming that wild and unsustainable capitalism – and this means of pinning down and demystifying everything beautiful in the world with labels, descriptors and codes that inform us how much it all costs – is our only driving systemic approach to one another and our planet? And that alternative ways of structuring our lives are simply not possible? Are we really waiting until the last tree smoulders to the ground? Are we really waiting for the last drip to roll from a mountain glacier somewhere in Peru’s Andes?

So beautiful the rainforests appear in the Anthropocene’s dawn as their burning forest smoke fools us into imagining a serene cool misty morning.

The Anthropocene as a geological era of human capabilities to determine the Earth’s future relegates Nature’s forces to the sidelines – again. Outside of our power structures are the real planetary threats of earthquakes, rising oceans, forest fires and the psychological impacts of inhabiting a planet of increasing human self-enclosure. The latter is obviously unliveable, leaving us landscapes all razed, technologically transformed and without any language, history and natural rhythms for us to read and relate to. We are eroding away our narratives.

            So, the experts have formally classified the present period as a distinct époque in our planet’s history. This neologism refers – worryingly – to an “Age of the Human.” Drawing on Paul J. Crutzen’s and Eugene Stoermer’s hypothesis in 2000, human activities and behaviour have shifted Planet Ocean from beyond the safe boundaries of the Holocene period of the last 13,000 years and into the Anthropocene. A date that is frequently passed around for this event is 1750 and thereafter. Both scientists explained that enormous, immediate challenges confront humanity. The imagery of a bottleneck is given as population growth, excessive resource use and environmental deterioration amass to breaking points. How do we emerge out of this bottleneck?

            Global change, of course, refers to the biophysical as well as social and economic changes that directly alter both the structure and functioning of the Earth Systems. The term Earth System refers to the “suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles and energy fluxes that provide the life-support system for life at the surface of the planet.”[1]

Helping us to see the planet as one living marvel: “Planetary Boundaries Framework”

The influential “Planetary Boundaries Framework” – as set out in the illustration below – was theorised by an international and interdisciplinary group of scientists in 2009 and revised in 2014, and mostly informed by those researching at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC). I studied their course and was certainly one of the first classroom teachers thereafter to apply this thinking into the realm of the Humanities by merging this science with global literatures on the environment, such as Nature writing, travel writing, poetry and the environmental imagination. What is so unique about this framework is the clearly laid out design – it is accessible to all and easy to refer to when raising points as well as tie in with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 2030 Agenda).

SOURCE: Steffen et al. SRC. 2015. Illustration by F. Pharand-Deschênes/Globaïa and used with permission. [2]

SRC explain that the “planetary boundaries concept presents a set of nine planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. The planetary boundaries approach is not intended as a replacement for ecosystem management approaches but a complement that takes Earth system considerations into consideration.”[3] Unified, the boundaries form a synthesis of the intrinsic biophysical processes that regulate the stability of Earth. In turn, this acknowledges that Earth is a single complex and integrated system, functioning through interdependencies. Importantly, it is equally a measure of ecosystem health throughout these biophysical boundaries. Those that are now moving in to the yellow are zones of “uncertainty,” whilst those already in the red have transgressed “safe operating spaces” where a stable planetary ecosystem can no longer be sustained.

            In January 2015, an update was published in Science revealing that an additional boundary had been breached – Land-System Change, consequently leaving four out of nine borders crossed. So, Land-System Change (deforestation/agriculture/damming); Biosphere Integrity (biodiversity losses and extinctions); and Biogeochemical Flows (industrial and agricultural processes/fertiliser usage) are all today at high-risk levels, and adding to the equally critical and accumulative effects of the Climate Change boundary. The latter is the top as it is connected to all other boundaries and operates at the level of the whole Earth system.

            In 2019, ten years on since the framework’s development, SRC organised a conference titled “Reflections on the Planetary Boundaries Framework” with researchers and stakeholders discussing the intervening years as well as impacts and the future. Here it was revealed that the Earth System has never exceeded two degrees Celsius warming over the last three million years as the biosphere system has been perfectly self-regulating. Within a minuscule period of 150 years, humanity is forcing the geological climate clock back to conditions prevalent during the Miocene époque of ten million years ago and with 4+ degrees of warming. Our future is better understood, therefore, as becoming a planetary past and is now referred to as the “Miocene Future.” This will have resulted from humanity having crossed tipping points within the Earth System’s self-regulatory mechanisms.

            Focusing now on both the historical and actual conditions within the Amazon forests, we should know that more than half of its residents now live in cities with indigenous peoples comprising less than two per cent of the population. In 1997, Peru’s first environment minister Dr Antonio Brack Egg wrote that in Peru alone “there are 12.5 million m³ of quality wood burnt annually and for a total value of 2.700 million US dollars. This is truly shameful for a country like Peru that considers itself poor.”[4]

            In 2019, and since the start of the dry season, the Amazon forests have been blazing with over 70,000 fires, all clearly visible using Google Earth or by following various Instagram sites like Leonardo DiCaprio’s posts. On the 23rd August 2019, the World Economic Forum published an article titled “The Amazon is reaching a dangerous tipping point. We need to scale solutions now if we have any chance of saving it.”[5]

What does this mean and what will its effects be?

The effects of Land-System change feed directly into the adjacent boundary of “Biosphere integrity,” which relates to the overall ability of ecosystems to function in response to biodiversity losses as well as determining the rates of species extinctions – now termed as the sixth mass extinction. As air currents and their masses sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean and cover the rainforest’s westerly basins in gorgeous cloud forests, approximately fifty per cent of the overall rainfall is generated by recycling the abundance of moisture already hanging in the atmosphere. Consequently, deforestation maims the ecological cycles to the point that they begin to loose their naturally functioning water-saturated airs. Scientists Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre have previously concluded that due to the severity of the droughts of 2005, 2010 and 2015 through to 2016, and with “the severe floods of 2009, 2012 (and 2014 over SW Amazonia)…the whole system is oscillating.”[6]

            Peruvian nature photographer, Walter Wust (photographer for this blog post) when questioned on the Amazon’s future in consideration of the region’s history of modernity, responded saying “We have to accept that it is not an idyllic future… It will be divided into concessional areas where indigenous, mining, tourism, and agriculture will compete, resulting finally in pockets of naturally protected areas.”[7] And so, a savage, breathing, creaking, dangerous, fluvial, magnificently noisy and colourful living wonder is going to be reduced to individually protected parklands with lakes and abandoned dams. Oh!

The immensity of the Amazon’s forests and fluvial systems as seen from outer space.

On 26th August 2019 at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared the Amazon forest fires and overall planetary scenario as a “dramatic climate emergency.” The bizarre truth here is that the overall narrating on the Amazon forests over many centuries – and particularly since Humboldt’s travels throughout the region (1799–1804), inevitably evokes deep concern and often with apocalyptic imagery. Centuries of travellers have rooted their opinions in the many wild, lost, and violent experiences that have never been beneficial to either the majority of the region’s people or to the health of the forests. “This reality merits deep reflection,” declared Brack Egg, requiring a “search for new alternatives for the future because, without doubt, the kind of development advocated in the past has been a ‘promotion of underdevelopment.’”[8]  

            Waste is a theme that runs through the many eco novels of Indigenous peoples and Latin American writers of science fiction.[9] In Scott DeVries fascinating critical analysis of one such novel, Waslala by Gioconda Belli (1996),[10] he inverts Alexandra Kogl’s cultural “homeland” equation in Strange Places. He does it like this: “space + meaning = place” which becomes “Space = place – meaning.” Think about this further, try to imagine what is occurring now, today, on our planet using a world system that we all know is anti-ecological by definition. If all our meanings are being extracted from place (and we accept here that our planet is already brimming with human and non-human stories), then we are facing a mere habitable “space” – and for a few. How is this even possible? What does this actually mean? I have read that this age of the humans amounts to nothing more than space, being the Age of Loneliness and known as The Eremocene. Consider that North America has lost 29% of its total bird population in just 50 years. All that noise, rhythms, behaviour, flight paths, colour and joy – gone.

           Waslala cleverly dramatises the North-South divide along the economic and environmental boundaries established through colonialism and modernity. It is extremely haunting because it centres around issues that we all know are generating civil unrest, lawlessness and violence, namely ecological injustices, the plundering of natural resources, individualism, consumer waste and excessive gaps between rich and poor. The novel’s chaos is acted out in the Third World’s future, being polarised and reduced to the conservation of its natural environment and the importation of filth which is removed from “places of power to places of powerlessness.”

            The novel’s plot of social and environmental injustices is rendered as an act that “outrages the conscious…and may prod readers to react against similar ecologically bad behaviour in the real world.”[12] It is a situation that Nixon brings to life in the real world and in the national and transnational resource wars that produce “the resource law of inverse proximity.” This means that “the closer people live to the resources being ‘developed’ the less likely they are to benefit from that ‘development’…”[12] In Waslala, the imperial military forces surround the rainforests to protect their life-providing benefits of clean oxygen and genetic diversity for the first-class lifestyles of the invisibly powerful and distant. The unification of the real world through such imperial chaos led Alain Joxe in Empire of Disorder to state “We lack the words to describe this new system, while being surrounded by its images.”[13] These images of disorder equally confirm chaos as being a leading commodity of the free-market global economy. Suddenly, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s reckonings that the Anthropocene is also a critique of the narratives of freedom seems spot on. Freedoms at a planetary price.  

            Overall, the year 1492 marked the dawn of a new era through a structured set of relations between the core and the periphery and between the North and the South. It was the first wave of modernity that resulted in European economic, political, and cultural expansionism. These acts altered the face of the Earth indefinitely while advancing a rational move toward the construction of a hegemonic planetary consciousness. This planetary and systematic vision endorsed the unification of natural history and Eurocentrism by asserting an “urban, lettered, male authority over the whole of the planet; it elaborated a rationalizing, extractive, dissociative understanding which overlaid functional, experiential relations among people, plants and animals.”[14]

            Wishing to explore the unity of nature, the cosmopolitan Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt (1769–1859) traveled for five years throughout Central and South America between 1799 and 1804. Mystified by falling water levels of Lake Tacarigua, Venezuela, local residents brought this to Humboldt’s attention in 1800. Humboldt’s analysis produced this conclusion: “By felling trees that cover the tops and sides of mountains men everywhere have insured two calamities at the same time for the future: lack of fuel, and scarcity of water… When forests are destroyed,” he continued, “as they are everywhere in America by European planters, with imprudent haste, the springs dry up completely, or merely trickle. . . . The clearing of forests, the absence of permanent springs, and torrents are three closely connected phenomena.”[15] As he theorized changes to the local climate as a result of this land-system change, Humboldt had developed a natural philosophy that recognized the interconnectedness of the biosphere. It was an ecological science that, we note, he intended to have future global resonances.

            Over a century later, Irishman Roger Casement travelled for 75 days in 1910 along vast stretches of the Amazon River’s networks. He witnessed and recorded first-hand the culture-of-terror administered by the Peruvian Amazon Company to Indigenous communities and the Amazon forests – both were the integral parts of Latin America’s globalised rubber economy. He had stayed at the region’s principle rubber stations along the 3,000km-long Putumayo River. “Anything may happen to me up there,” read a diary entry before setting out into the heart of all this darkness.[16] It was in 1912 precisely when the first fine hardwood samples were sent to New York and the commercial trade in fine woods such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) began in small sawmills. The processes of exploration and the resulting geographical knowledge circulating about the potential wealth of natural resources were already showing signs of a more developed network between elites who were also forming a global community.

            Following the publishing of Casement’s reports and the legal proceedings in London, a character referred to as Alarco defended the company’s acts by informing the hearing that “one does not conquer by caressing.” Alarco’s arguments were centered on heroism and patriotism, adding that “the world owed a great debt to Peru, especially Britain. … Peruvians had laid down their lives in order to defend themselves against the ‘savage,’” and, ultimately, “Peru was only doing in the Amazon what European powers had been doing for centuries worldwide.”[17] Then in 2019, these same perspectives were voiced following the electoral success in Brazil of Jair Bolsonaro who acted fast to erode resources for federal environment agencies, sanction increases in the use of concrete for the construction of hydro-electric dams, cease any further legal claims on rights to land by indigenous communities, grant mining concessions on those lands already registered and protected, place the environment ministry under the agriculture ministry and controlled by the powerful agribusiness lobby. All told, these actions have all, somehow, given credence to the extreme violence currently being waged within the forests again, today.

            Latin America is now the world’s most deadliest region to make a stand and defend your community, resources and nature. The list of murders is now in its hundreds (see reports by Global Witness). A century later, the uprising in Bagua, Amazonas, Peru in 2009 demonstrated that still today race issues reside at the heart of ancestral lands and resource concerns. On September 1, 2014, Ashéninka community leader Edwin Chota (1961 – 2014) and several other ecoactivists were murdered around a headwaters region known as Saweto in the upper reaches of the Alto Tamaya River in their attempts to halt illegal logging and the extraction of forest wildlife. It was an echo of the high-profile case of Chico Mendes, the rubber tapper trade union leader and environmentalist murdered in Acre, Amazonia, Brazil, in 1988. Traveling with Chota in Saweto shortly before his murder, a US environmental journalist and National Geographic writer, Scott Wallace cited Chota’s thoughts on the forests’ reality, “Welcome to the land without law… The only law here is the law of the gun.”[18]

Berta Cáceres (RIP) extends her loving hand; Edwin Chota (RIP) dreams of a forest free of loggers.

More recently was the equally violent death of the Honduran activist and 2015 Goldman Prize Recipient for South and Central America, Berta Cáceres (1971-2016). Cáceres was assassinated at her home after opposing the Agua Zarca Dam project – she knew it was coming. All cases highlight the criminality, the lack of state governance to protect the basic human rights of its citizens, and the lack of enforcement of environmental laws. Thus, coming to a head after many centuries of encroachment, ill-thought-out policies and misuse, the future of the rainforests is now – more so than ever before – on the line, and it glows intensely red, grey and black as a living-dead Google Earth metaphor for the path humanity is on.

            Without fooling ourselves, the premise to the modern/colonial global structure of power will always be Nature and cheap/slave labor. As the twenty-first century progresses, this current modern-colonial world system is now considered to be wildly out-of-tune with the urgency of the environmental situation that is facing all life on our planet. Ultimately, all this environmental violence is slowly and constantly feeding back into climate change. We can and should be asking, is there some hint of hope that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves?

            For us to fully grasp the meanings embedded within sustainability and what is involved in making transitions towards green new deals and economies, we have only one option left and it must appeal to our altruistic hearts. Peace with each other and our fellow species. Without peace then there can be no conditions for future life, sustainable pathways and cooperation on the huge scales now being demonstrated to us all.

This article refers to the current and eclectic volume of Journeys magazine, “The International Journal of Travel and Travel Writing.” Rupert Medd’s contribution is “Eyewitness Accounts during the Putumayo Rubber Boom,” Vol 20 (2).

[1] Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill. 2007. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36 (8): 614  – 621 (615).

[2] Steffen, Will et al. 2015. “Planetary Boundaries: Guiding Human Development on a Changing Planet.” Sciencexpress. To watch the “Reflections on the Planetary Boundaries framework”conference presentations, see

[3] Various Authors. 2018. (Accessed 5 January 2018).

[4] Brack Egg, Antonio. 1997. “Pobreza y manejo adecuado de los recursos en la Amazonía peruana.” Revista Andina 15 (1): 9–76 (p. 18).


[6] Lovejoy, Thomas E., and Carlos Nobre. 2018. “Amazon Tipping Point.” Science Advances, 4 (2): DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat2340.

[7] Walter Wust in conversation with the author, Lima, Peru, 2010.

[8] Brack Egg, Antonio. 1997. “Pobreza y manejo adecuado de los recursos en la Amazonía peruana.” Revista Andina 15 (1): 9–76 (p. 15).

[9] Science fiction by Māori and Pacific Island authors such as Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt.

[10] Belli, Gioconda. 1998. Waslala. Barcelona: Emecé.

[11] DeVries, Scott. 2010. “Garbage Out: Space, Place, and Neoimperial Antidevelopment in Gioconda Belli’s Waslala.” Ecozon@, 1 (2): 38-50, (p. 44)

[12] Nixon, Rob. 2010. “Unimagined Communities: Developmental Refugees, Megadams and Monumental Modernity.” New Formations, 69: 62-80. DOI: 10.3898/NEWF:69.03.2010. (p. 75).

[13] Joxe, Alain. 2002. Empire of Disorder. New York: Semiotext(e). (p. 78).

[14] Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge (p. 38).

[15] Humboldt, Alexander Von. 1852 – 1853. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, 1799 – 1804. 3 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn (pp. 31-32).

[16] Casement, Roger. 1997. The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement. Ed. Angus Mitchell. London: Anaconda Editions. (p. 106).

[17] Alarco cited in Goodman, Jordan. 2009. The Devil and Mr Casement: One Man’s Struggle for Human Rights in South America’s Heart of Darkness. London: Verso. (p. 179).

[18] Wallace, Scott. 2014. “Quadruple Homicide in Peruvian Amazon Puts Criminal Logging in Spotlight.” National Geographic, September 12.