How a Progressive White House Would Handle the Amazon

The world is burning, and to the surprise of no one, President Trump is failing us. Actually, he’s not failing us, he’s actively making it worse. Times seem grim, but they provide plenty of opportunities to do better. Imagining and exploring how a Progressive White House would handle the Amazon crisis can better equip our movement for the challenges ahead.

It’s the Economy, unfortunately…

At the time of this writing, over 74,000 fires have destroyed about 7,200 square miles of forest in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon in 2019 as per Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research [1]. By all accounts, this is a total disaster brought upon by Brazil’s president Bolsonaro’s approval to overlook illegal logging and fire clearing of the forest. 

The primary reason for burning the lungs of our planet at a time of global climate crisis? Economics. The land is being cleared for cattle grazing and raising. The world eats a lot of meat, and Brazil is the largest global exporter of beef, accounting for 20% globally [2]. USDA Research shows us that the United States imported 140.9 million pounds of beef from Brazil in 2018. Comparing January 2018 to 2019, we see a 39% increase in our Brazilian beef purchasing.

As per the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Brazil’s beef expansion shows no sign of slowing either [3]. While the U.S. shoulders some blame, the majority of Brazilian beef demand comes from China and Hong Kong. In 2018 they purchased about 44% of all beef exports from Brazil [4].

As with the economic issue, it always boils down to people. Poor cattle ranchers are responsible for the burning because it’s easier and cheaper to get permits for slash and burn farming to graze than it is to maintain the land sustainably [5]. For them, it’s a means to an end, that end being basic survival. We must also recognize the native Amazonians as critical stakeholders. Their victimization goes beyond the average Earth citizen as they are also having their homes and livelihoods destroyed.

A Progressive White House

A progressive White House recognizes that there are four key stakeholders involved in this destruction: the ranchers, the Amazonians, the Brazilian people and government, and the rest of the world. It’s essential that we avoid demonizing any one party, especially the ranchers, and instead consider everyone stakeholders in the solution process.

The first and most obvious answer is that the U.S. could ban Brazilian beef exports from entering the United States. It’s combatting economics with economics and would be the most likely course of action for any standard administration. Finland has already suggested this idea to the European Union (EU), calling for unified action [6].

By stopping all Brazilian beef imports into the U.S., we make a clear stand that we will not tolerate the expansion of profit-seeking at the cost of global health and security. By combining our actions with the EU, the economic impact would likely be significant enough to force Brazilian President Bolsanaro to curb his aggressive deregulation approach. A progressive White House would approach the financial strategy by tying in Asian countries as key stakeholders as well. Without the support of China and Hong Kong, an economic approach may not be enough to create genuine transformation in our approach to preserving the Amazon.

The above plan is less progressive than it is standard capitalism at work. Nations have a problem with other nations, and we approach it from a competitive economic standpoint. It focuses on coercion rather than cooperation and does nothing to address the root issues underlying the cause of this problem.

Let’s consider a more progressive approach focusing on the ranchers as stakeholders in this process. A study from the Sustainable Amazon Network determined that the average cattle farmer in Brazil makes about $8500 per year. It also showed that farming other products such as soy, rice, corn, and fruit, would make more money per hectare than cattle farming. Important in considering the ranchers as stakeholders is that the report notes that some of the farmers prefer the lifestyle. The question we have to wrestle is how to entice the ranchers to stop the practice outside of pure coercion.

Given that the Amazon is critical to our shared global survival, a progressive White House might approach the problem as requiring Earth-wide cooperation. We could imagine the United States leading the charge for a world-wide initiative. First, by addressing the immediate needs to provide the capital and plan of action to compensate the ranchers while they undergo permanent professional retraining. Second, by securing global buy-in to ensure the integration and inclusion of Brazil in economic projects designed to pay for the loss of revenue associated with beef production. The long term objective is to unite countries together under the commitment of the permanent preservation of the Amazon rainforest.

To give this idea some substance, we can use an immediate dollar stipend of $17,000 – doubling the yearly intake of the average Brazilian cattle rancher. We can do some quick math to determine what the U.S. might be able to do without the help of international aid to initially address the primary concern of stopping the burning and deforestation.

In 2019 our National Defense Budget was $716 billion. If we took 1% of our defense budget and directed it to these efforts, we could pay 421,176 cattle ranchers each year to begin the transition to a new lifestyle and productive life. Given that the Pentagon recognizes the climate crisis as a national threat, this monetary diversion would be a relatively simple transition.  

Because a progressive White House would recognize the severity of the issue, the plan could be scheduled to complete after ten years. This timeline would provide adequate compensation for the rural ranchers to retrain into alternative lifestyles while increasing their buy-in as stakeholders. At the end of the day, ranching is a job to feed their families. By including the ranchers as stakeholders to provide feedback and buy-in, we increase our chances for success.

As with any plan, kinks would need to be worked out if we were going to proceed on this route. We’d likely want to identify all existing cattle ranchers before the payments and lock in that number to avoid abuse of the system. The progressive White House would ideally want cooperation with Brazil’s government, which may be challenging with Bolsonaro in power. But with the threat of deep-cutting economic sanctions the plan could have some real teeth. The aid package could also include some incentives for the current Brazilian leadership, such as cooperative global support in alternative verticals in exchange for a hard-locked agreement. Precisely what these incentives would entail is something for international relations experts, but given the severity of the situation, an open approach would be wise.

A question that progressives need to wrestle with is how do we deepen cooperation between the U.S. and Brazil to allow Brazil to transition out of the Beef/Livestock industry or at the very least significantly reduce their exports? Beef production causes about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions and is the principal land user and source of water pollution by nutrient overabundance. It requires significantly more land, and irrigation water than the average of the other livestock categories [7]. Raising cattle competes with biodiversity, and promotes species extinctions as well.

A progressive White House would be bold enough to confront the truth staring our global population in the face, beef as an economic engine is a catalyst for the crisis. Transitioning to sustainable and significantly reduced levels of production and consumption is unlikely to be accomplished without a clear alternative plan as so much economic activity is tied to it. Therefore, we must begin to consider how to integrate deeper cooperation with countries like Brazil, who heavily rely on it. By exploring possibilities for linking economies together to transition activity seamlessly, we reject the ethos that competition is the primary driver of human activity, replacing it with a proactive approach to identify scaled efficiencies in a collaborative context.

A progressive White House would not stop at addressing the economic challenges but would encourage our people to come together, unified towards a long-term goal. Being progressive is about seeking radical truth, no matter how uncomfortable. That truth is the United States needs to significantly curb its meat intake if we’re genuine about combating the climate crisis. But how do we break from something so integrated into the fabric of our society?

One method is to begin encouraging individual buy-in through education campaigns. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a lot easier than it sounds. I decided to stop eating meat for environmental reasons about three years ago. Every restaurant has vegetarian options and if time allows, meal planning and prepping can make the process incredibly easy. My wife and I have saved money by switching, and I lost a few pounds. I’m not arguing that every person will have the ability or means to do what we did, but those of us that do bear a level of responsibility to change our dietary habits. It’s difficult to openly say that climate change is an existential crisis while not recognizing the need for personal sacrifices beyond our comfort zones.

Another policy example a progressive White House could push forward is a mandate requiring all public schools in the United States to switch to vegetarian lunches. Taking account for legitimate medical exceptions, we could eliminate a meaningful amount of consumption while simultaneously preparing our youth for a permanent switch. This single example could help address two problems in the United States, beef consumption and childhood obesity.

A progressive White House would be the most qualified administration to handle a problem of the magnitude we face today. Our present leaders offer us no hope of real progress, and traditional corporate Democrats or Republicans would likely use the strongarm tactics of economics as the only recourse, discounting the power of including all stakeholders. The Amazon requires us to think globally about the future and recognize the deep connectivity of our species. Now more than ever, it’s time to think beyond the nation-state and come together as a global community to solve problems. It’s a position that the United States is uniquely qualified for, one that can only be manifest under a progressive White House.

[1] 6 charts show why thousands of fires in the Amazon rainforest matter to the world by James Sergent, Elizabeth Lawrence and George Petras, USA TODAY

[2] Brazil Once Again Becomes the World’s Largest Beef Exporter by Mustafa Zia, James Hansen, Kim Hjort, and Constanza Valdes  United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

[3] OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2019-2028 by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

[4] Brazil Livestock and Products Semi-annual 2019 Semiannual Livestock by Joao F. Silva

[5] Torching Farmers and Ranchers Won’t Stop Fires in the Amazon by Mac Margolis Bloomberg Opinon

[6] Finland urges EU to consider banning Brazilian beef over Amazon fires by Anne Kauranen Reuters

[7] Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States by Gidon Eshel, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov, and Ron Milo Proceeds of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 

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