Arsonists have set God’s Cathedral aflame. In the Amazon rainforest, home to hundreds of thousands of animal species, 40,000 plant species, and nearly a million indigenous people, fires are raging, destroying the ecological buttresses of one of the most biodiverse and important ecosystems in the world. These creatures are a testament to God’s good creation, a living, breathing cathedral, shaped by the evolutionary forces of God, and entrusted to human hands.
The fires are set by human hands. Emboldened by administration of the anti-environment Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, people are starting fires across the rainforest to force land open for agriculture. This tactic, called slash-and-burn, is illegal during Brazil’s dry season, which runs from March to November.
From the beginning of his presidency in January, Bolsonaro has attacked efforts to protect the rainforest. He has cut Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency budget by $23 million, and fired the director of a scientific agency this month for data that indicated an 88 percent spike in deforestation. According to local reporting in Sao Paolo, Bolsonaro’s actions encouraged farmers to organize a “fire day,” deliberately setting fires to clear land for agriculture and drive off indigenous people.
Seeing photos and satellite images of the fires evokes tangles in my stomach — similar to how I felt seeing Notre Dame burn, at a planetary scale. This must be how dread feels in the gut. The fires are at once catastrophic and pernicious, sending God’s creatures ablaze and setting the stage for a world unable to stop catastrophic climate change. The Amazon is not only a hub of biodiversity, it is one of the world’s most important terrestrial carbon sinks. The rainforest, often called the lungs of the world, produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen and sequesters one-quarter of the 2.4 billion total metric tons of carbon absorbed by the world’s forests. These fires in the Amazon are a double-edged sword, removing pieces of the world’s largest carbon sink, and emitting climate-warming pollution as the trees burn.
The hashtag #PrayfortheAmazon has been trending on Twitter, which is to be expected. Where are we to turn, other than to prayer and Twitter, when the lungs of our world are burning thousands of miles away? The thousands of gun deaths in the United States have taught us that thoughts and prayers are not enough; action is needed. We need thoughts and prayers and action.
When the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral caught fire in April, it captivated the world. The globe mourned and lamented alongside Parisians. Videos spilled over social media of people gathering outside the church, singing hymns, praying, and being in community. The tragedy sparked a moment of cultural lament. Lament and despair, however, was not the last chapter. What followed was a mobilization to revitalize what remained and rebuild Notre Dame for the future.
What we need now is to #PrayfortheAmazon — to lament the devastation to the creatures and to our climate. We need to talk about the loss in our churches, singing and praying in community. Then we need to have the courage to mobilize and save what’s left of this beautiful world.
It feels impossible to look in the face of what is happening in Brazil without either denial or gut-punching dread. In those fires, it is easy to see the hope of stopping climate change go up in flames. And perhaps it should. Perhaps we’ve moved beyond the time for hope and into the time for courage. The courage to look in the eye of the suffering of God’s creatures. The courage to fight like hell for the cathedral of this world, and recognize that we may not win. The courage to love each other, both human and non-human, in this climate-changed world.