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Sacrificing Cultures on the Climate Change Altar

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 26, 2009 8:46 AM


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This story by Elisabeth Rosenthal in Saturday's New York Times unintentionally highlights an issue that receives scant attention in the media. Which is the bigger, more immediate problem: land use (such as deforestation) or climate change? If you want to make things even more complicated, throw in natural climatic events, such as drought. Rosenthal tries admirably to suss all this out in her front page piece about a tribe in the Brazilian Amazon forest that can't feed itself anymore. But she ends up writing a mishmash of a story by swinging back and forth between what's really killing the tribe (deforestation and encroaching ranches and farms) and the similarly tenuous existence of other indigenous cultures around the world (attributed to climate change). This posted comment to the Times story perfactly captures my frustration with the story. Until about five years ago (give or take a few years), there was a pretty spirited debate in the ecological community over which problem posed a greater environmental threat--land use or climate change? By every metric, all the evidence points to land use (overfishing, pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, water depletion and so on). But now all those problems are subsumed under what is perceived to be the greater existential threat: climate change. (In April, Brendan Borrell wrote a provocative essay for Slate on this attitudinal shift, which I discussed here.) Fine. I understand that ecologists and environmentalists believe that the reflected light from attention to climate change will fall on those more immediate and tangible ecological concerns. The thinking there is that it's all part of the same picture. Might as well let the media and politicians focus on the issue that has the best chance to galvanize worldwide environmental action. Well it looks like that might take a while. And judging from the dire predicamant of the Amazon tribe featured in Rosenthal's article, time is not on their side. So perhaps if environmental advocates want to save cultures and animal species from actual threats not associated with climate change, then maybe they ought to rethink that strategy of putting all their eggs in one basket.

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