Are Australian wildfires overblown?

Yan Graf ’20

Over the past few weeks, the world media has seemingly been set ablaze with reports of apocalyptic wildfires sweeping across Australia, scorching forests and decimating local wildlife. 

     Meanwhile, thousands of videos have flooded social media of cute koalas and kangaroos being fed as they flee their forest habitats. Millions of dollars have poured in from all over the world to help save the embattled wildlife as the inferno sweeps more and more of Australia’s forests.

     The whole scene is eerily reminiscent of the frantic panic that set in after large forest blazes covered the southern Amazon River Basin, and Western media demonized Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, for his seeming inaction in combating the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest.

     Throughout all this, the massive fires have been attributed to global warming, adding more fuel to the fiery push for stronger climate regulations spearheaded by figures such as Justin Trudeau and Greta Thunberg.

Yet, what if I told you all the hysteria over the Amazon and now Australia fires is just that—hysteria?

     Take the Amazon Rainforest fires of 2019. Yes, they were massive, with 80,000 individual fires noted. Yet, they are clearly nothing new for the region. Wildfires happen in the Amazon every year, with many years, even ones in recent memory, coming close to 80,000 fires as well. For example, in 2016, Brazil reported close to 76,000 fires, but with only a fraction of the media fanfare that accompanied this year’s wildfire season. While the month of August did see the greatest number of wildfires in Brazilian history, even then, NASA’s own Earth Observatory reported that wildfire activity over the entirety of the Amazon Basin was average when compared to the last fifteen years. While wildfire activity was up in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Rondonia was up significantly, other parts of the Amazon were relatively tame. 

Australian bushfire at Captain Creek central Queensland Australia – Wikimedia Commons

     Yet, what if I told you all the hysteria over the Amazon and now Australia fires is just that—hysteria? That while the fires are worrying, they are nowhere near as unprecedented and apocalyptic as we believe them to be? Many may demonize me for disregarding the specter of climate change or even for being a global-warming denialist. But I can assure you I am not.

     However, as much as these wildfires are nothing historic, the real tragedy with the media’s coverage of forest fires are the gargantuan forest fires we choose not to cover. While the Australian and Amazonian wildfires are huge and concerning, every year, every day, fires dwarf the ones in Australia and the Amazon rage in regions such as South East Asia and Africa. In fact, Africa accounts for 70% of the world’s burned area every year, according to NASA. Yet, no attention is turned when farmers and pastoralists burn massive portions of land for agriculture and release tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. Why does no one bat an eye as the DRC has lost 6.7% of it’s forest cover to slash-and-burn agriculture since 2000, but everyone freaks out when a few koalas are hurt in Australia? As millions of acres of land are plundered and destroyed in Southeast Asia to fuel the global thirst for palm oil cosmetics, why do people fixate themselves so heavily on a mediocre wildfire season in the Amazon? 

Why does no one bat an eye as the DRC has lost 6.7% of it’s forest cover to slash-and-burn agriculture since 2000, but everyone freaks out when a few koalas are hurt in Australia?

     The Australian Wildfires are no different. While the current wildfires are some of the worst on record, and especially in recent memory, they are dwarfed by many bushfire seasons Australia has seen in the past. So far, nearly 46 million acres have burned, a massive tally no doubt, but next to nothing when compared to the 1974-76 bushfire season, which saw 290 million acres, or more than six times as much, burn in the same time span.

     My apathy for the situation in Australia does not come from being a soulless climate-change denialist. The wildfires are bad, and climate change is definitely real. But the more media coverage I watch, the more I realize that the Australian wildfires are just a media ploy to get more eyes glued to the screen, not a genuine attempt at informing the public about saving the environment.

But the more media coverage I watch, the more I realize that the Australian wildfires are just a media ploy to get more eyes glued to the screen.

     The answer is that the media and passive bystanders like those of us here in the U.S. don’t actually care about saving the environment. If we did, we would stop using shampoo with palm oil and start protesting to end slash-and-burn in the Congo Basin. But we don’t. Instead, because the media presents us with cute, cuddly animals that we learn about growing up, we only selectively care about the visual environmental issues at hand. All the money going to koala shelters in Sydney or parrot vets in Brazil would have been much better spent providing Nigerian farmers with better farming techniques or spent on products that use less palm oil. 

Author: Yan Graf '20

Co-Editor-in-Chief Yan Graf has written for The Index for the past four years. He has previously served as Managing Editor.