Krzysztof Strug
961 stories
·
2 followers

Here’s What We Can Do About It

1 Share

Johann Hari took his first antidepressants at age 18, and the experience, he says, was like a “chemical kiss.” The burden was lifted immediately from his whirring brain. He kept on taking the pills for 13 years, at higher and higher doses–until, at one point, the drugs didn’t work anymore. He was still depressed.

In his early 30s, Hari, a journalist, started to question the prevailing wisdom about depression. Was his desperation and anxiety really connected, as he had been told by a succession of doctors, to a chemical imbalance in the brain? Was it genetic, as other scientists claimed? Or were the reasons why so many people are depressed these days really more social? Is the depression epidemic connected to how we’ve chosen to construct the world around us?

“For the first 18 years of my life, I had thought of it as ‘all in my head’–meaning it was not real, imaginary, fake, an indulgence, an embarrassment, a weakness. Then, for the next 13 years, I believed it was ‘all in my head’ in a very different way–it was due to a malfunctioning brain,” Hari writes in his new book, 

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression–and the Unexpected Solutions

“The primary cause of all this rising depression and anxiety is not in our heads. It is, I discovered, largely in the world, and the way we are living it. I learned there are at least nine proven causes of depression and anxiety . . . and many of them are rising all around us–causing us to feel radically worse.”

Of course, people who are merely unhappy are not the same as people like Hari who are diagnosed as severely depressed and anxious. We tend to view the latter group as having a disease, and the first as, well, having a bad day. But Hari argues that these traditional distinctions aren’t as useful as we’ve been taught to think. Unhappiness and depression are on a continuum, he argues, rather than being separate planets. They are caused, to an extent, by the same thing: disconnection from the things we need to be happy.

“The forces that are making some of us depressed and severely anxious are, at the same time, making even more people unhappy,” he writes.

Lost Connections is a fascinating look at what causes people to be depressed and asks what we can do aside from simply throwing more pills at the problem. Already one in five American adults are taking a drug for a psychiatric problem, including almost a quarter of middle-age women. And these days the U.S. is far from the only Prozac Nation; France, for example, has as many psychotropic drug takers.

Arguably, however, the unhappiness plague is larger than the actual medicated population. When you consider a wider group of unhappy people–those who don’t rate as depressed, but are nonetheless sad and miserable–we’re probably talking about many, many millions around the world.

What We Need To Be Happy

Hari interviews dozens of social scientists around the world who’ve studied various aspects of depression and unhappiness. His concludes that what causes these conditions most of all is a lack of what we need to be happy, including the need to belong in a group, the need to be valued by other people, the need to feel like we’re good at something, and the need to feel like our future is secure.

Hari talks, for example, to Michael Marmot, who carried out a famous study of British civil servants in the 1980s. We assume that people with more responsibility in their jobs are more stressed out and liable to be depressed. After all, the clerk at the bottom of the pay scale gets to go home on time and be with their kids. In fact, Marmot found something like the opposite when he talked to thousands of civil servants in the U.K. Those lower down the highly hierarchical bureaucracy were more anxious and unhappy.

Marmot concluded that monotonous, boring, and soul-destroying work is the most stressful kind. It’s not a matter of responsibility level; what matters is whether work is meaningful, whether we feel like we have control over our jobs, and whether we feel that our hard work will have some equal reward. Senior people are more likely to enjoy these perks than juniors, even if the former’s decisions are more nerve-racking.

Finding Reconnections

In the second half of the book, Hari gives some suggestions for how we can all be less unhappy–what he calls “reconnections” with the things we need. He came to realize we need to think less about ourselves and more about others. We need to ditch spending so much time alone with ourselves; it’s more natural to be in the flow of other people. “Nature is connection,” leading expert on loneliness John Cacioppo tells Hari.

And Hari learns that it’s better to lose oneself in the crowd. “The real path to happiness, [the researchers] were telling me, comes from dismantling our ego walls–from letting yourself flow into other people’s stories and letting their stories flow into yours; from pooling your identity, from realizing that you were never you–alone, heroic, sad–all along,” Hari writes. Now, when he feels depressed, Hari doesn’t do something for himself, like buying a new shirt, or renting a favorite movie. He tries to do something for someone. He feels better for it.

“Meaningful values” are another source of improved contentment. To be happy, we should avoid materialist values and the mental pollution that is advertising. “When they talk among themselves, advertising people have been admitting since the 1920s that their job is to make people feel inadequate–and then offer their product as the solution to the sense of inadequacy they have created, ” Hari writes. “Ads are the ultimate frenemy–they’re always saying: Oh babe, I want you to look/smell/feel great; it makes me so sad that at the moment you’re ugly/stinking/miserable . . . ”

Hari now avoids social media. It is a comparison engine that makes lots of people feel inadequate; the idealized images of their friends make us feel worse. He only watches subscription TV, not the old stuff interrupted by truck and drug ads. More cities could follow the lead taken by São Paulo, Brazil, he says–it has banned public display advertising (the law is called the Clean City Law)–or Sweden and Greece, which have banned advertising to children.

And following the advice of Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College, in Illinois, Hari suggests that we live by our intrinsic values as opposed to extrinsic values. That means values that are important in themselves, like loving our friends and family and following our interests, as opposed to caring how others view us and trying to fill the hole in our hearts with more possessions. These don’t, ultimately, make us happier, even if buying something has a momentary thrill.

Hari also lays out some compelling research about the importance of nature. For example, the University of Essex has shown in large-scale studies that people who move to the countryside from cities, as opposed to the other way round, have higher levels of mental health. Likewise, people who live near green spaces within cities are happier than those who live adjacent to asphalt and tall buildings.

Lost Connections imagines that any number of social interventions might make us feel better about ourselves. In a final chapter, Hari interviews the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, a leading advocate for a basic income. By giving people money to meet their everyday needs, Bregman argues, we can improve their well-being, free them from pointless jobs, and allow everyone to engage in meaningful activity again. Research, though limited, seems to back up this idea, including a large basic income trial in Manitoba, Canada, in the 1970s.

Some have taken issue with Hari’s book, saying that he unfairly paints psychiatrists as pill pushers. They say Hari’s social science insights aren’t new or particularly revelatory, which may be true–to academics and professional therapists. The public clearly mostly thinks depression is a matter of serotonin levels and genetics, and that the divide between depression and mere unhappiness is absolute. Hari did and he lived with depression for more than 20 years. Here, Hari makes the subject more humane and social. In his telling, it’s something we can fix and work on, not something we must acquiesce to and medicate.

Read the whole story
strugk
2 days ago
reply
Warsaw, Poland
Share this story
Delete

Why Good Parents Have Naughty Children

1 Share

Views: 51414

Imagine two very different kinds of families, each around their own dinner table on a typical evening.  

In Family One: the child is very well behaved: they say how nice the food is, they talk about what happened at school, they listen to what their parents have on their minds and at the end they go off to finish their homework.

In Family Two: it’s rather different. They call their mother an idiot, they snort with derision when their father says something; they make a risqué comment that reveals a lack of embarrassment about their bodies; if the parents ask how their homework is going they say school is stupid and they storm off and slam the door.

It looks as if everything is going very well in Family One and very badly in Family Two. But if we look inside the child’s mind we might get a very different picture.

In Family One the so-called good child has inside them a whole range of emotions that they keep out of sight not because they want to but because they don’t feel they have the option to be tolerated as they really are. They feel they can’t let their parents see if they are angry or fed up or bored because it seems as if the parents have no inner resources to cope with their reality; they must repress their bodily, coarser, more volatile selves. Any criticism of a grown up is (they imagine) so wounding and devastating that it can’t be uttered.

In Family Two the so-called bad child knows that things are robust. They feel they can tell their mother she’s a useless idiot because they know in their hearts that she loves them and that they love her and that a bout of irritated rudeness won’t destroy that. They know their father won’t fall apart or take revenge for being mocked. The environment is warm and strong enough to absorb the child’s aggression, anger, dirtiness or disappointment. 

As a result, there’s an unexpected outcome: the good child is heading for problems in adult life, typically to do with excessive compliance, rigidity, lack of creativity and an unbearably harsh conscience that might spur on suicidal thoughts. And the naughty child is on the way to healthy maturity, which comprises spontaneity, resilience, a tolerance of failure and a sense of self-acceptance.  

What we call naughtiness is really an early exploration of authenticity and independence. As former naughty children, we can be more creative because we can try out ideas that don’t instantly meet with approval; we can make a mistake or a mess or look ridiculous and it won’t be a disaster. Things can be repaired or improved. Our sexuality is essentially acceptable to us and so we don’t have to feel excessively humiliated or awkward about introducing it to a partner. We can hear criticisms of ourselves and bear to explore their truths and reject their malice.

We should learn to see naughty children, a few chaotic scenes and occasional raised voices as belonging to health rather than delinquency – and conversely learn to fear small people who cause no trouble whatsoever. And, if we have occasional moments of happiness and well-being, we should feel especially grateful that there was almost certainly someone out there in the distant past who opted to look through the eyes of love at some deeply unreasonable and patently unpleasant behaviour from us.

.

.

.

.


Brought to you by The School of Life

The Book of Life is brought to you by  The School of Life – a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. You can find our classes, films, books, games and much more online and in our branches around the world. Below is a feature from our shop which we think you might find of interest:

Good Enough T-Shirt 

A cotton t-shirt to remind us that being ‘Good Enough’ is not a failure

We want so badly to be perfect. We torment ourselves with images of what we’re supposed to be like, especially at work and in love. But this vision doesn’t emerge from a careful study of real human beings. It’s a cruel fantasy and a piece of punitive perfectionism. The generous phrase ‘good enough’ is designed to remind us of the many lesser – yet very real – virtues we already possess, and that our unreal hopes have made us overlook. ‘Good enough’ isn’t failure: it’s a grown-up cure for the sickness of idealisation.   Shop now >>

Read the whole story
strugk
4 days ago
reply
Warsaw, Poland
Share this story
Delete

Exposing the Power Vampires in Self-Driving Cars

1 Share

By driving smarter, autonomous cars have the potential to move people around and between cities with far greater efficiency. Estimates of their energy dividends, however, have largely ignored autonomous driving’s energy inputs, such as the electricity consumed by brawny on-board computers.

First-of-a-kind modeling published today by University of Michigan and Ford Motor researchers shows that autonomy's energy pricetag is substantial — high enough to turn some autonomous cars into net energy losers.

"We knew there was going to be a tradeoff in terms of the energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the equipment and the benefits gained from operational efficiency. I was surprised that it was so significant,” says to Greg Keoleian, senior author on the paper published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology and director of the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems

Keoleian’s team modeled both conventional and battery-electric versions of Ford's Focus sedan carrying sensing and computing packages that enable them to operate without human oversight under select conditions. Three subsystems were studied: small and medium-sized equipment packages akin to those carried by Tesla's Model S and Ford's autonomous vehicle test platform, respectively, and the far larger package on Waymo's Pacifica minivan test bed [photo above]. 

For the small and medium-sized equipment packages, going autonomous required 2.8 to 4.0 percent more onboard power. This went primarily to power the computers and sensors, and secondarily to the extra 17-22 kilograms of mass the equipment contributed.

However, autonomy’s energy bill ate up only part of the overall energy reduction expected from the autonomous vehicles’ ability to drive smarter driving — such as platooning of vehicles through intersections and on highways to cut congestion in cities and aerodynamic drag on the highway. As a result the modeled Ford sedans still delivered a 6-9 percent net energy reduction over their life cycle with autonomy added, and promised a comparable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

EV and gas models offered comparable results. Adding equipment was less burdensome for the EVs, which provided extra power for the processors and sensors more efficiently than a gas vehicle. But autonomy delivered a slightly larger net energy reduction in the gas vehicles, whose relatively inefficient drivetrains should benefit more from smart driving.

In contrast adding the large Waymo equipment package yielded a comparatively dark picture for the modeled EVs and gasoline-fueled sedans. The larger equipment increased net energy consumption on the Ford sedans by 5 percent, thanks mostly to the aerodynamic drag induced by its rooftop sensors. 

Keoleian says this modeling result likely overstates real impacts from future autonomous vehicles, which he expects will manage to streamline even substantial sensors arrays. What concerns him more is the likelihood that all of the modeled packages understate power consumption by future autonomous driving subsystems. 

For instance, Keoleian says future autonomous vehicles may employ street maps of far higher resolution than those used today to ensure the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and other drivers. In fact, real-time updating of high-definition maps by autonomous cars is one of the applications pushing the development of next-generation 5G wireless data networks. 

Higher-bandwidth data transmission via today's 4G network could boost power consumption by onboard computers by one third or more according to Keoleian and his coauthors. It is premature, they write in today's study, to judge the power consumption associated with 5G. 

Another concern for Keoleian are the indirect effects of introducing autonomous vehicles. By making driving more convenient, for example, smart cars could encourage longer commutes. "There could be a rebound effect. They could induce travel, adding to congestion and fuel use,” says Keoleian. 

Such indirect effects of smart cars could either slash energy consumption from driving by 60 percent, or increase it by 200 percent, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Guiding the technology’s development to avoid an energy demand explosion, says Keoleian, will require a lot more study.

Read the whole story
strugk
5 days ago
reply
Warsaw, Poland
Share this story
Delete

The case for optimism - Vox

1 Share

It’s easy to look around and conclude that everything is horrible, that the world is getting less safe and more chaotic.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, has been arguing for years that this is an illusion. His last book, The Better Angels of our Nature, looked at the data and showed that violence has declined steadily throughout human history, and that the present age is in fact the safest we’ve ever seen.

His latest book, Enlightenment Now, doubles down on this argument. Pinker zooms back and examines the “big picture of human progress” since the late 18th century, right around the time the Enlightenment Age kicked off. This is basically the period in which the spirit of science — reason, evidence-based thinking, and the belief that knowledge can be used to improve the human condition — exploded in the Western world.

Pinker highlights the data on education, literacy, wealth, and longevity to make the broader case that life, on the whole, is getting better. He also rebuts dystopian arguments about the dangers of technology, particularly artificial intelligence.

I spoke with him about why he’s so optimistic about the future and about why I’m not.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.


Sean Illing

I feel like you’re waging a heroic campaign to make us all feel better. Do you see yourself as deliberately pushing back against a pervasive pessimism?

Steven Pinker

It’s not to make people feel better about the future so much as to make them appreciative of what we’ve accomplished in the past, because what will happen in the future very much depends on the choices that we make now.

Sean Illing

What is the Enlightenment, and what story does the data about violence, education, wealth, etc. tell us about it?

Steven Pinker

The parts of the Enlightenment that I’m singling out for praise are the goal of enhancing human well-being and the means of understanding the way the world works through science and reason. What we get with the Enlightenment is a shared and deliberate effort to use knowledge and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.

I try to call attention to the fact that the Enlightenment project has succeeded wildly, and we don’t fully appreciate that fact.

Human welfare has improved dramatically, and it’s improved by almost any measure you like — longevity, health, prosperity, education, literacy, leisure time, and on and on.

All of these have increased, and yet you’re likely to draw the opposite impression from reading headlines or watching cable news. But the objective record shows that progress has taken place, and it’s really an enormous success story.

Sean Illing

Do you blame the media for cementing this impression that everything is broken and awful?

Steven Pinker

I don’t want to come across as a blanket critic of media because we’ve seen far too much of an assault on the free press, and we obviously need the press to identify the problems facing us. But there’s also a danger in neglecting progress.

One danger is creating the impression that there’s nothing we can do to improve society, or falsely equating pessimism with moral seriousness. What we don’t want to do is spread a sense of fatalism and make people think they can’t make a difference and that it’s better to just enjoy life while we can and not have children and not worry about the future.

There’s also the potential of inciting radicalism by cultivating the fear that society is headed toward catastrophe and therefore the only hope is to tear down all our institutions. If we lose sight of what’s working, of what we’ve gained, we risk slipping into extremism.

Sean Illing

Okay, but progress yesterday is no guarantee of progress tomorrow, and I think there’s a tendency to assume that history has a clear, constant direction and that things will continue to get better. But that’s clearly not true. I don’t think you’re being Utopian, but a lot of people will read this book and assume that the Enlightenment set us on a path of inevitable progress. And that kind of thinking can also be dangerous.

Steven Pinker

It’s a fair point. We’re susceptible to magical thinking in assuming that anything that happens is the result of some mystical or cosmic force that will continue to make it happen. And yes, it’s dangerous to assume that history inexorably bends toward justice.

But I do think there are systemic factors that tend to push us toward progress. As we continually expand discourse and interaction, as people from diverse cultural backgrounds continue to sit down and agree about how to run their affairs, things tend to get better.

The spirit of the Enlightenment was about more cosmopolitanism, more solidarity, more belief in the collective power of human reason to solve problems. Ultimately, it was about more conversation and less violence. It pushed us toward aspects of human well-being that we share as a result of our common humanity.

Sean Illing

Technology, which is a product of the Enlightenment, has surely brought much of the wealth and prosperity you mentioned earlier. But I also think our technology has outpaced our humanity, and that we’re speeding into a future we don’t understand or can’t control.

Steven Pinker

People have been saying that for decades, maybe centuries. I think it’s easy to confuse the fact that when any technology is introduced, it takes a while for societies to come up with countermeasures that extract the benefits without the costs. Anytime you have new technologies, you have to confront a package of benefits and harms.

When cars were introduced, there was a huge increase in the rate of deaths from car accidents and pedestrian fatalities. But those plummeted as safety measures were created and better roads and traffic laws and technologies were introduced.

We saw some a similar trajectory in the case of pollution during and after the Industrial Revolution. Initially, air and water quality were drastically diminished, sometimes catastrophically. But then legislation and technologies were introduced to deal with the harms, and we’ve seen steady improvements in air and water quality across the West.

Other than the bleak technology of weaponry, which is in a special category because it’s designed to harm people, I think the other technologies can seem more frightening than they ultimately are because when they’re introduced, we have to deal with both the harms and the benefits before we come up with countermeasures.

Sean Illing

What worries you the most right now?

Steven Pinker

I’d say climate change, followed very closely by nuclear war. Probably my third concern would be the rise of authoritarian populism and fascism.

Sean Illing

Why aren’t you as worried about the robocalypse as I am?

Steven Pinker

There are two fears here. One is that machines will want to take over and subjugate us, which I think comes from the fallacy of confusing intelligence with motivation. Humans seem to have greater intelligence than other animals, and because we possess the desire to dominate other animals, we mistakenly think that intelligence and the drive to dominate are the same thing.

But we have these desires because we’re products of evolution. An artificial intelligence will not have evolved in this way, and there’s no reason to assume it will share the desire to dominate or maximize its power. It could be completely benevolent.

Sean Illing

And the second fear?

Steven Pinker

The second is that we will design an artificially intelligent system, give it some goal, and then stand helplessly by as it seeks to implement that goal regardless of human interests.

For example, we give an AI system the goal of killing cancer and it decides to conscript us all into some kind of fatal experiment in pursuit of the cure. Or we turn over control of water level behind a dam to an AI program and it decides to flood a town because we forgot to tell it when you maintain the water level, make sure you don’t drown people.

I think all of this is nonsensical and based on two internally self-contradictory premises. The first is that humans would be so brilliant as to be able to design a system that was capable of curing cancer or controlling every aspect of the environment, and yet so idiotic that they would give it control over an entire society without testing how it worked.

And the second is that the system would be so brilliant that it could cure cancer but also so idiotic that it would single-mindedly pursue one goal, ignoring all the other goals as it tries to achieve this one feat.

Sean Illing

There are a lot of computer scientists who don’t share that view, but I’m probably not the best person to offer the counterpoint. I do think you understate the dangerous political consequences of an arms race between nations over AI technology.

Steven Pinker

Are you specifically referring to weaponry? To military technology?

Sean Illing

Military technology is certainly part of it, but the potential applications of a truly artificially intelligent system would extend into countless other areas. Imagine what a comparative advantage it would be for the country who gets there first. This is one of the things Elon Musk warned about last year.

Steven Pinker

It depends what those applications are and what control is given over to the machine. If the AI really is an enhanced ability to solve problems, then it comes down to what kinds of problems we set for it solve. If the problem we give it involves increasing human well-being as opposed to deliberate harm, as in the case of weaponry, then I don’t see much cause for concern.

A lot of the concerns about fierce international competition have to do with safety being abandoned in the mad pursuit of AI. But I don’t quite understand that. A hyper-intelligent AI system that sacrifices human safety to accomplish a goal isn’t a smart system; it’s a stupid system.

Sean Illing

You acknowledge in the book that political disorder could upend all the progress we’ve made. You even call populism a “counter-enlightenment movement.” Looking around at the political currents across the globe right now, how concerned are you?

Steven Pinker

I’m concerned. I think these are potentially harmful movements. Whether they will succeed is another question. There have been a number of premature announcements of the death of democracy and the demise of cosmopolitan liberalism, but I think a lot of this confuses a push back with an inevitable triumph.

But populism is not an inevitable or unstoppable force, and when you look at the demographics of support for populism, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that these movements are the wave of the future, because support for them falls off precipitously with age.

Sean Illing

What’s the most consequential thing we can do to ensure that progress continues?

Steven Pinker

Adopting an evidence-based mindset, an open-minded attitude that would seek to identify what has worked in the past, what has the best chance of working in the future — and endorsing those policies, as opposed to just expressing an allegiance to political ideology or tribe.

Read the whole story
strugk
8 days ago
reply
Warsaw, Poland
Share this story
Delete

Highway of riches, road to ruin: Inside the Amazon's deforestation crisis

1 Share

Boundary established by government in 1953; Map data: Google, Image Landsat / Copernicus

Map data: Google, Image Landsat / Copernicus

Map data: Google, Image Landsat / Copernicus

*NASA/FIRMS; Map data: Google, Image Landsat / Copernicus

*NASA/FIRMS; Map data: Google, Image Landsat / Copernicus

Map data: Google, Image Landsat / Copernicus

Highway BR-163 cuts a brutal path through Brazil’s conflicting ambitions: to transform itself into an economic powerhouse and to preserve the Amazon as a bulwark against climate change. Stephanie Nolen travelled 2,000 kilometres along the dusty, dangerous corridor, and found a range of realistic — and often counterintuitive — ways that the forest could work for everyone

Reporting by Stephanie Nolen
Photography by Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Published

Every single day, cameras on satellites 700 kilometres above the Earth sweep over the five million square km of Amazon rainforest in Brazil and record a series of images.

The pictures show the soaring trees that spike above the canopy...

...and the tangle of jungle below, threaded through with rivers, some swift and muddy brown, others nearly as green as the sea of trees.

They show the cities and the towns and the Indigenous aldeias that are home to the 30 million people who live within the forest.

And the pictures show the fires that rage across the Amazon,

the bare patches of charred ground, the gouged raw earth of the mines, the speckled sprawl of hectares of grazing cattle, and the fresh scars where trees stood yesterday and have disappeared today.

As the satellites pass over the forest, they record its disappearance in real time.

Brazil began to collect these images (on satellites belonging to NASA, China and India) in 2004, a key part of the country’s big push to stop the burning and the gouging. The pictures are sent to teams of field agents who head to the sites of fires and patches of newly denuded land, to make arrests, levy fines and destroy the equipment of loggers and miners and those who cleared the land for ranches and farms.

And it worked. Between 2004 and 2014, Brazil drove deforestation down by 82 per cent.

The early pictures photographed the forest at a resolution that showed the land in 25-hectare blocks. And so those who cleared it started to strip out smaller patches, hoping to elude the satellites. Over time, Brazil’s Ministry of Environment and the Brazilian space agency developed a new camera that zoomed in to capture images as precise as a single hectare. Deforestation rates fell further.

Yet the forest was still disappearing: A chunk bigger than Prince Edward Island vanished last year alone. And when I set out to try to understand why – and what that means, not just for Brazil, but for the rest of us humans – the most knowledgeable people I talked with seemed to be filled with a level of despair I had never encountered before when reporting on climate issues.

Again and again, scientists told me that the future of the forest had never been as uncertain as it is right now.

The satellites give a constant picture of what’s happening in the Amazon. But there is a limit to what you can learn from the sky.

You can’t hear the voices of the people who live in the Amazon, and who see their own future, and Brazil’s, tied to how they use the forest every day. You can’t see those who feel they have a stake in – and a right to – the wealth that the rainforest holds.

And you certainly can’t feel the taut, maybe irresolvable tension between all their many and conflicting visions.

To try to understand how we reached this moment, I drew up a list of the many actors involved, and the multiple forces that seemed to have coalesced to get us here.

Then I laid out a map of Brazil, and traced the borders of the remaining forest. I noticed a road, the BR-163, that seemed as if it might help me see the whole story.

From the air, the Amazon is, still, predominantly, a sea of trees.

On the roads that cut through it, it’s something else entirely.

Chapter 2

Highway of ambitions

The sky was a flat grey when Elisângela Mendonça, a producer in the Globe’s Rio bureau, and photographer Aaron Elkaim and I set out on our first morning, the sun obscured by the haze of fires burning to the north.

We hit the road – steering a silver Chevy pickup truck on a journey that would take us more than 2,000 kilometres through the Amazon.

Heading into the smoke, we left behind the boxy white highrises and wide boulevards of the business district of Cuiabá, the capital of Brazil’s agro-industrial heartland. We slotted our pickup truck into a giant line of 18-wheelers hauling grain, all rendered the same taupe colour by caked dust.

The road is smooth and dual-carriage when it leaves the city, with paved shoulders and occasional tollbooths, the kind of highway you expect to find carving its way through a modern agricultural superpower.
It doesn’t last.

The story of this road, the BR-163, is in many ways the story of Brazil’s relationship with the rainforest.

When construction of the highway began back in 1972, the country was ruled by a dictatorship that viewed the Amazon as a risk: all that unoccupied territory, ripe for the taking by an enemy. And so the military rulers devised a policy, ocupar para não entregar – occupy so we don’t lose it – that aimed to move more people into the forest, fast. In the process of marking Brazilian ownership of the Amazon, the military rulers were also able to achieve another critical goal: the resettlement of poor, landless people who were then swelling the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo searching for work. This road, the BR-163, was a key north-south pole in that expansion.

Today, it runs from Cuiabá, in the heart of the grain basket, to Santarém, a muggy port city on the Amazon River. As it snakes north, it cuts a path not only through the country itself, but through Brazil’s conflicting ambitions: to transform itself into a first-world economy, on the one hand, and on the other, to protect and preserve what is left of an ecosystem that recycles a fifth of the world’s rainfall, holds 150 billion tonnes of stored carbon, and is home to 15 per cent of all the species on Earth.

On both sides of the highway were fields – vast expanses stubbled with the remains of harvested corn and soy. Every 10 minutes or so, we drove past a little clump of trees – preserved by a farmer to shade a house or cover a water source ...

… and every 50 km or so past a grain storage facility, its silos and ramps and trucks all so big that it felt like we were in Alice in Wonderland, suddenly shrunk.

The outsize scale of the farms and the trucks was fitting, given what this region represents for Brazil. The government adapted soy plants for this climate in the 1970s, and farmers began to move here from the south. But in the last 15 years, as global demand exploded – primarily for soy to use in animal feed, and for livestock to nourish a new middle class in China and other emerging economies – the wealth, and the political importance, of this area began to grow.

Soy products accounted for $40-billion in exports last year. As Brazil has lived through its worst recession in nearly a century, this was one sector that continued to expand. That gave farmers and landowners, always a strong political force here, an even greater influence.

For the last 45 years, the southern border of the forest has been pushed steadily back. From the time of the generals, and into the 1990s, this was explicit government policy. The transition to democracy came just as domestic and international pressure about preserving the rainforest began to mount. Brazil took a new tack, saying it would try to control deforestation – assisted by an international fund, backed primarily by Norway, that recognized that the country was being asked to preserve forest cover of the kind that rich nations such as Canada had demolished in their own path to development.

Then came an interesting confluence of events that complicated Brazil’s relationship with deforestation. In 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, was elected Brazil’s president. His first years in office coincided with a surge in global commodity prices that made Brazil richer, and Lula popular – and fuelled a surge in forest clearing to make way for cattle and soy, much of it shipped to world markets along the BR-163. Lula was sensitive to the international criticism about the Amazon, and he tasked his environment minister with sorting it out. Marina Silva, a protégée of the assassinated environmental activist Chico Mendes, drew up a transformative plan to change the way Brazil managed its forest: The key was robust police enforcement, employing those satellite images. For the tricky issue of Amazon highways, she put forward a plan called the Sustainable BR-163, which proposed the road be used to enable development but be carefully managed to control deforestation. A key measure involved turning huge areas of land along the road into “Conservation Units,” removing them from the land speculation market.

Ms. Silva eventually quit cabinet, disillusioned – she’s running for president herself this year. But her plan was tremendously successful. Deforestation fell by 58 per cent during her time as minister. Brazil continued to lose, on average, 9,600 square km of the forest, the size of Cyprus, annually – but the downward trend, even as GDP and income rose, was a powerful endorsement of sustainable resource management.

Yet starting in 2014 – as political turmoil and corruption scandals engulfed Brazil – deforestation rates suddenly shot up again, likely a result of the perception that there would be few repercussions for breaking the law. Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s hand-picked successor, was impeached in 2016 after six years in power, and replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer, a long-time patron of rich landowners, soy farmers and ranchers. Mr. Temer himself was soon ensnared in scandal, and turned to those ruralistas to ensure his survival, by proposing to ease restrictions on everything from mining to ranching in protected forest. “All of the gains we had in the past 30 years, creating environmental safeguards, laws that organize land occupation – are being exchanged with this rural elite, they’re the bargaining chip to keep Temer as president,” Ane Alencar told me, before the road trip. She’s a scientist who helped write the plan for the Sustainable BR-163, and a co-founder of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.

Today the highway runs right through this economic and political conflict, a dusty, dangerous corridor to prosperity – or destruction, depending whom you ask.

Chapter 3

‘The world needs food’

A few kilometres before the town of Sinop, we turned off onto a red dirt road,

and an hour later pulled up in front of the farm office of Darcy Ferrarin, a wiry, blue-eyed farmer of 72 whose Portuguese is still marked with the round vowels of the far south, where he grew up.

Mr. Ferrarin bought this 13,300-hectare farm, called Saint Mary of the Amazon, in 1998; it’s one of four he owns, worth, collectively, about $5-million.

Here, too, there are vast fields, recently harvested. But there are trees, too: More than a third of Mr. Ferrarin’s land – 5,300 hectares – remains primary-growth tropical forest.

It is not because he is a bleeding-heart environmentalist, he was at pains to make clear, that he has preserved those trees. He believes the government will eventually pay out to reward those who protect the forest cover; in the meantime, the trees help keep his water sources running.

He believes that farmers like him should be compensated through a global fund for the trees they leave standing.

But not all of them. “I’m not in favour of zero deforestation – I’m in favour of legal deforestation,” he says. “The world needs food. No one can live from forest.” And Brazil needs the exports. “Agribusiness,” he says, “is what’s keeping this country afloat.”

Under Brazil’s Forest Code, the owners of property in the Amazon can clear only 20 per cent of their property; the balance they must preserve, or restore to forest if it was previously cleared. There was an amnesty when the code was brought in 2012, which is how Mr. Ferrarin gets away with having less than that. Besides, he is disputing whether his forest technically would be Amazon, claiming he is in the transition zone from a savannah-like biome called the cerrado, an argument that has increasingly found favour with environmental authorities under the Temer government.

Despite its quaint name, this farm is an unabashedly industrialized operation. There is a factory right on the property, where freshly picked cotton is processed and bound into pallets headed to Asia.

Standing in the clatter of the factory, I recalled a conversation I’d had with Juliano Assunção, a prominent economist who heads a think tank in Rio called the Climate Policy Initiative.

Farms such as this stand on what used to be forest, sure. But as highly efficient, industrialized operations, he said, they also represent part of the solution for the Amazon.

“I know that miles upon miles of soy fields are quite shocking and they look like a much more devastated environment than having a few cows grazing in among trees,” Mr. Assunção said.

“But the soy industry has made huge productivity gains over the past few decades, and in doing so has allowed farmers to get more out of less land.”

What’s more, farmers such as Mr. Ferrarin have made considerable investment in their land, which means they have more to lose by not complying with the law. That makes them more transparent, more accountable and more influenced by consumer demands for a “green” supply chain, he said. If such farmers stick within the existing boundaries of land they are permitted to clear, and focus on the most efficient agriculture possible within that area, they are potentially part of the solution.

Brazil, he was saying, needs more Mr. Ferrarins – and less of what lay ahead of us as we drove farther north to our next stop.

Chapter 4

Pride – and a confession

The road to Fazenda Esperança, Hope Farm, was hard to find. We travelled east from the BR-163, and blundered down a few laneways – encountering a perplexed armadillo ...

… and a pair of men skinning an enormous, freshly killed cow. Gesturing expansively with machetes that dripped blood, they gave us friendly but entirely inaccurate directions.

Eventually we found the unmarked entrance to the farm, and parked our truck by a field of bulls penned up awaiting a slaughterhouse truck.

Invaldo Weiss, 61, strode out to greet us, immaculate in lustrous cowboy boots, jeans with a stiff crease ironed in, and a cotton dress shirt.

His pride was evident as he drove us around the ranch. He, too, came from the south, some 40 years ago, in the early days of Amazonian colonization.

He built Esperança by acquiring a series of small properties. “When I bought it, I had to clean up the rest of the native vegetation,” he said. By limpar, clean, he meant cut down. He stopped the truck at one point to show us a clump of three grand trees. “I left those,” he said proudly. A shifting, tail-swishing clump of cattle stood beneath it, each trying to keep within the small circle of shade the trees cast.

There are twice as many cows as there are people in Brazil – but this country has the world’s least productive cattle industry. Canadian farmers raise, on average, seven cows per hectare; here, they raise just one. Forging new pasture for cattle is the single biggest driver of deforestation – responsible for 66 per cent of it. But that statistic can be deceiving. Often it isn’t the push to graze more cattle that drives farmers to fell trees. Instead, cattle are used to declare de facto ownership of land that has been purchased or occupied. Brazil’s land-titling system is intensely bureaucratic, extremely slow, and often simply absent; just 30 per cent of landowners in the state of Pará, where we were headed, have legal title to their land.

And because people who don’t have title to land can’t rent it out – or sell it – keeping cattle makes it productive, without anyone having to do much: Brazil’s cattle are turned loose in fields of scrubby vegetation and left for weeks at a time under minimal supervision.

Mr. Weiss showed us humpbacked bulls mottled in browns and blacks, raised for semen, and grey cows who eyed us suspiciously, edging between us and their tiny newborn calves that glowed white against the brittle grass.

He told us about his part-time role as an evangelical pastor. He told us how proud he was of his daughters, both college graduates – he never had the chance to go past grade school. His children are raising their own families in the town of Sinop.

And after we had been talking for several hours, and the harsh lines of the pastures had softened in the late afternoon light, Mr. Weiss chuckled and offered to “confess.”

When first he came north, he made a living by operating heavy machinery, he said, and then he saved up enough to buy the equipment himself and began to hire himself out to clear farmland: two tractors, and a chain slung between them – that’s how the 50-metre trees of the Amazon were brought down. And that’s how he made the money to acquire Esperança.

He quit clearing in 2005, when the government’s new regime of enforcement kicked in. “I never did any work without documents, nothing illegal,” he said. The top environmental official in the region was a friend of his, and warned him he could end up behind bars if he cleared land for people with fake permits. “So I got out of the business – other people went on working on whatever terms.”

Not that Mr. Weiss was opposed to a little creative sidestepping of the law, once he became a farmer. When warnings began piling up that he wasn’t meeting his obligations to replant the cleared areas of his property, he took a stack of them into the office of his pal and dumped them on his desk. They had a gentleman’s agreement that the warnings and fines would “go away,” he said, and he has simply ignored them for years.

But what about his cattle business? In 2009, Brazil won a commitment from major beef producers that they would not purchase cattle raised on illegally deforested land. But Mr. Weiss said with a shrug that he has no trouble selling his animals.

He does not have formal registration of his property; to get it he would have to reforest, something he has no intention of doing. “It’s not my responsibility.” He is focused instead on modernizing his ranch – he’s building up from three cows per hectare to six. And he is converting some pasture to soy fields.

The environmental lobby drives him bonkers. The stars of Brazilian soap operas are always collecting signatures on petitions to preserve the forest, he said, without thinking for a minute about where their food comes from. “They won’t pay a penny to reforest. I’m the one whose pocket it’s supposed to come from … I came here and built something, and now I’m the villain.”

We left Mr. Weiss at nightfall, and headed north to Sinop. The number of trucks on the road was beginning to thin; some were pulled over, their drivers fixing dinner on a small pop-down shelf on the side of the truck bed.

We spent the night in Sinop – another fast-expanding city where the most conspicuous evidence of new prosperity is private schools and late-model pickups.

Driving out early the next morning, we passed a long string of warehouses, grain-processing centres and abattoirs – with signs in Chinese and Japanese, as well as Portuguese – and a shiny new airport. A long, sketchy stretch of road lay between us and the regional capital, Novo Progresso.

Chapter 5

The gold factor

Here, in the centre of some of Brazil’s most violent conflict over land and resources, we wanted to meet up with a team of agents from the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio).

We drove out of Novo Progresso just after dawn, carrying with us the latest satellite images, and GPS devices – joining a convoy of six truckloads of agents backed up by a dozen heavily armed forest police.

At midday, we pulled up to a skeletal shed in the middle of Jamanxim National Forest.

The ICMBio agents leapt down from their pickups and homed in on four men sitting out the heavy midday heat under the rough metal roof, while the police fanned out to form a semi-circle perimeter.

The men were cooking beans on a gas ring connected to a tank of propane; the blue flame hissed and the steel pot juddered. At first, the rattle from the pot drowned out all the other sounds.

One of the agents, Nilton Barth Filho, stepped over to the tank and turned the flame down. For a second I thought this was courtesy: If they were going to interrogate these men, they would make sure lunch didn’t burn. But as the noise died away, a second sound was audible – the drone of an engine somewhere in the forest behind us. Mr. Barth Filho’s head snapped up as he heard it, and then he and three colleagues bolted toward it.

The sound of the engine stayed steady – so it wasn’t loggers with chainsaws. It was a pump: garimpeiros panning for gold.

A few hundred metres into the forest was a clearing pocked with muddy pits, where the agents found three men standing waist-deep in a wide, murky pool, funnelling water through a series of wooden pans.

The police put their hands on their guns and summoned the miners. They came slowly, dripping silty water.

The police lined them up in a thatch hut where a row of hammocks hung.

Searching the men, and the battered backpacks that held their gear, they found two repurposed eye-drop bottles, now heavy with the mercury that garimpo use to separate gold from silt – and a rifle and some shells.

A woman cooking in the hut began to weep as she watched the agents rummage through their small heap of possessions.

The miners – five in all – were soon marched up to the main building, where one agent, Mila Ferreira, began the process of fining their leader, Francinaldo da Silva Lima, 42.

Back in the forest, mission leader Assor Fucks supervised as Mr. Barth Filho and another agent, Eder de Jesus, went at the pump and the camp with sledgehammers, battering $10,000 worth of equipment into uselessness.

Drenched in sweat when the job was done, Mr. Barth Filho had a satisfied air. His team had been patrolling the forest for six hours by then, chasing false leads on cattle ranchers and loggers who always seemed to elude them: He was delighted to have made a bust.

“They do so much damage, these guys – they open up the forest, they send mercury into the streams and it poisons everything,” he said, heading back up to his truck.

Mr. de Jesus watched his partner go, and shook his head. “Peixinhos,” he muttered. “Só peixinhos.” Just little fish.

Both of the agents were right, in their way. The garimpeiro do drive deforestation across the Amazon. But their environmental impact is dwarfed by that of the legal mining industry, which has a large – and growing – presence in the rainforest.

There are active legal mines, exploration sites or purchased concessions on almost one million square kilometres of land in the Amazon; mining in this region was worth four per cent of Brazil’s GDP in 2016, or $32-billion. Mines must undergo an extensive environmental licensing procedure, and companies are required to later “restore” the area they have mined, which means the impact of mining can appear relatively small, compared to farming or logging.

But new research has found that mining leaves a significant footprint. Australian ecologist Laura Sonter recently demonstrated that 9 per cent of the forest loss between 2005 and 2015 was due to mining. That’s 12 times more than occurred within mining lease areas alone. The additional deforestation comes from urban areas that grow up to house the work force, industries that expand to serve the supply chain, and big infrastructure projects built to support the mine.

Today, mining is not permitted in protected areas. But last August, President Temer introduced legislation to permit mining in a 28,700-square-kilometre reserve called RENCA, in the northeastern Amazon, a region that is home to three First Nations and also acts as a huge carbon sink. In the wake of a global outcry, he withdrew the proposed law. But RENCA was just one small piece of a much bigger debate about mining in the forest: Another five million hectares of land – equal to the size of Costa Rica – are the subject of bills before Congress seeking to lower their protection status to allow mining.

Given the scale of the industry, it was easy to understand why Mr. de Jesus felt that busting a few men panning for gold was pointless. But they weren’t having much luck with ranchers and loggers that day, either.

On missions like these, the ICMBio agents try to locate new infractions and identify who has cut down the trees that have gone missing in those satellite pictures.

The Novo Progresso team of nine agents was responsible for an area equivalent, in total, to the size of Portugal – nine million hectares of forest.

“A million each!” Mr. Barth Filho told me with a somewhat manic laugh. Just a few hours into their day of patrols, it was clear how fruitless their task was.

The land was rumpled with low hills and rocky outcrops, and we passed smouldering new pasture, and more cattle.

Deep inside the highly protected area, it looked just like it did outside the conservation zone.

“The scenario is depressing,” Ms. Ferreira said. “It’s very sad to see not only the absence of forest but the fires.”

When we encountered houses or farm buildings, the agents stopped and interrogated any people they found.

The stories were identically vague. “I don’t know who owns that land, I don’t know who started the fire.”

Mr. Fucks was clearly annoyed. “Police have no resources or capacity to assist us – with intelligence or investigations,” he said, as he walked back to the truck after another fruitless conversation with a steadfastly evasive farmer.

“We can’t get them,” Ms. Ferreira chimed in, her voice flat with frustration. “Eighty per cent of the time, we know – but we can’t prove it. They put the land in someone else’s name, and we issue fines, and nothing happens – they toss the fine in the drawer. The only person who ever pays the fine is a small land-grabber who is afraid of the attention.”

Landowners with outstanding fines can’t get access to government credit programs – that’s one of those enforcement measures brought in at the beginning of the turnaround period, in the mid-2000s. But for a nominal fee, or the use of some land, they can easily find someone to put their name on the property. “Brazil’s problem is impunity,” said Ms. Ferreira. “If people who break the law ever got punished, it wouldn’t just keep happening.”

Mr. de Jesus chimed in. “The only way they get punished is that we destroy their equipment, like their tractors and their pumps,” he explained – something ICMBio agents have been authorized to do since 2009, when they come upon an environmental crime. “That,” he adds, “is when our work gets dangerous.” A law currently before Congress, proposed by the head of the ruralista lobby, would bar agents from destroying equipment.

When, after hours of this, we finally encountered the garimpo, the agents were jittery with adrenalin. But even as they smashed up the equipment, it was clear they weren’t striking much of a blow for the forest.

Ms. Ferreira spoke simply and gently as she explained the charges to Mr. Lima, the head of the small group of miners; Mr. de Jesus helped him ink his thumb to sign the charge sheet he couldn’t read.

“Did you know this was Jamanxim Forest and you can’t mine here?” she asked Mr. Lima.

“No,” he replied, “I never heard that.” He was standing with one foot on an old wooden sign that identified the area as protected; he couldn’t read that, either.

“The government speaks pretty words about protecting the forest – but we will lose 50 per cent of our budget next year,” said Mr. Fucks. “We need [more] employees and three times as many vehicles. We only have what we do because foreign governments donate them … We’re losing. But if we had three times as many people, we could win.”

Ms. Ferreira, peeling off her bullet-proof vest at the end of the day, questioned whether beefing up their ranks would really make a difference. The most powerful politicians in Novo Progresso, she pointed out, own the farms inside the forest. “If the punishment was serious – if the law applied here … Even if we had 100 vehicles and all these people, it wouldn’t fix it. Because it’s politics.”

Chapter 6

The politics of progress

“Would you like tea? It’s mate, we grow it ourselves.” This was the gracious welcome from a politician at the centre of this ongoing conflict when we went to see him the next morning. At Novo Progresso’s unpretentious single-storey city hall, we were ushered in to meet the vice-mayor, Gelson Dill. (The mayor, Ubiraci Silva, does not meet with journalists. The fact that he is facing $515,000 in fines for environmental crimes may have something to do with this.)

It was just last year that Mr. Dill was elected to the number two job in this municipality, which at 38,000 square kilometres is more than half the size of New Brunswick; but he has served as a municipal councillor for almost as long as he has been a farmer, because, he says, producers must have a voice in politics. He was eager to talk to us about the development challenges in the region: Trucks spent more than 10 days parked on the BR-163 near the city last year, he said, when the rains turned the highway to mud, and the government had to airlift in supplies. Only a fifth of local producers have been able to register title to their land because the process is so slow and complicated, he complained.

I broached Mr. Dill’s own environmental record gingerly, but it turned out he was eager to discuss the subject. He breezily confirmed what I’d heard, that he owns a farm inside Jamanxim National Forest. But he said he owned it before the land was declared a Conservation Unit – and that it was part of a family enterprise in the area that included logging and sawmill businesses. The logging was rendered illegal overnight when the area was given protected status. His brothers gave up and moved, but he kept the ranch, on the footprint they already occupied, he said.

The previous government, of Ms. Rousseff, denied him compensation on the grounds that he had occupied the land illegally. But in the Temer administration, he and the owners of the other 250 ranches in the protected forest in Novo Progresso have found a newly sympathetic ear. By recategorizing 400,000 of the 1.3 million hectares of the Conservation Unit, he says, the government could address the uncertain situation of 95 per cent of the people living in the protected area. The farmers are negotiating with the government over precisely how much land, and which areas specifically, would have its conservation status downgraded, but he said he expects the law to change soon.

Environmentalists and protection officers abhor the plan – not just for the amount of forest that would be lost within the rezoned area, but for the message it would send to land-grabbers and speculators in the rest of the country: If they occupy and clear protected land, and settle in, sooner or later they will be given ownership – and the right to deforest. Ms. Alencar, the conservation scientist who drew up the original Sustainable BR-163 plan, put it this way to me before we set out on the drive: “If the government says, ‘We will change the limits of Jamanxim National Forest, and everyone that is there is allowed to be there’ – imagine what will happen to the 47 per cent of the Brazilian Amazon that is some kind of protected area.”

But Mr. Dill made his sound like an eminently reasonable solution. “Their goal was to suffocate the producers in the Conservation Units,” he said of the Rousseff government – but that would be bad for the forest. “The producer ends up not trusting the state, and committing environmental crimes and clearing new areas.” Under his proposal, farmers whose properties are regularized would be motivated to maintain their status as good citizens, he said.

“There are more than 19 million hectares of forest in our region – and we’re asking for less than one million hectares, to resolve the conflicts.”

Mr. Dill frankly conceded that he has received fines on other properties he owns outside the forest. The policy that prevents slaughterhouses from buying animals reared on irregular land such as the forest farm ought to have made the ranch unviable. Mr. Dill puffed out his cheeks and described that restriction as little more than an irritation: He raises his cattle to nearly full-grown, then hands them off to a farmer whose land lies outside the protected area – after which they’re sold into the supply chain that promises consumers rainforest-free beef.

Beyond his own ambitions, Mr. Dill has big plans for the region – he and other farmers from the area are urging the federal infrastructure program to move forward on a planned north-south railroad to ease congestion on the BR-163, and trying to extend credit to small producers to expand their farms.

When the environmental regulations are “resolved,” Novo Progresso will be in a position to flourish, he said.

He wished us well on the trip – warning cheerily that, however bad the road had been up until then, it would only get worse from here.

Driving away from the municipal office, we passed a wall painted with neatly lettered graffiti. “When the law ignores reality,” it said, “reality takes revenge on the law.”

Chapter 7

Planting trees, drawing threats

The road did indeed steadily deteriorate: We plowed through banks of loose sand, and at one point found ourselves driving on the wrong side of the highway in a line of trucks that had changed lanes in search of better traction – and whose dust obscured our ability to see whether anything was coming directly toward us.

In the late afternoon we began to smell smoke again, and soon we were driving past banks of orange fire that roared on both sides of the road.

The next morning we drove warily into Trairão, a town whose name has become a synonym for resource-based conflicts.

The source of much of the violence is the trees, which in this region are felled not only to make way for other industries: This is an epicentre of illegal logging. It’s a lucrative business, worth an estimated $288-million – at least half the timber harvested in Brazil is illegal. Logging here isn’t the kind of clear-cut that Canadians might envision. Illegal loggers target individual high-value trees, such as a single ipé, 45 metres tall and nearly two metres around, that will produce $5,000 worth of wood. It might be growing in a conservation area – a national park or forest – or on union land, which is like Crown land in Canada, owned by government but not zoned for protection. Or it might be on private land, which under the Forest Code can’t be legally logged.

You might think, so a tree or two is taken here or there – comparatively that doesn’t seem like such a big problem. But logging, like mining, has an outsize impact. “It’s deforesting activity that incentivizes,” is how Marco Lenti, who has been researching the business for more than 20 years and currently manages the forest file for the World Wildlife Fund in Brazil, explained it to me. Once loggers open a road, they are often followed by hunters, and then by garimpeiros, who use the opened track to explore for gold. Then comes the wholesale clearing: The land is set alight, the cheapest and fastest and easiest way to clear the vegetation. “Logging is the starting point,” Mr. Lenti said, “of colonizing the forest.”

It’s also deforestation that degrades: The logged patches may appear on those satellite maps as untouched. But biologists have discovered in recent years that the extraction of even a small number of trees has a mammoth impact on biodiversity and the health of the forest.

The new openings in the canopy cause it to dry out, and be much more susceptible to fire.

There were more fires in the Amazon in 2017 than had been recorded since record-keeping began 19 years ago – more than 160,000 in September alone.

The loss of the big trees also affects the natural cycles of the lower ones, and throws the whole ecosystem out of whack. We are only beginning to understand how damaging this is. New, more sharply focused satellite monitoring shows that from 2007-2013, some 102,000 square km of the Amazon were degraded – more than double the area deforested. A study of the biodiversity in degraded forest in Pará found that twice as many species have been lost to degradation as to deforestation.

As with so much else in this country, Brazil has, on paper, a plan to control illegal logging. A licensing system is meant to ensure that timber sold in Brazil or exported is legal – but the system is laughably inefficient, Mr. Lentini explained, and easily corrupted. To obtain harvesting permits, landowners bribe officials; or sell illegally harvested trees, claiming they have come from other land they own and are permitted to log; or fudge documents coming out of sawmills. Fake papers are so easy to come by in towns such as Trairão, he said, that he has bought them himself, in a matter of minutes.

On the BR-163 we were passing trucks loaded with logs, and sawmills with huge tree trunks stacked in the yards.

But we weren’t finding many people who wanted to talk about logging. In fact, many warned us not even to ask.

At the big blue Catholic church in Trairão, which has a well-established program to help small farmers – who often find themselves in conflict with the loggers – the priests told us we’d be better off leaving town; they had last had death threats from loggers a month before.

But there was one person in Trairão ready to talk about illegal logging: Osvalinda Pereira. At 49, she projects the peaceful calm of a woman who has lived with danger for so long that nothing much disturbs her any more.

Ms. Pereira and her husband, Daniel Alves, came to Trairão in 2006. They both grew up poor in the south and married young, and in the 1990s were given a plot of land in Mato Grosso through INCRA, a government settlement program.

They spent 15 years there, trying to build up a farm – but a neighbouring soy-plantation owner kept trying to buy them out. (It’s illegal but common for people settled through INCRA to sell their land). Eventually, he took to burning their fruit and nut trees, she says. When police ignored their complaints, they headed farther north, thinking they would have more luck in this area where agriculture is still small-scale. They found the land near Trairão – INCRA wouldn’t resettle them officially, but no one complained when they began to set up a home there.

And instead of clearing trees, they planted more. They began to harvest caucau and cashews, and seeds they sold to reforestation projects. These were ideas she learned from her mother, who raised 12 children on what she gathered in a small woodlot. “People said at first that we were crazy,” Ms. Pereira said, when she welcomed us into their airy house, nestled in a grove of trees. “But then they saw what we were doing and many of them wanted to start doing the same thing.” Ms. Pereira set up an association, teaching women in the community how to make a living from the forest. Some of their husbands switched to “extraction,” as it is known, as well.

The logging bosses did not appreciate any of this: They didn’t want to compete with her for manual labour, and they didn’t like the ethos she was spreading about how the trees had more value left alive. Neither did they like all this talk of living self-sufficiently from the forest. When the environmental police made a major raid on the loggers in the area in 2013, and burned the logging equipment, the owners blamed her for tipping off the authorities – she says she did nothing of the kind, that she had, rather, been hoping to win people over gradually.

But the reprisals came almost immediately.

A woman warned her that four local loggers’ associations had put up $1,500 each to pay for a hitman to kill her and her family. A short time later, on a rainy evening, several trucks pulled up in front of their house, and 12 men, draped in guns and ammunition, appeared at the door. Knowing the neighbours were too far away to hear her scream, Ms. Pereira recalls with a wry smile that she and Mr. Alves instead invited them in; she made them juice from the fruit she’d harvested.

The loggers said they were there to make a “deal.” She said she wasn’t interested. The leader told her, “Look, if one of my workers loses his livelihood because of you and they come here and do something to you or your husband – don’t blame me.”

“Is that a death threat?” Ms. Pereira says she asked him.

“I’m just telling you, poor people like you only make money when they die,” he replied.

“So kill me now,” she said. “Because if you don’t, I’m going to make a criminal complaint against you all.” It was, she says, resignation rather than bravado: She was convinced that they would, in fact, kill her.

For reasons that still mystify her, they didn’t. They put down their juice and drove off into the rain. “They could have done whatever they wanted – we were alone there, and there was no way out. … They have killed so many people and no one hears about it. No one has the courage to talk about what happens here. Here there is justice for the rich, my dear, but not for the poor.”

Reporting the threats to the law yielded little – no local police station would open a case against the comparatively wealthy and powerful loggers. Gunmen continued to pull up and circle her house periodically on motorbikes. And although federal police finally got involved, the best they had to suggest was that the family move away. They refused. A sort of uneasy détente developed: They abandoned the effort to win others over to extractivism. But they stayed put.

“If we leave, we’ll lose what we built here, and they’ll keep killing people and nothing will change,” said Ms. Pereira “We already ran from Mato Grosso and we’re not going to run again.”

Ms. Pereira sees the dense forests that remain in Pará as a sort of last stand for the country. “We don’t want what happened everywhere else in Brazil to happen here.”

Their small farm, an oasis in the forest, where the chickens fussed at our feet and flowered vines crept over the house, presented a weird contrast to the dark story Ms. Pereira told. A fierce rainstorm blew in before dusk and she urged us to get back on the road, not to linger. Mr. Alves sketched out a shortcut back to the BR-163 – a road built by loggers to get their loads to the highway more quickly – and we headed off.

We hadn’t gone far when the rain cleared and Aaron wanted to stop to take photos of smouldering, newly cleared land. We pulled the car over and opened the doors. From both sides of the road, the forest rang with the buzz of chainsaws.

Chapter 8

A people’s fight for survival

That night we drove north on the BR-163 to the town of Miritituba, and then left the highway again, this time to board a lumbering ferry that took us across the Tapajós River.

In Itaituba, a city of 100,000, we checked into a hotel – it could charitably be called “modest” – where rooms were running at more than $200 a night. In the morning, when I saw the breakfast room full of men in the uniforms of construction companies and hydroelectric plants, I understood the hefty rates: Itaituba is a boomtown in the making.

By now, 10 days into the trip, my shoulders ached from yanking the steering wheel around the giant potholes, my eyes stung from the smoke, and the whole world felt like it was coated in a palette of unremitting greys and browns.

So when we picked up Alessandra Korap at her house in a small Indigenous community on the edge of town in the early morning, and parrots congregated noisily in the mango tree above her house, it already felt like a respite.

She directed us out of the town and onto the Trans-Amazônica, the east-west highway.

We drove west for an hour inside the Amazon National Park before turning onto a dirt road leading down to the banks of the Tapajós. A line of boats in varying states of disrepair littered the shore; Ms. Korap told us they belong to garimpeiro who use them to dredge the river bottom and travel to access points for sites inside the forest.

Before long, there was the growl of a motor, and a teenager from Ms. Korap’s community piloted a simple outboard to the shore. He lugged aboard the gas we had brought, piled us in,

and swept the boat back out into the rapids that churn along the deep green of the Tapajós.

After an hour of racing past unbroken lines of trees, he cut the motor and we came to a stop below a sign,

written in Portuguese and Munduruku, that both warned and welcomed us to their land.

The constitution adopted in Brazil in 1988, following the end of the dictatorship, guaranteed the rights of Indigenous people to their land, and in the 1990s the government began the process of identifying traditional Indigenous territories and handing them over to limited forms of self-government. There is archeological evidence that the Munduruku have occupied the region of the upper Tapajós for hundreds of years. In the late 1990s, they began the process of trying to have the land demarcated, as the process of official recognition is called in Brazil. And they fell into a bureaucratic nightmare that dragged on for more than a decade.

Finally, in the last hours of Ms. Rousseff’s administration, some 173,000 hectares were provisionally identified for demarcation. But when Mr. Temer took over, he froze the process again. In 2014, the Munduruku did the physical part of the process themselves – cutting a border around their territory through the jungle. That didn’t, however, give them legal rights to the land.

And that matters: Officially designating the land as Indigenous would threaten one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Brazil.

The hidrovia is a plan for 49 separate dams on the Tapajós and its tributaries – meant to quell the rapids and create a 2,200-km stretch of placid water on which grains could be moved north to the Amazon River – on barges that hold 50,000 tonnes, compared to 40-tonne trucks. Among the investors in the project is China’s Three Gorges Development Corporation.

When operational, the dams would generate 29 gigawatts of electricity, equal to 25 per cent of Brazil’s current usage. The biggest of the dams would be more than seven km across and require clearing nearly one million hectares of forest. The Munduruku territory would be obliterated.

The Munduruku have been fighting the dams for five years now – in a canny campaign that they focused not on Brasília as much as on Europe, where the citizens of countries sympathetic to Indigenous people might put pressure on Brazil.

They have managed to have the building of the first two stages suspended while the Supreme Court considers whether their claim to the land is enough to stop the project. But if they don’t have demarcation, they cannot claim Indigenous land. And in the hotel lobby in Itaituba, as men in suits and men in industrial coveralls bustled past me in all directions, the prospects for such official recognition seemed remote indeed.

Our young boat pilot nosed us into a dent in the trees, and Ms. Korap led us ashore and along a short jungle path to a clearing.

There we found Juarez Saw, the cacique, or chief, working with his family.

They had just brought in a harvest of manioc, and three generations were engaged in mashing it, draining the cyanide that occurs in it naturally, shredding and roasting it in a vast metal pan to make flour.

The cacique welcomed us graciously and sat us down to explain why the Munduruku won’t get their right to their land recognized in today’s Brazil.

“We used to think it was the dams that were the issue – today we see that the dams are just the foot in the door,” he said. “After they build the dams, other projects come after it, projects to export soya, mines, ranches, sawmills.” Already Munduruku land is peppered with garimpo mines. “But we know the garimpos, the little guys, they won’t stay. It’s the big foreign mines who are going to get control of this region.”

Just the day before, Mr. Saw told us, he and some of his family had been out hunting in the forest when they heard illegal loggers at work, on the Indigenous land – but could do nothing to stop them. “We can’t do anything. We’ve been repeatedly threatened by them. If we want to survive any longer, we have to keep quiet. We can only report them to ICMBio for them to enforce the law – but they aren’t able to do it.”

It would not be difficult, in his village, to romanticize the role of Brazil’s Indigenous people in protecting the forest – to see their way of life as holding some sort of key to human survival.

On the day we spent in Sawré-Muybu, Mr. Saw and his family moved easily through the tangled trees and vines, racing across slim branches balanced over swamps, moving swiftly up and down the hills at the riverbank. In late afternoon, children lined up to plunge one after the other into an ice-cold stream.

Yet, as Chief Juarez himself observed, there are Munduruku working in the garimpo on their land, and Munduruku who do illegal logging. They do it, he said, for money. He does not want his people to live entirely isolated in the forest: They need better health care, and better education, and options for young people.

But the change must be on their terms, he said – and those are terms that settler Brazil does not seem to grasp.

We left Sawré-Muybu just in time for our pilot to navigate the rapids before dark, and in the morning we caught the ferry back to Miritituba.

Chapter 9

‘Millions of anthills in the forest’

Back on the BR-163, we faced our last – and longest – drive, through what, on paper, was hundreds of kilometres of protected forest. Instead, again, we found farms and fire. By now, that came as no surprise.

We drove for 11 hours, and the sun was about to set again when we reached the last stretch of the BR-163, which threads into the city of Santarém.

The road ends at the gate of a huge installation built on the riverbank by the Minnesota-based food conglomerate Cargill.

Santarém’s port buildings are a bulky, modern contrast to the low, gentle sprawl of the rest of this city, where, nearly 500 years ago, Jesuit missionaries began to build a town on the site of a settlement of Tapajós Indigenous people. Today Santarém has an economy growing at three times the national average and expects its population to double, to 600,000, in the next three years.

In the morning, we went to see Higo de Sousa – a deputy to the state’s top environmental official, whose office is 1,500 km away in the capital, Belém. He inquired about our journey, and when we told him of the smoke and the craters on the BR-163, he just laughed.

“You can’t imagine what a paradise it is now. It used to take us a month to get to Novo Progresso,” he said, about a journey that now can be made in two days.

Mr. de Sousa was eager to describe the many ways the state is attempting to control illegal activity in the forest. In the same way that slaughterhouses have to say where they get their cattle, and Cargill has to buy soy from producers that have registered their land, the government wants to make gold buyers verify their sources of ore, he said.

But the longer we talked, the more Mr. de Sousa’s outward optimism seemed to fade. I told him about how the cattle ranchers we met described the way they circumvent the system. Timber buyers, he acknowledged with a sigh, do the same: “That’s our life – we set up a process, they find a way around it. There are 853 garimpo sites around Itaituba alone, he added. “You can’t stop it – there are millions of these anthills in the forest – by the time you get there, they’re hiding in the woods.” Not long ago, he travelled two days by road and boat with a two-person police escort to inspect a huge plantation being carved into the forest illegally. When he got there, he was confronted by an armed militia. “So we turned around and travelled two days home again.”

By the time we had been talking for a couple of hours, Mr. de Sousa had boiled the situation down to a question of power. “The big agricultural producers, the ones with the most capital, are the ones at the front of politics here,” he said. And they are the ones who will determine what happens to the forest. “When you see it from outside it doesn’t look so complex. When I started in this job, I thought, ‘Okay, let’s fight the loggers, the miners, the ranchers’ – but when I got a good look at it, I was just a small dot in the giant canvas.”

Mr. de Sousa concluded, half-joking, “The planet is depending on me.” Then he buried his face in his hands. “For the love of God …”

Chapter 10

The road that lies ahead

Before I started on this trip, I knew a couple of things. I knew that deforestation rates were climbing again.

I knew that forest degradation was happening as fast or faster than clear-cutting, and that far less attention was being paid to it.

I also knew that there was good news in this story: The Amazon has some degree of resilience. Up to 25 per cent of the forest that has ever been cleared has grown back.

That represents a new source of stored carbon for the world, and holds the promise of restored biodiversity.

I also knew that some of the measures that would make a real difference for preserving the Amazon are relatively straightforward. That regrown forest, for example, could be monitored. The satellites that sweep over the Amazon take no pictures of regrowth: Once a patch of forest is marked as cleared, it is subsequently skipped. Something as simple as turning a camera on it now would allow the government to track what is regrowing.

Brazilian agriculture is hugely inefficient, something I’d been reading on paper for years but understood in a new way when I drove through the endless fields of newly cleared pasture, right next to previously cleared land that had been abandoned. Brazil does need a stronger agricultural sector; it is a vital part of the economy, just as Mr. Ferrarin and the other farmers insisted.

But Brazil doesn’t need to clear a single additional hectare to make farming vastly more productive. In the Amazon alone, there are 10 million hectares of abandoned or poorly used pastures: an area the size of Iceland, wasted.

With technical assistance to farmers and ranchers – teaching them about crop rotation to prevent pasture degradation, for example; and using water tanks, instead of ponds, for cattle – the sector could expand without losing another hectare of forest.

At the same time, by stripping corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency out of its land-titling system, Brazil could deliver ownership documents to Brazilians who are already legally farming in the Amazon, turning their farms into collateral for credit that they could then reinvest to increase their productivity. And the government could stop settling poor farmers in the forest – people with no assets and no technical support who have little choice but to clear land for cattle, because they have no other way to make a living.

For the more than half of farming that is already made possible by government credit, such credit could be conditional on farmers demonstrating compliance with the Forest Code. And government spending – on credit, but also on infrastructure such as roads and bridges – could be prioritized for municipalities that are operating within the Code: The likes of Vice-Mayor Gelson Dill’s Novo Progresso could be blacklisted until a majority of properties are compliant.

In addition, the research institute Imazon found that a quarter of all deforestation in the Amazon in 2016 took place on public land that hadn’t been zoned. As a result, no one is assigned to monitor what happens on that land. By converting it into Conservation Units and recognized Indigenous territory, the government could dampen the market in land speculation.

Logging, ironically, could also be a way to protect the forest.

Marco Lenti of the World Wildlife Fund described as “reasonably well managed” the 2.5 million hectares of Amazon that are currently licensed and used for sustainable logging (four or five of the oldest trees per hectare are removed each year). Those swaths of forest are safe and monitored. But there is so much consumer concern now about dirty supply chains, and about rainforest wood in general, that people don’t want to buy even from such legal producers, he said. “I think we need to use the forest to give it value,” he said.

These steps are not easy, but they are manageable, in the context of what Brazil has been able to do already. But what I understood only once I’d driven the road was how intense are the pressures to do something different.

The 30 million people – almost a Canada – who live in the forest want better lives, and so do millions more Brazilians.

It does not follow that these can only be achieved by blindly harvesting the trees, digging out the minerals, damming the rivers, clearing the forest for pastures.

There is in fact compelling data to show that all of these resources would ultimately be worth more left in place.

But those who hold power in Brazil today – and who are signing deals and making decisions about irrevocable steps in the Amazon – don’t see it that way.

They see a resource whose value is to be maximized immediately. They have willing partners, in China in particular, ready to fund the infrastructure that guarantees a steady flow of food, and in companies such as Cargill, ready to process it in the supply chain of their giant transnational businesses.

Almost everyone I met on our journey talked about the price they were being asked to pay – to protect the forest, or to develop it. The ranchers and the farmers asked why the cost of stored carbon and recycled rain should come out of their pockets. The Munduruku wonder why their survival must be bartered for a growing economy that will fund Brazil’s pensions and universities. Should Western consumers bear some of the price, too, by paying more for sustainable rainforest products, for wooden decks or soy-based pet food or steak? Everything – wood, soy, cattle – raised on farms compliant with the Forest Code costs more, because because it comes from a reduced area of productive land on property that's mostly forest. And auditing those supply chains costs money, too.

One day not long after our trip, I sat in my office in Rio and clicked open the latest satellite feed of images of the Amazon. I thought about how silent and how clean it looked from above, with wisps of cloud across the images – and also, once you know what you’re looking at, how crowded. And I remembered Mila Ferreira, the environmental-protection agent, and something she told me when we were standing in a smouldering field, with bemused cows watching us eating a pineapple we were given by a friendly, unhelpful farmer.

“For me, the best days are when we fly over the forest,” she said. “Because down here we’re just in the middle of destruction – but when you’re up there you see things on a different scale. That despite all the damage, there is still a lot of forest. And it’s beautiful, to see that it’s still there.”

Read the whole story
strugk
9 days ago
reply
Warsaw, Poland
Share this story
Delete

I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories

1 Share

In December 2015, I wrote a story about the potential uses of the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. That piece, based on a conference that I attended in Washington, D.C., quoted six men and one woman. The six men included five scientists and one historian, all quoted for their professional expertise. The one woman was a communications director at a tissue bank organization, and her quote was about her experience as the mother of a child with a genetic disease.

These disparities, both in the absolute numbers of men and women, and the ways in which their quotes were used, leapt out at me, but only after the piece was published. They felt all the more egregious because the CRISPR field is hardly short of excellent, prominent female scientists. Indeed, two of the technique’s pioneers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, are women, and both of them spoke at the same conference from which I reported. And yet, if you read my piece, you could be forgiven for thinking that CRISPR was almost entirely the work of men.

Two months later, my colleague Adrienne LaFrance published a piece in which she analyzed the gender ratio of the sources in her Atlantic stories. In 2013, with the help of a computer scientist at MIT, she had trawled through a year of her own work. Of the people she mentioned across 136 articles, just 25 percent were women. She repeated the exercise for stories from 2015 and found an even lower figure: 22 percent. As Adrienne said:

These numbers are distressing, particularly because my beats cover areas where women are already outnumbered by men—robotics, artificial intelligence, archaeology, astronomy, etc. Which means that, by failing to quote or mention very many women, I’m one of the forces actively contributing to a world in which women’s skills and accomplishments are undermined or ignored, and women are excluded.

She is right. Women in science face a gauntlet of well-documented systemic biases. They face long-standing stereotypes about their intelligence and scientific acumen. They need better college grades to get the same prestige as equally skilled men, they receive less mentoring, they’re rated as less competent and less employable than equally qualified men, they’re less likely to be invited to give talks, they earn less than their male peers, and they have to deal with significant levels of harassment and abuse.

Gender biases are also entrenched in the media, where, in the words of the sociologist Gaye Tuchman, women are being “symbolically annihilated.” As Adrienne noted in her piece, “both in newsrooms and in news articles, men are leaders—they make more money, get more bylines, spend more time on camera, and are quoted far more often than women.” Again, there’s plenty of data on this. Several analyses show that in news stories, male voices outnumber female ones, typically by a factor of three—the same ratio Adrienne found in her work.

I found that ratio in my work, too. Shortly after Adrienne published her analysis, I looked back at the pieces that I had published in 2016 thus far. Across all 23 of them, 24 percent of the quoted sources were women. And of those stories, 35 percent featured no female voices at all. That surprised me. I knew it wasn’t going to be 50 percent, but I didn’t think it would be that low, either. I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem. I assumed that my passive concern would be enough. Passive concern never is.

I’ve since been trying to actively redress the balance, by spending more time searching for women to interview. For any given story, I almost always try to contact several sources. If, for example, I’m writing about a new scientific paper, I will interview the scientists behind the work, but also pass the paper around to get comments from independent researchers. To find the right people, I’ll look at related work that’s cited by the paper in question. I’ll google for people who do similar research. I’ll check Twitter. I’ll look at past news stories. To find more female sources, I just spend a little more time on all of the above—ending the search only when I have a list that includes several women.

Crucially, I tracked how I was doing in a simple spreadsheet. I can’t overstate the importance of that: It is a vaccine against self-delusion. It prevents me from wrongly believing that all is well. I’ve been doing this for two years now. Four months after I started, the proportion of women who have a voice in my stories hit 50 percent, and has stayed roughly there ever since, varying between 42 and 61 percent from month to month. And of the 312 stories I’ve written in that two-year window, only 7 percent feature no female voices. (This figure excludes the small number of stories that feature no voices of any gender.)

For the first year, I also tracked the number of people whom I asked for an interview, to check if I was actually contacting men and women in equal numbers and simply receiving a skewed set of replies. That wasn’t the case: In early 2016, women accounted for just 30 percent of people whom I contacted. As the year went on, I found that I would need to contact around 1.3 men to get one male quote, and around 1.6 women to get one female one. There are probably several reasons for this. First, women who work in fields where they are in the minority may already be overburdened with work and demands on their time. Second, I suspect women may be more likely than men to decline an interview on the assumption that they aren’t the right fit—something I have anecdotally experienced but haven’t rigorously quantified.

Finding diverse sources, and tracking them, takes time, but not that much time. I reckon it adds 15 minutes per piece, or an hour or so of effort over a week. That seems like a trifling amount, and the bare minimum that journalists should strive for. There are many ways for us to increase the diversity of our sources, and achieving gender parity is by far the simplest of them. After all, it is easy to guess someone’s gender based on their name, and when tracking progress, there is an obvious 50 percent threshold to aim for.

Since November 2015, I’ve also been tracking the number of people of color in my stories. That figure currently stands at 26 percent for the last year, ranging between 15 and 47 percent from month to month. I want to make it higher. I’m thinking about how to include more voices from LGBTQ, disabled, or immigrant communities. I’m thinking about the people who appear in the photos that accompany my pieces, rather than just those whose words appear within quote marks. Gender parity is a start, not an end point.

Skeptics might argue that I needn’t bother, as my work was just reflecting the present state of science. But I don’t buy that journalism should act simply as society’s mirror. Yes, it tells us about the world as it is, but it also pushes us toward a world that could be. It is about speaking truth to power, giving voice to the voiceless. And it is a profession that actively benefits from seeking out fresh perspectives and voices, instead of simply asking the same small cadre of well-trod names for their opinions.

Another popular critique is that I should simply focus on finding the most qualified people for any given story, regardless of gender. This point seems superficially sound, but falls apart at the gentlest scrutiny. How exactly does one judge “most qualified”? Am I to list all the scientists in a given field and arrange them by number of publications, awards, or h-index, and then work my way down the list in descending order? Am I to assume that these metrics somehow exist in a social vacuum and are not themselves also influenced by the very gender biases that I am trying to resist? It would be crushingly naïve to do so.

Note that this call to ignore gender and find the best sources almost always arises when journalists talk about including more female voices. Where is this ostensible concern about quality when it comes to news stories that predominantly quote men—which is to say, most news stories? Absent, because as Adrienne noted in her piece, this vein of criticism implicitly assumes that the best source is not a woman. It suggests that the status quo, in which men are overrepresented, is one in which the best sources are already being found.

I doubt it is. We don’t contact the usual suspects because we’ve made some objective assessment of their worth, but because they were the easiest people to contact. We knew their names. They topped a Google search. Other journalists had contacted them. They had reputations, but they accrued those reputations in a world where women are systematically disadvantaged compared to men.

A related criticism is that it would be insulting for a woman to be interviewed simply because she is a woman. This is a straw man. I’m not asking people for their opinions because of their gender; I’m asking because of their expertise. Every single person I contact is qualified to speak about the particular story that I’m writing; it’s just that now, half of those qualified people happen to be women.

It is getting increasingly easy to find such people. The journalist Christina Selby, writing at the Open Notebook, compiled a list of tips for diversifying sources. The journalist Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato created Diverse Sources, a searchable database of underrepresented experts in science. 500 Women Scientists, a nonprofit, created Request a Woman Scientist, a similar (and larger) database. Both can be filtered by country, specialty, and more. Several scientists have compiled lists of women in microbiology, astronomy, physics, evolution, political science, neuroscience, and more. I keep a personal list of women and people of color who work in the beats that I usually cover. And if these all fail, the most basic journalistic method always works: Ask someone. Get people in the field to suggest names.

Anyone can do this. As Kathy English, the public editor of the Toronto Star, said, resources like these go “a long way to make obsolete that eternal excuse for overlooking women’s voices: ‘But I couldn’t find a qualified woman.’ Indeed, she exists and she is ready to be heard.”

Read the whole story
strugk
10 days ago
reply
Warsaw, Poland
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories