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    In August of 2022, the Amazon burned an area equivalent to the state of Alagoas Photo: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama

global issues

Autocracy and planetary harm

Adriana Petryna | 28 out 2022_14h32
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 versão em português


The Russian war in Ukraine is a planetary war. Although it takes place within a single country, it has implications for the entire globe. One of Russia’s first acts in its attempted takeover of the country was to occupy the Chernobyl power station, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident. More recently, in a probable act of sabotage, explosions at the Nord Stream 1 & 2 pipelines linking Russia and Germany emitted what could be the single largest discharge of methane (a heat-trapping greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide) ever documented. Environmental sabotage has become routine during seven months of war in Ukraine. Putin’s troops currently threaten the largest nuclear power plant in Europe with shelling. In other words, Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state is one face of a violation that threatens the environmental integrity of the planet.  

And yet, Russia’s attempted takeover is not going as planned. As towns and provinces return to Ukrainian control, they are being ‘de-occupied,’ a term that suggests restoration of territorial sovereignty. In addition to identifying victims buried in mass graves, and rebuilding hospitals, industrial facilities, schools, and homes, an enormous task remains: to render soils usable and air breathable, liberating cities and towns from radiation, chemical, and explosive hazards, and unsanitary water supplies made unsafe by mercury and the proximity of mass graves. If bombs are meant to seize territory, they can also be used to achieve a degree of devastation in which former ways of life cannot return. Such consequences, and more, must be factored into a de-occupation algorithm that might enable a country to see its way out of attempted annihilation.

But it is not just in war zones that we see the precariousness incited by political extremism. With rampant extractivism, and the planet’s ecosystems becoming increasingly unstable, the realities of restoring life after occupation is a planetary challenge, one that forces us to make connections between seemingly disparate circumstances that are also scenes of a race, fueled by autocrats, to seemingly sabotage planetary life. 


On October 30th, the former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will face the far right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, in a runoff election that many Brazilians consider “the most consequential election for the country since the military dictatorship.” Since the start of his term in 2019, Bolsonaro has given gold miners, loggers, and cattle ranchers free rein in deforesting the Brazilian Amazon. After trees are cut, they are left to dry in open fields. Once dried, they are set on fire, clearing swaths of land for agribusiness. Satellite data show deforestation occurring on an industrial scale. Fires have reached their highest levels since 2007; in August of 2022, the Amazon burned an area equivalent to the state of Alagoas. The carnage acquires its own momentum: the more fires, the drier the forest; and the drier the forest, the more fires. And these illegal fires are increasingly burning in Indigenous protected territories where, under relentless pressure, forest-dwellers survive the occupation of [their] territories.” Because markedly less carbon dioxide is emitted here, these dwellers provide a service not only to the Amazon but to the world.” But under bolsonarismo, Indigenous leaders who have stood up to occupation have been killed with impunity.  

Brazil already has an ‘algorithm’ to stop the annihilation. Between 2004-2012, the country reduced deforestation by an astounding 80 percent with its system of deforestation alerts. Along the way, it dramatically curtailed its carbon emissions. The expert systems that made this possible can be fully empowered to protect and restore the forest. In this desirable scenario, a re-elected Lula names qualified leaders to key ministries and Indigenous and environmental protection agencies such as Ibama, responsible for combating illegal logging activity. Not only would the ecosystem of environmental crime be dismantled, but commodity supply chain traceability would be fortified. Even the bulldozers and excavators, useful in environmental crimes, could be tagged with GPS to detect their operations in prohibited areas. In this scenario, Indigenous forest-making practices would help shape the future.

Today’s authoritarianisms curtail both democracy and a livable planet. But the signs of a post-Putin and a post-Bolsonaro world are appearing over that very deadly horizon. As options run out for the Russian leader, he doubles down on nuclear threat. As the time runs out for illegal actors in the Brazilian Amazon, they are in a “last-minute race to raze the jungle.” In both cases, we see desperate, power-hungry actors resorting to environmental violations on a planetary scale.

As the autocrats’ necropolitics is on, so too is the race to repair destroyed worlds. Ukraine and the Amazonian rainforest are worlds apart. Yet democracy-defending and forest-defending people are becoming part and parcel of a larger and common struggle for a livable planet, for which there is no other option but to de-occupy.

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