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Rio Grande do Sul: where there are no innocent, people look for the culprits

The climate tragedy that has devastated the State of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil has opened the stage for the struggle to identify the culprits for the tragedy. For some, the magnitude of the catastrophe is an expression of a political outcome.

The climate tragedy that has devastated the State of Rio Grande do Sul in the south of Brazil has given rise to a battle to pinpoint (or not) who is to blame for the tragedy. However, I’m interested to know if there are any innocents in this event. What is more, the scale of the catastrophe has led to questions about whether this is the right time for politicization. The fact is that there is no consensus. Individuals from different groups have incompatible assumptions about politics and what is political. For some, the extent of the catastrophe is in itself an expression of a political outcome. For others, politics is just a political party spectrum and, in this sense, there are no sides now. Neither left nor right.  

The irreconcilable assumptions are evident in the use of social media to spread the idea that “you should not donate to the government”. On the one hand, some advocate the minimal state and private initiative, who are sure that the government and the state are worthless. “It is the people for the people”, says the catchphrase. On the other side are the defenders of a strong and active state also on the climate agenda. The latter differentiate between the government and the state and when they say that the current government is inefficient and lacks transparency in the management of resources, they also say the motto: “It is the people for the people”. The catchphrase is the same, but the premises are different.  

The notion that it was “the government’s duty to protect the people and now it is the people who do it” is taken up by both the supporters of the minimal state and the defenders of the robust state. Such a notion is used by the former to justify the unimportance of governments in general; however, the proponents of the robust state, on the other hand, claim that the current governments — of the State of Rio Grande do Sul and the capital city Porto Alegre — have dismantled natural disaster prevention policies. 

It is clear that politics is everywhere. Programs, projects, and actions to preserve the environment and make the inhabited space more sustainable and resilient to climate change also make up politics. Extreme natural phenomena have always existed, it is true, but there is no denying the increase in their frequency and intensity due to rampant and disordered human action in nature. So far, it does not matter if you think that the epicenter of misfortune is not the time to point the finger at the culprits. It does not matter if you think that now is the right time to point the finger at the culprits. I would like to ask you: Have you ever wondered if there are innocents in this story? 

As the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change point out, climate catastrophes cannot be considered the work of chance, but the result of decades of destruction of natural resources. We have concreted over the banks of rivers and silted up their beds; we have artificially shortened paths and eliminated the meanders of the watercourse; we have altered the speed of the natural ebb and flow in the insatiable race for profit and productivity that accompanies the merciless pace of our daily lives. 

Climate change due to global warming is nothing new. Indeed, it is well known that global warming is caused not only by large industries and the negligence of governments but also by our consumption habits. For example, a balanced diet based on fruit and vegetables and reduced consumption of animal protein is beneficial not only for physical health but also for the environment, as well as significantly reducing greenhouse gases and saving water. 

Given this, regardless of your position on whether this is the time to point the finger at the guilty parties, have you ever considered that maybe there are no innocent parties either? Even if you refuse to mention politics in the middle of tragedy, politics underlies discourses and positions. Politics does not need to be explicit in speech to be present. Politics permeates every decision made in the present and in the past. Let us not forget past decisions. It is undeniable that supporting politicians and managers who made environmental legislation more flexible, allowing a 40-year setback as in the case of the State of Rio Grande do Sul, has widespread devastating impacts. This is what we are experiencing right now. Nonetheless, beyond managers and bills, how do our consumption habits contribute to a more sustainable environment? 

Do we know how to recycle coffee pods? Or we do not care about where they go. Do we know how to walk? Or we do not take a step without the car that pollutes the air and warms the planet. Do we wear the same pair of jeans for years? Or we discard them every season. Do we save water when washing? Or we change clothes as if they were disposable items? Do we eat a vegetarian diet? Or we eat meat every day. Today, there is a lot of concern about water shortage in Rio Grande do Sul, yet we ignore the fact that every kilo of beef produced requires an average of 15,000 liters of water. We ignore the fact that for every pair of jeans produced, more than 5,190 liters of water are wasted, the same drinking water that is scarce in times of catastrophe.

If there are innocents in this story, perhaps only the scientists. Categorically, Chico César echoes: “To date, there has never been such destructive development. That is what the one you do not hear, the scientist, says, that voice of science. Nor does the voice of conscience move you. You only listen to something out of convenience.” 

Even if we do not admit it, politics is present in what we eat, what we wear, and the way we get around. Politics lies in the selective way in which we care for water and other natural resources. Politics lies in our insatiable consumerism. What we consume also consumes us, and we do not care about it because it is not the time to point fingers. Nobody wants fingers pointed at themselves. 

*Translated by the author

Autor

Doctora en Sociología por la Univ. Federal de Río Grande del Sur - UFRGS (Brasil). Titulada en Lenguas Extranjeras Aplicadas - Especialización en Inglés, Español y Relaciones Internacionales por la Univ. de Estrasburgo/Francia.

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