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Protest the burning of all the world’s cathedrals

| Thursday, September 26, 2019

One in three species of birds live in the Amazon rainforest. One in every 10 species known to mankind can be found there. For the last 55 million years, the Amazon has been home to some of the most beautiful scenery on the face of the planet. And as of this year, the Amazon is also the site of 43,000 forest fires.  

Like any piece of land that large, the forest naturally catches on fire from time to time. The last few years, however, have seen unprecedented burn rates. Much of this is caused by poor regulation, Brazilian economic despair and the rise of populism. Loggers and farmers have long had an interest in clearing the forest, but recently, drastically looser environmental regulations, combined with an economic slump, has pushed many into illegal lumberjacking. Loggers will uproot and chop down trees to sell lumber, then set the area ablaze. Once it is clear, they will illegally sell land — which they have no right to claim in the first place — to farmers and ranchers.

This year is particularly bad, with more than double the fires as last year clearing a space nearly the size of Delaware. Part of this is thanks to the newly-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who has slashed the anti-deforestation budget and made it easier for illegal loggers to operate. He argues that Brazil’s economy is unfairly held back by environmental overregulation. He has taken the ensuing international disgust as a badge of pride, chastising Europe for not allowing Brazil to practice sovereignty over its own resources, and crowning himself a bulwark against new-age colonialism.

Some might argue that to regulate the preservation of the Amazon requires way too much bureaucratic government intervention and necessarily means abating the logging industry. Some would say that Bolsonaro is simply doing what is best for a people struggling to stay afloat. If capitalism lends itself to exploitation, so be it. But recognition of exploitation is necessary in a free economy. Even the most steadfast capitalists will admit that some goods are inherently public and cannot be privatized. If I buy a private fireworks show for my family on the fourth of July, other people who did not pay will be able to view and enjoy it. If my local lake is the main food supply for my region and I overfish until there are not enough to reproduce, I have, in a moment of greed, hurt my community’s ability to survive forever. In a free economy, there are free riders and exploiters whose abuses both need to be curbed. The tragedy of the commons is a problem that needs to be fixed through government intervention. As overbearing and inefficient as bureaucracy can be, it is sometimes the only way to ensure that the free market is a fair market. 

This is undoubtedly not the first time you have heard that proper resource maintenance reaches beyond the scope of their respective countries. Moreover, this is hopefully not the first time you have heard the argument that basic regulation is economically wise in the long run. There is a larger point beyond basic economics, though. How the world has responded to the fires in Brazil reveals a great deal about how we view tragedy. 

When fire nearly destroyed the Cathedral of Notre Dame earlier this year, many, including this University, were quick to contribute to the restoration of such an important historical and cultural site. The world was reminded of the value of 800 years of effort in building and maintaining a sacred place worthy of God’s presence. Yet even the finest masonry is horribly inept at glorifying God in comparison to the humblest forest. The tallest spire cannot inspire nearly the same awe as the smallest tree. Every sculpture and every structure can only hope to mimic the fearful symmetry of God’s creation. There is no greater cathedral nor place of higher sanctity than that which has been carved by the hand of God. 

When our own feeble attempts at mastery crumble, we demand their reconstruction. There are surely reasons to mourn the destruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral, but beyond the preservation of culture and history is the almost selfish desire to uphold what man can do. What we can create. What divinely ordained human ingenuity can masterfully build. In itself, the unanimous and loud objection to the loss of an emblem of human creativity is not so insulting. But when followed by our silence in the midst of losing the Amazon – an emblem of infinite creativity and ultimate beauty – desire to preserve man-made cultural and historical icons takes on a new significance. Desperately reconstructing what humanity wrought while our silence tacitly encourages the destruction of what God wrought is self-idolatry. 

When the Notre Dame of France burned, the world put aside geopolitical differences and economic considerations to fortify what was left of a shared inheritance before it was too late. Yet, as we celebrate this successful salvation of human achievement, we watch the most hallowed and sacred of all churches burns to ashes. If only we protested the burning of all the world’s cathedrals with the same vigor and determination. 

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Mondays at 5 p.m. in the McNeill Room of LaFortune Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About BridgeND

BridgeND is a bipartisan student political organization that brings together Democrats, Republicans, and all those in between to discuss public policy issues of national importance. They meet Tuesday nights (starting Sept.8) from 8-9pm in the McNeil room of LaFortune. They can be reached at [email protected] or by following them on Twitter @bridge_ND

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