In these times of quarantine, I watched Soylent Green (1973) again. It was one of the science fiction films that troubled me most at the time.
It depicts a futuristic society that, in the middle of an unprecedented environmental crisis, dehumanizes itself: a fertile breeding ground for despair, authoritarianism, and all manner of social and economic calamity. The story takes place in New York City in 2022, a metropolis of 40 million souls.
Overpopulation, pollution, soaring temperatures, and intolerable overcrowding combine to cloister a small elite, who retain tight economic and political control — and that also has the luxury of eating fresh meat and vegetables and drinking clean water every day.
The rest of the population, the countless faceless proletariat, can afford only government-issued green and red “cookies” to survive upon. Those who wish to escape this chaos willingly go “Home,” to be killed painlessly while dreaming awake — a sort of laboratory, but one in which you can die peacefully, hallucinating green forests and birds, listening to wondrous music while immersed in colors that quiet one’s soul.
A singular moment and ephemeral passage, spiced with sensational images of oceans, forests, translucent streams, and wildlife — all that no longer exists since the environmental hecatomb. At the end of the film, we understand that the corpses of those dreamers are the raw material of which the nutritious cookies that feed the still living are made.
This film comes to mind now as we approach the year 2022. And it makes me think about how the governments of the three most populous nations in the Americas see the environment. Or better put, how they don’t see it. The U.S., Mexico and Brazil are home to almost 690 million people and a vast biological and cultural diversity legacy. Can we fight together as one, for a just and sustainable future for the generations to come?
In less than four years in the United States, President Donald Trump has dismantled most of the public policies and institutional foundations needed to curb global warming and protect the environment. Regulations for carbon dioxide emissions, toxic chemicals, and air and water pollution have been rolled back.
He has stopped payments to the Green Climate Fund, a United Nations program to assist developing countries in reducing carbon emissions, and he is also withdrawing the U.S. from the pivotal Paris Climate Agreement. President Trump has undermined regulations on protected areas, wetlands, fisheries, and protection of endangered species of marine mammals, sea turtles, and migratory birds, to mention just a few.
Mr. Trump has turned the Environmental Protection Agency into an environmental executioner, one with the aim of erasing everything related to the environmental legacy of former president Barack Obama.
The environmental situation in Brazil isn’t much better. In less than two years, President Jair Bolsonaro has become the main instigator of the fires that in 2019 and 2020 devastated the Amazon. In 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro claimed the Amazon was “his.” Not to leave any doubt how serious he was, he devoted himself with fervor to weakening environmental regulations, encouraging farmers and loggers to initiate fires, and promoting mining on ancestral indigenous lands.
He continues reviling indigenous peoples who oppose destruction of the Amazon and cynically blames environmental organizations for starting the fires in a sick attempt at twisted logic. Just two months ago, 29 organizations, including financial institutions from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Norway, and Japan managing trillions of dollars in assets, warned Brazil that further escalation would seriously impact their investment appetite in the region.
Nevertheless, just a week ago, the country’s own national institute for space research announced that they detected more than 29,000 fires in Brazil’s Amazon region in August 2020, the second highest number in a decade and only slightly fewer than last year’s count of 30,900 fires. Yet Mr. Bolsonaro doesn’t seem to care about the Amazon, or the environment, or Brazilians.
And between the U.S. and Brazil there lies a distant neighbor — Mexico. My country. Not much can be said in favor of the environment after two years of President López Obrador’s administration. It doesn’t seem to be a priority for him either, though I’d love to be proven wrong.
Promises to avoid major environmental damage that gargantuan government development projects would trigger, like the so-called Maya Train, so far haven’t convinced environmentalists and independent scientists. President López Obrador has already been through three environment ministers in a row, and environmental agencies continue to be dismantled. Without the necessary budget and staff to maintain them, protected areas rapidly languish. And the relationship with environmentalists is as polarized as ever.
Mexico still has an option, though, to avoid going down the same destructive paths of the U.S. and Brazil. Despite ideological differences, environmentalists are not against the López Obrador administration; but they have learned to fight for Mexico as hard as he does.
López Obrador can build bridges and call them to a national dialogue, demonstrating that our nation’s environment and natural resources are indeed a priority for his government. There are some respected environmentalists in his cabinet who could trigger such a national dialogue: Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard, Deputy Minister for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Martha Delgado and Education Minister Esteban Moctezuma are among them, as is Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s mayor.
It is not too late. Such an inclusive dialogue could capture and multiply the efforts of many to preserve our most precious common good: a thriving natural environment, one of the richest on Earth.
The writer is a former senior officer of the United Nations Environment Program and former director-general of the World Wildlife Fund. This piece originally appeared in El Universal.