Politics In Flames: Brazil's Museum Fire

Over the weekend in Rio de Janeiro, a fire tore through Brazil’s vast National Museum, destroying nearly all of its 20 million specimens. Among the items feared lost are a priceless collection of Egyptian and Andean mummies, artworks from Pompeii, a dinosaur skeleton unique to Brazil, rare records from the country’s imperial era, hundreds of audio recordings of extinct indigenous languages, millions of insect and marine specimens, and the oldest human fossil found in Latin America – a skeleton named Luzia.


The museum’s directors had warned for years about inadequate fire systems and general funding shortfalls. Sharp budget cuts amid Brazil’s recent economic tailspin hit the country’s cultural institutions particularly hard. At one point, researchers at the museum had to resort to crowdfunding to deal with a termite infestation in one of the wings. A $5 million renovation project was finally approved this summer, but it wasn’t set to begin until after the presidential election in October.

The destruction of Latin America’s largest natural history museum is an incalculable cultural loss for Brazil, for the region, and for science generally. But the tragedy offers a few political angles to consider as well.

Brazil’s anguish in flames: On Monday, as officials bickered over responsibility for the fire, hundreds of anti-government protesters demanding accountability clashed with riot police outside the building’s smoldering remains. Meanwhile, social media lit up with recriminations – some people took aim at specific parties and politicians for poor funding or bad decisions, but most decried the broader bonfire of corruption, malfeasance, and elite detachment that has plunged the country into its worst political and economic crisis in memory.

Nobody likes funding cuts, of course, but when people believe that the rich and powerful are stealing so much of their money to begin with, it’s doubly galling to see a vulnerable cultural institution go up in flames just years after the government has spent billions on international sporting events of dubious economic value.

“We spent billions on the World Cup,” a friend from Brazil wrote to me on Tuesday, “but we can’t fund or protect the little legacy we have for our own children?”

Tragedies that throw a light on rotten systems: In Brazil as elsewhere, the effects of corruption and negligence are pernicious but often invisible. They spread like a cancer through society – corroding institutions, eroding trust, blotting out opportunities for the most vulnerable.

But every so often their effects result in a spectacular disaster – like the fire in Rio, or the recent collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, or the Grenfell tower fire in London last summer – that provides a focal point for popular anger and government responsibility.

It’s worth remembering that Brazil is just weeks away from a pivotal presidential vote in which voters’ rage at traditional politicians is one of the few things uniting a deeply polarized country. The museum fire will further inflame that sentiment.

A metaphor for our times: As the fire raged, a small group of researchers and scientists rushed headlong into the flames in a last bid to save whatever specimens, artifacts, paintings, and papers they could. “We were thinking of the researchers who came before us,” one of them said, “and what we saved will permit the continuity of our colleagues’ research.”

At a time when science, objectivity, and expertise are under assault by politicians who thrive on misinformation and “alternative facts,” it’s hard to think of a more compelling image than men and women risking their lives to rescue the most fragile specimens of scientific research from destruction.

In Italy, stacks of plastic boxes in supermarkets and stores are not garbage - they are collected and reused, thanks to a consortium that specializes in recycling them for food storage. How do these "circular" plastic boxes help reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions?

Learn more in this episode of Eni's Energy SUPERFACTS series.

British economist Jim O'Neill says the global economy can bounce back right to where it was before, in a V-shaped recovery. But his argument is based on a lot of "ifs," plus comparisons to the 2008 recession and conditions in China and South Korea that may not truly apply. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group's Robert Kahn take issue with O'Neill's op-ed, on this edition of The Red Pen.

Today, we're taking our Red Pen to an article titled "A V-Shaped Recovery Could Still Happen." I'm not buying it. It's published recently by Project Syndicate, authored by British economist named Jim O'Neill. Jim O'Neill is very well known. He was chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. He's the guy that coined the acronym BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China. So, no slouch. But as you know, we don't agree with everything out there. And this is the case. Brought to you by the letter V. We're taking sharp issue with the idea that recovery from all the economic devastation created by the coronavirus pandemic is going to happen quickly. That after the sharp drop that the world has experienced, everything bounces back to where it was before. That's the V. Economists around the world are debating how quickly recovery will happen to be sure. But we're not buying the V. Here's why. W-H-Y.

More Show less

Over the past few years, we've seen three major emerging powers take bold action to right what they say are historical wrongs.

First came Crimea. When the Kremlin decided in 2014 that Western powers were working against Russian interests in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to seize the Crimean Peninsula, which was then part of Ukraine. Moscow claimed that Crimea and its ethnic Russian majority had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries until a shameful deal in 1954 made Crimea part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Americans and Europeans imposed sanctions on Russia. But Ukraine is not part of NATO or the EU, and no further action was taken.

More Show less

Nicholas Thompson, editor-in-chief of WIRED, provides his perspective on technology news:

Will the new audit of Facebook civil rights practices change the way the company operates?

Yes. It came under a lot of pressure from civil rights activists who organized an advertising boycott. And then an internal audit on Facebook's effect on civil rights came out. It was quite critical. Those two things, one after the other, will surely lead to changes at the company.

More Show less

The United States and the European Union have comparable population sizes, but their COVID-19 death toll trajectories have recently become very different. Since the beginning of July, the average number of both new fatalities and new deaths per 1 million people is rapidly increasing in the US while it remains mostly flat in the EU. We compare this to the average number of new cases each seven days in both regions, where the US trend continues upward but is not surging like the death toll. EU countries' robust public health systems and citizens' willingness to wear masks and maintain social distance could explain the disparity.