Populist authoritarian neoliberalism in Brazil : making sense of Bolsonaro's anti-environment agenda

Deutsch, Sierra


In Brazil, the looming threat of mass extinction has prompted increasingly exceptional measures to protect sensitive biomes. At the same time, such measures threaten to curtail capitalist expansion and thus Brazil's neoliberal model of economic development. Jair Bolsonaro's 2018 presidential campaign responded to these threats by fueling anti-environment sentiments and anti-environmentalist enmity. Once inaugurated, he immediately began the work of dismantling national environmental governance structures. Yet his strategies for doing so are often masked by what this article describes as a ‘firehouse effect’, where his tactics appear chaotic, confused, and lacking any particular goal. The article uses a combination of interviews with 35 environmental experts, participant observation, and a review of secondary sources to zoom in on Bolsonaro's anti-environmentalism within the context of the contemporary turn toward populist authoritarian neoliberalism. By focusing on how Bolsonaro's policies serve to weaken protective environmental measures that limit capitalist extraction, the article unearths the major anti-environment strategies of the Bolsonaro administration. This framework thus allows us to see through the ‘firehouse effect’ to make some sense of Bolsonaro's methods, further building on emerging research on the political ecologies of the contemporary populist authoritarian neoliberal turn. Moreover, the article shows the utility of applying a generalized populist authoritarian neoliberal framework to a particular context in order to identify its local processes and specificities.