Life began in a warm world. There was not yet a protective layer of ozone in Earth’s upper atmosphere. What existed were tiny organisms, called cyanobacteria, which “learned” to take advantage of the sun’s rays to produce energy. Over the many millions of years that followed, evolution made possible myriad other living things, including the homo sapiens. Now that the planet is warming up again, humans aspire to protect all the life that preceded it. It makes sense?
“We are newcomers. Our species you are taking your first steps on this planet. This thesis that we have to protect nature is a reversal of the burden of primacy. We are part of nature and we depend on it”, warns Portuguese philosopher Viriato Soromenho-Marques, full professor at the University of Lisbon.
By rejecting the concept of protection, a power relationship between the domain of humans and nature is also declined. – spheres which, moreover, should not be understood separately. As humans become part of the natural world, the protective role is depleted. Who takes care of whom? If I want to protect ecosystem I’m a part of, is this superiority, self-care or just an illusion? These are some of the questions that emerge from the quotation proposed by the artist Ai Weiwei, and which PÚBLICO used to question not only the philosopher Soromenho-Marques, but also the ecologist Helena Freitas, the curator Margarida Mendes and the poet Ellen Lima.
“There is no separation between humans and nature, this binomial is false and must be reversed, as it is this great gap that is at the base of the problems of extractivism that we witness today”, says curator and researcher Margarida Mendes, whose work explores the impact sociocultural aspects of environmental transformations.
The curator emphasizes the importance of a “reciprocal reverence for everything that surrounds us”. And this includes not only living beings (animals, plants and fungi), but also the mineral and ancestral kingdom. This attitude of mutual courtesy would make the dominant rhetoric of “nature protection” superfluous — a discourse that, because of its repetition, seems to uncritically infiltrate our daily lives. The idea of “protection” and “salvation” is present in the most varied cultural products, from school manuals to marketing campaigns, also passing through the pages of this newspaper.
“The natural world around us needs no human intervention, as it regenerates itself without us. Just don’t go against it”, believes Margarida Mendes, reverberating the provocation of the artist Ai Weiwei that served as the starting point for this text.
“Disengagement from the biological world”
A similar opinion is held by the Brazilian poet Ellen Lima, an indigenous woman of Wassu Cocal origin, who is currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Minho. “Nature has been divided in the modern age – she is one thing and we are another. But that is not correct. That’s why this idea of protecting nature doesn’t make any sense. The idea of protection is flawed, and it’s also poor”, she defends.
Ecologist Helena Freitas also underlines the inconsistency of the division between the human and natural spheres. “When we are part of nature, it no longer makes sense who protects whom. We rely on nature to provide us with a set of goods and services we cannot live without — water, food, shelter, regulation of the environment. climate, etc. I benefit, but I am also part of it. as i used to say [a escritora] Rachel Carson, nothing exists alone in nature”, recalls the professor and researcher at the University of Coimbra, who, since last year, has managed Serralves Park, in Porto.
The idea of protection should be replaced by that of dependence, defends Helena Freitas. This symbolic operation would reposition the place of the human, discouraging the notion of superiority and disconnection from the biological world. It is from this “disengagement” — the word is a common thread in the researcher’s reasoning — that the idea of “protection” derives, in part. We have lost, as humans, the “dependency consciousness” and this leads us to the “caregiver idea”. We talk about taking care of nature as if we were not part of it and, thus, we hide our own vulnerability.
“Today, life sciences and biology question the very concept of species and how this idea can be harmful to the way we position ourselves. The tendency we have as a species is to place ourselves at the top of the pyramid, as if we were a direct product of an evolution capable of placing us at a vertex”, says the director of Serralves Park.
“The death drive that inhabits us”
The central issue of this discussion, for Soromenho-Marques, is to understand why we think we have to defend the nature on which we depend. Without this understanding, says the philosopher, we do not go to the root and continue to ignore how we got here.
“Is this apparent generosity not a proposal that ends up hiding something less than noble, which is our inability to self-control? The inability to manage the death drive that inhabits us? It’s nicer to say ‘we have to protect nature’ than to say ‘we have to transform the way we inhabit the Earth so that we can live long on this planet’, isn’t it?”, asks the philosopher, who teaches philosophy in nature at University of Lisbon.
It is necessary to put humanity in front of the mirror – or, to be fair, part of it, since the human attitude towards the terrestrial system is neither homogeneous nor linear. Ellen Lima emphasizes, for example, that the native peoples [do Brasil] they have always “proposed the exercise of understanding the Earth as a living organism”, with the knowledge that the human species integrates the environment.
Margarida Mendes, in turn, accurately maps the inability to self-control, pointing her finger at the northern hemisphere. “What I know for sure is that the extractive power of some humans (and here I am talking essentially about the 1% of the Global North) has annihilated forms of life and their beneficial, diverse and restructuring interweaving”, says the curator.
Today we are eight billion on the Earth’s crust. Every day we receive news that, if inserted from the domain of fiction, would be a sign of the apocalypse: the polar ice caps keep melting, the microplastics and “eternal” chemical substances have become almost ubiquitous, the return of war to Europe makes us consider the risk of a nuclear winter, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and intense. This torrent of information reassures us that action is needed, but it does not provide us with necessarily a rearview mirror. We continue without a mirror that gives us back the images we need.
“What is at stake is the survival of humanity in conditions that today we consider a dignified life. Even with a combination of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, there will always be a set of individuals who will survive — the super-rich who already have doomsday shelters. Yes, because now there is a doomsday industry. Someone will survive. We have to understand how we have become a threatening species for the Earth and for ourselves. If we don’t understand the root of it, we have no chance of getting out of here”, warns the philosopher.
“The techno-scientific utopia”
Viriato Soromenho-Marques has investigated this issue using several authors, including Rachel Carson. in the famous book Silent Springpublished over 60 years ago, the American author uses the case of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) to provide clues about the human inability to self-control.
“Future historians may well be astonished by our distorted notion of proportions. How could intelligent beings try to control some unwanted species with a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to the species itself? However, that is exactly what we did”, reads the badge of the new translation of Silent Springwhich has just arrived at Portuguese bookstores.
The thesis that Soromenho-Marques defends is, in a simplified way, that there has been a great change in the way we see ourselves. We have gone from a “wisdom-based utopia, in the style of Plato’s Republic”, to a “techno-scientific utopia”, in which we bet everything on exploring the world through knowledge. We seek to do things with our knowledge that are useful to us and that “maximize our power relations”, according to the philosopher.
“Basically, we’ve been accumulating power over nature for 400 years. Taking into account this origin, it is understandable that we say that we have to protect nature – when, in fact, we have to protect it from ourselves and from the power that we do not control. And it is a power, as Rachel Carson says, that turns against us”, concludes the philosopher.
“A complete cultural hallucination”
Soromeño-Marques underlines how this techno-scientific utopia not only brought us this far, but also wants to sell us solutions to get us out of here. You insects are in decline? We waved with pollinators in the form of drones. Is the planet warming up? We offer solutions geoengineering able to reflect sunlight back into space and thus bring down the thermometers. “Today we live in a dystopia, it is a complete cultural hallucination”, says the philosopher, “and there is no certainty that we will achieve a victory over ourselves”.
While humanity is looking for shortcuts and solutions, or taking detours, the planet continues to heat up. The poet Ellen Lima resorts to another thinker, the Brazilian indigenous philosopher Ailton Krenak, to emphasize human vulnerability in the Earth system. “When we look to the Anthropocene, to this era in which men are understood as geological agents, Krenak says that the Earth may well go on its way without us.”
We will continue, with our evolved brain, trying to “hold the sky” to “postpone the end of the world”, still quoting Ailton Krenak, but always without knowing the exact consequences that this hot world will bring to each one of us. One certainty remains in our hands: the planet has existed for 4.6 billion years and will continue to do so for a long time, with or without human protection.