Utopias for Realists – Other Anthropocenes – The Apocalypse seen from Amazonia
We live in an instantaneous world of policies, promises and platitudes. In the debate between what should and what can be done, where is critical thinking and ecology? Respect and empathy? Do utopias allow for other possibilities?
With artists, scientists and writers dialoguing in different Porto venues, Galeria Energia, which began the second part of its programme in October, addresses ecological action, among other themes. Part of Imaginários, Auditório Biblioteca Municipal Almeida Garrett welcomes, on December 15, at 7pm, the conference “Other Anthropocenes – the apocalypse seen from Amazonia”. Led by Patrícia Vieira – senior researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra and coordinator of the project ECO – Animals and Plants in Cultural Productions on the Amazon – the lecture is a reflection on the Anthropocene based on the cosmovisions of the Amazon Basin peoples.
If utopia is not about impossibilities, but about possibilities not yet implemented or not yet fully feasible, it is up to our imagination to understand the present, make the change and point out paths and ways to tread them. Where, not only scientific knowledge is key, but also artistic and cultural creation.
Mafalda Ruão – You have published the book The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence. About it you said in an interview that “the death of plants can be our oblivion”. What do you mean?
Patrícia Vieira – What do plants think? What are their wishes and ambitions? And how do they relate to other beings, including the Homo sapiens? These are the questions asked in The Mind of Plants, a collection of texts by authors who live and work closely with different plants. The book shows that plants are active entities whose decisions shape the world around them and the lives of human beings. For example, by killing plants through the clearing of old forest areas with great biodiversity, often to establish monocultures, human beings are destroying themselves. The planet’s impoverishment caused by human action will lead to the impoverishment of human existence and human thought.
MR: Besides the climate and biodiversity crisis, there seems to be a lack of empathy and critical thinking on the part of human beings. Do you believe in the generous side of human nature and our ability to relate to non-humans?
PV – Human beings only exist in the relational context – with each other and with all other entities in the world. However, perhaps due to the scientific-technological acceleration of the last centuries, some human beings began to believe that they could dominate other forms of existence and put them at their service. This attitude may even work in the short term, but the negative consequences for humans are increasingly clear, from climate change to water and soil contamination. Some parts of the planet are uninhabitable. We must realise that life existed on Earth long before our species existed and will probably continue to exist after we are gone. Life and the planet don’t need humans; we need them.
MR – Is it possible to rewrite these narratives about human supremacy?
PV – It is urgent to rewrite the narrative that legitimises human dominance over other beings. During the Middle Ages it was believed that the entities of the world could be classified according to a pyramidal structure – scala naturae. At the top would be humans, the epitome of perfection; then animals, plants and minerals, lower forms of life. There are still traces of this way of looking at plants and animals. For example, plants are extremely important for the planet: they represent more than 80% of all living matter (human beings represent around 0.01%) and their spread allowed the development of all aerobic beings that inhabit the earth, including Homo sapiens. But many human beings still regard plants as inert, passive entities, inferior to animals, which can be manipulated according to human interests and needs.
Scientific knowledge plays an important role in transforming the narratives about plants and animals in our social context. But artistic creation, cinema, literature and even video games also have a fundamental contribution. The arts show different ways of seeing the world. Or, rather, other worlds. The environmental crisis we live is also a crisis of ideas and thinking, an inability to imagine alternative ways of organisation in multi-species societies.
MR – Speaking of the arts, you dedicate yourself to ecocriticism, a current that thinks and relates the environment – as well as its human and non-human agents – with various forms of art and cultural production. How do you see the Portuguese reality?
PV – Ecocriticism is poorly represented in Portuguese universities, even though there are numerous cultural outputs in literature, cinema and arts in Portugal that dialogue with the non-human world. Although awareness of environmental degradation is something relatively recent in artistic works, interaction with the natural world has always existed in the arts. What would Portuguese literature be without the sea, for example? In a book I recently co-edited, Portuguese Literature and the Environment, I address this proximity between humans and non-humans in Portuguese literature, covering medieval songs and the present, going through authors such as Eça de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa or Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen. I hope the book will increase Portuguese society’s knowledge of the environment.
MR – In Brazil, does Lula as president and Marina Silva as environment minister mean the regeneration of the Amazon?
PV – We hope that the new government will halt the rampant deforestation of the Amazon and will make environmental protection and the rights of indigenous populations a priority. Given the current political situation, it won’t be easy. In fact, the Amazon forest is beginning to show signs of savannisation. It could be irreversible and cover the entire region. This would have disastrous consequences not only for the non-human and human beings who inhabit the Amazon, but also for the balance of the natural world in the rest of Brazil and South America.
MR – Amazonia is the starting point of the Porto conference. Can you tell us briefly about the subject?
PV – Lately the Anthropocene has been much debated. It is a geological era marked by the negative impact of humans on the planet. The discourses on the Anthropocene resemble the biblical Apocalypse. That is, the notion that the world as we know it is about to end. The consequences of the Anthropocene, such as climate change, deforestation, ocean acidification and mass extinctions, will lead (in some parts of the world this is already happening) to the advent of the four apocalyptic horsemen: conquest, war, famine and death.
At the conference, I will present an Amazonian version of the Apocalypse, based on the fact that the view of the world (or worlds) and the end is transformed when analysed from an indigenous Amazonian perspective. How do the communities that have contributed the least to the Anthropocene deal with the Apocalypse and the idea of the end of the world? The indigenous peoples of the Amazon, who have suffered the consequences of the Anthropocene and have witnessed the end of their worlds with the colonisation and occupation of ancestral lands, can, according to the indigenous intellectual Ailton Krenak, give us ideas to postpone the end of the world.
MR – And personally, what tools does humanity have to address climate change that could lead us to the apocalypse?
PV – Climate change is only part of a larger problem already discussed – the notion that humanity is superior to other forms of existence on the planet, with carte blanche to dominate and exploit non-humans. This idea that non-human entities are objects serving people does not hold true in all societies. In Amazonian indigenous thought, non-human beings have their own views that clash with human pretensions. Diplomacy is needed between distinct species and universes. Human beings can imagine other worlds and put themselves in the shoes of others. This faculty is fostered by the arts, which open our thoughts and senses to different realities. It is up to each person and society to accept this imagination and conceive a more egalitarian existence on this planet that we are lucky enough to share with many other beings.
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