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#39 Rediscovering Earth
The Easter weekend started with a couple of photos on WhatsApp from Morra in the northeast of the Netherlands. People from all over the Netherlands brought 4,222 dolls to a field, one for each child refugee in Greece traveling alone. The artwork/statement is already gone, with the dolls’ clothing donated to Greece, the wood to support grass snakes, and the lights are for school children.
Then, I tried to watch Seaspiracy, the Netflix documentary about the horrendous state of our oceans. ‘Tried,’ as, within 15 minutes, the white man saviorism and racist/sensationalist framing of the Japanese annoyed me beyond repair. Environmentalism without radical social justice and the reform of old power structures will never achieve anything. It will only make the rich feel well while the world goes to hell.
Welcome to a normal regular irregular update. No book business this week, apart from the book I just finished: Rediscovering Earth, Ten Dialogues about the Future of Nature. Thanks for being here, as always. For me, Rediscovering Earth was not an easy book, and consequently, this is not an easy update. Feel free to press the little bin at your leisure. It what it’s for.
Rediscovering Earth is published by OR Books. I’ve now read a few collections of conversations published by OR Books, and I’ve come to treasure the moment where I want to throw their books against a wall.
I’ve never felt bad about putting a book away when I don’t like it. But I’ve always forced myself to continue reading when I disagree with it. Niall Ferguson is one of these authors whose ideas I’ve disliked profoundly, only to appreciate later how they broadened my worldview. Funnily, the ‘OR Books’ frustrate me because they’re on the ideological opposite of Ferguson. Where this places me on an ideological axis, I don’t know, and I’m even less sure it’s where I want to be.
As the title hints, Rediscovering Earth is a series of ten dialogues between the Norwegian writer, journalist, philosopher, and painter Anders Dunker and an impressive cast of people. Ecologist Sandra Díaz, environmental activist Vandana Shiva, philosopher Bruno Latour, Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond, and a range of others. They explore why we destroy the earth, why we don’t care we destroy the earth, and what may be done about this. It’s a dark book.
Bruno Latour has the first chapter and first uncomfortable frame (from a pre-Biden interview):
“The withdrawal from the climate agreement proves that climate is the new geopolitics—an attitude that may not be new but was never before demonstrated so explicitly. All over the world’s nations have tried to greenwash their economies. Only Trump says: “You have a climate problem—we don’t.” The withdrawal is as a kind of declaration of war and a sign that we have entered a kind of global civil war.”
Elsewhere in the book, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that the one way to fix this is a world government. “If we had a world government, these questions wouldn’t be open to negotiation. We would have a one-world government dealing with one-world problems.”
I enjoyed discovering the work of Ursula K. Heise, who specializes in the theory and practice of environmental narrative from a cross-cultural perspective. She highlights the limits of culture to save the planet:
“There is a beautiful imagery online about the census of marine life that you can look up. It is almost like achieve fictions: many of the new organisms are unbelievably beautiful; others are so strange that they really look like species from other worlds. But these are all species that science knew nothing about until very recently. So they’re not associated with any cultural or human meanings—not to mention satires or narratives. No indigenous peoples were interacting with them and there are no myths about them, simply because you need advanced deep-sea submarines even see them. So, no human societies ever interacted with them and they are almost completely outside the human realm.”
She also urges that environmentalism needs a positive message.
“Most of [environmental] literature is about the negative human impact on nature and demands that we give up on things in a spirit of self-sacrifice. But there is rarely a positive vision of what we want. We need an encouraging and life-affirming message which says yes, there are actually ways of living in nature which makes it more beautiful and attractive and which can help making it a better place to live also for other species.” (Emphasis mine.)
Chakrabarty warns that this narrative may not be technology.
“We must realize that our expectations are defined by our cultural background. We live in a culture where we expect technology to solve all of our problems, since technology already has helped us overcome so many challenges.”
Bernard Stiegler adds:
“We must understand that technology in general—flint tools, a hammer, writing, radio, the atomic bomb—are what the ancient Greeks called pharmaka. They are both poisonous and curative. But in order to make them curative, you need to limit their possibilities, you must create laws for prescribing their practice, their use. (…) What kind of control over technology and its adverse effects can we organize in the twenty-first century?”
“[W]e have to invent a new form of economy—an economy which is industrial, but which aims not to increase entropy: which employs new technologies, while giving workers the opportunity to increase their knowledge instead of being supplanted by automated systems that proletariat them, in the sense that they are reduced to instruments.”
Six months ago, the above would have sent the book flying towards the nearest wall. Had I been on a boat, as once with a Dan Brown novel (a gift), I would have fed it to the fish. In a hotel lobby, I’d gone all Thank You for Being Late and cracked its spine. I would have placed the book on my GoodReads didn-t-finish shelf.
I’m glad I didn’t, as some of the best insights were yet to come. Sandra Díaz:
“The first thing is not thinking about “saving biodiversity” as some kind of altruistic pursuit. We need to think of regaining our birthright of a fulfilling, flourishing relationship with nature. This is not just about recycling bottles, refusing plastic bags at the supermarket, or composting your orange peels. These are all fine and necessary, of course, but not enough by far. We are talking a much deeper change in the social narratives that we enact every day, as individual and societies. The world is not just going down ecologically—it is also unsustainably unfair. It is not only about what we do to the rest of the planet. It is also what we do to each other in these times where the fabric of life is becoming undone.” (Emphasis mine.)
Seaspiracy never stood a chance. William Ernest McKibben shares his idea on the forces that help bring about the new world. Before, these balanced our destructive desires:
“Religion. Human Solidarity represented by political movements. In the last two hundred years, the union movement. A sense of the natural world as an important and powerful place. Art. All the things we’ve essentially discarded over the last few decades, as we have sharpened our sets of motivations.”
But the real star of the book, in terms of making me feel uncomfortable, is Vandana Shiva. Shiva is highly knowledgeable in philosophy and quantum physics, which is about the best of possible backgrounds. She is a leading figure in movements for global justice through organic farming and forestry. Also, she is probably right:
“The global oligarchy makes decisions that intensify the mass extermination crisis, both for other species and for large numbers of people. Unnatural death is due to shortsighted greed. Exterminations and systematic erasures of the poor occur most often under the pretext of saving them. In a way, it’s the old colonial idea again.”
“the contemporary counterpart of Columbus’s patented expropriation of native lands is the reign of multinational corporations who are leveraging and claiming, as intellectual property, our living resources, our biodiversity and our traditional knowledge.”
“How did India become so poor? Because someone else became super rich. And with all the billionaires getting so rich today, I think it is time to ask: How did they get so rich? Some of it is speculation, some of it is plunder and piracy.”
I consider myself rich. I live in a country that takes more than its fair share and a country that was and is a colonial power. My wealth, our wealth is stolen from other generations (some of them in the future), other peoples, and other species. Throwing a book against a wall doesn’t change that. It doesn’t fix that.
One, two, three more things last week, but I’ll keep them in check for a quieter moment. As always, thank you so much for reading, subscribing, replying. If it hadn’t been for a recommendation by one of you, I wouldn’t have learned about OR Books and Rediscovering Earth. Thanks a lot for everything. Next week, a book update. Until then, stay safe!