Climate change through sensitivity
Western, rational thinking prevents a compassionate relationship with the world. Conversely, we could learn to form an ecology of reciprocity from the wisdom traditions of local communities. By Frank Steinhofer, photos by Nicola Ókin Frioli.
The fire was ablaze. Plumes of smoke rose high into the air, a strong wind was carrying them into the distance. The Amazon rainforest was burning. That was in 2019, but the situation on the ground is still the same today.
The news was full of images of the destruction, causing consternation around the world. A place where once a haven of life had coalesced was reduced to nothing more than ash. Ancient trees were just charred stumps, animals had suffered a slow death in the flames, and local communities like the Munduruku, who had been tending the land for centuries, had lost large swathes of their ancestral territory. And not for the first time.
I received a cry for help on my cell phone from an acquaintance in São Paulo. “It’s raining ash,” she wrote in a state of distress, sending me, an author raised in Europe and now living in Mexico, a picture of a darkened sky passing ominously over the Brazilian city. “We can hardly draw a breath. Look at the sky and let the world know what’s happening here!” She meant: your world, that of the global North.
This world knows about it, I despondently thought to myself, but does it really feel? A question came to my mind, and it has remained with me to this day, every time a forest burns, species become extinct, rivers burst their banks, or plastic drifts into the oceans: has climate change ever truly reached our hearts? Is the climate crisis perhaps also a crisis of our Western rationalizing perception, which is accompanied by a lack of sensitivity?
At the end of a mechanistic view of the world
“One hardly ever gets to reason by way of reason,” wrote the French philosopher Montesquieu in his Persian Letters. As early as 1721, he feared that the acceleration of an increase in knowledge might eventually contribute to the Earth’s destruction, insofar as a specific emergence of knowledge would blunt empathy.
When it comes to climate issues, knowledge production is in full swing. Every day we are confronted with numbers, maps, and curves. Scientists are running out of adjectives to describe the consequences of global warming. Politicians are trying to appease voters. Businesses are promising to cut emissions. While 1.5-degree targets are being formulated, the idea of a regulated thermostat hangs in the air. We hear that nature is suffering and needs to be saved, for example, through geo-engineering.
All the voices are full of concern. An urgency that seems more than warranted: too many people are still in denial about the consequences of this man-made climate crisis. However, all the concerned voices echo that very Western, mechanistic view of the world, which for centuries has turned humans and nature into abstract objects that are to be controlled instead of establishing a compassionate relationship to the world.
Western thinking is based on dualisms “that cut deeply through our existence,” as the German biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber describes it. The most effective of these are the divides between nature and culture, body and mind. They result in a series of further oppositions: human and non-human, the real and its representation, the secular and the spiritual, the individual and the collective.
The mere existence of such juxtapositions is not problematic, as the Chinese concept of yin and yang suggests, because they, in fact, complement each other. The Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar argues that “the problem is with the ways in which such divides are treated culturally, particularly the hierarchies established between the two parts.” In other words, the extent to which one part of the two is ascribed the designation ‘developed,’ ‘underdeveloped,’ ‘superior,’ and ‘inferior.’
In Western thought, a pure state of nature is usually imagined as wild and raw, which can be civilized using reason (Hobbes). The cosmos of trees, plants, and animals around us is downgraded to an inanimate space of resources which can be perceived by the mind alone (Descartes). Reality is presented as something external which we can only experience as a subjective interpretation (Kant).
Interpreting all of reality through the eye of one’s rationality is deeply rooted in occidental thinking shaped by white men and read as the result of their guarantor of historical perpetuation: to plant oneself at the top of self-developed hierarchies in order to form patriarchal and colonial structures, to exploit others, only to view one’s own perspective of knowledge as progressive, cultivated, and objective.
The Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, therefore, believes that Western metaphysics is truly “the source and origin of every colonialism.” The French political scientist Françoise Vergès says one should not speak of the Anthropocene, but rather of ‘racial Capitalocene.’
Western dualisms do not only disrupt the world. They trigger traumatic experiences that result in feeling out of place and lacking meaning in life. This contradicts the actual ecological experience: humans are bodily, loving beings; they exist because everything else exists based on a web of reciprocity.
If we genuinely care about saving the Earth, it would be necessary to critically question basic aspects of our thinking, thereby changing our relationship to the world. To paraphrase the Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes: ecological action without decolonized thought is just gardening. Only when we reveal the actual processes of alienation is emancipation toward all living things possible. How can this be achieved?
Living with the Earth instead of just on it
Let us finally start to dissolve the artificial divide between nature and culture and to abandon all hierarchies. We do not need to go into nature, as we already are nature: living bodies, woven from birth into this world that knows no external limitations. Why not follow the curious growth of plants as they create a common breathing space with all things. Let us feel that the animate world is full of actors who are creative and constantly reshaping their environment. Every agency demands recognition. The Ecuadorian constitution, for example, grants comprehensive constitutional rights to Mother Earth or ‘Pachamama.’ The Swiss constitution maintains that the dignity of plants and animals should be respected.
We need to make a radical break with our idea of knowledge since everything that lives follows an inner meaning. Even trees “form relatively more nuanced and exhaustive overall representation[s] of the surrounding environment,” writes the Canadian ethnologist Eduardo Kohn, who lived among the Runa community of the Upper Amazon for many years. Understanding this web of meanings requires respect and sensitivity. Western knowledge systems have trouble conveying this, instead they virtually blanking it out.
In the end, we must co-create a world that accommodates many worlds. The traditions of the wisdom of local communities could be helpful signposts along this path. They have always been embedded in the continuity of life on Earth, are part of its consciousness, see themselves as beings among many, and form kinship with all species, plants, and fungi. For them, solidarity is an endearment of the species. They make no claims to ownership of the land but belong to the land, which they care for collectively and keep fertile in the sense of a common cause.
Inevitably, I speak from a Western perspective, but I also speak out of recognition. From the beginning and for thousands of years, local communities are the closest to the earth, primary custodians of an ecosystem based, in the deepest of senses, on humility, gift, and reciprocity. In a word: on love.
Addressing Western civilization, Nemonte Nenquimo, a leader of the Waorani people who live in the Amazon basin, said: “The Earth does not expect you to save her, she expects you to respect her. And we, as Indigenous peoples, expect the same.”
Frank Steinhofer is a freelance writer. His reportages and essays have been published in Der Spiegel, Monopol, and Süddeutsche Zeitung. In March 2021 he published his debut novel “Das Terrain” in Germany which deals with the reconciliation of culture and nature in Latin American rainforests. He lives in Mexico City and Dahn.
This essay was first published for Culturescapes festival on Sep. 16, 2021.