Why do we talk about the Spirit of the Amazon?
Because, today, the Spirit of the Amazon is at war with the Spirit of Capitalism.
This is not primarily a war of weapons and armies, though too many of the Amazon’s defenders have suffered, and continue to suffer, violence and death, and the Amazon is under attack from the ground forces of invasion on all of the fronts that have been discussed at length; agriculture, mineral extraction, logging, infrastructure projects – all at their core examples of predatory extractivism and the pillaging of natural resources.
This is a cultural war, a philosophical war, a war between two contradictory and irreconcilable systems, each with its own social structures, intellectual structures and – for want of a better term – economic structures.
These two systems are so fundamentally different that it is hard for us, rooted and formed in our moneyed capitalist system, to imagine how it could be to grow up and function in the other, alien system, built on community and sharing rather than on individualism and ownership.
The basic building blocks of our ‘western’ culture are so ingrained in us that to appreciate what the world we inhabit looks like from an indigenous perspective is a huge intellectual challenge. And to even begin to consider changing our lives to be more like theirs is, unfortunately, unimaginable.
The day we are born we start absorbing our cultural environment. We are individuals; our selfish needs are our immediate priority. Very early, in our baby cribs, we begin to accumulate wealth; a toy, a blanket, a feeding bottle – the crib itself. We soon enter the world of money; our grandparents give us a few coins to spend in the sweet shop, and soon our mothers or fathers send us on errands to the shops, as their agents in the world of commerce.
And so our accumulation of social and cultural values continues, imperceptibly building the foundations on which our understanding of the world is constructed, until we can no longer even perceive those foundations, our cultural underpinning. We are captives of our own experiences of life. We cannot even recognise, let alone remove, the prejudices behind the things we take so much for granted: education is good, everyone should be able to read and write, all human beings deserve and require a basic level of income, our health is reliant on outside agents, in the form of doctors and the makers of pharmaceutical medicines, everything and every piece of land is owned by somebody. To succeed in our world we must compete with others, because our success is predicated on our ability to gain advantage over other members of society, in financial terms, in status, in authority or in power, and our success is measured by what we accumulate and by how much power we have, in terms of financial and material resources, and in terms of social and employment structures. We value material things far more than we value social goods; we would rather have a nice comfortable house than be part of a mutually supportive community. We distrust our neighbours, we fall out with our families over inheritance and disparity in wealth. Increasingly we live in isolation, connected only tenuously to our friends and family, whose physical distance from us often facilitates or drives our social divergence from them. We share little and we hoard much. The rich accumulate more than they could ever make any use of yet they are driven by some perverse lack of reason to accumulate yet more in a vicious spiral that leads to waste and destruction, and brings precious little happiness or satisfaction.
How different the indigenous baby? Cocooned in love, cared for by all the members of her community, she grows in understanding without the need for a blanket, getting all the warmth and comfort she needs from the proximity of her mother. Toys – at least, things she can play with to develop her understanding of the world – are all around her, in such diversity and richness that she has no need to ‘own’ them. He quickly learns how he should interact with the spirits, because the spirits are present everywhere and at all times, in the earth, in the sky, in the rocks, in the plants and animals and in the water and air. A successful day is one where the spirits have been in balance, because then there will be no hunger, no disquiet, no disagreement with other humans, nor with the animals or any other components of the world. The day will finish with contentment and without need, as it began.
And that is enough. To be is enough. To be part of the community, to contribute and to receive, to participate and to be valued in equal measure, is enough.
Your reaction to my words is probably ‘how nice that must be, but it is not the real world, we could never achieve that, because we need things; we need houses, and cars, and buses and trains; we need learning, universities, hospitals and theatres’.
We don’t need those things. We are accustomed to them, to the point where we will never give them up, because they represent our cultural values, they are our world.
But our world is built on a lie.
It is built on the false assumption that it can continue.
It is built on the basis of a pyramid scheme. Inevitably it will eventually collapse, because our consumption cannot, by any reason of logic, continue to grow indefinitely, our economies cannot continue to grow indefinitely, though they have perversely been created as a mechanism which depends on continual growth for its proper functioning.
In January, in the Kayapó village of Piaraçu on the Xingu River, my teacher and friend Chief Raoni talked about the greed which is the basis of our culture. Greed is anathema to indigenous values, the antithesis of the communitarian foundation of indigenous culture. But it is beginning to infect the indigenous peoples of the Xingu, who have for five hundred years managed to avoid subjugation and who have developed their contact with the mainstream of Brazilian society to a large extent on their own terms, retaining traditional values and social structures. Only now, in the 21st century, is increasing reliance on money in danger of undermining cultural norms which have stood the test of time from long before the arrival of Orellana and Cabral. And that threatens the integrity of indigenous communities.
Chief Raoni is only too aware of that danger of infection, and he is clear that it must be resisted. Although it may be impossible for us to shuck off our cultural baggage, we must at least ensure that indigenous communities are able to maintain the integrity of theirs, which demonstrably weighs much more gently on the resources of this world than ours, and which may, in due course, be immensely valuable in re-directing our flawed model towards greater sustainability in the way we live, and which may even prove crucial in allowing mankind to survive in the long term.
If industrial man continues with business as usual – wasteful over-consumption, gross financial and resource inequality, rampant greed, continuing profligate use of the Earth’s natural resources – including, of course, fossil fuels – and the careless disposal of waste, we are headed for disaster. But if we can recognise in time that the path we are on leads inevitably to a cliff edge of resource depletion, then we can at least delay the time we will reach that cliff edge, and perhaps even arrive at the point of sustainability, which could ensure a fair and comfortable future for six, ten and twenty generations into the future.
That would require what today is an unimaginable re-engineering of the social, financial and commercial structures of the mainstream world. The global population would have to level off and fall, ostentatious wealth must become offensive and unacceptable rather than aspirational, inequality must reduce and we would have to begin to take better care of the Earth’s resources, recognising that they are finite. We have to recycle and re-use everything we make, and completely eliminate waste, transforming our consumption patterns into a closed cycle of use, re-use, and recycling, where recyclability is designed and built into every product and every structure, and where each item is designed to use the minimum amount of resources and to last as long as possible, by being durable and repairable – the exact antithesis to corporate priorities of today.
The first and most pressing step must be to pursue rapid decarbonisation of our energy production, and it seems increasingly that we have at least reached the point of realisation about that.
The final objective – the closed loop – is today still unthinkable, an impossible dream.
But one day, inevitably, it will become the norm. And the sooner we reach that point the less will be the pain. Future generations will look back on our time as the Age of Waste and question why we took so long to change our wasteful ways.
Indigenous people like Chief Raoni can, and must be our teachers in this process. We must recognise and value the wisdom of the indigenous way of life, and find ways to adapt ours, to adopt many of the values inherent in theirs. We must hope that we can do so in a way which retains the many irrefutable benefits mankind has developed in the last few millennia, but set them in a framework which recognises the damage we have done to our world and the finite nature of natural resources. We must become guardians of this world instead of parasites. We must learn to share its bountiful resources with others, and especially with future generations, instead of being so selfish, greedy and avaricious.
People will not change overnight, but we need to begin moving in the right direction. Greed is not an inherent human trait, it is a learned behaviour. We need to begin to un-learn it in order to make this world a better place. And indigenous people, like those who are leaving their homes to try to enlighten us, can be our guides and mentors in that process.
© Patrick Cunningham