Dealing with grief and facing the ecocide
Our society is ecocidal. As deforestation, mining, the predatory exploitation of biomes, global warming and the accumulation of toxins in the water, earth and air advance and grow in scale fueled by the expansion of the capitalist economy, the planet becomes less alive, beautiful and habitable.
Opening our eyes to this reality is a painful process. And the greater our love for the forests, swamps, savannahs and the beings that inhabit these places, the greater our pain.
The statistics produced by scientists that call in vain for the action of global leaders are scary and give us an idea of the dimension of the destruction taking place and of what we lost and are in the process of losing. But this loss is not quantifiable and reducible to numbers and statistics, and the reality of the ecocide that they represent is much more terrifying:
Jaguars, armadillos and birds lying carbonized on the ground after a fire; landscapes dominated by roads and pools of toxic residues without a single tree to be seen where few years ago a boreal forest stood; dead fish floating downstream with the foam after a chemical spill in a river; strip mines emerging one after the other like gaping wounds on the surface of the earth and so on.
This disaster affects all living beings, including humans, and its consequences have been felt by many communities for a long time. The first to be affected are the ones that live by the land: Indigenous peoples that have been dealing with the destruction of their territories and attacks against them, quilombola communities, caiçaras, fishermen, family farmers, and many others that fight to defend their ways of life.
They are on the frontlines of the fight against the ecocide and the colonial order from which it originates, and many have been fighting for centuries before the emergence of the contemporary environmentalist movement. But sooner or later we all face the impact of this tragedy, whether it comes in the form of sickness and hunger or hurricanes, fires, droughts, heat waves and floods that become increasingly more intense.
Facing this reality has meant for me dealing with constant mourning for what is being lost, and the challenge of fighting for what I love involves learning to live with this grief without being overcome by it and giving in to despair. It isn’t easy — but it has been harder.
Nature has always been my refuge and my main source of inspiration and insight. One of my first passions was water and its movement. At 3 years old, nothing fascinated me more than observing rivers and streams flowing and waves crashing by the sea one after the other.
Soon came the interest for living beings, especially aquatic ones. As a child, my favorite place was the beach. I used to spend hours crawling through the rocks and searching through them and the pools formed by the tide for creatures that lived and hid there: barnacles, mussels, anemones, elusive little fish and crabs crawling in search of food, always on the watch for possible predators.
I also loved to swim, going beyond the surfers and the breaking waves where I would hold my breath and dive, letting the air out slowly and feeling the immensity of the open blue sea around me as I went deeper and tested how far I could go. Back at the surface, I would enjoy the solitude and watch from afar people reduced to tiny specks moving around like ants through the beach and seagulls flying overhead, feeling my body rise and fall with the passing waves.
My love for the Atlantic Forest has also followed me throughout my life. I have fond memories of days spent walking through the woods while taking in the exuberance of its vegetation, the colors and songs birds and the damp smell of the wet earth and decomposing matter, often surprised by unexpected encounters with all sorts of beings.
Having lived in São Paulo for most of my life, I always missed the forest, the sea and the mountains while in the city. But even immersed in its cacophony among its labyrinths of concrete and steel I always found joy in the life that sprouts in the sidewalk, swings with the wind, flies, crawls and hops through the streets and hides in bushes and trees.
Growing up was a process of developing a relationship with the world and its cycles and beings, but it also meant becoming increasingly aware of its degradation. At first, this came through contact with different manifestations of this process: a beach covered by trash; a forest patch that has been cleared; the landscape of São Paulo covered by concrete and asphalt and criss-crossed by rivers where sewage and chemicals flow. The scale was local but the contact was direct, and I always felt it as an aggression towards what I love, which is also an aggression towards a part of me.
Later, I became conscious of issues of increasingly larger scale: the pollution of the oceans; destruction of tropical forests; mass extinction; global warming and melting glaciers. The dimension of the destruction and the urgency of change began to emerge, and I was overcome with grief and rage — how dare they? Why does nobody stop them?
Still, the connections were not clear, neither did I know what to do about it. I felt compelled to act. But first, I wanted to understand things better. The links between political issues, our mode of production, the destruction of the biosphere and the exploitation of people and other beings quickly became evident.
As I joined the dots and the connections became clearer, a picture emerged of the capitalist economy as an enemy of life. A mode of production that seeks to grow infinitely and grows exponentially results in an ever-increasing destruction that makes it incompatible with any perspective of a healthy relationship with life and the Earth’s cycles.
Capitalism is a worldeater, and it must be stopped at all costs.
The history of capitalism is the history of a machine, a monster of many heads, legs and tentacles. The monster’s skeleton is made of steel, wood, copper and concrete. Its muscles are made of plastic and rubber, and through its veins runs oil, diesel and electrical currents. It has no life, but it feeds on life and uses it to move its engines and expand its reach.
Its expansion — slow at first — has been the proliferation of (increasingly larger) cities, factories, open-pit mines, oil-fields subterranean cables, power-lines, monocultures, security cameras, detention centers, prisons, concentration camps and the buses, trains and subways where workers huddle together as they move to their places of work from where they will move the machine with their labor.
This process has also been the end of peoples, cultures and communities, of forests, rivers and tundras. The monster devours worlds, people, trees and mountains and vomits residues: plastic, twisted metal, glass, pesticides and chemicals of all types that accumulate in the soil and travel through rivers and clouds. And thus it grows.
But the story of this expansion is also the story of those who resisted it — and those who are still resisting. While those that claim that the monster is good and call its growth “progress” and those that say that it can be tamed and transformed into a force for good fight for control over it, others fight for its end, or at least to halt its advance.
This is a fight for life and against the devastation that spreads as the monster crawls through the Earth. When the degradation of the biosphere is felt everywhere and we are faced with the possibility of our extinction as a species, our survival is at stake.
But this is not just a matter of survival. We also fight out of love and desire to protect what we cherish. This love gives us strength and determination, and fuels our struggles. So we keep fighting, like others have before us. And we had our victories.
But despite those victories, the worldeater follows its course, and every year that it advances life recedes. And the same love that drives us to fight hurts us when we see what we love being destroyed.
Part of the problem is a matter of scale. We are not only confronted with the destruction that surrounds us where we are — but also with that which the media bombards us with every day. The expansion of industrial capitalism through the Earth has generated a crisis of global scale which is manifested in a multitude of local crises. Its dimension intimidates us and makes us feel powerless.
Feelings of powerlessness increase when we face the fact that despite our efforts, there is no perspective in the horizon of overcoming capitalism at a global level at this moment when much of the life of this planet has disappeared over the last decades and more will vanish in the coming years at the current pace. This leads to suffering.
While some refuse to face this reality and decide to ignore it or seek for solace in false hopes, others give in to despair and waste away faced with a future that seems grim. Some turn away from activism after years of dedication to it, bitter and disillusioned. Others stay and fight out of habit and inertia but their heart is not in it as it once was.
There are those who resort to drugs as a way to numb the pain, those who take refuge in some other form of escapism and those who find outlets that lead to dead ends. And thus we lose many of ours.
But things don’t have to be this way.
We must learn to embrace our pain and rage and transform it into fuel for our struggles, avoiding traps that might lead us to defeatism and despair or, on the other hand, illusions that lead to inaction, false solutions or frustrations when our expectations fail to materialize.
If our love is a source of pain when we see what we cherish being caged and destroyed, it is also a flame that gives us strength to fight and defend those things.
The scale of the global crisis makes us feel powerless because we have no influence at this level, but there is a lot that we can do to change things around us. And if our power is limited, it is ours, and it can always be increased as we develop our capabilities and form alliances.
If the monster has spread its tentacles throughout the world, we can fight it where we are. This involves stopping to look around us and reflect on our desires and capabilities and on what struggles we can join where we are.
It also means accepting that no matter how heroic our efforts, there is no guarantee that we will be able to avoid catastrophe or even extinction. But defeat is certain if we do nothing, and the more we fight the further we go and the better our chances.
And If defeat awaits us in the end, isn’t it better to face it fighting for what we love side by side with those that share our desires and struggles than waiting and passively watching on the sidelines?
If this is the case, it doesn’t mean that what we achieved was in vain. Every life saved, every plot of forest preserved or regenerated, every dam or pipeline stopped, territory protected, house or farm occupied and communitarian experiment developed and lived is worth it and shall never be in vain.
But we will only know what we are capable of and how far we can go when we try and test ourselves. So we choose our path and move forward, determined and light-hearted. We look at what is in front and around us, and direct our energy towards the concrete challenges and situations that arise as we advance.
We weave alliances and develop our relationships with each other and with other beings, lands and elements as we go on fighting, caring, creating, building, protecting and healing. We cry our losses, celebrate our victories and move ahead.
No matter how powerful global capitalism is at the moment, its power will never never be total. And as it grows, resistance sprouts everywhere. Despite all attempts by this social order to instill conformism and submission, there will always be unruly elements that refuse to accept it. And faced with the devastation wreaked upon the Earth by the worldeater, we open our eyes to life’s capacity for healing.
Weeds sprout in land clearings, protecting the soil and creating conditions for other forms of life that will come. Birdsong echoes from the canopy of a food forest where the sun burned the cracked earth a few years before. Wolves run free and wild through the ruins of Chernobyl as the forest overtakes the buildings.
When the capitalist myth of infinite growth shatters and its autophagic process leads to its downfall, life shall rise where it recedes and carry on beautiful and triumphant — with or without us.
I would like to believe in a future where we can all live and share the Earth with other beings as many cultures have done and others are still doing. I have no way of knowing if this day will come or even if such a thing is possible at this point, but as long as there is oppression there will be resistance, and life will keep finding a way to escape the cages built to imprison it.
And this is enough for me.