First Published 05-11-2021 on writersmosaic.org.uk
Letter to a Young Climate Activist
Indigenous peoples and solutions for the climate crisis
By Oscar Guardiola-Rivera
I was most impressed by what you said the last time I heard you speak in Scotland. During a debate sponsored by the New York Times in preparation for COP26 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Glasgow in November 2021 – you called the adults’ bluff. You said: ‘Indigenous peoples not only are custodians of most of the rainforests that are the lungs of our planet. They also have the solutions for the climate crisis. And yet, they’re not sitting at the table’.
You got me thinking. If the indigenous peoples aren’t invited by the powers that be to sit at their conference in the city, maybe it’s us who should attend the school in the forest. Let’s go to them, sit with the indigenous at the dinner table, listen and learn. Because you’re right. Only they can help us solve this crisis and save the modern soul. Why do I say this? Let me tell you a story.
A few years ago, a Greek human rights philosopher and I were in Brazil for a series of talks. We got together with our Brazilian friends at a time of great optimism. It was the time of the rise of a multiform Left organised around the Workers’ Party of Lula da Silva, the man who Barack Obama once called ‘the most popular politician in the world’. A forward-looking Latin America was ready to enter the world.
Our friends were a motley crew. But their different outlooks and views made all the difference. There were liberation theologians and philosophers, new feminists and old communists, actors and playwrights, concrete poets and funk musicians, the successors of the Trópicalia and Third Cinema art movements of the 1960s, young decolonials, human rights advocates, psychoanalysts and activists. Chief among them, the landless peasants and the indigenous peoples – Afro and Amerindian. Each of these singular voices expressed brilliant thinking and truthful commitment. A readiness to act and the vision to create other subjectivities as well as new environments.
We were world-making. Seeing, hearing, and being transformed by this amazing country and its extraordinary people. They taught us to view the environment as an association of landscapes, each possessing a different character. To think of peoples being addressed by such landscapes, even possessed by them, restlessly engaging in survivance over disappearance, in a diplomacy with their environment to forge new associations and alliances. And to dance. To dance better because dancing connects the body to space and time in a different way.
In our modern world, under our current system of timespace, we measure the changes that happen on Earth by the needs of a society ruled by dispossession, the never-ending longing for the creation of new markets at any cost, and an unequal concentration of power and wealth and power. There’s no time to think. No time for the examined life. Speed is the key. In contrast, the Indigenous Nations of the Americas have a more eloquent and profound way of understanding the passing of time. The rhythms of heart and mind make astronomical, meteorological, and other environmental phenomena cultural. The period of 29 October to 2 November is linked to midnight, to the end of the rainy season and to the end of the corn lifecycle. Similarly, in the longer count, the period of darkness that began in 1492 would ultimately come to an end, to be followed by a New Dawn, a time of awakening announced by the passing of Venus before the Sun, the way it did in June 2012. If the former period is characterised by the science/religious schism introduced by the missionary friars and their kingly commissions, which obscures the importance of timekeeping and the body’s relation to the earth and the cosmos to ‘running down the clock’ on, say, climate change actions, in the latter period it is the renewal of such biocultural understanding that provides us with good reasons for action.¹
This concern for deeper time, no longer measured solely in accordance with shifts in human dominance, entails an ethical stance that takes care not to defer today’s costs and responsibilities, to stop them being borne by future generations who are not yet here or seem too young to defend themselves. This means that people must have sufficient economic and political power to prevail in social decisions, and if not, that they can access a toolkit with which to change such imbalances. A unified science; a deeper understanding of time that includes those whose faces are not yet ‘beneath the surface of the ground’, as the Iroquois Constitution says, as well as the energies impacting upon us as we are faced by nature; and a toolkit for change. Aren’t these the things we need to save our body and soul from the masters and doomsayers of this Age of Meltdown?
To make sense of the fact that any activity that causes environmental degradation generates winners as well as losers, and, thus, to better answer the crucial question: why can those who benefit from such activities impose environmental burdens on others? Also, to act and struggle against such inequality and unfairness. Isn’t that what you dear C and your activist young friends were getting at when you called the adults’ bluff?
If so, my short story about listening to friends in Brazil may prove useful. Part of that story is the recognition that with age, me and others forgot these truths. Growing up in urban Bogotá I was told at school that we ought to become more European-like, whiter, if we wanted to count and matter. This meant letting go of the larger understanding our indigenous forebears had about the tendency of events on Earth to mirror major events in the cosmos, as confused and superstitious. As things turn out, it is neither. You were right. Indigenous peoples also have the solutions for the climate crisis.
Coming from a long line of stargazers, anthropographers and timekeepers, our indigenous forebears knew what the arrival of European colonists and missionaries meant. 11 October 1492. ‘The last day of a free America; then, Columbus arrived’, said the Brazilian poet and diplomat Raul Bopp.² Then came the mastery of Europeans, as they acquired the capacity to inform themselves about all the knowledges of cultures that had remained disconnected until then, and learned how to manage their newly found centrality. Amerindians spoke of the long years of cosmic hibernation. But also, of the possibility of reversal when the old knowledge would be up for rebirth and revival. Mesoamericans and other indigenous peoples, comprising the global majorities of this earth, were not just passive victims of greed and ignorance. They continued their journey, and despite the cruelties committed against them offer to us the gifts of hospitality and knowledge.
I once heard one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion suggest that a mass ingestion of psychedelics in a civil disobedience rave would be needed to shake off society’s flat attitudes concerning the earth and its peoples of the earth. Perhaps. However, all it took for us was a seat at the dinner table with Caliban. That’s my modest proposal. To sit at the dinner table with the indigenous peoples of the earth and learn with them how to make kin with plants and animals who have spirit and communicative powers of their own that enable social relations with humans. Sounds strange? If so, be it. Such is the sense of native survivance. A cast of mind, a vital irony – partly a tease of humanism – a spirit of ethical courage, according to the Anishinaabe First Nations poet Gerald Vizenor.³
Yes, spirits everywhere. Not exclusive to the order of human vision but a shared attribute of all beings. This is no pensée sauvage, no motif for the sad tropics exhibited in melancholy museums and archives. Instead, as I accept your gift of a question on the place of indigenous peoples at the table, let me present to you this precious thought via the English writer John Berger. Berger describes the way a landscape’s character impinges upon the imagination of those who dwell in it. Such is the point of his reflections on the unpaintable meseta (the central plateau) of the Spanish hinterland, and of Berger’s correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista indigenous people in southern Mexico.
‘The unpaintability of a landscape is not a question of mood’, Berger points out. ‘The mood changes. What does not change is the scale, and what I want to call the address of the landscape’. He means by that the fact that the scale and quality of the Spanish interior is such that it does not offer the possibility of a single focal point; it does not lend itself to being looked at, and ‘there is no place to look at it from’. Its dimension and connectedness would vanish if you tried to project it onto a canvas or a photograph from the perspective of a spectator grounded at safe distance from the scene. ‘A landscape that has no focal point is like a silence’ or a solitude that turns its back on you, Berger says.⁴
I believe the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez meant something similar when he described the Americas and the Greater Caribbean as a vast landscape of solitude. Berger argues that this solitude is reflected in music. That’s true, particularly in the south of Spain and in the Spanish islands where the music has something in common with the rhythms of Africa and the Americas. Dance and music of voices and bodies, surrounded by a landscape’s silence, invite reflection, truthfulness, and taking time. A kind of solitude. It’s profoundly human. Yet it carries, says Berger, like the cry of an animal.⁵
One must labour to communicate with landscapes which have the character of a vastness. By ‘address’ I mean precisely what Berger and Subcomandante Marcos meant in their correspondence. A landscape addresses to the indigenous imagination a background of meaning. We have all felt this. I have been affected in this way by the landscape of the Scottish Borders, where you live. But in Chiapas, where Marcos lives, it was herons who took over the night sky of the forest in December 1994. ‘Perhaps they were not herons’, Marcos says, ‘but fragments of an exploded moon, pulverised by the December of the jungle’.⁶
After the Zapatista uprising of December 1994, the jungle spoke. It addressed us in a certain way. We were also young. Like you are now. The jungle addressed us in the way that Marcos describes in the reaction of Heriberto and Eva, five and six years old respectively – the same age as my daughter now – when they saw on the cover of one of Berger’s novels John Constable’s depictions of the British countryside. ‘Constable’s painting’, Marcos recalled, ‘did not remind Heriberto and Eva of the English countryside. It did not take them outside of the Lacandon jungle. It left them there, or it brought them back to their land, their place, to their being children, to their being campesinos, to their being indigenous’.⁷
That’s what happened to me after arriving in Scotland for the first time, on a cold morning also in December 1994. Having left my bags, I walked in the snow through a forest on the outskirts of old Aberdeen. It was the first time in the snow for this Caribbean man. I came upon a dilapidated house in the middle of the forest. There was graffiti on the ruined wall. It read: ‘Long live the Scottish National Liberation Army’. Can you believe it? That piece of graffiti brought me back to the land of my childhood, to being young, to being urban and Caribbean, Afro, creole, and indigenous.
You might say this is a bias towards our own specific geographies. And you would be right. But if so, we must illuminate geography the way Marcos and Berger do to reveal in it something larger than simply what is familiar to us. We must return to primal geographical experience and reinvent it if we want to save the modern soul from the disorientation provoked by economic, political, and environmental upheavals: back to the geographical experience of the peasants, nomads and indigenous, ‘but perhaps also of cosmonauts’, Berger adds.⁸
Many things can fill the foreground with meaning, as you know. Memories, fears, prejudices, hatreds engendered by property rights, legacies of supposedly purer liberties, opinions about recent events, familiar worries for survival. All these, however, occur against a common constant background that animates the animism and survivance of Amerindians and the address of Berger’s landscapes. Which in turn allows us to posit a continuum of the spirit or soul as a counterpoint to the discontinuity of landscapes and bodies. This is in contrast with that Western thought which posits a physical continuity and metaphysical discontinuity between humans, plants, and animals.
Such is the Amerindians’ great invention. Their technique of liberation. We call it multinaturalism. It helps us to see history as the product of interactions between different types of persons, human and nonhuman, that affirm themselves and reaffirm the importance of giving themselves over to constant transformation in relation to each other. ‘Here. I am here’, says the forest of Scotland and Amazonia as one voice. History, thus conceived, is the fabrication process of peoples’ agencies and capacities through radical engagement and mutual participation which includes the gift of self. Agencies producing themselves through transformation in ceremonials of gathering, gift-giving, walking, reading and association. This is the human-nonhuman diplomacy I referred to earlier. We must invent a human-nonhuman diplomacy to solve the climate crisis and save ourselves. The United Nations already has an office for outer space affairs and alien diplomacy. Why not commission an office for human-nonhuman diplomacy? Indigenous peoples could lead it. As you said.
If you wish, take this proposal to COP26. We shall see if they listen. In the meantime, I await your responses.
1. I owe this quote and insight to Gabriel Gbadamosi, who pointed me to Mindahi Crescencio Bastidas Muñoz and Geraldine Patrick Encina, ‘Biocultural Sacred Sites in Mexico’ in Indigenous Revival and Sacred Sites, ed. by Sarah Hitchner & Fausto O. Sarmiento (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2017) 186-204 at 192. Also, Jorge Garcia, ‘Timekeepers: The European Golden Age, the Mesoamerican Time of Darkness, and the New Dawn of Indigenous Peoples’ in South as a State of Mind, issue 10, Summer/Fall 2018 (Athens: Cube Art Editions) 131-137.
2. Raul Bopp, ‘The Life and Death of Antropofagia’ (1955-66) 135-151, in The Forest & The School. Where to Sit at the Dinner Table? Ed. by Pedro Neves Marques (Berlin & Köln: Archive Books & Akademie der Künste der Welt, 2014).
3. Gerald Vizenor. “Aesthetics of Survivance. Literary Theory and Practice”, in Survivance. Narratives of Native Presence, ed. by Gerald Vizenor (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008), p. 1.
4. John Berger, Portraits. John Berger on Artists (London & New York: Verso, 2015) 122-125. Also, An Open Letter to Subcommandante Marcos in the Mountains of Southeast Mexico (https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1998-jan-04-bk-4703-story.html)
5. John Berger, Portraits, p. 123.
6. Subcomandante Marcos & John Berger, “Correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos”, in John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2001), p. 225.
7. Subcomandante Marcos & John Berger, “Correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos”, in John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, p. 228.
8. John Berger, Portraits, p. 123.