by Gonzalo Ortega
“GLANCE AT THE SUN. SEE THE MOON AND THE STARS. GAZE AT THE BEAUTY OF EARTH’S GREENINGS. NOW, THINK.” ― MICHAEL BRAUNGART
CRADLE TO CRADLE: REMAKING THE WAY WE MAKE THINGS
The relationship between humans and their natural environment has constantly changed throughout history. However, the evolution of this relationship can’t be explained linearly based on technological advances across centuries. In any case, the way humans have responded to their natural environment must be analyzed from the specific conditions of each case. One could say that the only constant has been the push from certain groups within society to hierarchize their own interests over the rest in relation to two main subject matters. The first: how nature is explained or interpreted philosophically; and second: under what criteria are resources being exploited and used.
It is from understanding these two aspects that conclusions can be drawn, for example, of the power of certain groups had to summon the labor that made it possible to erect massive menhirs with a votive character during the Paleolithic; or the impressive construction of countless stone monuments in diverse cultures of the Ancient World; as well as the evolution of cities and aqueducts to supply water, build roads, and so on. Successively, taking giant steps —which for the purposes of this text, it’s not worth going into great detail— until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. It was by mid 18th century that a radical transformation of the way in which human beings conceived the world would take place, basically when they began to interpret everything that surrounded them as “raw material.” This was such a dramatic change, rooted to such an extent that, today, more than two centuries later, we have only begun to envision alternatives.
WE ARE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING A SINGULAR MOMENT IN WHICH THE WAY CIVILIZATION IS CONSTITUTED CAN BECOME ENTANGLED AND SENTENCE ALL LIVING THINGS.
If we could establish a difference, largely arbitrary, between the primitive relationship that human beings had with their environment and our current reality, we would find perfect antonyms. In prehistory, when humans came into the scene, this relationship consisted in understanding their condition as partners of a complex reality, orchestrated from an enigmatic plane unknown to them. Today, however, the erroneous conviction that everything around us is a “resource” and that we have the right to exploit it, has reached its end. The polarization suggested here, however absurd it may seem, may serve to illustrate how variable the future may be. We are currently experiencing a singular moment in which the way civilization is constituted can become entangled and sentence all living things. Or we can turn the steering wheel towards a new scheme that makes our survival possible without affecting nature, and in the process millions of endangered species. The Anthropocene —the so-called era of man on Earth— could be a cataclysm, or a rebirth of all living things. A decade ago; Specifically in 2008, the Geological Society of London found sufficient evidence to support the thesis that the Holocene era had come to an end —with its characteristic stable climatic conditions— to make way for the Anthropocene. These types of transitions only occur every certain million years; and this time, our species has been responsible.
Much is said about a much-needed new way of relating to nature. Government awareness campaigns; implementation of rules and penalties; marketing strategies (often distorted) to reduce our carbon footprint; international summits with the leaders of major industrial powers; etc. It is discussed in important forums, in the media and in social media, whether it’s true that consumers are the culprits, or if instead, it’s the corporations and governments that allow for this type of problems. And yet, a sustainable change will not be guaranteed until large industries can secure high profit margins. Therefore, water will be, for example, the “oil” of the future.
As the monstrous mass of seven billion consumers, we are probably not willing to change our habits. Here is another paradox: either we cause the collapse of cities with our consumption and transportation habits; or we evolved towards newer patterns, such as working from home so to cut down the use and ownership of vehicles. The cities of the future are an enigma; We do not know which power groups will manage to place their interests above those of others. It would be wonderful to think of supply networks of clean energies for homes, as well as urban gardens that guarantee good nutrition, zero distribution expenses and packaging of perishable foods; along with the reforestation that this would imply. Solar and wind energy propelling the economy. Dreams as taken from science fiction.
THESE TYPES OF TRANSITIONS ONLY OCCUR EVERY CERTAIN MILLION YEARS; AND THIS TIME, OUR SPECIES HAS BEEN RESPONSIBLE.
The dream of industrialization was the cause of our current misfortune. Experts report a brutal decrease in the population of animals and insects. There are already too many endangered species. And strangely, it may be that the cause of the problem —the human being and his longing for progress— is the only solution. The same ingenuity that started coal-driven machines which polluted the environment with toxic gas emissions for decades, is finding other ways to generate energy. And the surprise has consistently been in running into much more efficient options. The moral of the story is clear: we have been doing things wrong from the beginning. We let the economic interests of a group of people set the tone, and we have obeyed blindly.
For the German researcher Michael Braungart, everything comes down to the basic idea that we have been looking for the easy way out towards solving our needs, without truly considering about what we are doing. According to his vision, wonderfully explained in his book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, dealing with our natural environment is like “good gardening; it is not about ‘saving’ the planet but about learning to thrive on it.” For Braungart, the vast majority of consumer products in the present have not been designed for human health or to have a positive impact on ecology. And not only that, but they are also unintelligent and not at all elegant. We must eliminate concepts such as “garbage” or “waste,” and start thinking about alternatives so that massive processes of production, packaging and distribution of goods are beneficial, instead of contaminant. Much like the leaves of a tree, which when detached, fall to the ground and dry, instead of hurting, they benefit. “Garbage is food,” says Braungart more as a utopian wish, than an assertion.
AND STRANGELY, IT MAY BE THAT THE CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM - THE HUMAN BEING AND HIS LONGING FOR PROGRESS- IS THE ONLY SOLUTION.
Maybe we had to go through the bitter gulp of toxic industrialization to understand the risks. The idea is irritating: the development of humanity might not have been possible without the help of oil, especially because of its low cost. We probably would not have been able to directly reach clean energies. Undoubtedly, humanity’s spectacular technological advances have opened our eyes.
Astronaut Sigmund Jähn, of the Soyuz 29 and Soyuz 31 missions, had it clear by the end of the 1970s, when at some point he commented: “Even before my flight, I knew that our planet is small and vulnerable. Only when I saw the Earth from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.”1
There is still much to reflect upon in order to get out of the current collective statism, load ourselves with awareness and good intentions so we can then implement a major civilizational change. The difficult thing is to take the message to segments of the population that are not usually up to date with current events, that do not read, do not debate in public, or at least in social media. It is the same passive “public” that is usually manipulated by advertising campaigns that generate the impression of “being informed.” An obvious example of this is an ultraconservative and republican group of the United States, who represented by the grotesque figure of Donald Trump, in the month of March of the year 2017 tried to prohibit the use of the concept of “climate change.” Such an aberration can only be explained as ignorance, or because it puts the interests of various polluting industries at risk.
WE HAVE BEEN DOING THINGS WRONG FROM THE BEGINNING.
In this slow process of removing the consumer society from its lethargy, artists and creators of different disciplines will probably be one of the most effective agents of change. Art has worked for centuries as a catalyst for ideas, often only sensitizing a few, but those who have the power of decision making that really generate change. Thus, prominent artists from different eras have contributed to the promotion of critical and/or political movements in favor of minority rights, social upheavals and cultural revolutions. In a moment of history like ours, full of contradictions and nonsense, the artists take on different subjects. But probably the Zeitgeist of the beginning of the 21st century is marked forever as the fight against climate change and the defense of ecology. A new generation of creators perceive reality in different terms: one cannot consider the current world we live in and put climate change aside. Undoubtedly, these artists pose a relevant debate that does not intend to provide defining visions or propaganda, but to diversify perspectives in order to confront the situation. How can we stop understanding our existence as a problem and begin to visualize ourselves as a solution?
1. Bereits vor meinem Flug wusste ich, dass unser Planet klein und verwundbar ist. Doch erst als ich ihn in seiner unsagbaren Schönheit und Zartheit aus dem Weltraum sah, wurde mir klar, dass der Menschheit wichtigste Aufgabe ist, ihn für zukünftige Generationen zu hüten und zu bewahren.