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The limits of our way of life

About the end of the world
FUTURE / Environmental disasters, global warming, crisis of civilization and planetary apocalypse have given rise to ideas about the doom of the earth and the end of time. Through a radical anthropology, a couple of authors make an attempt to restore our faith in the world.

The collapse of our global civilization and the imminent collapse of nature is a crisis that exposes the hegemony and limitations of the matrix of Western, Christian, capitalist-industrial civilization. We are facing a spiritual crisis that requires a different description of reality.

A sense of time and space is dissolving, as Déborah Danowski and E. Viveiros de Castro write in About the end of the world. According to the authors, our Anthropocene epoch confronts us with "the prospect of an 'end of the world' [...] a catastrophic change in the material conditions of human existence". What they and Isabelle Stengers call «Gaia's intervention» describes a situation where the earth is approaching the tolerance limit for the use of fresh water, changed land use, loss of animal and plant diversity and marine pollution. In a time with many stories about the collapse of the earth, we need "narratives that orient and motivate us anew".

About the end of the world takes the current discourses about the «end of the world» seriously. It does so based on the motto: While the patchwork solutions of naïve, pragmatic politics only create more despair, the dystopian images and stories instill us with a stronger motivational power and thus also a different hope.

The earth is approaching the tolerance limit for the use of fresh water, changed land use, loss of animal and plant diversity and marine pollution.

According to the authors, these stories and this metaphysics are a vast visual universe of the world's layout that spans cosmological speculation by naturalists, geophilosophy and technology criticism. But also about film thinking, which the authors mention with Lars von Triers Melancholia (2019), Bela Tarr's dark films, or Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road (2006) – and parts of the science-fiction genre. We need new signposts, new light bearers. According to the two authors – one a world-renowned anthropologist, the other a philosopher – we must understand what it means to be earthlings. Their point of departure is the anthropology of the Amazon Indians, where the relationship between man, culture and nature forms part of an ongoing continuum, a process of social transformation.

The Horse In Turin

Crisis awareness

Hungarian film director Béla Tarr known for his doomsday films Hesten i Torino, Damnation and Werkmeister Harmony, has said about the end of the world that we should not see it as a "Dantesque spectacle, but an increasing decay". Tarr adds: «The apocalypse is a big event. But reality is not like that. In my films, the end of the world is very quiet and weak. The end of the world... comes quietly and calmly. Death is always the worst scene, and when you see someone die – an animal or a person – it's always horrible, and the worst part is that it looks like nothing happened."

Thus, slow cinema and new images are about forcing us to stop and think, to notice the dying world around us. We live in what they call an "intense world sufficiency", where only the realizable is real. «Today there is only one direction», as they write: «namely the one that goes from the 'negative' to the 'positive', from minus to plus, from owning to being the owner of a lot, from survival technique to high technology, from the Stone Age nomad to the modern cosmopolitan citizen, from the wild Indian to the civil worker.» An example is the built cabin in von Triers Melancholia, which will be the family's last place of residence before the planet hits the earth, an image of an act that deals with the shock of the disaster without realizing anything, but an act that creates renewed awareness, according to the authors..

A worldless humanity

According to Danowski and de Castro, they have the material conditions for our production already revealed humanity as a disaster. The collapse of things is not ahead of us but behind us. This is what the techno-optimists and accelerationists have failed to realize. That the material conditions of production "change faster than the technical and political superstructures of the ruling civilization." The belief in an acceleration of capitalism and technology finds itself in an "objective contradiction with the inexorable feedback processes of environmental transformations that are profoundly harmful to humanity's environment."

Béla Tarr, known from his doomsday films The Horse in Turin, has said about the end of the world that we should not see it as a "Dantesque spectacle, but an increasing decay."

The question now is whether we are able to change our own geological role. Behind techno-optimism and Western thought hides a mythical cosmology of the ages beginning: First was the darkness of the world, then we were animals, then we became men of reason and then we became superhuman machines. As the conqueror of nature who leaves the animal behind, first a separation is created between humans and animals, then a separation between humans and the world. The outer world falls away, the world ends as a construction, an object swallowed up by man. Behind is "the world of the worldless people", which we know from Matrix og Mad Max the movies. A world where humanity is no longer connected to anything outside itself.

Multiple worlds, multiple souls

For Viveiros De Casto, anthropology is a comparative science of the relationships that make us human. All people and animals reflect, think and transform themselves through the encounter with matter, things and objects. The world of the Indians has since the dawn of time been a world where people assumed forms and physical structures from animals, plants, rivers, mountains. What unites us, humans and animals, is that we have a soul in the sense of a way to connect with the environment, to influence and be influenced. The whole world is inscribed in humanity, ie. in a potential shaping animism.

In the West, we have moved from animal-nature to the coronation of homo sapiens. For the Amazon Indians, man is a morphological externalization, that which paves the way for a creative exchange (becoming), a mediation between two realms. Nature is born from the culture. That vi calls «a natural world» calls the Amazon people a «multiplicity of diversities». Forests are communities, animals a diverse people. That vi call 'surroundings', they call a society of societies.

We don't see animals as people, but we know that they are people in their own right, as they write. The point is that when "an Indian interacts with a being other than his own kind, [...] he is aware that he is dealing with a being who is human in his own territory." He understands that things are connected, that animals, forest and things communicate with each other and thus create a world, what they with Leibniz call 'a soul'.

When the Indians, like us, have to destroy other forms of life in order to eat, they are aware of their ecological footprint, they know that the guiding spirit of the forest keeps watch, which becomes decisive for where one sets foot. There are souls everywhere. Such animism perceives the relationship between the human and the non-human as a social continuity between nature and culture. There is not first nature and then culture, but a continuous continuum. Animals, forests, species are themselves diverse communities.

A belief in the world

According to the two authors, becoming earth dwellers is about "exploring the limits of our way of life". About the end of the world is not an anthropological romanticisation, but through a radical anthropology an attempt to restore our faith in the world. While we have lost our mental ability to grieve, the earthling can teach us the importance of being able to grieve those things og animal creatures dying around us, honoring the old, that life is a circle, that eating is listening to where you take your food from og lets it grow, lives through a deep faith in the world og environment, not raw exploitation, but a faith which must also give the earth geological agency and legal protection. In a recent court decision in Ecuador, for example, the people have committed themselves to «building a new civil coexistence, in diversity and harmony with nature, creating the basis for the good way of life for sumak kawsay.» A belief in the world.

"We must be prepared to have to deal directly with the highly probable possibility that it is os, the people at the center, with our technologically 'advanced' society, populated by obese, media-remote controlled, psychopharmacological, stabilized automatons who are heavily dependent on a rampant energy consumption [...]which will soon have to give up and reduce our comfortable standard of living .» Because if we all had the same energy consumption as in the USA, it would require 5 Earths.

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Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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