Fotograf Magazine

Philippe Descola interviewed by Mariana Serranová

As an anthropologist and thinker you have often been quoted in texts dealing with exploitation by the Western world and its disastrous attitude and how it contrasts with the outlook of indigenous peoples across the world. These thoughts are related to the discourse dealing with the impact of the Anthropocene on our environment. You have often pointed out that the natural point of view sees the human and nonhuman world as inseparable, that the environment is not regarded objectively as an autonomous sphere. “Plants and animals, rivers and rocks, meteors and the seasons do not exist all together in an ontological niche defined by the absence of human beings.” Do you think we can change our stereotypical way of thinking and acting in relationship to nature, so that we do not see ourselves as destructive agents?

On the contrary, I think it is necessary that we see ourselves as destructive agents, that we become acutely conscious that our form of life is the cause, not only of the destructions of tens of thousands of species and of the ecosystems where they live, but also of the profound alteration of the earth system resulting from global warming and its dire consequences on all forms of life, including ours. It is only when people will be convinced of the deeply disruptive effects of our mode of dealing with non human beings and processes that we can begin to change our ways. And I see very few signs of this in the public opinions of the industrialized countries. But when I say ‘we’, it should be clear that this ‘we’ is not inclusive of all humankind. Although the Amazonian Indians or the Australian Aborigines have transformed their ecosystems over the millennia in very subtle ways which anthropologists like myself are studying, they are not responsible for the increase of one third of the atmospheric concentration of CO², of the acidification of the oceans, of the sixth mass extinction of species, or of the melting of the glaciers and ice caps. The principal cause for our entering this new geological era that some propose to call the Anthropocene is the development in the last centuries, in Europe to begin with, and then in other parts of the planet, of a new mode of composing worlds which one may also choose to call, according to the aspect of the system that one wishes to emphasize: industrial capitalism, thermodynamic revolution, technocene or modernity. I prefer to call it naturalism. Among other striking features, this system is based, for the first time in the history of humankind, on the assumption of a difference of nature, and not anymore of degree, between humans and nonhumans. The result is the emergence of a concept of nature as an autonomous domain towards which humans have adopted a towering position, producing what I have called a naturalist ontology, the premises of which predate and rendered possible the exponential development of sciences and techniques from the 17th century onward.

Our issue Cultura / Natura deals with the tools and strategies artists and Western communities are developing nowadays to counterbalance inconsiderate overproduction, waste, the politics of food, and globalized agriculture. It is obvious that there are tendencies in society that are trying to deal with the distribution of labour and overcome the established ways of commercial practices. Do you think the Western world can learn from the division of work typical for primitive tribes?

I don’t think that historical experiences are directly transposable. In that sense, the forms of life sustenance that I have observed and described in Amazonia correspond to small-scale, self-sufficient, frugal societies whose needs and ambitions are very different from those to which citizens of the industrialized world have grown used to. I watch with interest in Europe the drive towards local production of food and energy, short-distance commercial circuits, non-monetary systems of exchange of labor and goods, all forms of self-reliance which are developing in the margins of the capitalist world. However, a great difference with non modern societies is that all these Western alternatives are still grounded into a concept of appropriation which, starting with the movement of the ‘enclosures’ in England at the end of the Middle Ages, has led Europe first, and large parts of the earth subsequently, to transform into alienable goods an ever-increasing part of our means of life: land, forests, waters, subsoil, genetic resources, etc. This idea that values indispensable to life may become appropriated and become negotiable goods had long been inconceivable in non mercantile economies, and it was still the case in Amazonia when I started doing anthropological fieldwork there in the 1970s. In that sense, it is urgent that we give to the notion of commons its initial sense, not that of a resource that would be open to all, but of a shared milieu of which everyone is accountable for.

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#28 cultura / natura