How we arrived at imminent planetary risks

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By LEONARDO BOFF*

We are not seen as citizens, but as customers and consumers

Nobody thinks that the world situation is good. What we see on digital/social media are scenes of war, innocent children being murdered by the fury of attacks against Hamas, illegitimately sacrificing an entire population of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the war between Russia and Ukraine that has lasted three years and eighteen other sites of violence and war crimes in Africa and elsewhere.

According to the famous NGO Oxfam, in 2024, if we consider the personal fortune of the 36 richest individuals in the world, it is equivalent to the income of more than half of humanity, specifically, the 4,7 billion people. In Brazil, the richest 3.390 people (0.0016%) hold 16% of all the country's wealth, more than 182 million Brazilians (85% of the population).

 The same source tells us that every five seconds, a child under 10 dies from hunger or its more immediate consequences. Who is not moved, in their minimal humanity, by such dramatic scenes, true human tragedies? It seems that we have touched the limits of the end times. These are scenes that could be in the book of Revelation.

To understand the current crisis, we must go back to the 17th/18th century with the advent of the paradigm of modernity. The founding fathers, Francis Bacon and, especially, René Descartes and others broke with a long tradition of humanity. This understood nature, the Earth and the cosmos itself as something alive and charged with purpose.

Here comes Descartes and introduces a fundamental dualism with serious historical consequences. He distinguished the res cogitans, the thinking and spirit-bearing being, of res extensive, extensive and material thing, other beings. The only bearer of the spirit, res cogitans, is the human being. A res extensive, the other beings act mechanically and without a manifest meaning. With this he introduced, on the one hand, a severe anthropocentrism and, on the other, a crass materialism. The Earth and nature only have any meaning to the extent that they are ordered by human beings who treat them as they please. This materialist conception of the non-human world opened space for all types of use and abuse and scientific investigation itself, without any ethical concern for the consequences that could arise from this.

Hence all modern sciences and their practical application in a technical operation were born. Technoscience was the great instrument at the service of the only carriers of the spirit, human beings – separated in nature and “owners and masters” of it (Descartes), later transformed into colonizers, slavers and systematic devastators of nature. Science was not put at the service of life, but at the domination of others and nature.

Since initial dualism, other dualisms have emerged: spirit and matter, culture and nature, civilized and savage, idealism and materialism that tear apart the human experience. A vision of totality has been lost.

With these assumptions, the architecture of atomized knowledge was designed, without any relationship with other knowledge, to the point that we know more and more about less and less.

Undoubtedly, this paradigm of modernity brought great advantages to all areas of human life, making it less painful, refining the means of healing, creating instruments of locomotion, the great avenues of digital communication and took us to outer space, to the Moon and Mars and to the furthest reaches of the universe, outside the solar system.

This paradigm focuses on the realm of means without rarely (or never collectively) defining the fins which the means must serve. Capitalism understood the issue well and defined a end: unlimited growth through the individual accumulation of wealth, in the logic of the greatest possible competition, exploiting nature's resources as much as possible on the false assumption that the Earth also has unlimited resources.

From 1972 onwards, with the document The limits of growth, collective consciousness awakened to the fact of the Earth's limits and its inability to support an unlimited project. The large production system never gave much importance to this fact. The decisive thing is to guarantee gains and wealth.

Entrepreneurs and large economic and financial conglomerates are placing their trust in the omnipotence of technoscience, which would be capable of providing a solution to all problems. This was and continues to be his great illusion. Its globally integrated economic-financial system is so well-oiled that it lacks the conditions and desire to stop. To stop would be to abandon its purpose, unlimited accumulation, to change from a relationship of exploitation to a friendly relationship with nature, that is, it would imply denying oneself. It is now becoming clear that the world system is in agony, given the changing face of the Earth.

Faced with the voracity of the global system of exploitation/devastation of nature, the living Earth reacted in several ways: with extreme events, with the release of viruses, some mysterious, the X virus, ten times more lethal than the Coronavirus, covering the entire planet . It made the boundaries between nations obsolete and dangerously affected all of humanity.

Lately climate change seems to have reached an irreversible point. The Earth has changed due to the irresponsible practices (anthropocene) of those who make political decisions, control the global course of capital and finance and persist in the devastation of nature. It would be unfair to simply attribute this climate change to the activity of large impoverished majorities who, compared to those mentioned, contribute little. We are witnessing the deleterious effects of these changes worldwide: extreme events. Science and technology will no longer be able to reverse this mutation, only to warn of the arrival of threatening events (floods, windstorms, tsunamis, prolonged droughts and terrifying blizzards) and mitigate their harmful effects.

Now we can answer: why did we get to where we are? Because three centuries ago, the dominant countries, located in the Global North, decided to inhabit the only Common Home we have in this dangerous and devastating way. They imposed their way of living, producing, competing and consuming on everyone. We are not seen as citizens, but as customers and consumers.

Now we have reached the moment where, due to the accumulation of planetary crises and our ability to self-destruct with atomic weapons, we have reached a point where return becomes practically impossible. Following the path opened centuries ago, we are on the way to our own grave.

I agree with old Martin Heidegger: “Only a God can save us”.

*Leonardo Boff He is a theologian, philosopher and writer. Author, among other books, of Ecology: cry of the earth, cry of the poor (Voices). [https://amzn.to/4bzkzfQ]


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