Transformed worlds

This is the first of two texts, written in October 2016, resulting from my period as a resident researcher in Nantes, invited by PiNG Association. There is a french version here. It will be followed by another piece titled “Knowledge, Skill and Labor”, available here.
Nantes, France

Before going to Nantes for my research residency, I used the Internet to learn about the city. I read about a place once industrial, now a recognized green capital. It is home for many initiatives related to sustainable living. Nantes has a large student population and a decent system of public transport. It is becoming a creative hotspot, with innovative projects popping up. I arrived there, then, looking for clues of inspiring futures that I could bring home once I came back to Brazil. But I ended up staring at the past. And that has to do with present-day Ubatuba, the place I live in.


Allow me a moment of digression, to tell more about my city. It is a gorgeous place by the coast, about halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It too is often called green, but in a different meaning than post-industrial Nantes. Almost 90 percent of Ubatuba’s territory is Mata Atlântica. Please pay attention to that percentage. It doesn’t mean anything in particular, but that average proportion will show up again as this text goes on.

The brazilian Atlantic Forest — Mata Atlântica — is one of the ecosystems with the biggest biodiversity in the world. It used to cover all the eastern part of Brazil, from the Atlantic coast to some hundreds of kilometers inland. In the last five hundred years, though, it has been chopped down almost entirely. Recent estimates claim that the remaining Mata Atlântica in Brazil covers only seven percent of its original territory. The history is similar to other places in the world. Places that were, as is said, “found” or “discovered” during the age of navigations, from the dawn of the middle ages on. The narratives written by male historians, usually paid for by colonial powers in Europe, tell a tale of how civilization arrived to a new world, and shed light upon it. It was the light of god, they claimed. It was in fact the light of gold that drove them forward. In the new world, of course, they found huge volumes of natural resources, as if by chance. And then did what humans do best: rip the earth employing a lot of people to make a few get rich(er).

In the beginning, of course, a good part of the labor responsible for extracting those resources was slave workforce brought in from Africa. I confess I was a little surprised and uncomfortable to learn that a great part of the historical sites of Nantes, now that greenish and diverse contemporary city, were built with richness coming from the slave trade during those times. In present day Ubatuba, by the way, there are five locations officially recognized as Quilombos — former settlements of runaway slaves or their descendants. Quilombos are indeed an important part of ongoing struggle for land use within the preserved areas of Mata Atlântica[1]. And this does not belong to the past. Particularly in our region there is, right at this moment, feirce conflict about the regulation of land use: will the legislation now in the making allow the building of huge tourist resorts? Mining enterprises? What other brilliant ideas will the so-called progress tempt our society and communities with?

Of course, colonial powers and slave trade were not the sole responsible for destroying more than 90 percent of the national coverage of Mata Atlântica in Brazil. Yes, you see, here is the 90 percent again. Anyway, as soon as Brazil was declared “independent” from Portugal, our local elites had the opportunity to start ripping the land for their own profit, and they indeed seized it. In fact they are still doing it today, full rage on. Not using slave trade anymore (although there still are sad exceptions), but to a great extent making use of precarious labor nonetheless. Indeed we have had — at certain moments during the last hundred or so years — a small, centralized and reactive industrialization built upon those elements: abundance of natural resources and low wages. Nonetheless, even today Brazil is an economy based on extractive industries and agricultural businesses. And we keep chopping forests down and exploiting the heck out of consumers and workers. Call it externalities, if you will.

And, I’m sorry to extend on the pessimistic take, but when talking about externalities, there is another important fact to mention. As well as destroying most of our natural environments, the last few centuries have also caused a real genocide of native peoples. Current research estimates the population of native Brazilians in about 2.5 million people in the 16th century. By the 1980s, the number of Brazilians who considered themselves natives were about 150 thousand. Only to make the argument easier, I will make it even to that same proportion once again. The population of native Brazilians has shrunk by more than 90 percent in five centuries. The global population, on the other hand, has grown tenfold or more during the same period.

We have then a meaningful portrait: almost 90 percent of the territory in Ubatuba is composed of Mata Atlântica. On the other hand, more than 90 percent of the Mata Atlântica coverage has disappeared from the Brazilian territory since the 1500s. Add to that a shrink of more than 90 percent of native population until the 1980[2].

Call it anthropocene, thanatocene, chtulhucene, whatever. Bottom line is: the natural and social realities of Brazil, and by equivalence of the whole Latin America and wide parts of Africa, have been heavily reshaped by modern times. The same is obviously true for Europe, Asia and the North America, but I believe those images are already common sense.

A large part of the transformation of recent centuries in underdeveloped nations is accounted for (or not accounted at all) as externalities during the making of modernity. European modernity, that is. It is fairly easy to see that international trade and industrial capitalism have relied for long on such sources of raw materials and trade. Let me say it again to stress the point: the industrial revolution didn’t happen only because of the fabulous machines of James Watt and other, equally bright, men (as we are taught at history classes in Brazilian schools, too). Indeed, if it wasn’t for the loads of raw materials coming in from the colonies, extracted by strong hands poorly paid (if ever so), there would be no industrial revolution at all. The same goes, more recently, to the other end of industrial production. Not only does the extraction of raw materials hurt the planet and kill people, but its discard often has a big impact as well.

To illustrate it, I will resort to an extreme example, that of electronics. My own involvement with most of these themes comes from having been an articulator of MetaReciclagem, a distributed network in Brazil that received donated computers, made them usable again with free and open source software, and then passed them on to organizations that needed such equipment. At some point, the network amounted to a couple hundred people working in about a dozen labs in different parts of the country. Only then did we begin to learn where those things came from and where they would end up later on. And the portrait was ugly.

A sad shot from “E-wasteland

When teaching about this subject, I often use documentary videos easily found on the Internet. Just to mention a few: “In Focus — Congo’s Bloody Coltan”, “DIGITAL HANDCRAFT China’s global factory for computers”, and “E WASTELAND”. These three videos portray the extraction of Coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the processes involved in making and discarding electronic equipment, especially in China; and what happens in a landfill of the same sort of equipment in Ghana. The videos are clear in demonstrating the extreme conditions faced by people involved in the fabrication and some degree of recycling of the devices we use every day. Particular attention can be paid to two aspects on these videos:

  • We see bits of the planet’s surface being extracted, manipulated, used and, in the end, dumped in the wild. That scenario fits the schemes often used to criticize industrial production. In general, that is what some would call “linear production”. It is indeed a waste of natural resources, no doubt about it. But framing it on those terms — discrete objects that move from one side to the other of the production cycle — is only really useful from an industrial perspective. It can fuel attempts to reduce the impact of the production processes over the planet, but won’t challenge their assumptions in a deeper way.
  • It is not only nature that pays a price, though. The people working in these contexts are far different from the common image associated to industrial workers. And yet they play an essential role in contemporary industrial production, extracting and manipulating resources that hold high market value. These are poorly equipped, untrained, often undisciplined, manual workers. Most of them are not unionized — I bet many don’t even know what that means. Comparing to what is commonly expected of the life of industrial workers, they certainly don’t live in comfortable homes or get their shiny new car of the year to go shopping around during their free time. These types of people are seldom seen on diagrams proposing alternatives to linear production. It is clear that those who propose a so-called circular economy do not want people in such conditions to show up on their diagrams. But where should they be instead? What are the alternatives to exploitation, famine and war?

I am not talking about coal miners in the 19th century. These images are contemporary. They are still happening. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. And they are one of the many side effects of modernity and industrial capitalism. One usually made invisible. But still there.

Nobody can deny that there are a number of positive outcomes of modernity. Scientific method, the French revolution, the democratic state, affordable transport and communications, advanced medicine, rights of women and minorities. The list goes on and on. But let’s not forget the heavy and wide side effects of modern times. Eduardo Galeano tells the story of the Potosí mountain in Bolivia, once the biggest source of silver in South America. Most, if not all, of this silver ended up somewhere in Europe. Bolivia became one of the poorest countries in the continent. The same is seen in many parts of Brazil. The richest areas in terms of natural resources become the least developed.

This was a not so comprehensive, but I believe clear enough sight into a sort of “end of the world” perspective. To summarize it: progress and development often have side effects that must be taken into account if we are seeking better futures for all, and not only some, of us. The planet has suffered a lot already, and so has a big part of the people who inhabit it.

Putting it another way: it is time people stop trying to promote a new industrial revolution. Please. The ones we’ve been through have brought about implications we have not been able to solve yet. If we are bound to transform the world, let’s make it sure it doesn’t move backwards.

My next text brings some suggestions about it. Don’t despair. Stay tuned.

1 More often than not, those areas occupied by communities with direct contact with the land (as are in Ubatuba the quilombola, native brazilian and caiçara communities) are way more preserved than others.

2 Since the 1988 constitution, those numbers have changed a little. We have now almost 900,000 people who call themselves natives in Brazil. But our total population is about 200 million, so the proportion is still unbalanced. And the number of native brazilians who were captured, murdered, committed suicide or simply renegated their cultural identity over the course of centuries and generations is arguably immense.