Every human being pays attention to a careful and sustainable use of the earth’s natural resources and uses his reason and creativity to preserve them for future generations. This gives rise to an obligation for companies to avoid any extensive consumption of resources in order to comply with climate protection targets and to offset it either by cultivating renewable resources or by investing in alternative, non-fossil energy sources.
In northwestern Brazil on the border with Venezuela, a forest region the size of Portugal was designated as a protected area for the Yanomami people in 1992. There, child malnutrition has increased dramatically in recent years. 80% of the children have growth disorders and malaria is widespread throughout the population. The reason for the threat to the future of the approximately 31,000 Yanomami, who live scattered in 370 remote villages, is illegal mining for gold, which has increased massively since 2016 and has spread virtually unchecked in the Amazon as of 2018 under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. The cause of infant mortality and physical deformities among newborn Yanomami that are ten times higher than in the rest of the country is mercury, which is used by miners to separate gold from mud. Residues in the region’s rivers show 8600% higher than normal concentrations. As long as high world prices continue to fuel the gold rush, the Brazilian Ministry of Environment’s military patrols, which have been tracking down and closing illegal mines on a larger scale again since Lula da Silva was elected president in 2023, have a daunting task ahead of them.
No less dramatic than the situation of the indigenous populations in Brazil is the situation of the mine workers themselves. They mine the ore from which gold is extracted, very often under extreme inhumane conditions. The Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado already impressively documented this overexploitation in the 1980s. His photographs of the exploitation of people and nature are evidence of economic forms that generate millions of profits at the expense of the poorest. Salgado, as German director Wim Wenders points out in his 2019 laudation for him at the awarding of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, has used his camera to conduct a kind of basic research into the conditions of peace. In three monumental publications, he has addressed central aspects of human existence with iconographic photographs. In the volume “Labor”, he presents an archaeology of the industrial age, emphasizing the value and dignity of manual labor. The theme of flight and migration is the focus of the second volume, entitled “Exodus”, in which he documents, among other things, the fate of the Tuareg, who were forced to leave their home region in the Sahara as climate refugees. In the third volume, with the biblical title “Genesis”, Salgado presents a series of images that he photographed over the course of ten years on numerous research trips to the most remote corners of the earth. It is his visual tribute to the blue planet, to which Wenders aptly comments: “There can be no peace without respecting the beauty and sacredness of our Earth.” Lelia and Sebastiao Salgado have made their practical contribution to the regeneration of destroyed habitats with the Instituto Terra on their estate in Brazil. There, more than two million seedlings of various tree species have been planted since 1999. The Atlantic Forest Genetic Bank was founded to conserve rainforest plant species threatened with extinction. In the meantime, 172 bird species, 33 mammals, 15 amphibian species, 15 reptile species and 293 plant species have returned to the former wasteland and over 1000 dried up water sources have been restored with the help of the local rural population.
Awareness of the vulnerability of our planet, or Gaia as British naturalist James Lovelock called the Earth in reference to the Greek goddess, has only grown in the last decade due to visible climate change. Lovelock, together with Lynn Margulis, had already researched climate change and the damage to the ozone layer in the 1960s. Based on his research, it has now been clearly demonstrated that global warming is caused by the increase in greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, which is produced by the burning of fossil fuels. The 2023 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides comprehensive information on this. To mitigate climate change, resource consumption of coal, oil and gas must be massively reduced in the coming years. According to numerous scientists and climate activists, every ton of fossil energy consumed should be compensated by investments in renewable energies or renewable raw materials.
This principle was developed by Swiss architect and economic consultant Walter Stahel in his 1982 paper Product Life Factor and is now known as the circular economy. It involves industrial companies using strategies to reduce the total amount of waste products by using goods more effectively, reusing them or extending their useful life. The most visible expression of this idea is the EU’s “Right to Repair” directive, unveiled in March 2023, under which companies must in future guarantee the repair of products even beyond the general warranty obligation for up to five or even ten years, depending on the product type. However, the Circularity Gap Report of 2023 states that only 7.2% of material goods are recycled and the amount of goods produced and extracted has now increased to 100 billion tons — a doubling since 2000. The production of this huge amount of goods causes 70% of CO2 emissions. Depending on the region of the world and the level of economic development of the respective country, the Circularity Gap Report calculates that this amount could be reduced by a third without having to accept any restrictions on the quality of life. Every expansion of forms of sustainable economic activity reduces the amount of CO2 emitted and is therefore of decisive importance for the climate balance.
But how can we develop a planetary consciousness that promotes the protection of our livelihoods? The Canadian journalist, ecologist and environmental researcher David Suzuki already put forward some important ideas on this in 1997 in his well-received book “The Sacred Balance. Rediscovering our Place in Nature” and in his “Declaration of Interdependence” from 1992: “We humans are only one of 30 million species that weave the thin layer of life that encloses the earth. The conditions for the permanence of living communities is their diversity. Woven into this web we are interconnected — consuming, purifying, dividing and renewing the basic elements of life.” According to this, we humans, as creatures of this Earth, are highly interdependent and interwoven with other living beings and elements. We live together in what the French philosopher Bruno Latour called the “critical zone”, a thin and fragile Earth atmosphere whose continued existence depends on human and non-human actors working together to preserve it. We should remember, says German historian Philipp Blom, that “the life and survival of people and entire societies are radically dependent on natural processes, and that successful existence must be based on a carefully balanced give and take”. Maintaining a balance between the consumption and substitution of resources is thus one of the central challenges facing society, politics and the economy. But beyond that, it will depend on the way in which man’s relationship in and with nature can be redefined. As yet, homo sapiens does not seem to have the sensorium to understand the “language of nature”. Man does not yet have an answer to the question of how an all-round balanced relationship with the natural world can be established.
But how can the narrative of man’s omnipotence over nature, which has grown over thousands of years, be replaced by a new view? The answer may lie in our general attitude toward life. Without a plausible compass for the future of better coexistence on our planet, the mental energy necessary to bring about fundamental change cannot be mustered. The Turkish-French philosopher Robert Misrahi therefore argues for “desire” as an “overall movement of the subject toward life and joy” at the center of human existence. Desire is understood by him — as already by the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud — not as a partial, unconscious drive, but as a creative energy oriented toward a fulfilled existence. From this thought follows, for Misrahi, a fundamental “upheaval of our ordinary conception of existence”,namely, a turning away from the grounding of thought and action in misery; instead, joy is at the center of human endeavor: “Happiness, then, is the great active joy of living, the great continued presence of joy.” Misrahi uses for this the image of the garden that “each individual, as subject and as citizen, tries to create by means of the dynamics of his life, that is, of his desire” .And the garden, as a metaphor, basically refers to paradise, whose origin goes back to the Hebrew word pardes, from ancient Iranian, for “park” or “orchard”. Those who see life as a garden in which a balance between give and take and the enjoyment of what has been achieved are also mindful of the conservation of the Earth’s natural resources in their entirety.
This essay is written complementary to Thesis #7 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at https://48thesen.de/en/. This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-udo-g%C3%B6%C3%9Fwald-077a711a7/.