Above image from an investigative report by Rainforest Action Network that found wood fiber from forest destruction in Indonesia linked to the paper of some of America’s favorite children’s books.

Is humanity invested in destroying or reshaping our future?

Interview with Jeff Conant Part III of III

by Theo Constantinou, contributing writer

Theo Constantinou and Jeff Conant discuss how the concentration of wealth has contributed to forest destruction, what we can learn from the Zapatista movement and how education can shape our future. See part I here and part II here.

TC: In your article, International Day of Forests: a day to honor and support land defenders, you write…

“In the words of the Ecuadorian Kichwa community of Sarayaku, ‘The forest is neither simply a landscape for aesthetic appreciation nor a resource for exploitation. It is, rather, the most exalted expression of life itself.’”

What do you think is meant by this community and why has modern man with all of his technology and ‘wisdom’ willingly destroyed the most exalted expression of life itself?

JC: The aim of life is to reproduce itself, as vibrantly and prolifically as possible. For anyone who’s ever been in a climax forest, whether tropical or temperate, lowland or montane, whether in a wild setting or in a National Park, there is nothing that says “life” quite like that vast majesty of unquantifiable organisms and colors and chemical interactions and micro-climates and mysteries.

Why we’ve caused such destruction is too big a question to answer in a little interview. We need to eat to survive, and this necessarily leads to resource extraction. But all of the ways in which small-scale societies once constrained their impacts on the environment have been jettisoned by our civilization in the name of growth, comfort and convenience. And certainly, increasingly, the power and wealth has concentrated at the top in ways that are fundamentally destructive.

TC: In Arundhati Roy’s article, The Trickledown Revolution, she says,

“The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination — an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may really be the guides to our future. To do this, we have to ask our rulers: Can you leave the water in the rivers? The trees in the forest? Can you leave the bauxite in the mountain?”

Do you consider yourself a guide to our future?

JC: It would be way too arrogant to call myself a guide to our future — but I do feel called to live up to the best of what I’ve seen humanity offer of itself, and I do believe it is necessary to set an example, to create pathways beyond small-minded consumer capitalism, and to make space for other ways of being if we are to survive as a species.

Arundhati Roy is such an inspiration, and I agree absolutely — there needs to be physical places that are off-limits because we have no business there; there needs to be technological notions that are left on the drawing board because they are too dangerous; there needs to be people and cultures and communities that are not forced to serve the interests of power and money. This is why a lot of my own work and my efforts at Friends of the Earth are devoted to supporting indigenous and subsistence communities to maintain their rights to their lands and territories.

We now know, scientifically, that the best way to protect a stretch of forest, for example, is to protect the rights of local people to manage it, and to create conditions where they are not facing economic pressure to destroy what they otherwise depend on.

TC: Regarding revolution, how does the Zapatistas’ strategy work? And how can we continue to develop and refine their effective messages of participatory, bottom-up revolution?

JC: The Zapatista movement is a movement for indigenous self-determination and territorial sovereignty in southern Mexico. When they burst into public view now over 20 years ago, the Zapatistas drew a lot positive attention with savvy use of communications, very inspiring messages, and a set of strategies that combined tactical use of armed self defense with non-violent civil disobedience with a sort of inclusivity that many activists in my generation took to heart.

While the essence of their movement is built on cultural and territorial factors that can’t really be replicated — they are several distinct groups of Mayan indigenous farmers who have lived where they live since the beginning of time, and who banded together across ethnic lines to take back their land — they have brought some key lessons to movements everywhere: to not “take” power but to build power from the bottom up; to create horizontal organizing structures that respond to the needs of the most marginalized (they call this, “to lead by obeying,”), and to be inclusive and participatory in building what they call “a world in which many worlds fit.” A number of years ago I wrote an article called, What the Zapatistas Can teach Us About the Climate Crisis that I think does a pretty good job getting to some of the questions you’re asking.

Entrance of Zapatistas in Mexico City, 1917.

TC: How crucial a role does education play in warning and providing positive examples for future generations; that will undergo the major global climate crisis we may inevitably face?

JC: Education is crucial of course, but this means education that is critical of power structures, education that challenges the status quo of race and class, and education that uncovers areas of our common history that have been systematically buried or neglected. There’s such a need, always, for education that builds both critical faculties and adaptive skills — hands-on things most of us never learned in school like how to produce food as well as applied systems thinking like how to deconstruct the banking system, or how certain classes of European peoples came to be ‘white’ and have more wealth and power than everyone else.

One of my greatest teachers was the historian Howard Zinn, who wrote “A People’s History of the United States”. For one whole semester he had us volunteer for a local grassroots organization and keep a journal about it, and he’d interrogate us about the experience on a weekly basis. It was one of the most valuable classes I ever took, in part because it taught me the value of service.

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