Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 8, No. 8, August 2012
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Three Articles on
Human Nature & Ecological Justice

Reprinted with permission from Iglesia Descalza

This page contains three recent articles by Brazilian scholar-activist Leonardo Boff:

  • From the Illusory Selfish Gene to the Cooperative Nature of the Human Genome, 9 March 2012
  • Terms of the Current Ecological Debate, 29 June 2012
  • Conceptual Shortcomings of Rio+20, 6 July 2012
  • At a time when many are seeking the root cause of the current political paralysis in matters of sustainable development, these articles propose an answer: the need for Homo economicus to become Homo ecologicus. In other words, the culture whereby human decisions are made on the basis of economic gain alone must give way to a culture in which decisions and actions attempt to balance economics and ecology. This cultural transition could be attained voluntarily, for the sake of solidarity with the entire community of creation; else, barring some miraculous breakthrough that is hard to imagine at the moment, will have to be attained involuntarily as environmental constraints start hitting people in the pocketbook.

    From the Illusory Selfish Gene to the
    Cooperative Nature of the Human Genome

    Leonardo Boff, Iglesia Descalza, 9 March 2012

    Times of systemic crisis such as those we are living in favor a review of concepts and the will to project other possible worlds that will make what Paulo Freire called the "untested feasibility" a reality.

    It is known that the prevailing capitalist system in the world is consumerist, viscerally selfish and predatory of nature. It is carrying all humankind to an impasse as it has created a double injustice: ecological, because of having devastated nature, and social, because of having generated immense social inequality. To put it simply, though not so much, we might say that humanity is divided between the minority who eat their fill and the majority who are poorly fed. If at this point we wanted to universalize the type of consumption in rich countries to all humankind, we would need at least three Earths equal to the present one.

    This system claims to find its scientific basis in the research of British zoologist Richard Dawkins who, thirty-six years ago, wrote his famous The Selfish Gene (1976). The new genetic biology has shown that that selfish gene is illusory, because genes do not exist in isolation; they constitute a system of interdependencies forming the human genome, which obeys three basic principles of biology: cooperation, communication and creativity. It is, therefore, the opposite of the selfish gene. This is what has been demonstrated by notable names in new biology such as Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, J. Bauer, C. Woese and others. Bauer reported that Dawkins' selfish gene theory "isn't based on any empirical data." And worse, "it served as biopsychological justification to legitimize the [individualistic and imperial] Anglo-American economic order." (Das kooperative Gen, 2008, p.153)

    It follows that if we want to achieve a just and sustainable way of life for all people, those who consume much should drastically reduce their consumption levels. This will not be achieved without strong cooperation, solidarity and clear self-restraint.

    Let's dwell on the latter, self-restraint, since it is one of the most difficult things to achieve due to the dominance of consumerism, spread across all social classes. Self-restraint implies necessary renunciation to respect Mother Earth, to protect the collective interests, and to promote a culture of voluntary simplicity. It is not about not eating, but eating in a sober, supportive and responsible way with our neighbors, with the whole community of life and future generations who must also consume.

    Limitation is also an ecological and cosmological principle. The universe evolves from two forces that are always self-limiting: the forces of expansion and contraction. Without this internal boundary, creativity would cease and we would be crushed by contraction. In nature, the same principle operates. Bacteria, for example, if they are not limited among themselves or if one of them loses the limits, would very soon occupy the entire planet, unbalancing the biosphere. Ecosystems ensure their sustainability by limiting beings among them, allowing all to be able to coexist.

    Well, to overcome the current crisis we need above all to strengthen the cooperation of all with all, communication between all cultures, and great creativity to design a new paradigm of civilization. We have to give a final farewell to the individualism that overstated the "self" to the detriment of "us", that includes not only human beings but the entire community of life, Earth and the universe itself.

    Terms of the Current Ecological Debate

    Leonardo Boff, Iglesia Descalza, 29 June 2012

    Rio +20 has provoked widespread debate on environmental issues. Since not everyone understands the technical terms of the issue, we are publishing here an article by the best known environmentalist of the State of Rio, Arthur Soffiati, from Campos de Goytacazes, RJ, founder of the Centro Norte Fluminense para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, published on May 14, 2012 in Folha da Manhã in that city. These are the key words: Sustainable eco-development, green economy, ecological footprint, Anthropocene.

    About 11,000 years ago, the Earth's temperature began to rise naturally, causing the progressive melting of the last ice age. Much of the water, going from solid to liquid, raised the sea levels, separated the lands of the continents, formed islands, encouraged the formation of forests and other environments. The scientists gave this new phase the name Holocene.

    In the last 11,000 years, of the Hominids, only Homo sapiens remains, who became king over all the planet. With a well-developed brain, he was challenged by the new climatic conditions and domesticated plants and animals, invented farming, created technology to polish stone, invented the wheel, weaving and metallurgy. Then he created cities, empires, dams, drainage systems and irrigation. Several civilizations went beyond the limits of the ecosystems in which they arose, generating environmental crises that contributed to their end.

    So the concept of the ecological footprint comes in. It refers to the degree of ecological impact produced by an individual, activity, economy, society. The ecological footprint of civilizations prior to Western civilization was always regional in nature, being reversible sometimes and other times, not. Western civilization is the one that has trod the heaviest so far. The weight started with capitalism, which changed the world.

    Since the 15th century, Western civilization (read European) made deep marks with maritime expansion. It imposed its culture on other parts of the world. The world was westernized and also went on to tread heavily on the environment.

    Then came another major transformation with the industrial revolution, which originated in England in the 18th century and spread throughout the world, dividing it into industrialized countries and countries that exported raw materials. From it, another global situation began to be created, with emissions of warming gases, devastation of forests, loss of biodiversity, land abuse, strong urbanization, major alterations in the cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, pollution of fresh water, thinning of the ozone layer, and excessive extraction of nonrenewable natural resources, which, in turn, produce unprecedented amounts of garbage.

    Scientists are proving that during the Holocene (holos = whole + koinos = new) era, collective human action in capitalism and socialism has caused an environmental crisis unprecedented in the history of the Earth because it has been generated by a single species. They have named the post-industrial revolution period of the 18th century, Anthropocene, or, a geological phase created by the collective action of man (anthropos = man + koinos = new).

    Because of this great crisis and this new era, the United Nations has been promoting major international conferences such as the Stockholm Conference (1972), Rio-92 and now, Rio+20. The aim is to solve the problems of the Anthropocene era, be it reconciling economic development and environmental protection, be it looking for other forms of development. Rio-92 adopted the formula of sustainable development, which has acquired different meanings, even ones that are antagonistic to the original one.

    Rio+20 aims to put the environmental, social and economic dimensions on an equal footing. The magic word, now, is green economy, the substance of which isn't unclear. It's assumed that, at least, it means the gradual replacement of carbon-intensive energy sources with renewable energy, and the replacement of nonrenewable resources with renewable ones.

    Rio+20 showed that the industrialized countries don't want to abdicate their position, the emerging countries want to reach the industrialized ones, and the poor countries want to be emerging. As long as there is no understanding about the limits of the planet, it is useless to think of social justice and economic development. Consequently, the environment is more important than social and economic issues, because without it one can't find a solution to the other two. On the other hand, the concept of eco-development seems to be the most correct as a tactic and strategy.

    Conceptual Shortcomings of Rio+20

    Leonardo Boff, Iglesia Descalza, 6 July 2012

    To say that Rio+20 was a success does not correspond to reality, since there was no binding measure, nor were funds provided for the eradication of poverty and mechanisms to control global warming. No decisions were made to accomplish the purpose of the Conference which was to create conditions for the "future we want." Not admitting failure is part of the logic of governments, but that doesn't make it any less so. Given the general degradation of all ecosystem services, not advancing means going backwards.

    The bottom line: if the crisis is in growth, then the solution is obtained with still more growth. This specifically means more use of the goods and services of nature, which accelerates its depletion, and more pressure on ecosystems, already at their limits. Data from the UN agencies themselves report that since Rio 92 there has been a 12% loss of biodiversity, 3 million square meters of woods and forests have been felled, 40% more greenhouse gases have been emitted and about half of global fish stocks have been exhausted.

    What is surprising is that neither the final document nor the draft show any sense of self-criticism. They don't ask why we have reached the current situation, nor do they perceive clearly the systemic nature of the crisis. Herein lie the theoretical weakness and conceptual shortcomings of this, and of other official UN documents in general. Let's enumerate some critical points.

    The decisionmakers keep going within the old cultural and social "software" that puts the human being in an Adamic position over nature as its dominator and exploiter, a basic reason for the current ecological crisis. They don't see the human being as part of nature and responsible for the common destiny. They haven't incorporated the view of the new cosmology that sees the Earth as alive and human beings as the conscious and intelligent portion of Earth itself, with a mission to care for it and ensure sustainability. The Earth is seen only as a repository of resources, without intelligence or purpose.

    They welcomed the "great transformation" (Polanyi) when they overrode ethics, marginalized politics and established the economy as the sole structuring axis of society. We have gone from a market economy to a market society, separating the real economy from the speculative financial economy, the latter running the former.

    They have confused development with growth, the former as the set of values and conditions that allow the fulfillment of human existence, and the latter as the mere production of goods to be sold on the market and consumed. They see sustainability as a way to ensure the continuity and reproduction of the same, of the institutions, companies and other bodies, without changing their internal logic and without questioning the impacts they are having on all ecosystem services. They are hostages of an anthropocentric conception according to which all other beings are only meaningful insofar as they are ordered to man, disregarding the community of life that is also created, as we are, by Mother Earth. They maintain a utilitarian relationship with all beings, denying them intrinsic value and therefore their quality as subjects of respect and rights, especially the planet Earth.

    By looking at everything through the lens of economics that is governed by competition rather than cooperation, they have abolished ethics and the spiritual dimension in reflecting about the lifestyle, production and consumption of societies. Without ethics and spirituality, we became barbaric, insensitive to the passion of the millions and millions of hungry and poor. This is why a radical individualism reigns. Each country seeks its individual good over the global common good which, at the UN conferences, prevents consensus and convergence in diversity. And so, happy and alienated, we are heading towards an abyss, dug by our lack of sensible reason, wisdom and transcendental sense of existence.

    With these conceptual shortcomings, we will never get out of the crises that plague us. This was the cry of the Peoples' Summit that presented alternatives of hope. In the worst case scenario, the Earth will be able to continue, but without us. May God forbid that, since He is "the sovereign lover of life", as the Judeo-Christian Scriptures state.

    Leonardo Boff is former Professor of Systematic and Ecumenical Theology, Franciscan Theological Institute, Petrópolis, Brazil and former Professor of Ethics, Philosophy of Religion and Ecology, State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He is a renowned liberation theologian and author of more than sixty books in theology, spirituality, philosophy, anthropology, and mysticism. His weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. For translations to English, see Iglesia Descalza. He presently lives in Jardim Araras, an ecological wilderness area on the municipality of Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro, and continues to work as a liberation theologian, writer, professor, conference speaker in Brazil and other countries, as well as an adviser of social movements such as the Landless Movement and the Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs). For more information visit the Leonardo Boff web site.

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