Humans are not “the virus” of the planet, capitalism is.

“The threat of ecological collapse means that there is an urgent need for debate and, at least, a questioning of the appropriation of the sustainability discourse by capital, as well as the economic bias which ignores how the emphasis on growth furthers negative distributional and environmental impacts.” (1)

During this pandemic I believe that many people have read statements proclaiming that “humans are the virus of the Earth”, identifying the whole human species as the cause of the ecological catastrophe. This affirmation made me think about some topics that are widely discussed in the frame of Environmental Anthropology that should be circulated more in order to better address the causes of environmental degradation and theoretical inaccuracies in the frame of the mainstream environmental rhetoric. The complete discussion could not of course be included in a short article like this one, but I hope that I can introduce some core ideas in order to start a reflection that anyone can carry on by themselves.

It is clear that we as humans are inhabiting a planet that is in degradation. Environmental destruction, loss of biodiversity, pollution and so on are all triggering the climate change process prospecting a future full of new challenges. However, it’s crucial to affirm that not all humans are contributing to the destruction of the ecosystems in the same way. It’s sufficient to read some statistics about the CO2 emissions per country to understand how different those are in the nations of the economic global “North” and the “South”. This map gives a good visual idea of it. If we want to instead consider it not in geographical terms but in terms of income, it is clear that the minority of humanity, the richest people, are contributing in a very different way to global emissions than the rest of the population.

The affirmation that condemns the whole of humanity as responsible for climate change is not new, it’s based on the western Cartesian view of the world as composed by two different and separated entities: “nature” and “culture”, whereby suggesting that humans are something separated from the ecosystems and that their presence will inevitably harm the environment. At the core of Anthropological studies there’s the deconstruction of this belief, considering how it is a cultural construct, those two categories are not really independent spheres - we are as much a part of nature as other animals are. In other cultural contexts, humans are identified with natural elements and the latter could be considered as an integrated part of people’s community. (2)

What we have to understand is that there’s the existence of different cosmogonies that make sense of the world in ways that are radically different from our own scientific, rational and positivistic viewpoint, various ways of living and believing. Some ways of living- for example, the majority of indigenous communities - don’t have an impact on the natural world in the way that we have by living in a capitalist society. So not all humans are “the virus” for the planet, not every culture has a predatory attitude towards the natural elements. What I’d more identify as the danger for the planet is our western-rooted way of living based on the principle of a capitalistic economy. By condemning humanity as a whole as the responsible entity for environmental destruction we fail in recognizing the real cause of the contemporary critical environmental situation. We have to shift the attention to the understanding that resource depredation and world inequality are the product of the obsession with an hypothetical infinite economic growth of our economic system that is destroying ecosystems and making the rich richer and poor poorer. "Our addiction to economic growth is killing us" says Jason Hickel, anthropologist of development and author of the book The Divide.

Recognizing the economic, political and historic causes of the environmental problems, colonialism first, could give us a most complete view on the topic. If we want to really tackle environmental problems we can not fail in addressing those forces that are behind the result of a planetary ecologic crisis in order to not perpetrate the neo-Malhtusian rhetoric on overpopulation.

In this frame it’s important to understand the problematic aspects of the concept of sustainability, a word that is used like a mantra in the contemporary development discourse.

The concept of development per se is really problematic if we consider that it was born in the post war era with the intentions of helping the countries of the “South” to keep up with our idea of modernity and humanity. Having passed different failing phases during the modern era, the contemporary discourse around development is nowadays based on the idea of sustainability. We can see that it’s a central concept also in the contemporary mainstream environmentalism, a word whose meaning is very vague, unspecific and generally indicates something good and positive. It’s a term that we can easily understand but it could be difficult to give a precise description. What is sustainable? And also, sustainable for whom? Those are the questions that a lot of anthropologists ask when studying in the field of development projects. (3)

We find it also in the words of Ailton Krenak, an indigenous leader and intellectual in Brazil who explains how the sustainability discourse carried out in the name of development is just another way to impose the Eurocentric values on societies that are fundamentally different:

“The idea of us, the humans, being separated from the Earth, living an abstracted civilization, it’s absurd. It neglects diversity and the plurality of livelihoods of existence and habits. It offers the same menu, the same costume, and if possible, the same language for all the world.” (4)

Besides some recent surging attention for local ways of life and indigenous people, the development practices continue to prioritize the western point of view when approaching different cultural contexts, producing in the majority of cases and in the long term, more negative outcomes than positive ones for the inhabitants of the place. Maintaining very questionable matters of power and neocolonialism practices. It seems that sustainable development means the adoption of a set of practices that will allow the system to continue, to be “sustained” by the new practices with a new rhetoric.

If we take a closer look at the famous SDGs of the United Nations we could see how general and inconsistent those points are, how they are open to different interpretations and also are based on the fundamental western theory of development. What is worth reflecting on is what development means and on which grade the policies promoted under this name are in reality a modern manifestation of colonialism practices, with the beliefs that other countries have to “evolve” in order to meet the standards of the western capitalistic societies. All this without including any points on how the “North'' of the world, clearly both the beneficiary and the responsible for the problems related to the environment and global inequalities, should drastically change its behaviors.

We see the impact objective of “ending extreme poverty” but we have yet to see impact objectives that include “ending extreme wealth.” (5)

This is just an example of an infinite list of contradictions in the SDGs that at the same time promote “sustainable” growth and environmental protection, we could add the highly problematic reality of natural conservation practices and the many cases of violence on local indigenous people in the name of the protection of nature (here's an example in the African context), or the promotion of sustainable energy with incentives for electric cars without considering how the material for the batteries (lithium) are extracted in countries far from our view and without strict regulation on protecting the workers and the environment.

It seems like sustainability is a tool for the appropriation of environmental discourse from the same economic approach that produces the reality we are trying to contrast, a way for capitalism to be disguised as “green”. The approach of the SDGs agenda tackles only the symptoms of the world crisis but it doesn’t put into question the main cause of those critical situations. In the frame of this economic theory of infinite growth it is inevitable that it enters in contrast with natural resources that are definitely finite. Also the unquestionability of accumulation of wealth from the richer countries, the cause of the same global inequality the SDGs want to tackle, is a critical point. How can we solve the problem of the world if we don’t question and contrast the same reality that, through a violent history of colonialism, economic impositions and neocolonialism practices, continues to produce and be the cause of those critical situations?

The sustainability discourse was built in the theoretical frame of separation between humans and their ecosystem, the same at the base of capitalism with its logic of commodification of the natural elements. It produced the concept of “conscious consumerism”, shifting the attention from the civil responsibility and opportunity to participate in the decision making process, to the relief of environmental guilt based on the purchasing of “sustainable” goods. The greenwashing process is so complete, the corporations continue to function in the same frame as before but with everyone’s perception that they are doing it without harming the planet. There may be small scale improvements but that is not what is going to let us out of the critical scenario ahead of us. In conclusion, I believe that there’s a need for a more just, radical and intersectional environmentalism that doesn’t only stop on the superficial “green”, cool and Instagram driven sustainable consumerism that is so trendy right now, but takes into account the complexity of forces that act in within the wider framework.

Metella Senni



Foundation Taste Before You Waste - Plantage Doklaan 8, 1018 CM Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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