She is Aluna

“In the beginning there was darkness, there was nothing at all, only the mother; she was Aluna”. The documentary film Aluna starts with this quote from Kogi cosmology. Aluna is the cosmic consciousness that pervades everything, rocks, plants, animals, people. Through her, the Kogi believe they can commune with the world.

The ancestors of the Kogi, the Tayrona, built urban centres in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta coastal mountain region in present-day Colombia. Archaeology has revealed roads, stairways, terraces, and networks of storm drains. Their world was turned upside down by the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century. A century later the Tayrona were forced to abandon their towns, losing most of their ancestral lands. They retreated higher up in the Sierra, keeping their knowledge, traditions and language.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rising sharply from the sea to 6000m above the Caribbean coast has a full range of biomes, from mangroves and rainforests to snow-capped mountains. It was declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1979. More recently the region has acquired the dubious distinction of being top of the list of sites with the most endangered species on Earth. Conversely, this proves that it is not humans in themselves who are wildlife annihilating but their attitude to nature since traces of human presence dating back thousands of years have been found in the region.

By the late 1980s, the Kogi who practice a self-sufficient way of life were alarmed by the changes they saw in local ecosystems, which they attributed to changes in the world beyond. British documentary film maker Alan Ereira happened to be in the region preparing a documentary on Tayrona sites for the BBC. The Kogi seized this opportunity to ask for help to diffuse their ecological warning to the world. The result was the film From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brother’s Warning.

The “elder brother” is the Kogi, the younger brother is everyone who has accepted by choice or by default the narrative that economic growth is society’s ultimate purpose and that the planet is essentially an inert base, a source of commodities and a waste dump for human activities.

In contrast, the Kogi believe that it is their duty to take care of the biosphere and to maintain its balance, which compares with monotheistic religions’ concept of human stewardship of Earth. This can be understood as acknowledging the dangerous potential of human thought, while subtly enticing it to behave well toward the rest of creation, instead of running it backwards as we moderns are.

As a day-to-day precaution, Kogi men carry around with them a stick they rub against a cylindrical object. Besides the fertility symbolism, it is meant to keep in check the destructive aspect of human nature, in particular in the male, suggesting too that the Kogi do not believe in the myth of the “noble savage” that attributes innate goodness to the human living in nature.

In the 20 years since the film From the Heart of the World, things continued to deteriorate, so the Kogi appealed again: “We have not spoken clearly. We need Alan to make a new film”. This film, Aluna, came out in 2013.

Alan Ereira says the core message of the Kogi in Aluna is that there is a network of connections in the natural world and interfering with one part impacts on the others. This perception corresponds to the science of ecology which is by definition “the study of the environment and the way that plants, animals, and humans live together and affect each other”. Industrial civilization is interested in interconnections too, but narrowed to economic exchanges. The contrast between these two types of connectedness is vividly illustrated in scenes from Aluna. We see a Caribbean port facility loading coal on a tanker for distant markets and further along the coast a dead mangrove.

Through the film Aluna, the Kogi share their experience in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta about how to take care of the planet. To be taken seriously they ask academic scientists to interpret their form of knowledge to the outside world.

For instance, the Kogi say that the draining of lagoonsthis has been done to build industrial infrastructuresis diminishing the replenishment of rivers high up at their sources. A specialist in ecosystem restoration agrees with the Kogi and says that in Spain coastal rivers that had been canalized were being restored to improve water flow at the top of mountains.

A doctor who worked for 35 years with the Kogi in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta describes the astonishing restoration of the Guachaca River Basin by the Kogi. It had been deforested, turned into mono-cropped plantations and cattle ranches; the river had dried up. Twenty years ago it was returned to the Kogi. Today the forests are back with many wild animals and the rivers are full again. The doctor says that only the Kogi with their special knowledge could do this.

The Kogi are also versed in astronomy. Their notions about the Universe are similar to those of mainstream science: it is very large and, like the current dark energy dark matter theory, a lot of it is dark and cannot be seen.

Whereas in our world cost-benefit analysis is central to every decision, Aluna does not broach the financial aspect of taking care of the biosphere. Without a broader conception of reality such as the Kogi have, nature stewardship comes to be viewed as a side-issue for a handful of nature lovers and experts most of them in rich countries and a loss of income for poorer countries, requiring assistance and a payoff. One approach which combines the two is to request from the wild that it should pay for its right to continued existence via nature tourism or ecosystem services.

Nature conservation has been practiced by the Kogi, other indigenous peoples and our own distant ancestors without spending a penny because their relationship to nature was viewed in its reciprocity, the land and the wildlife sustaining the people and the people sustaining the land and the wildlife. Given the present circumstances, the Kogi endorse the idea of giving an international legal basis for our care for Earth by criminalizing ecocide, the killing of an ecosystem.

Through Aluna, the Kogi do not seek to impose their way of life or beliefs to the rest of the world, but they advise us to listen carefully and to think. Will the Kogi elder brother manage to convince younger brother to amend his ways?

The German sociologist Wolfgang Sachs has said that politics should no more be divided between “right” and “left” but between those who accept economic limits and those who do not. Will the pro-limits younger brother succeed in convincing the no limits younger brother to plan for de-growth so as to leave options open for the future?

The film Aluna reminds us that the good life is possible without the trappings of consumerism and with score zero on the UNDP Human Development Index, which measures “knowledge” as years of schooling and a “decent standard of living” as income.

It is good to be reminded of this since the future lies in some form of self-sufficient lifestyle, in other words relocalization, where we obtain the greater part of our food, water, medicines and other needs close to where we live and deal with waste locally. This system has a guaranteed sustainability since people have survived in this way since humanity began one million years ago, whereas industrial civilization as a global project has existed for just 70 years and is already putting severe strain on our biosphere in its Holocene phase.

What grand finale will younger brother choose for industrial civilization? Will he actively move to an eco-centric de-growth civilization such as has been worked out by a school of economists and sociologists? The obstacles to this are people’s expectation of ever-increasing affluence, the economic interests of the powers that be, disentangling the globalized economy and the geopolitical risks those countries that would adopt de-growth first would face.

Or will younger brother passively stick to his business as usual routine, leaving it to Earth to reorganize human life and planetary systems in a more swashbuckling à la collapse-science-fiction way as she evolves to a new biogeochemical equilibrium to us unknown?

Ereira says that the Kogi see a possibility of hope if we listen.


Alexander, Samuel , 2016, [The obstacles to this…would face.]

Aluna: the movie website,

Aluna: There is No Life without Thought, Dir. Alan Ereira, BBC, documentary film, 2012

Gentil Cruz: Passeur de mémoires, Dir. Philippe Bruolois, Association Tchendukua, documentary film, 2012.

Kallis, Giorgos, Ecological Economics, 70, p. 873–880, “In Defence of Degrowth”, 2011.

La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City): From the Heart of the World: the Elder Brother’s Warning, Dir. Alan Ereira, BBC, documentary film, 1990. [“unbalanced masculinity without the civilizing power [of the poporo] would be dangerous”].

McKibben, Bill.[“We moderns are running Creation backwards.”].

Reddy, Jini, What Colombia’s Kogi people can teach us about the environment,, 29 October 2013.

Sachs, Wolfgang,



The Spell of Development

In the 1998 science fiction film, Deep Impact, a meteorite is about to strike Earth and cause a mass extinction. Disaster is averted thanks to heroic astronauts who sacrifice their lives to save Earth by blowing up the asteroid.

According to scientific estimates, extinction of wildlife and transformation of the biosphere by industrial civilization in the past few centuries, accelerating in the past few decades, has cumulated in destruction greater than was wreaked by the meteorite that terminated the Cretaceous Epoch and the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago — our ancestors living back then would have been smallish four-legged creatures we would wantonly be exterminating today were they around.

Obviously, for those of us who take nature to heart, although our numbers are much greater than the Deep Impact saviour crew, there is no such one-off solution to stop industrial civilization on its destructive trajectory.  

Extinction looms over the albatross as a result of industrial fishing, threats at breeding sites and ocean plastic pollution. If this happens, a whole animal culture will be extinguished, with its particular dances, songs, courtship rituals, life-long bonds and transmission of skills to the young. One tagged albatross has flown the equivalent of six round trips to the moon in her 65-plus years of life. She understands winds and water in ways no human ever will.

The dolphin and the whale have their own mode of perceiving and communicating and possess languages with extensive vocabularies. “Within a humpback’s half-hour song there are a hundred million bytes. A million changes of frequency, and a million tonal twists…An Odyssey, as information-packed as Homer’s, can be told in thirty minutes.”  These oceanic cultures are threatened by human restlessness too.

Swiss nature artist and philosopher Robert Hainard (1906 – 1999) wrote that in this age we should take pride in our animal faculties to be distinguishable from robots and justify our existence.

Hainard also believed that a day would come when the degree of civilisation would be measured by the size and wildness of nature it would leave to flourish.

The opposite is true today where the level of civilisation attributed to a culture or nation hinges on the heaviness and extent of its ecological footprint.

Since Christopher Columbus first set foot on a Caribbean island in1492, exploration and colonization brought Western people into contact with indigenous peoples in different parts of the world. As their presence on the land was light, they were assimilated to fauna and flora and treated at the coloniser’s discretion too. 

There is a movement today to rehabilitate indigenous peoples by showing that they, like Westerners, managed their environment with a human-centred approach.

Speaking about Australia where James Cook first landed in 1770, historian Bill Gammage demonstrates continent-wide intensive management before white settlement in his book, The Biggest Estate On Earth. How Aborigines Made Australia.

In the same vein, Charles Mann in 1493.Uncovering the New World Columbus Created claims that Amerindians were as manipulative of nature as were the invading Europeans.

English settlers founded Jamestown in the 1600s in the Chesapeake Bay area in the England-sized indigenous empire of Tsenacomoco whose landscapes they failed to recognize were under cultivation.

What the English saw resembled natural ecosystems. Maize and beans grew together. Below them grew squash, gourds, pumpkins and melon. On fallow communal lands grew naturally occurring plants but they were medicinal or edible, Mann underlines, thus useful for humans.  

The Europeans also misinterpreted another seemingly undomesticated feature of the landscape. Amerindians let dam-building beavers transform narrow quick-flowing streams into pools that were easier to navigate and retained water throughout the year, creating ecosystems that provided complementary sources of food.

Because of their invisible human footprint, entitlement to their own land would be denied Amerindians, Australian Aborigines and other indigenous peoples through the doctrine of terra nullius, land belonging to no one.

Today the required norm for civilization – in its modern incarnation, development – is a much heavier footprint than what 17th or 18th century European colonizers had in mind.

Its signs are air-conditioned skiing resorts in hot deserts; airports; artificially snowed-up mountain resorts complete with artificial indoor beaches; dense road networks; gigantic container ships; high-rise buildings; industrial fishing fleets; industrial plants; large-scale, mono-cropped fields worked from air-conditioned combine harvester cabins, sprayed aerially with pesticides; luxury hotels;  mega cities;  mega dams;  mega malls; nuclear plants; and satellites.

It is inhabited by people who score high in terms of “human development”, that is, they have a broad range of choices, access to income and a job, standardized education, high-tech healthcare, and a clean and safe environment. They also participate fully in community decisions and enjoy human, economic and political freedoms.  

Development concerns the whole world and in particular industrialized countries where it first appeared and is at its greatest extent.  “Emerging” countries are closing the gap and some “mature” countries fear that they are sliding down on the scale of development, witness the popularity of the US presidential campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!”.

A critical view of the development dream might read something like Evgueny Zamyatin’s We (1920) that describes a future world where wildness is the enemy and all life has been “perfected” to produce an entirely artificial civilisation. An individual who has undergone a routine brain operation is told, “You are perfect; you are on a par with machines.”  Futurologist Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, goes further. He actually looks forward to a takeover by artificial intelligence.

In Zamyatin’s fictional country, there is the Green Wall beyond which lies the wild world of nature. But industrialisation, which goes with development, extends in its production, consumption and disposal stages to the totality of the planet, including its oceans and atmosphere. 

Zamyatin’s country but even more so development is about a human-controlled world. So how far are those who mastermind development in control of the planet and the welfare of its people?

Insurance experts who prepared the 2016 assessment of risks for the World Economic Forum before its annual meeting in Davos warned that “climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks.” It added that the number of forcibly displaced people is now almost 50% more than in 1940 when World War II was being fought.  

Wild fauna and flora is being sacrificed on a planetary scale in the name of development; however, sixty years after its extension to the whole world, universal development has not been achieved.

Although classic economists like Adam Smith celebrated the “progress of wealth”, they expected a steady-state would eventually be reached, but today’s decision-makers, whether from developing, emerging or developed nations, have no such plan. In the background may lurk the fear of leaving a patch of terra nullius that the other could snatch.

Once awoken from its spell, how ludicrous—and dangerous—development appears, with its classroom-style grading of countries from underdeveloped (fail), developing (pass), emerging (good; making rapid progress) to developed (excellence).  

Before the era of development, as today, societies have combined different sets of goods and evils; they have exchanged products, ideas and technologies. In a post-development world, the “package” a random individual gets for life will be neither better nor worse than it is today and wildlife will be given a reprieve from its death sentence meted out by industrial civilization.


Campbell, N.A, Reece, J.B., Biologie, Adaptation et révision scientifique de Richard Mathieu, 2e édition, 2004, page 1339 : « Selon certaines estimations, nous sommes en train d’infliger à la biosphère plus de dommages et d’entraîner vers l’extinction plus d’espèces que ne l’a fait l’énorme astéroïde responsable semble-t-il d’extinctions de masse vers la fin de la période du Crétacé, il y a 65 millions d’années. »

Elliott, Larry, Climate change disaster is biggest threat to global economy in 2016, say experts. The Guardian (online), 14 January 2016.

Griffiths, Jay, Wild, An Elemental Journey, 2006. [Evgueny Zamyatin, We]

Mann, Charles, 1493. Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, 2011.

Mermod-Gasser, Viviane, Robert Hainard. L’art, la nature, la pensée (film), 2014.

Rist, Gilbert, Le Développement. Histoire d’une croyance occidentale, 2e édition, 2001. (The History of Development. From Western Origins to Global Faith)

Roch, Philippe, Le penseur paléolithique. La philosophie écologiste de Robert Hainard, 2014. 

Rose, Deborah Bird, Nature as Power (video), FutureLearn, Environmental Humanities, University of New South Wales, 2016.

Van Dooren, Thom and Rose, Deborah Bird, We need new narratives (video), FutureLearn,  Environmental Humanities, University of New South Wales, 2016.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation,

Williams, Heathcote, Whale Nation, 1988.