China’s Ecological Civilisation

As far as I can remember I felt good in nature. My earliest summer holiday memories are of hiking in the Alps immersed in the sights, colours, sounds, textures and scents of nature. There was the magic of deep blue gentians, pink mountain rhododendrons, butterflies and grasshoppers, creatures going about their lives quite independently of us people. During the term, there were after school walks in London’s Richmond Park, now a nature reserve, where deer herds roamed and frog spawn appeared in ponds in spring. Even my native Switzerland’s national anthem is about the splendours of nature, so it was quite normal for me to be a nature lover.

As I grew up, I found out that all was not well for nature. In the mountains and around where we lived there was habitat loss; and environmental science taught me the chemistry of air and water pollution. Nowadays, we keep up to date with the Internet, and the news continues to be mostly sad. Deforestation, ocean plastic pollution, whales colliding with container ships, yet another animal or plant species going extinct, everywhere, it seems, civilisation is at war with nature.

So what a surprise when an Internet search brought up an intriguing phrase juxtaposing the word “ecological” to “civilisation”. Ecological civilisation? And it was all very official. In a statement to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a Chinese spokesperson announced to the world that ecological civilisation was China’s new national strategy, that the view of man as conqueror of nature was outdated and that the new approach to modernization would be to strive to live in harmony with nature.

A further web search directed me to a course on this subject, “Transitioning to an Ecological Civilization: Dialogues East and West” organised by Schumacher College, UK and the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Southwest University, China. Should I go as far as China to take this course? I hesitated. My family and friends encouraged me to go. So a few weeks later I was landing at Beijing Airport and joining the course group with nine Chinese and four other Westerners.

During the first part of the course we visited rural cooperatives in the Beijing region. Whatever the type of civilisation, food is an essential need. How would it be produced in an ecological civilisation? The places we saw are answering this question hands-on. Part of a rural reconstruction network, these agricultural coops essentially provide a livelihood to the members who run them, deliver the food they grow to their urban members, sharing risks and benefits with them like in Western vegetable box schemes.

The coop members come from varied backgrounds. There are older farmers who have stayed on the land. For instance, Shared Harvest Farm, a coop we visited was created through a partnership with one. The “new farmers” include jobless migrant factory workers, younger people who want to return to their home place and retired government employees who can rely on their pension for income. Some new farmers come from the educated, environmentally-aware urban middle class. They are concerned about the quality of their food and surroundings, but also about rising social disparities.

Besides agriculture, these coops are engaged in a variety of activities. Little Donkey Farm, one of China’s first experiments with community supported agriculture, organises organic agriculture demonstrations, rents out gardening plots to urban dwellers as well as office space—one of our course colleagues, an eco-architect, had her office there. Phoenix Commune has a guesthouse that we stayed at and conference rooms. Like the other coops it has a cafeteria that serves food produced onsite.

The rural reconstruction movement advocates living a simple life and building a relationship to the Earth. The Liang Shuming Rural Reconstruction Centre, the largest coop we visited which covers several traditional villages, has a song that summarizes this way of life: “We safeguard this piece of land/We are surrounded by mountains/Four seasons/Sing and share our emotions/Born and living in this place/Happy because we are satisfied/When we die we return to the soil”. The centre has services for elders who in turn contribute by teaching traditional skills to the younger generations and produce arts and crafts. One-year programmes are offered to graduates who can stay in a village to learn farming skills. In summer, there are camps for children. People can also get training to set up their own cooperative. On a very down-to-earth level, the coops demonstrate how to save water. Each of us had to wash our own plate and chopsticks after meals, using a nontoxic cleaning product so the water could be used for watering. There were dry toilets, a septic tank and plants to purify sewage water.

The second part of the course focussed on the inner aspects of transitioning to an ecological civilisation. The philosophers of the ecological civilisation have turned for inspiration to the modern scientific worldview of a universe in which everything is interrelated—it has replaced the 18th century clockwork universe—and to the traditional spiritualities of China, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. For instance in Taoism, people should consider their link not only to other people and society, but also to the Heaven and the Earth, which comprises nature, landscapes and wildlife.

We travelled 21h by train to reach the birthplace of Taoism in the western province of Sichuan. On the way, we witnessed the current construction boom as tall buildings sprout from the agricultural plain, in stark contrast to the vision of an ecological civilisation. We got off the train at Chengdu, China’s “Silicon Valley” and the province capital.

Fifty kilometres from Chengdu, we visited the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to the ancient hydraulic engineering structure, there is a large shrine complex on the river bank in honour of its creators. Originally built around 260 BC and still in use today to protect from flooding while keeping the fields supplied with water, it has made Sichuan one of the most productive agricultural regions of China. Unlike contemporary dams that block the water with a wall, the Dujiangyan channels and divides the water, letting fish and other creatures swim through in an illustration of the Taoist approach to the human-nature relationship.

Our lecturer and guide, a local person, shared her personal experience of the site. She was at primary school when she placed a small stone for the first time during the yearly maintenance of the dam in which the whole population participated. This created a feeling of belonging and connection so that people would want to take care of the place. The river’s annual cycle is marked by three festivals that remind people of their spiritual bond to the river that nourishes them, their crops and animals. Our lecturer concluded that we are too yang, too external, we have too many things, too many tools, and she recommended that we become more humble and less wasteful again.

The concept of Ecological Civilisation or shēngtài wénmíng brings hope that we may still find a way to live a pleasant life in harmony with nature. There is no consensus in China about exactly what an ecological civilisation would look like because transitioning in this direction is an adaptive process, like natural processes or like the ancient Tao.




Home Revolution


Nadia like me finds it difficult to keep abreast with all the stuff that lands in her home and accumulates like bills, books, magazines, used ballpoint pens, entrance tickets, clothes, gadgets, free offers, electronic and sports accessories. At the same time both of us want to spend minimum time house-keeping. There are so many things we prefer to do indoors and outdoors, like trying out new recipes, doing arts and crafts, watching a film, going to a conference or a concert, hiking, meeting friends or doing nothing. This summer when I visited Nadia during the holidays something had changed in her flat. The clothes in the drawers and cupboards were folded so that their different colours and designs appeared side by side, transforming them into elements of a Cubist work of art.

What had happened? Inspiration had come from a book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising, by Marie Kondo. For Kondo things shouldn’t be treated as things. We thank and say goodbye to those we no longer love and take good care of those we keep. We show gratefulness for the job they accomplish for us, for instance, giving our handbag a rest after a hard day’s work by emptying it and putting it in a special place to rest for the night. We fold clothes in such a way that they will be comfortable in the drawer, making sure that none eclipses another.

Kondo’s personification of things seems bizarre at first, but when we remember that our civilisation defines itself as the consumer goods society, where objects sit enthroned at its very heart, treating them in a thoughtful, respectful way starts to make sense. At the same time, Marie Kondo brings consumerism to a paradoxical conclusion, that less is more.

Kondo’s book has been a bestseller in Japan, which is experiencing a minimalist movement. According to Japanese environmental journalist, Junko Edahiro, people’s value systems are changing. An increasing number of people define happiness as coming from personal relationships, engagement with nature or involvement in subsistence agriculture. “Minimizing spending and still leading a fulfilling life – this kind of mindset has already seeped into Japanese society,” says Tomoki Inoue, who researches consumer behavior. A poll on people’s lifestyle conducted by the Japanese government’s Cabinet Office confirms that a growing number of Japanese value spiritual richness over material abundance. In addition, the Japanese are choosing to have fewer children. For Edahiro, these changes are happening as people assimilate the connection between our excessive consumption and the plight of the natural world.

Once more, the alarm sounded in autumn 2017 with the document “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” endorsed by over 15,000 scientists from 184 countries. It enjoins people to drastically diminish their consumption and curb their reproduction to prevent widespread human and non-human misery in the not so distant future. It also reminds us that Earth is our only home in the vast Universe. So shouldn’t Japan’s minimalists be celebrated as the heralds of a new civilisation aware of Earth’s limits?

The problem, we are told, is that the stability of contemporary societies is built on the premise of growth, causing economists and policy-makers to take a negative view on consumer downsizing as encapsulated in this title from Fortune Magazine, “Why Japan’s Thrifty Millennials Are a Bad Omen for Its Economy”.

In summary, we have on the one hand, scientists insisting that the biosphere is being gravely disrupted by our excesses; on the other hand economists telling us that if growth stops, the economy collapses. So what is the civically minded citizen to make out of this?

Edahiro believes Japan should work to create a model for other countries of a beautiful, smaller, happy society. Yes, happy. According to Edahiro, the root of the environmental problems lies in the question of happiness, because the ultimate justification of consumerism which is tied to the growth economy is to bring happiness. But now the Japanese are showing that we can find ways to be happy that don’t have to cost the Earth.

So the ball is in the court of those who cling to the conventional business model whom Edahiro compares to the Luddites, those 19th century English craftsmen who campaigned to demolish the new machinery that would make them lose their work and destroy their way of life. This model that takes the GDP as the measure of a nation’s success counts for zero what Japanese minimalists cherish, whereas it measures positively those things Marie Kondo invites us to get rid of. It is high time to apply her method to the concepts of GDP and growth, thank them for services rendered and say goodbye to them.

If concerned scientists are really serious about their warning, they should be begging, entreating, imploring policy-making economists who hold the biosphere in their hands to adopt economic arrangements centred on care for the planet as a whole. Meanwhile I’m starting my own quiet revolution sorting out my drawers and cupboards.

Who Are We?

All tissues of animal bodies, including our own, have quite a rapid turnover. Although we maintain our general appearance from year to year, every tissue in our body is constantly being broken down and replaced with newly made molecules derived from the food we eat. All the atoms and molecules in our bodies are replaced on the average every four years. Thus we and every other form of life are constantly participating in the cycles of all the atoms.

Imagine one individual carbon atom making up the protein of the skin on your hand. Where did it come from? From the food you ate a few weeks ago. And before that? From carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that was incorporated into a plant by photosynthesis. Where will it go? In a few weeks, it will in all likelihood be back in the atmosphere as CO2 as the top layer your skin is sloughed off and oxidized by microorganisms. This carbon atom will go on to new cycles. If this or any other atom in your body could tell us its life story, it might go something like this:

“I was created by a distant star before the creation of Earth. Here on planet Earth, in my countless cycles from the air through living things and back, I have participated in the bodies of virtually every species that has ever existed, including trees and animals of the forests, seaweeds, fishes and other creatures of the oceans, and birds and other creatures of the air, and the dinosaurs that roamed the land 100 million years ago. In more recent times, travels along food chains have led me through quite a few humans as well as plants and animals who share Earth …”

All life is interconnected through sharing and recycling a common pool of atoms. Generations come and go, species evolve, but atoms remain the same.

Adapted from Environmental Science, Nebel Wright, 4th edition, 1993

La Cueillette honorable. Notes sur un entretien avec Robin Hall Kimmerer

Robin Wall Kimmerer est professeur au College of Environmental Science and Forestry du State University College of New York et directeur fondateur du Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Botaniste, spécialiste des mousses, elle est membre de la nation potawatomi, un peuple premier des Etats-unis.

 Dans un entretien réalisé par Ayana Young sur la radio états-unienne Unlearn & Rewild, Robin Wall Kimmerer explique que le genre humain, contrairement à ce que laisse supposer la crise actuelle, n’est pas l’ennemi atavique de la biodiversité, mais l’a au contraire traditionnellement favorisée. Elle prend l’exemple de l’utilisation du feu contrôlé par les peuples autochtones qui crée une mosaïque d’écosystèmes à diverses étapes de succession écologique. La biodiversité ainsi favorisée offre des sources multiples de nourriture et de fibres. Plus elle est grande, plus nombreux sont les choix et la résilience des habitants dans une nature dynamique.

En Europe l’être humain a aussi contribué à la diversification des écosystèmes, même si cela s’est fait de manière accidentelle plutôt qu’intentionnelle. Par exemple les paysans de montagne, en déboisant et en fauchant pour libérer des terres cultivables et des pâturages, ont créé des prés fleuris qui convenaient en même temps à des animaux et plantes sauvages. Ainsi en Suisse, près de la moitié des espèces végétales poussent dans ce type de biotope tout comme la majorité des insectes. On y trouve aussi des escargots, des araignées, des oiseaux, des batraciens et des mammifères. Malheureusement ces milieux sont aujourd’hui menacés par l’abandon de l’agriculture traditionnelle et par les constructions, et tendent comme beaucoup de paysages modernes vers l’homogénéisation.

Selon Kimmerer, les programmes pour la restauration des habitats, de leur faune et de leur flore échoueront s’ils se bornent à réparer les dégâts. Un jeu de mots en anglais, « not only restore, but restory », résume le double défi qui est non seulement de restaurer, mais bien plus d’inventer de nouveaux récits sur notre lien à la Terre. En effet, il ne s’agit pas seulement de guérir la Terre physiquement, mais bien plus de changer la vision du monde qui sous-tend la destruction de la nature, comme par exemple la notion d’exceptionnalisme humain, qu’il y a une espèce, Homo sapiens, qui mérite tous les cadeaux du monde, alors que les millions d’autres espèces ne compteraient pas, seraient jetables.

Dans le modèle actuel de restauration écologique il y a souvent l’idée que les gens et la nature font mauvais ménage et qu’il vaudrait mieux nous tenir à l’écart. Ce n’est pas la manière de voir des peuples traditionnels, bien au contraire. Outre l’usage mesuré du feu, Robin Wall Kimmerer prend pour exemple la cueillette de l’herbe sainte (Hierochloe odorata) qu’elle décrit dans son livre, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

Les vanniers haudenausaunee s’étaient plaints de la diminution de cette plante sur les lieux de récolte traditionnels. Les résultats d’une étude de terrain ont montré qu’en pratiquant la « cueillette honorable »  qui consiste à cueillir avec respect jamais plus de la moitié des individus, l’herbe sainte croissait mieux que dans les endroits témoins où elle n’était pas cueillie. Selon l’explication scientifique, la cueillette modérée réduit la densité et donc la compétition, ce qui stimule la croissance. L’exemple de l’herbe sainte fournit une leçon de réciprocité : la plante soutient les gens en tant que médicament, dans la vannerie et dans les cérémonies et la récolte est importante pour le succès de la plante.

Traditionnellement le travail quotidien des personnes se faisait au contact de la terre, les maintenant en synchronisation avec elle. Aujourd’hui, nous sommes pour la plupart déconnectés de la production de notre nourriture, de nos vêtements, de notre logement et de nos médicaments.

Toutefois avec une population mondiale dépassant les sept milliards, ce serait un désastre pour la nature si nous nous précipitions tous dans la forêt pour y chercher notre nourriture ou pour y pratiquer l’artisanat sauvage. Les communautés naturelles seraient dévastées. Alors comment appliquer le concept de la cueillette honorable dans cette situation de déséquilibre ? Même si les personnes qui vivent dans des zones urbaines ne sont pas physiquement occupées par la production de leurs besoins de base, elles y sont inévitablement impliquées économiquement et peuvent s’y impliquer philosophiquement aussi.

La retenue est une attitude effective pour concrétiser la réciprocité avec la Terre et se rappeler que nos choix affectent la vie d’autres êtres, plantes et animaux. Un geste à la portée de tous est simplement de consommer moins et de faire la distinction entre nos besoins et nos désirs. Ne prenez que ce dont vous avez besoin, c’est là un des préceptes les plus importants de la cueillette honorable.


image: Robin Wall Kimmerer


Pro Natura Magazine/03, mai 2014


The Bridge

Rob took the ticket with his queue number. The room was full. All the more time before his fate would be decided. With his swarthy complexion and dark eyes, he blended in with local people; a shaved head dealt with balding. “Tea, coffee, Coke, sandwiches?” The snack vendor must have been puzzled by these Westerners anxiously queuing to renew their Southland visas when Southlanders were risking their lives on overloaded traffickers’ boats to emigrate. For Rob it had been the possibility of living life in a slower lane—that was becoming a thing of the past. His decision to reside in the country also had had to do with its energy, which was good for the soul.

“Why do you always wear black? You’d better try something more upbeat,” a colleague had advised. “Remember, it’s been getting more and more difficult to renew residency after the troubles,” someone added.

Now as he faced a few hours waiting, Rob had plenty of time to go over what he had said and done since his last visa renewal. “We ourselves don’t know who ‘they’ are or what they’re after,” a Southlander colleague had said.


Rob ordered a coffee. A recent episode came back to him. Colleagues from school had organized a farewell gathering for Verna, whose contract had not been renewed. They met at Beverly Mall on the outskirts of Neapolis. The taxi got lost in a labyrinth of roads and clouds of dust in this area under construction. Rob who had gone there with Virginie, the French teacher, entered the huge ground plaza. “Sorry we’re late.”

“Good to see you.” Verna, elegant as usual with just that extra spicy note, greeted them warmly and seated them between Franck who taught geography, and Dax, the maths teacher.

“There’s IKEA and Bloomingdale’s. I love to go shopping in a cool and clean place,” she said.

“We were talking about the bridge,” said Jack who worked for admin.

Rob’s heart sank.

“I hope they’ll go ahead this time,” Jack added.

“They’ve been talking about it for decades,” said Verna.

“West Island’s national parks and wildlife are already under stress.”

“Rob, You sound like a mouthpiece of Antopian propaganda,” said Jack sharply. Half a century earlier, the Southland province of West Island had been under Antopian occupation for several years.

Rob felt exhilarating bubbles of anger rise—and dissolve. Visa renewal was soon due.

“But I’m a biologist,” he had mumbled.

“For Southlanders who work in RSE, it will be that much easier than to take a ferry or go by plane and there will be more tourists from RSE,” said Verna.

“My uncle has a diving centre in Shark Bay. People are very worried. I go down there to help in the holidays. They have invested all their money into it,” said Dax.

“Be scientific. How many jobs will be created, how many lost? It’s a mega project. Thousands of miles of roads and mining all over West Island,” said Jack with enthusiasm.

“If they go ahead with the bridge, Shark Bay will be just another shopping place like Dubai,” said Dax sadly.

“Or like here”, said Virginie flinging her arms out.

“The really big ones are in China,” Franck commented.

“It’s good old liberté, égalité, fraternité recycled as consumer goodies for all,” Virginie quipped.

“Southland deserves a better future. It’s not just the West or BRICS,” said Jack.

“When did your uncle open his centre?” asked Rob, deflecting the conversation.

“In 1990.”

“I went there in 1996.”


Back then Rob was married. Rina was from Southland. They had camped just the two of them in a cove. As they snorkelled, their vision filled with the sea world: coral shrimp, Christmas tree worm, cleaner wrasse, decorator crab, diadem sea urchin, elephant stone coral, feather star crab, grey reef shark, harlequin fish, hawksbill turtle, moon jellyfish, red coral, Spanish dancer nudibranch, spinner dolphin, spotted ray.

A pink and orange fish had invited Rina to play, or so she had said, and she had even given him a name. Rob had found her ridiculous. Now she was a finance director in London.


Virginie suddenly remembered to ask, “Dax, could you replace me for the Green Club on Monday?” Before Dax could answer, Rob blurted, “You should think twice about the club. The one or two poor kids who go green for good…”

“Actually, parents love the club.”

“OK for Monday. But I don’t have the time to prepare something.”

“Show them Johnny Express. It’s a Korean animation.” “What’s it about?” “Johnny works for a galactic delivery company. He must bring a microscopic parcel to a miniature planet.” “What’s the connection to green club topics?” “When Johnny gets there he unknowingly tramples all over the city and people, too small for him to see, and causes devastation.” “I still don’t get it.” “I want to use this as an allegory. The minuscule planet represents the undersea world going about its life at its own rhythm, blissfully ignorant of the Armageddon we humans are concocting for it in the world above.”

“Too far-fetched for me. I prefer a wildlife documentary.” “That’s OK too.”

Ruminating further about the bridge, Dax observed: “In 25 years time consumerism will be out like our diving centres are today and you’ll be left with abandoned shopping centres, a decaying bridge and an underwater wasteland.”

“Don’t worry. Life goes in cycles. Mother Nature will take care of it all. It happened in Bangkok. Fish reclaimed a derelict mall,” Franck facetiously consoled him.

“So, you’re saying just go with the flow?” said Rob.

“ My fallback plan is the monastery.”

“No! You, Virginie, are thinking of taking the veil?”

“Not exactly. It’s a self-sufficient community in France. I bought a share. Its motto is inspired by words of Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation: ‘We’ve been given minds to take care of the wild animals and plants and the rivers.’ I hope I can pay back my loan before the whole system collapses.”

“That won’t happen anytime soon,” said Rob.

Franck got up. “Sorry. I have to leave. See you on Monday. Verna, good luck and let’s keep in touch.”


Rob handed the empty cup to the waiter. He was getting older. It would be difficult to find a job back in Europe. Maybe there would be a cell for him in Virginie’s monastery. A recorded female voice announced his number as it flashed on the digital screens.


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.