An essay as explanation
Throughout this article we can briefly find the main causes that have made us detach from our natural environment. The relationships between our myths and our economic system have resulted in western society completely losing its ecological sense. We try to reflect from anthropology on the relationship between sustainability and consumption. An exercise that we consider obligatory given our profession and after the emergence of Covid-19.
1. The Lord of the Animals
In the peninsula of Yucatán, region of Quintana Roo, it exists a Maya community whose economical system is still based on hunting and gathering. By reading this you could think I am talking about a society that inhabit the wild or the mountains and that survives thanks to their immediate environment. And that’s it, nothing further.
Although some darwinists could qualify them as primitives, these men and women can teach some lessons to all of us who live in the omnipotent and industrialized western society. The same one that is considered a best practice in evolutionary terms.
Because this small community has managed to forge an ecological consciousness so solid that it is maintained as a custom a traditional Mayan hunting ritual called Loojil Ts’oon Loojil Ts’oon (Carbine ceremony) (Didac Santos Fita, 2016).
The Loojil Ts’oon consists of returning to the forest the jaws of the hunted animals that are kept after having been served as food. The ritual represents a way of asking the forest for permission, addressing the Lord of the Animals that inhabits it (mythological being typical of their culture), so that he renews the hunting cycle, giving back life to the hunted animals and thus the Mayans can keep themselves supplied.
For the Mayans, the ritual serves to conserve and renew resources, not only because they believe that good things will happen to them when doing it, but also because of the bad things that will surely happen to them if they don’t. The possibility of punishment, therefore, exists. If any hunter does not perform this ritual when required, he could be attacked by snakes or feel persecuted at every moment.
For the Yucatecan Mayans, the jungle or the mountain are sacred places and it is nature itself that allows them to hunt and therefore subsist. This is the basic premise on which the Loojil Ts’oon is built.
The Yucatecan Mayans show their beliefs in this ritual and let us glimpse their fears as well as their way of maintaining order. By believing that their future depends directly on the most immediate resources, they fear that one day the forest won’t have animals for them. They even feel that what they are hunting doesn’t really belong to them. Therefore, in gratitude as well as in apology to the forest they return what they have taken.
This is their own way of feeling legitimized to hunt and thus exercise an illusory as well as real control in the environment. The belief in punishment works as a government, avoiding chaos, with no need of having the institutional management of a state to ensure the sustainability of the environment. It is the hunter himself who self-regulates his activity,
achieving ecological balance without government measures, sustainable development goals, action plans or health crises.
2. The Lords of the World
Consciously or unconsciously all of us refer to our myths in our daily lives, since through them we reproduce the values and norms of our society.
Despite being strongly influenced by the Catholic religion -the offerings included in the ceremony are made to a mixture of Mayan and Catholic divinities-, these Yucatecan Mayans have managed to preserve part of their most primitive and animist-based religion, which is deeply rooted in the belief that human beings cannot live without establishing and maintaining associations between objects and elements of nature. For them, the human being occupies a place in the environment just like other creatures.
The dominant mythology in the West, largely shaped by Christianity in its various ramifications, is diametrically opposed to this belief and positions us as direct beneficiaries of our environment.
Without entering to value the origin of capitalism and focusing on the Christian myth, we would all agree that given the circumstances, God gave us Paradise and then we did the rest. And this rest shifted from myth to reality. That rest is our material historical evolution, along which we proclaimed ourselves owners and lords of the world since we had the necessary tools that allowed us to speculate with our own sense of dominance.
Simone de Beauvoir in its feminist work The Second Sex (2017) explains the supremacy of the man over the world – unterstood as a species and at the same time as genre- from the perspective of the Historical Materialism which was developed during the second half of the XIX century:
‘The theory of Historical Materialism has highlighted really important truths. The man is not an animal specie […] (they) do not suffer passively the presence of nature, they assume it’.
And it is that ‘as long as the individual does not have practical means’ he ‘feels lost in nature and in society, passive, threatened, toy of dark forces; only by identifying with the clan as a whole does he dare to conceive himself: the totem, the mana, the earth are collective realities’.
Nevertheless, after having inherited the land, it is at the moment of discovering bronze when the man ‘discovers himself as creator’. ‘As he dominates nature he is not afraid from it anymore’. And we self-fulfil and self-perceive in our own individuality which is at the same time the first stone where ambition is built on.
Our culture has been able to design such a huge and effective illusion of power that we even arrived at the conclusion that we did not need God either, and we got rid of him. And all together with him any remote possibility of something that could be out of our hands also disappeared.
We need to let our actions over the environment be free from moral punishment because it is the only way to subject it to our interests.
In its fundamental work, The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (1905), the german sociologist Max Weber wrote about this ‘disenchantment’ of the world provoked by the incursion of capitalism and from an Historical Materialism perspective:
“Weber said (…) that ‘there are no mysterious incalculable forces’ in nature; the natural world is – at least in principle – knowable, predictable, and manipulable. In a disenchanted world, everything becomes understandable and tameable, even if it is not yet understood and tamed. Instead of the ‘great enchanted garden’ of the late medieval world – an Edenic state guided by divine inspiration – Weber saw the early modern world as human-centred, and the universe as dead and impersonal” (Josephon, 2019).
3. The Global Pandemic
By proclaiming ourselves as autonomous and individual beings, we can hardly agree to believe that the world can function without us. For us there are no forests, no animals, no seas, no oceans, no sacred forests, because it would mean to admit the possibility that they could punish us. At most, there could be volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or a combination of earthquake and tsunami. But they are concrete, isolated, seasonal, measurable and quantifiable phenomenons, that are born, reproduce and die.
While we have eliminated God, our belief system is now the same as our economic one. The Spanish philosopher Santiago Alba Rico (2020) expresses it much better than I could. According to him, we have ‘Get rid of God’ and have replaced it with hyperconsumption structures, ‘which ensures a much more comfortable immanence’. What makes us completely forget that the world, the planet or the universe can and does work perfectly without us:
‘[…] technology, consumption, medical advances…have generated in the West an illusion of immortality incompatible with the independence of the world. With our digital camera we look for it anxiously while we anxiously deny it, prolonging both its absence and nostalgia for it. We seek and deny it, in the interstices of technology, through intense and soluble sex without commitment. We look for it and deny it in drugs, in the onanista sport, in Sunday ruralism. Never has a human society lived more out of the world than ours. ” (Alba, 2020)
Our normal lives are totally unreal because we have removed from them any remnant of collective reality that it may remain to us. And this has been going on around the world for years. We are now impressed because a pandemic has brought the majority of the planet into confinement. Together and at the same time. What becomes a collective reality.
Being locked-down we have realized the true reality and this should lead us to question our own prior normality (and the new one). The confinement revealed that the individual sacrifice of staying at home had a double benefit: not only were lives saved, but the planet was being saved.
Could this make us aware at once that the individual submits to the collective? and finally configure a real collective consciousness, so necessary to recover the health of both ourselves and the planet?
4. Warm planet, frozen economy.
On March 28th a headline on the Spanish newspaper El País was entitled: “The challenge of freezing the economy”. In this, several professionals with reputed trajectories spoke about the economical impact of the sanitary crisis as well as on the possible actions to minimize it.
On the question of it is possible to freeze the economy, Ricardo Reis, economist at the London School of Economics answered that it was possible “though very complicated. And it depends on how long: if the total lockdown is extended, it will be catastrophic; if it is only a few weeks or months, we will be able to avoid the disaster… For that it is necessary to prevent companies and jobs from disappearing ”.
Sung Won Sohn, president of the SS Economics consultancy and professor at the Loyola Marymount University foresaw that “the objective will continue to be something as simple to say and as difficult to achieve as avoiding a catastrophe in the form of an avalanche of bankruptcies and permanent layoffs.”
Nacho Fariza Economic journalist from El País and author of the headline above mentioned stated that ‘most European countries and the United States have already set to work, vetoing indefinite dismissals and betting on temporary formulas in which the treasury covers a substantial part of the salary or throwing liquidity life-saving millionaires to companies’.
Mohamed El-Erian, head of economic advisory for Allianz and former president of the US Global Development Council with Barack Obama also defends that “the role of states and central banks is encouraging, moving fast and taking emergency measures.”
Why haven’t we started working like this in the face of the climate emergency? Why didn’t we listen to the scientists and now we’re begging them? Why don’t we demand public-private collaboration beyond what is done to maximize benefits at the cost of impoverishing ourselves further?
The political-economical speech that arises in periods of crisis seeks to reassure the citizen, promising that everything can be as it was before. It is the management of the waiting. Pure user experience. We are reassured on seeing that there are people who are already working, working to minimize impact and losses. It is the same as when we download an application or install an update or simply wait for the subway. There are progress bars and counters. And we get relaxed just by seeing them. We know that there is someone striving to send us what we have asked for. If we did not see these designs of “work in progress” we would get impatient and we would immediately believe that the product or service does not work and we would demand their return.
In 2015 the UN announced the Agenda for 2030 and the sustainable development goals. An international program for which by 2030 we would live in a sustainable world. This program establishes 17 main objectives in different subjects to achieve that much desired world, together with sub-objectives. In this initiative, the concept of sustainability does not refer only to environmental issues, but also extends to ending poverty, hunger, or the lack of energy resources in regions most in need. Thus, each country is assigned a series of tasks to be carried out with a view to the established end date. In the case of Spain, it joined this initiative as a country in 2018, forming a High Commission for it. Subsequently, in the elected government, a ministry has been formed: the Ministry of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda. In turn, thousands of companies, both national and international, are flagging their commitment to meet the established objectives. Because as it is well said, ‘the 2030 Agenda is for everyone.’
The 2030 agenda is the way that the world organizations have to say: ‘calm down, we are working’. As we said before, management of waiting. User experience for the citizen. While we all continued with our lives, we settled for thinking that there were people who had already a plan by 2030, knowing that in reality all of this needed an immediate response. At least a political equivalent in terms of effectiveness and urgency to the economic measures that have been taken and are being taken to mitigate the health crisis caused by the coronavirus.
This progress bar that ran from 2015 to 2030 added to our immanence caused by the destruction of collective realities, has submerged us in the false security of the automatisms of our day to day, where we take everything for granted and hope that everything works perfectly.
It is evident that the states of alarm, with their subsequent confinements, have been the most effective as well as fortuitous political action so far to fight against the climate crisis. While this wasn’t happening, we have been paying conventions and summits to our leaders for years so that they formally maintained the same conversation that I have with my neighbour when I meet him in the elevator, in which he mentions how it is getting so cold so suddenly and I answer that indeed, the weather is crazy.
The time we have “lost” locked-down has been time saved for the planet. His brief signs of recovery have been inversely proportional to our illness. But that curve was not in the news. We have not built the peak of the curve to establish a comparative grievance of our own condition as human beings to realize that our closure has positive and immediate effects on the recovery of the planet while our freedom harms it. We have not counted one by one the species killed by the lack of habitats, nor have we made rankings for countries in desert areas, without water or on fire, or occupied covers for months using fear as a marketing strategy. Furthermore, the younger ones had to come demanding their own future, and they were also later politicized. We as a community do not demand any kind of measure. We did not go to daddy state to demand agreement with companies. Nor was there a law decree.
From comparison the values are extracted and in comparison, the climatic crisis has not constituted any kind of alarm for us. We do not care if the poles burn and melt as long as we have enough ice left to freeze the economy.
5. Pardon, Healing and Forgiveness
The desire of returning back to restarting our lives as they were is as legitimate as it is dangerous.
In this period of lockdown and social distance, we have achieved more than years of proposals and debates. In return, the greatest economic crisis in the history of humanity has been predicted, only comparable to times of war. What system have we designed that, even in an extreme situation of vital need – literally – is not capable of enduring three months without activity?
If at the beginning we mentioned that it was not necessary to be an anthropologist to appreciate the teachings that the Yucatecan Mayans can offer us, now it is not necessary to be an economist to realize that returning to the starting point would be a mistake. As it would also be to continue endowing with ideological bias the discourse of the defense of production systems based on ecological balance. We have already managed to agree on the adoption of emergency measures as well as on the extensions of alarm states, because these are not ideological but empirical questions that come to satisfy an obvious, tangible and obvious need.
It is encouraging to see how even neoliberal and media sectors that are due to the capital are already proposing a reflection that goes beyond joining the sustainable development goals or putting together a green discourse, in order to continue hiding the trash under the carpet.
‘Frustration and widespread social discontent and the increasingly visible and irrepressible consequences of ecological and climatic deterioration have allowed the raising of some critical voices within the system itself, which, to save it, speak of the need to “restart” and ” reinventing ”capitalism ‘Noelia Sánchez Cruzado in El Salto Diario.
Also the Finacial Times still in September 2019 expressed the need for a capitalist reset. “Capitalism. Time for reset. This is the new agenda.” This tried to emphasize that it is no longer enough with how much we get but how. Changing the ways is a necessity: “the benefit for the shareholders is necessary but not sufficient to manage the companies” we can read in an article in El Periódico referring to this fact.
The person writing these letters currently works in the advertising industry. With no intention of speaking about me, but with the necessary honesty to recognize that my profession (in its capitalistic version most aggressive and neoliberal) has not done any good to the planet, I feel I must mention this fact.
This fact also makes me a better connoisseur of certain dynamics of the market, of brands and of people as consumers, although it is true that all of us are in one way or another within the system and therefore we are in certain way part of the crime that is always reserved to the accomplices.
Advertising, as a communication tool, has worked as an intangible engine of capitalism, generating an unsatisfied desire for consumption and therefore contributing to perpetuating the generation of garbage.
As a publicist I want to highlight something that I have mentioned implicitly during this section, and that is that we have turned sustainability into a capitalism asset. As consumers it makes us feel good, since it dissolves the dissonance that buying products that contain an excess of plastic, for example, can cause us at this point. These are short-term solutions, but they are not the solutions that we must take as definitive. That is, we must not let corporatism empower us as consumers, alluding to the fact that with our purchase decisions we can change the world.
Martin Weigel, Chief Strategy Officer at Wieden & Kenedy Amsterdam (multinational & independent advertising agency) sharply warns us of the danger of this speech that cascades from the top of large corporations to the field of consumption:
“Buying is like voting, the rhetoric goes – through ethical/green/low-impact purchase decisions, consumers can reengineer markets, reward, encourage and promote the practices of the virtuous corporation, penalise those of the not-so-virtuous corporation, and further the issues and values that matter to them’ (…) the ideology of ethical consumerism as the key lever for transforming society depoliticises change, distracting us from confronting the cold reality that effecting fundamental change in how we live is a matter of power and politics, not just going to the right shops and buying the right things”.
Martin Wiegel, Chief Strategy Officer Wieden & Kenedy Amsterdam
As we have already pointed out, all of us as individuals must reflect on what world we want and that is where the collective transformation will come from. But this is not an obstacle for us to choose our leaders and demand the same actions that we are demanding of them during the state of alarm: that they consult experts before acting and that they agree with the private sector.
In other words, if we take the actions of current governments as an example, and leave personal opinions aside, we will realize that crises are solved with political actions rather than with economic actions. It is in political action where we can recover the sense of democracy, of the public, and from where we can resurrect our collective realities.
Unlike the Yucatecan Mayans, Western society no longer has the capacity for self-regulation or self-government, because we no longer believe in moral punishments or superstitions, as much as this pandemic may seem so. But we have a brand new tool that is time to dust off. It is called democracy and it serves to make politics.
*This article was originally published in “Ensayos desconfinados. Ideas de debate para la post pandemia” (2020) AnthropiQa.
- Santos, D. (19 de junio de 2018) Documental Loojil Ts’oon – Ceremonia de la Carabina. Recuperado de http://www.youtube.com
- De Beauvoir, S. (2019) El Segundo Sexo, Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra.
- Josephone, J. (25 de junio de 2019). Against Disenchantment. Aeon Essays. Recuperado de http://www.aeon.co
- Alba Rico, S. (17 de marzo de 2020) ¿Esto nos está pasando realmente? El Diario.es. Recuperado de http://www.eldiario.es Fariza, N. (28 de marzo de 2020).
- Cerrillo, A. El reto de congelar la economía. El País. Recuperado de http://www.elpais.com (1 de abril de 2020)
- La vida de los océanos puede recuperarse en 30 años. La Vanguardia. Recuperado de https://www.lavanguardia.com
- Wiegel, M. (14 de enero de 2020) All Watched By Corporations Of Loving Grace? It’s Time We Punctured The Feverish Toxic Dream. Martin Wiegel Canalside view. Recuperado de https://www.martinwiegel.org
On the author:
Vicente Gallego is Publicist and Head of the department of strategy of a communications agency in Barcelona. He also studies social and cultural anthropology, a discipline that he considers increasingly necessary and that gives meaning to the experience gained during his professional career.