The Cost of Not Listening to Nature
di Leonardo Boff
An environmental, social and human cataclysm occurred in the second week of January, in three mountain cities of the State of Rio de Janeiro; Petropolis, Teresopolis and Nueva Friburgo. There were hundreds of casualties, whole regions were destroyed, and those who lost their families, homes and everything they had, endured overwhelming suffering. The immediate causes were the torrential rains, common in Summer, and the geophysical configuration of the mountains, with a thin top soil, on which an exuberant subtropical forest grows. It is all set on immense smooth rocks, that due to the infiltration of water and the weight of the vegetation, frequently result in fatal landslides.
Blame is placed on the people who occupied the risky areas, and on the corrupt politicians who distributed dangerous terrain to the poor. Criticism falls on the public authorities who could have cared less and did not undertake preventative projects, because such public works would be invisible, and would not attract votes. There is much truth in all of that, but the principal cause of this devastating tragedy is not found there.
The principal cause is found in the way we treat nature. She is generous with us, because she offers us all that we need to live. But we consider her an object, that we dispose of capriciously, with no sense of responsibility for her preservation and without giving her any form of recompense. To the contrary, we treat nature violently, deprecate her, taking everything we can from her for our benefit. And to top it off, we turn her into a garbage dump, for all our refuse.
Worse still: we know neither her nature nor her history. We are uneducated and ignorant of the history of our land, for the many thousands of years past. We do not care to know either her flora or her fauna, her mountains, rivers, the scenery, the important persons who have lived there; artists, poets, persons in power, wise men and women; and the builders.
To a large degree, we are still bound to the modern scientific spirit, that characterizes reality merely by its material and mechanic aspects, without including life, consciousness and the intimate communion with that which poets, musicians and artists bring us in their magnificent works. The history of the universe and nature is being told to us by the stars, by the Earth, by the uprising and elevation of the mountains, by the animals, the woods and jungles, and by the rivers. Our task is to know how to listen and interpret the messages that are sent to us. The original peoples knew how to read every movement of the clouds, the meaning of the winds, and they knew when violent downpours were coming. Chico Mendes, with whom I participated in long journeys through the Amazon jungle of Acre, knew how to interpret each whisper of the jungle, read the signs of the gait of the onza, a.k.a., the snow leopard, through the leaves on the ground, and with his ear glued to the Earth, he could tell the direction in which a dangerous pack of wild pigs was going. We have forgotten all that. With the help of science we read the history inscribed in the layers of each being, but this knowledge has not entered the school curriculum, nor has it been infused into the general culture. Instead, it has become a technique to dominate nature and to accumulate riches.
In the case of our highland cities, it is natural that there are torrential rains in summer. Landslides can always happen in the hillsides. We know that global warming is already making these events more frequent and intense. We know the deep valleys and the small rivers that run in that area. But we do not listen to the messages they send us: to not build houses in the hillsides, nor to live near the river, and to jealously preserve the vegetation of the river banks. The river has two beds: the usual, minor one, through which the current waters flow; and another, major one, through which the great waters of the torrential rains drain. It is unwise to build or live in these areas.
We are paying a high price for our carelessness and for the destruction of the Atlantic Thicket, that used to balance the seasons of the rainfalls. What is important now is to listen to nature and to undertake preventative projects that respect the mode of being of each hillside, of each valley and of each river.
We only control nature to the degree that we obey her, know how to listen to her messages, and how to read her signs. Otherwise, we will have to expect avoidable, fatal tragedies.