“A Gun to Our Heads”

On October 13, 2016, Almir Suruí, then chief of the Paiter Suruí indigenous people of northwest Brazil, issued a panicked appeal. “This is my cry of alarm, please listen to me!” he wrote to national ...

On October 13, 2016, Almir Suruí, then chief of the Paiter Suruí indigenous people of northwest Brazil, issued a panicked appeal. “This is my cry of alarm, please listen to me!” he wrote to national and international authorities and environmentalists. “We are undergoing a total invasion of deforesters and miners of diamonds and gold.” Each day 300 trucks enter the forest and leave filled with lumber, the bounty of nearly 1,500 acres of tropical rainforest. The situation was exasperating: “Either one collaborates, or they put a gun to our heads!”

Suruí’s terrified cry was despairingly existential. But it was also immediately practical: at stake was the Paiter Suruí’s way of life, enmeshed in the Amazon, as were the carefully devised systems that had promised to protect their forest home. To Almir Suruí, there was no distance between the existential and the practical. But for many humans not yet forced to confront the evisceration of their known world, the vast separation between the existential and the practical has become a source of paralysis.

The Paiter Suruí had banked their future as a people on an innovative carbon offset credit program, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), sponsored by the UN. After decades of struggle to repel settlers, sawmills, and miners from their forest, the program would enable them to earn revenue for protecting it as a carbon sink. Beginning in 2009, Almir Suruí guided his people through the painstaking process of REDD+ certification. Eventually, Brazilian cosmetics company Natura purchased 120,000 metric tons of credits to offset their carbon emissions. Later, FIFA signed on to offset emissions during the 2014 World Cup and so did the 2016 Rio Olympics Committee.

The Paiter Suruí used the money they earned to propagate 10s of thousands of trees. They established educational programs to bring indigenous knowledge of the incomprehensibly abundant forest to bear on the global ecological crisis. In the fight to save the planet, it seemed evident that such interconnectivity would take on powerful meaning.

But in summer 2016, prospectors discovered diamonds beneath the surface of the Paiter Suruí forest. The corruption and political turmoil that ruptured Brazilian civil society in the lead-up to the Olympics exposed the rainforest to extraction interests who were experienced in bribery, intimidation, and violence. A Catholic Church–sponsored indigenous organization, CIMI, which is opposed to market-based environmental interventions like REDD+, took measures to divide the Paiter Suruí. Deputized by CIMI to oppose the REDD+ project, a tribal faction sought bribes from diamond miners in exchange for easy access to the forest.

Then, under invasion, Almir Suruí issued his SOS. “On behalf of the Suruí people and of all indigenous people who are trying to protect the Amazon rainforest,” he wrote, “in the name of our struggle to preserve a future for all children of this planet at the price of our lives … we ask you to distribute this letter … because today we are all connected in a common destiny.”  But it was already too late for such an encomium to interconnectivity. With chainsaws effectively weakening the forest’s capacity to store carbon, the offset program collapsed—and with it some hope, after all the years of work.

Interconnectivity becomes a vicious force when it unravels. This is one of the most profound realities of the 21st century.

The Paiter Suruí were only one group under threat. Brazil’s Amazonian tropical forests lost more than 20 million acres of tree cover to logging, fire, and hurricanes in 2016–17, accounting for a quarter of the globe’s record forest depletion in that period. A slashed forest stores less carbon, and as it degrades and sheds biomass, it releases the carbon it had absorbed—in 2017 some 7.5 billion metric tons of it, 50 percent more than the US energy sector emitted that year.

To be sure, interconnectivity becomes a vicious force when it unravels. This is one of the most profound realities of the 21st century. Diamond mining poisons the rivers with mercury and cyanide that poison the fauna and flora that poison the creatures that eat them. The old children’s classic takes a dark turn. Diamond mining clears the forests that release the carbon that warms the atmosphere that leads to “vast genocides of people and other critters,” adds the wide-ranging feminist scholar and theorist Donna J. Haraway, “in systemically linked patterns that threaten major system collapse after major system collapse after major system collapse.”

It is perfectly reasonable, if you follow these events carefully, as I do, to experience existential despair and, eventually, a paralyzing detachment so severe it becomes hard to feel much genuine concern, even for the fate of the Paiter Suruí. With three degrees Celsius of warming and the devastation it will cause humans and our animal and plant kin by 2100 being practically a certainty, how might we snap out of what writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls, in the novel 2312, a “state of indecisive agitation” ?

Almir Suruí has long wanted people to grasp what’s at stake in the Amazon, and by extension, on planet Earth. As the REDD+ project was coming to fruition, Suruí wrote Save the Planet (with Corine Sombrun), published in the English translation by Julia Grawemeyer in 2018. Save the Planet might help address our detachment if we return to the concept of interconnectivity and follow it to its corollary: responsibility. At the same time, we need a propulsive force—call it will—to see the threat as gravely as Suruí does, so that our practical concerns, even if we can’t conceive them, match his.

How to address the urgency is the question,” Donna Haraway writes in her recent Staying with the Trouble. In other words, how might we imagine the gun being pointed at our heads?


We Have Never Known Mother Earth

By John Tresch

Haraway is a tactile writer, who uses language to manifest the messy substance of Earth things and the active nature of their convergences. To be a creature of any kind, in Haraway’s parlance, is to creature—and never alone. In that mode she writes of extinction not as a monolithic event but as a “protracted slow death that unravels great tissues of ways of going on in the world.” The borderless catholicity of her prose is a kind of gurgling compost of our times that she, when necessary, tinctures with surprising drops of tough love. She thus issues a stern warning early in Staying with the Trouble against “sublime despair and its politics of sublime indifference.” It’s no use wringing our hands.

Impatiently, Haraway begs us instead to think, and not as God-like man in control of nature. This is the thoughtless thinking (she likens to the banality of evil) that got us into this situation in the first place. For this reason she rejects the use of the term “Anthropocene” to describe the geological era of human dominance of the earth, a self-dealing label, she says, that traps us with our own false sense of self-determination.

Rejecting anthropocentrism means also rejecting the lazy faith in being saved by some kind of technological breakthrough. In this Haraway borrows from sociologist of science Bruno Latour and finds harmony with philosopher Timothy Morton, whose latest in a string of exuberantly reasoned books that grapple with human beings amid environmental crisis is called Being Ecological. (Jordan Sand considered Morton’s conceptually vivid Hyperobjects in “Global Warming and Network Think” in Public Books in 2014.) Like Haraway, Morton is a winding writer who often turns to art as evidence of response and resistance. If there is hope for humanity, both writers believe, it resides in the open-ended quality of improvisation and not in the teleological impetus for techno-efficiency and a blind faith in progress.

Being ecological starts by following Haraway’s exhortation—“think we must; we must think!”—to its natural corollary, how to think—and beyond that, how to act or not act at all. Morton says that humans have inherited a hardened ethos developed over the 12,500 years of the agricultural age, which enforced a strict separation between human and nature. According to this anthropomorphic mindset, he posits, “Things are objectified lumps of something like plastic, lying ‘over there,’ that I can manipulate at will.” We live with the consequences of this stuck way of thinking, Morton concludes. “A huge amount of violence goes into sustaining this view, precisely because it isn’t accurate.”

Rejecting anthropocentrism means also rejecting the lazy faith in being saved by some kind of technological breakthrough.

Such is the violence precisely experienced by the Paiter Suruí, according to Save the Planet. The first nonindigenous person to make contact arrived in their forest in 1969. Almir’s father and other leaders on a hunting mission had climbed a hill when they spotted “an enormous snake with a yellow head”—a bulldozer—devouring trees, “opening and emptying the rainforest.” Soon, a man working for the Brazilian government, Apoena Meireles, began leaving gifts—pots and pans, knives, and scissors. The bulldozers were clearing forest for the construction of a new highway, BR-364, and the Paiter Suruí were in the way. For six months, Meireles left gifts for the tribe, which led to meetings. To show respect and to demonstrate he wasn’t armed, Meireles wore almost no clothes.

Mereiles’s appearance in the forest was the culmination of over a half century of steps—first railroads then telegraph lines and now the highway—that would loosen indigenous people from their forest home. His mask of friendship belied the violent intent of the highway engineers. Flu, measles, and the fungal infection blastomycosis appeared immediately, slashing the Paiter Suruí population from 5,000 to 240.

Almir Suruí was born during this devastation, with the tribe struggling to survive. When he was seven, Suruí’s father, Marimop, gave him an initiation into the rainforest. He had to learn the sounds of every being and how to interpret them; he had to learn the nature of each branch and vine, seed and fruit, to understand the forest’s equilibrium, of which he was a part. “Do you see this liana, gapixág napoah?” Marimop asked him.

“It will be useful if you ever get hurt in the forest. The sap of its bark stops bleeding. And here is the water liana. You can drink its juice. But only cut if you are thirsty. The forest is a living thing, and she will only respect you if you respect her.”

Not so differently, Timothy Morton asks that we banish the separation between humans and other life-forms. In an earlier and somewhat more groundbreaking work, The Ecological Thought, Morton avers that capital-N Nature doesn’t exist: “The ecological thought permits no distance.” All beings are thoroughly connected through an all-encompassing, interdependent convergence he calls “the mesh” (which Almir Suruí likely just calls the forest). “So the big picture here,” Morton writes in Being Ecological, “is that your ideas about, and your feelings about, and your plans about, lifeforms and the biosphere coexist along with lifeforms and the biosphere. They are part of what is connected together. You aren’t outside the biosphere looking in. You are glued to it, in a way that’s much more super than Super Glue.”


Too Bad About the Trees

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann

The biological concept of no separation, of the symbiotic yet not always harmonious intermingling of all life-forms (from microbes, bacteria, and viruses to giant fauna)—what Haraway describes as “becoming-with”—is owed to evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis. In this now well-accepted way to account for life, at least among many biologists, sympoiesis, the term for various beings becoming-with, replaces autopoiesis, the old idea that species come into being and survive as more or less autonomous beings. Through this new lens, scientists now study assemblages of living organisms called holobionts. They are the most accurate measurable scale of life.

And so we’ve arrived at a new, more situated, and less distant place. We are the mesh, and the mesh is us. Morton commands us to banish guilt—or panic or despair—since there isn’t anything more to do in order to be ecological. His point isn’t impudence but rather freedom. If the mesh, or the biosphere, isn’t an object separate from us, he concludes, “It means we don’t have to hold on to a fantasy for dear life, the fantasy of anthropocentrism.”

We’re free, then, Haraway writes, to “make kin” with other beings of all kinds (Morton calls this “playful care”). Start small, with speculative visions in science and art, in politics and literature, and “maybe, but only maybe, and only with intense commitment and collaborative work and play with other terrans, flourishing for rich multispecies assemblages that include people will be possible.”

These are hopeful, vegetative, and necessary concepts that when taken in earnest do much to nudge us toward improvisational freedom and away from paralysis or despair. But I can’t imagine they are sufficient. The act of developing a new language is necessary, but it is also somewhat distancing and even dizzying, offering interference when many of us still cannot grasp the coming eruption of danger and, at the same time, there’s so much to do.

Indeed, it seems to me that the shady mining and timber interests shredding the forest where the Paiter Suruí have been practicing sympoietics for generations can’t be stopped by a shift in consciousness, unless that shift in consciousness means that we accept some responsibility for ourselves and for others across the mesh. In Save the Planet and in his subsequent pleas for help, Almir Suruí takes responsibility for protecting the rainforest—given its profound abundance and capacity to store carbon—for all of us; in what sense, we might then ask, should we be responsible to him?

It seems to me that those of us in “the mesh” who have yet to directly experience climate devastation have to will ourselves to feel it now.

A profound sense of responsibility for the ecological crisis motivated David Buckel, an accomplished civil rights attorney, to take over the nascent compost program at Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn and turn it into one of the largest in the nation. By all accounts, Buckel understood the ways we’re connected in the mesh and was “committed to the quiet, daily work of making change.” But last winter Buckel despaired of the lack of urgent action on global warming and worried to a coworker, “Nobody cares, why does nobody believe it?” Hoping to awaken people, early one April morning, he walked from his house to a secluded spot in Prospect Park and set himself on fire.

In some sense Buckel’s act wasn’t all that different from Almir Suruí’s panicked plea. Both are what the philosopher John Holloway calls “the scream,” a concept that the sociologist Alexis Shotwell, in a recent book, Against Purity, puts to use in constructing an argument for the will to action. “Wherever we stand in relation to the world,” she writes, “we can scream ‘no!’ and open the space for many yesses.”

Shotwell explicitly thinks-with Donna Haraway, a favorite influence, and implicitly across academic disciplines with Timothy Morton. The mesh is fundamentally impure, and therefore the concept of purity, manifest as a desire to return to a separate, Edenic Nature, is an impossible fantasy—and a trap. “Purism,” Shotwell substantiates, “shuts down precisely the field of possibility that might allow us to take better collective action against the destruction of the world in all its strange, delightful, impure frolic.”

Shotwell has added something to our push beyond mere responsibility: the impetus to act and the “optimism of the will” it requires. She likens the open yet sticky possibility of living in the mesh—contingent on everyone—to the inscrutable future faced by those who learned decades ago to live with AIDS (the virus, too, part of the mesh). Their lives, she observes, are contingent on medicines they struggle to afford; they’ve had to become accustomed to a frightfully uncertain future. Shotwell encourages us “to start from an understanding of our implication in this compromised world, to recognize the quite vast injustices informing our everyday lives, and from that understanding to act on our wish that it were not so.” This seems an apt description of Almir Suruí, who has been forced to seek new ways to fund the Paiter Suruí’s work protecting the rainforest.


How to Live in Uncertain Times

By Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

The position of honesty that Shotwell describes is “the heart of prefigurative, loving, social movement practices whose point is not only to interpret the world, but to change it.” This sounds to me about exactly where David Buckel found himself in a second career at the community compost center. By all accounts, it was joyful, all-encompassing work. So why then did Buckel lose himself to despair? It’s impossible to say, of course, but it may have something to do with the distance between the work he was doing to take action against the destruction of the world and the tangible sense of that destruction. Life in New York City probably seemed pretty normal, even while he knew it wasn’t. It might have felt like having a phantom limb—the ecological crisis was there, he could sense it. But it wasn’t there, really, even accepting increasingly hot summers and the flooding from Hurricane Sandy. What a discomfiting feeling. Almir Suruí doesn’t experience that feeling; he experiences something quite different but actually much more unsettling, the loss of his very world, a gash in his section of the mesh. The immediacy of that problem engenders at times a surge of panic, as Suruí demonstrated in 2016, but it cannot condition the despair of distant responsibility. The gun at the head sharpens the mind and focuses intent.

In imagining how we might then act, Shotwell recalls a quote from the 1970s attributed to Lilla Watson, a Murri indigenous activist and artist: “If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” It seems to me that those of us in the mesh who have yet to directly experience climate devastation have to will ourselves to feel it now. This is perhaps what Haraway means by her command to think. Maybe that’s what Buckel wanted from self-immolation—to feel it. I submit that there are less lethal ways—the mind is a powerful thing. My liberation is bound to yours is bound to the Paiter Suruí. See the bulldozer in the distance? Let’s race to see who will be the first to stop it.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Wooden Bullets (2017). Photograph by Lastly Creative / Unsplash