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Let's See Ourselves

The fight against climate change has begun to reflect the colonial, top-down worldview that contributed to the problem in the first place. Mexican activist and storyteller Gustavo Esteva on a new vision—one that is radically bottom-up.

Mural, photo by Franco Folini

Photo by Franco Folini.

In mid-February, Mexican “de-professionalized” intellectual, grassroots activist and vibrant storyteller Gustavo Esteva travelled from a Zapotec village in Oaxaca, where he lives, to California to participate in several gatherings that launched Unitierra Califas. The intercultural dialogue was inspired by the Universidad de la Tierra en Oaxaca, which Esteva founded. During his visit, Esteva also participated in a discussion entitled “Re-Activating Insurgent Learning: Interculturality, Indigenous Autonomy, and Grassroots Globalization” at the University of California, Davis. Later, in an interview with Davis resident Juliette Beck, he shared his perspective on climate change.  Here are his words, compiled from both conversations.


After a series of rainstorms in my village of San Pablo Etla, in southern Mexico, I asked 110-year-old Don Juanito, “Has it ever rained here during the peak of the dry season? Do you remember any time in history, during your father’s lifetime or your grandfather’s lifetime that it flooded in February?”

“No,” he said, “this has never happened.”

From direct experiences like these, we know that our behavior and lifestyle are harming Mother Earth. We may not all be contributing the same kind of damage, but we are all doing something harmful to Mother Earth. With this awareness, without the arrogance of pretending to “know” the planet, we know exactly what to do. We need to examine our own actions, our own attitudes, and stop destroying the part of Mother Earth that we are responsible for.

In some cases the problem is not just what each of us is doing wrong individually; it is the actions of a community, a collective, a group or a city. At times we may need to stop someone—a corporation, a mining company, or a logging operation—from doing something destructive in our territory. We may need the support of international networks in order to do so. But we need to start from a place of humility and recognize our own limits.

Learning from the Rio Earth Summit

Observers and participants of the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen have much to learn from the experience of the green movement at the 1992 Earth Summit. The greens, particularly in Germany, began as a radical social movement. Full of imagination and capacity for mobilization, they not only were trying to protect the environment, but also calling for the re-organization of society.

In response to this demand for systemic change, the United Nations Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It was attended by 100,000 well-organized environmentalists. The summit essentially ended in a power grab by the industrialized countries. Those that caused the most environmental damage assumed the power to “fix” the problems. Of course, very little has been accomplished since then, and the environmental crisis has deepened.

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In preparation for the Rio Earth Summit, the British journal The Ecologist sent a team to explore the world. After a year of visiting over 100 countries, they wrote a brilliant book called Whose Common Future?: Reclaiming the Commons, which highlights how people all over the world—from Maine to Finland to Bangkok—are reclaiming their common heritage. In a myriad of ways, both materially and spiritually, millions are regenerating their common land and social fabric. Some are reclaiming past traditions while others are creating new, contemporary commons in urban settings or trying to apply the rules of the commons to “global” areas. They are trying to protect or create ecological commons (water, atmosphere); social commons (welfare, health, education); and networked commons (means of communication).

Many promising community-based initiatives are also emerging in the United States. People here don’t always have a way to express what they are doing, but they are talking in ways that were taboo 10 years ago. Take, for example, Detroit. The city is emblematic of the failure of industrial development and capitalism. Yet between the abandoned buildings, 900 community gardens are producing food. Teachers have discovered that they can take students out of the classroom and into the community gardens—even to learn arithmetic. This is creating a radically different experience of learning. To me, local initiatives like this are the pertinent response to the ecological crisis.

No One Can Know the Planet

Owl, photo by brendan.lally

Photo by brendan.lally.

The current discourse on global warming is counter-productive, epistemologically flawed, and based on a number of arrogant assumptions. Scientists and policy makers are essentially saying, “First, we know well how the planet works. Second, we know exactly what is happening to the planet. Third, we know how to fix it.” But we are not God. No one can “know” the planet. We certainly can’t predict what will happen in 50 or 100 years. This line of reasoning produces paralysis and powerlessness among the public.

The assumption is frequently made that, because the dimensions of global warming are so huge, we need to let the proper authority—a strong global government—solve the problem. This is dangerous given the authoritarian context entrapping society today. In my view, climate change and Osama bin Laden play the same role: They both intimidate people and are used to justify giving more power to unaccountable, self-serving bureaucracies.

The other area of my criticism is the illusion that “more of the same” is the only option. You are asking those who created the problem in the first place to fix the climate crisis by doing the same kinds of things they have been doing. It is irresponsible to say, “Let’s go to Copenhagen, or to the next U.N. climate summit in Mexico in November, and then they will create the relevant treaty, adopt the proper policies and fix the problem. All we need to do is to put pressure on them.”

Let’s See Ourselves

What looms ahead is frightening. But at the same time, I am full of celebratory hope because people’s awareness and actions are growing all over the planet. Whether here in the Bay Area or in Paris or in Bangkok, people are refusing to accept the status quo and the Western model of industrialized “development.” I believe we are engaged in a kind of barely visible insurrection that is just coming into focus. This is a new kind of insurrection: peaceful, democratic, nonviolent. It implies a radical rebellion against the current situation and the will to profoundly transform conventional patterns.

For centuries, traditional communities were rooted in their own territories, resisting and protecting themselves from colonialism and development. But this often created a parochial type of localism and, in some cases, fundamentalism. I am part of a loose network of grassroots communities that rejects both localist and globalized ways of thinking. We describe our activities today as localization.

Localization means being rooted in our own place, in our own culture. At the same time, we are open to creating coalitions with others like us who are also locally rooted and discontented with the so-called “modern world.” We share the belief that it is important to be ruled by the traditions originating from our own culture—not by norms established by the capitalist economy or the nation-state. We also believe in defining the rules collectively, by the community, by the group, by the we. For us this is autonomy.

As the Zapatistas say, “We want to create a world in which many worlds can be embraced.” Let’s take this seriously.

For centuries, we have struggled to protect our autonomy from outside forces of colonialism, development, globalization, and individualism. Many communities have successfully kept their traditions going and have maintained their own identity. We are not static, but always changing in our own way, on our own terms. In a sense, we are back from the future, trying to pack the future into the present. We are trying to create a different kind of society.

In Oaxaca, Mexico we are clearly advancing in that path, in spite of immense economic, social, and political challenges. Only 15 percent of land is privately owned; 85 percent of land is common property, in the hands of the people. Our current struggle is to expand this autonomous sphere, following tradition, to include all aspects of life—economic, social, and political. In a very real sense we are involved in an ongoing insurrection that is moving beyond capitalism and socialism, beyond economic society, beyond the political horizon of nation-state, and trying to create a different kind of life.

To do this, we are following a path of intercultural dialogue—among the 16 indigenous cultures of Oaxaca, with the society at large, and also with many foreigners visiting Oaxaca. This isn’t just about having a frank and open conversation. The process begins with recognizing that cultures are radically different, and these differences are inherently valuable. Too often the Western attitude assumes that non-Western people need to be changed to be the “right way” and have the “right kinds of things.”  We want to find a way for different cultures to engage with each other without domination or violence. As the Zapatistas say, “We want to create a world in which many worlds can be embraced.” Let’s take this seriously. Let’s abandon the homogenizing global project of “one world.” How can we really co-exist in harmony—with each other and with the Earth?

This is the moment for radical change. This is the moment for the climate justice movement. We can use all the growing awareness and concern to change direction. Instead of focusing energy on “seeing upstairs,” obsessed with what the powers that be are doing or not doing, let’s see to us. Let’s see ourselves.


Gustavo Esteva bio picGustavo Esteva and Juliette Beck wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Gustavo is a grassroots activist and deprofessionalized intellectual. Author of many books and essays, former advisor to the Zapatistas, and member of several independent organizations and networks, Mexican and international, he lives in an indigenous village in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

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