On The Shaman’s Couch. Why Only Indians Can Save Our Modern Soul

We all know the spirit of modernity is dying. Two overlapping processes, globalization and global warming, conspire to kill it.

According to the 2013-14 Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, the total anthropogenic Radiative Forcing (RF), which quantifies the changes in energy fluxes due to changes in the man-made drivers of climate change for our time relative to 1750, “has increased more rapidly since 1970 than during previous decades. The total anthropogenic RF best estimate for 2011 is 43% higher than that reported in AR4 for the year 2005”.[1]  As a result “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia”, and “there are likely more land regions were the number of heavy precipitation events has increased than where it has decreased”.[2]

The evidence is conclusive. However, if you need more evidence, just look through the window: floods in Britain, freak winter in the USA, droughts in South America. And we are told to expect more of it in years to come. The conclusion, based on the best available science, is forthcoming: “human influence on the climate system is clear”.[3]

This means that the same processes that made it possible for us to dream of  progress, development, freedom or national liberation in the past have also turned us into something much larger than the singular biological and historical agents that we have always been: sometime between the mid-twentieth and early twenty-first century we became geological agents of destruction, climate changers, extinction perpetrators; all of us. It is no longer a case of humankind having an interactive relation with nature, but of humankind being a force of nature in a geological sense.

Crucially, we became geological agents very recently and only collectively. To acknowledge entails we must take stock of the fact that a fundamental assumption in our current social sciences and political thought (methodological individualism, and its philosophical obverse, correlationism) has come undone.

Confronted with another crisis – the crisis of Western naturalism -German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued in despair that only a god could save us. But not even divine intervention could guarantee our redemption this time around. Not because god is dead, but rather, because god or the gods became modern just as well: if the gods did not die, at least their position has come to be occupied by money. Readers of a religious persuasion will surely remember what one of the founders of monotheism, Paul of Tarsus, said about money: that the love of it was the root of all evil. I’ll leave it to the economists to argue the point with St. Paul. After all, such debate takes place among theologians precisely because economics has become in our time the dominant theology and money its sole divinity. This is to say that what determinesour modern soul, it is precisely the love of money. And if such is the case, then a change in our culture – for instance, to recover our loss faith in god or the gods of old by turning against the materialism of money – however desirable, simply will not do.

The proposition I would like to advance is of a different kind. It is the basis of my response to the question whether for countries like India or my native Colombia resources are a blessing or a curse: we need a different concept (or rather, a different state) of nature. And since such a state is precisely what theperspectivism of Indians in the Americashas to offer – what I have called in my book What If Latin America Ruled the World? “the dream of the Indians”, aperspective (not magical, but realist)recently celebrated in the exhibition Beyond El Dorado in London’s British Museum –  I am going to say that only Amerindians can save our modern soul.

What does this mean? This is not the placeto unpack Amerindian perspectivism. For that, you will have to read my books. But perhaps we could say something more about it during the discussion; maybe I could tell you the story of what the jaguar saw when he went hunting in the Amazon.

For now I can only use the dream of the Indians to offer my answer to the question around which we gather today. Let me say that, in principle, it seems easy to respond. Given the undeniable connection between the wealth locked in our natural resources and the violence that in countries such as Colombia has resulted from the clash between rival economic and political interests, resources are a curse. Such was the position taken in the 1970s by the writer Eduardo Galeano in his classic Open Veins of Latin America. There, he reasonably concluded: “Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into … capital. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and the capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources (…) the history of Latin America’s underdevelopment is, as someone has said, an integral part of the history of world capitalism’s development. Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others … in the colonial and neo-colonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.”[4]

This argument represented the predominant approach at the time, the structuralist approach developed by American economist André Gunder-Frank and Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, among others. The latter was a close advisor of Salvador Allende in Chile, as well as a critic of what he called “the left that lost its way” during the tumultuous years of the Chilean Revolution, a revolution of the mind and the soul, which I have recently chronicled in Story of a Death Foretold.

But there is some reason too, in the response given by those who argue that the appropriation and exploitation of natural resources constitutes for a country like Colombia a source of prosperity, not only for some but for the entire nation. Such reason is the one given by English and French economists between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who immunise property against the Christian and common obligations derived from the right of subsistence, based on the economic theology developed a century before in Spain as well as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Here lies the crux of my answer: both positions, seemingly opposed, in fact share a similar conception of nature as indisputable wealth.

In contrast, I believe that to reinterpret fruitfully the debate between structuralists and Smithians from the perspective of our time of crisis, is to shift from such a conception to one that sees nature as a highly local and historical topic of inquiry, the terrain of a conflict ( i. e. a veritable war of positions) and not merely as a reservoir of resources. In this point converge Amerindianperspectivism and the most advanced results of climate change science, a fact that may still surprise some people.

Seen from this novel viewpoint, the conflict that has ravaged Colombia in recent times can no longer be described as a clash of ideologies. Rather, it has been a violent battle, fought with the sole aim of introducing even more nature into our concept of property and accumulation. And, to conclude, if the latter wins not only Colombians but all of us will be the ultimate losers.


[1]PCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 11.

[2] Ibid. 2-3

[3] Ibid. 13. There is now enough evidence to support the thesis that unless the scientific consensus shifts in a major way, which is unlikely, there is a large measure of truth to anthropogenic theories of climate change. Historian of science Naomi Oreskes of UCSD, has reported that upon examining the abstracts of 928 papers on global warming published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, Oreskes found not a single one intent on refuting such consensus. After 2003, the consensus has been strengthened by new evidence and improved climate models.

[4]E Galeano, Open Veins of LatinAmerica. FiveCenturies of thePillage of a Continent, trans. By C Belfrage, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009, 2.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera is the author of the award-winning What If Latin America Ruled the World? and more recently Story of a Death Foretold (Bloomsbury). Both were included on the Books of the Year list in 2010 and 2013 published by the Financial Times and The Observer, respectively. He's a columnist for The Guardian and El Espectador, and teaches Law and Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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