The Day After

“We can’t return to normal because the normal that we had was precisely the problem”. On
December 25, 2019, Quartz reporter Mary Hui retweeted a picture of this graffiti in Hong Kong.

The text attempts to develop further different dialogues in ASTM, particularly the dialogue with Ivonne Yánez from Acción Ecológica at the beginning of 2020. She explained the principles of interdependency, interdisciplinarity and intersectionality as a basis of their work for the rights of nature.

The Day After

For a while now, organizations involved in development work (we), question themselves (ourselves) the logic and even the possibility of their objectives abroad in a world of greater looming instability due to constant economic, social, political and environmental disruptions. We do not challenge the utter necessity and importance of development work. Neither do we question our responsibility and respect towards the southern partnerships.

How to continue the work ahead in the face of major uncertainties? One can cut the atmosphere with a knife with the following: how to ensure the safety of our partners in ever-growing violence contexts? How to work in the context of with constant life-threatening environmental disruptions?
The world changed considerably during the last 20 years. It changed dramatically during the last 2 years. And, surely, the world is unrecognizable from 1 month ago.
As several countries, including Luxembourg, are left in a semi-lockdown due to a pandemic, there is time to reflect about the conundrum of development work and beyond it. This is an attempt.

The context

In 2017, Amnesty International reported the escalation of attacks towards human rights defenders as a disturbing trend. We have seen draconian measures taken in broad daylight by authoritarian regimes but also by democratic countries. The democratic countries follow this trend with aesthetically justified reasons such as “the protection of society”. The protection of society comes in the form of corporate and governmental mass surveillance, the increased criminalization of vulnerable groups, and the subtle militarization of the police forces. The escalation happens not without resistance in the shape of social movements and civil unrest here and abroad.

To the above crisis, we should not forget the steady fall of the stock markets despite the failed attempts of central banks to pump in ridiculous amounts of money. We are now in an economic crisis that promises to compete with that one from the Great Depression of the 1920s. Some say the financial system is dead for a while, only kept in an artificial supported coma.

The sine qua non condition, the fuel of the political, social and economic breakdown, is the human-made degradation of life on Earth. It precedes the others. The slow but steady environmental crisis (comprised of our relentless destructive lifestyle of exploitation-consumption and the consequent ongoing collapse of the natural systems) materializes now in the current pandemic.

In this context, the discussion is not anymore about what countries are unstable but which ones are still stable and… for how long. Including ours.

Two reference points

As we experience the immediacy of the overwhelming crises, there are two reference points directly related to our work:

1. The necessity of human rights

The European Union is considered, in the Western world, as an example for its democratic values and human rights. The standards are lowering down, evidently, here and abroad.
The most blatant example is the “quiet” creation of concentration camps built in the inside (some Greek islands) and when possible exported to the outside (Turkey, Libya and Morocco) borders of Europe to stop the most vulnerable: thousands of people escaping the collapse of their livelihoods who see no option but to migrate. They end up confined in far-too-overcrowded spaces with no access to hygienic conditions nor any level of living decency. Sexual and labor slavery are latent. Children, women and men, alike, share one unique trait in common: they lack the purchasing power to pay for a legal fast-track place in. Most are left in a dead-end of desperation, when not, sometimes, death.
Their plight is our plight. How to justify the struggle abroad for human rights when we are witnesses of the construction of fortress Europe? What can we honestly ask from abroad?
In this sense, our work is more relevant than ever. Not only abroad. As Eduardo Galeano argues, the utopia –of human rights, in this case— will always lie at the horizon, but its very purpose is to walk. Walking towards that horizon makes a difference.

2. Green is the new gold

To the short deadline from scientists to change urgently the way we live to prevent environmental collapse, the “invisible hand” of the economic system responds vainly with marketing strategies. Literally everything becomes green through a simple yet magic transformation: the addition of the word green before any concept.
Let me introduce you to this cheap art: green investment, green innovations, green technology, green finances, and of course, this is a green strategy. For more ideas, please look at the accurately named Green Deal of the European Commission. For the connoisseurs the greening of our language is pretty much just greenwashing. It deeply concerns our work not only abroad as these marketing strategies give a false hope while nothing is being done.

Let us use the example of the boom, promoted by corporations and governments alike, of electric transportation (cars, buses, etc.). Here we do not see greenhouse gas emissions. But that is not enough. There are no answers as to how these technologies differ from the exploitative and destructive fossil fuels extraction, use and waste management. We exchange oil for lithium and other minerals.
Green is the new gold. Ultimately, it is not a matter of switching our addiction to fossil fuels to other resources. It is not a matter of changing to green products while we continue our overconsumption. It is about the logic with which we live in the world. The logic remains unchanged. Our work is more relevant than ever. Not only abroad.

Not only abroad or the expansion of our perspective towards interdependency

What lies behind all these solutions is the imperative of economic growth at any cost to keep up our unsustainable toxic economic system. Our culture is based on principles of egoistic comfort at all costs, competition for domination, rationality to absurd levels and happiness as material wealth.

We continue to export as much as possible our negative externalities (the cheapest labor, human rights abuses, the pollution) and we import the clean and shiny… laundered. We turn a blind eye to the devastated landscapes and devastated lives in the name of our lifestyles.

Lifestyle here supports the lifestyle there. Our lifestyle here cannot exist without that one far away. We are interdependent. The pandemic is an experience of this disregarded interdependency.

The complexity behind or the intersecting interdependency and interdisciplinarity

We have separated all the compelling and urgent crises into clean separated themes and subthemes: human rights crisis (indigenous, women, refugees), environmental crisis (climate, landgrabbing), energy crisis (fossil fuels, nuclear), and economic crisis (trade wars, terrorist crisis, war), among others.

We face and jump from one crisis to another, not knowing which one to “tackle” or how to “tackle” them due largely to two reasons.

On the one hand, we are used to work in silos alienated into very limited disciplines. Knowledge has been compartmentalized to ridiculous levels that deem a holistic understanding of reality as unattainable. On the other hand, we are compelled to “tackle” all crises prioritizing the neoliberal economic imperative, irrespective of the particular nature of the crises. A clear social and political theory with an obvious agenda and values is taken as a hard science upon which all decisions must be evaluated.

What has this confusing approach to reality brought upon us? We can only accept as true highly specialized science; science that we honestly do not understand (unless it lies in our domain of specialization). Simultaneously, the pervasiveness of neoliberal economic theory left us with a notion of ourselves as rational automata, homo economicus, that works as a self-fulfilling prophecy of hiking selfish behavior and lacking sense of community and belonging. That is the call for interdisciplinarity: to reconstruct reality and our place in it.

The hyper compartmentalized knowledge relegated to the imperative of an all-encompassing neoliberal economic theory is an obstacle to development work and to our livelihoods as such.
The call for interdisciplinarity is not to “tackle” the crises. It is to make sense of them not only as an individual theoretical analysis from our professional perspective –as a political matter, an economic dilemma, a psychological paradigm, and so on—but as our own personal full human endeavor and experience.
As we cannot separate the ecological and health issue from the economic and social one, we cannot continue to separate the professional person from the human, the “individual” human from the community, and ourselves from nature. That is the intersection between interdependence and interdisciplinarity: recognizing the full existence.

From intersectionality to one crisis

According to the Hindu fable “the blind men and the elephant” , several blind men went to search what is an elephant. Each of them touched different parts of the elephant: the ear, the trunk, the leg and the tail. Obviously, each of them ended with a completely different understanding of what an elephant is: like a fan, a wall, a column and a rope. Despite all of them experiencing the same elephant and being partly right, they could not understand they were all in front of one and the same elephant.

The future of development work, and of our existence, depends on answering to all the crises, simultaneously, by conceiving it as one. That is, reconstructing the elephant.
Attending to the interdisciplinarity and interdependency, the crises have the same roots and they are actually just one: our notion of ourselves and the world and the consequent exploitative relations we build with nature, others and ourselves. We are aware the core issue is our cosmovision but how to move beyond it? This is the elephant and we are the blind men.

Our development work implies that we are near the frontlines of the crisis. We see firsthand the multiple expressions of the crisis, their impacts, and the interdependency with our own reality. We grasp to some extent the intersectionality. That is how race, class, gender and geographical location play in discrimination and disadvantages systems that silence and oppress large parts of society. The voices of vulnerable persons are systematically unheard by force and lack of interest. Their perspective (of indigenous groups, women carers, children and nature itself) is key to the solutions.
Existentially questioning us about the interdependency and interdisciplinarity through intersectionality opens the door to define the elephant and redefine ourselves in the process.

The way beyond is in

In the current pandemic, politicians refer to a rhetoric of war when there is no enemy at sight. What war do we refer to when we stand in front of nobody but ourselves and our shortcomings in front of the collapse (by our own making) of life as we know it?

As the pandemic shakes our lives in unknown ways, let us consider four reflections.
One, the least paid, least recognized, and most vulnerable persons here and abroad (the cleaning workers, the supermarket workers, the trash collectors, farmers) perform fundamental tasks for society to function. They should be protected and not sacrificed. Here and abroad.

Second, the solution lies in solidarity instead of war rhetorics. Our capacity to care for each one is the simplest yet most revolutionary act to keep everyone safe as to keep us safe. Here and abroad.
Third, our aim is systematic changes here and abroad that imply working beyond silos of knowledge (interdisciplinarity) while consciously acknowledging our responsibility and interdependency. The only way to reach this is by consciously including the disregarded and vulnerable perspectives that carry the biggest burden of the system (intersectionality) in the search for a common good. Systematic changes can only happen out of the redefintion of our own identity in the process.

Fourth, as our lives wait in stand by, the pandemic looks like an invitation to focus on the urgency now. Let us remember, we cannot return back to normal because that normal was precisely the problem. We are in uncharted territory.

This is the day after.

P.S. The tide is low and the king is not the only one naked. We all are.

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