2025: The Entire Surface of the Earth Is Occupied

Comments on Vera Lúcia Imperatriz-Fonseca’s lecture,
Biodiversity and Global Policies

by Julia Buenaventura

In Las maravillhas del año 2000 [The wonders of the year 2000], a book by Emilio Salgari, an older scientist convinces a young millionaire, bored with his own fortune, to travel to the future. They take a pill that, in 1903, will keep them frozen for a hundred years, so they can wake up in 2003 and contemplate the wonders of the new century. Salgari, who is a kind of Italian Jules Verne, dramatic and long-suffering, presents us a string of incredible inventions, all arising from electricity, in a somewhat chaotic world where, nevertheless, humanity remains more or less the same: we have a bureaucracy, dissidents are still rounded-up and there is a very bitter struggle against nature – which, in Salgari’s future, has not yet been defeated (extinct). What is most striking in the book, however, is the “premature” death of the two main characters, the scientist and the young millionaire, whose bodies cannot withstand the high electric voltage of the current world and succumb after some instances of madness.

Written in 1907, the novel does not even contemplate the possibility of a communist revolution, or rather, it tells there had been one, but that the project fell apart and only a few communities remained trying to grow their own food and develop group projects without resorting to capital. Salgari was a genius and his vision of the future reveals a lot about our own present: first, the ingrained and arduous struggle against nature on which our contemporary world is based, with its modern framework of production and accumulation; second, the pollution and contamination that overproduction generated in its attempt to save time (and it is amazing how clearly Salgari foresees, or guesses, or suspects this).

Talk with Vera Lucia Imperatriz - April 25, 2015The conference by Vera Lúcia Imperatriz-Fonseca, professor of the Ecology Department at the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo, revolved around this issue, the overexploitation of the world that has been going on for over fifty years, to such an extent that, as she put it, 2025 will see the entire surface of the planet occupied, taken over, invaded. In other words, Earth will not have even one square centimeter free from human presence and, above all, free from a mode of exploitation that leads to the annihilation of resources – that is not sustainable, in other words.

In this context, one of the fundamental questions professor Vera Lúcia raised was what can we do to preserve certain areas, how can we close off some regions to unbridled production. In short, how can we preserve and protect that which remains? To elaborate this issue, Vera Lúcia explained various agreements and protocols that have been established globally since the 1972 Brundtland Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the Rio agreements, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MS), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN at the end of last year.

Finally, Vera Lúcia focused on the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (EPBES), whose aim, as the name implies, is to preserve biodiversity, which faces serious threats because of its frailness and of the long time periods involved. EPBES is a project in which Vera Lúcia participates directly. (By the way, she has studied pollination systems in depth – the work that insects carry out discreetly, so to speak, but underpins the very survival of plants, the basis for all living beings.)

In this context, one of the most interesting points of her approach was the argument that, to address local problems, the solution must be local. This sounds simple but it is not, because one of the great contradictions of modernity and its modes of production is to provide general answers to specific questions, i.e., to solve specific issues with external solutions that quite often deteriorate or destroy the habitat one sought to help. To state that local problems need local solutions is, in my view, a paradigm shift, opening up the possibility that institutions or universities will listen to the people, to their specific problems, before proposing solutions – or, better yet, allowing solutions to emerge from the communities themselves.

Likewise, this point connects to another one expounded by Vera Lúcia, namely, that food is also a local issue, a position that calls into question a mode of production (monoculture, pesticides, fertilizers) that is literally wasting away the planet. Vera Lúcia also stressed that, in order to achieve actual changes in the modus operandi of the system, it is necessary (and urgent) that academics leave their own circle and join fields of action that are often in the realm of politics.

She later dedicated some time to discussing specific issues regarding the workings of this platform. For instance, how to select scholars interested in participating in the project and how to lay out schedules and activities.

One final point. In Salgari’s book, the world does not face many environmental problems. Animals have not been extinguished, a fact the characters actually see as a sign of defeat, as something negative. People are still engaged in farming, because they have been able to solve the food problem with electricity, even if machines are responsible for everything else. In Salgari’s world, there are no large food-producing corporations. Perhaps that is why it is humans (the young and the scientists) who die by means of their own inventions, even if they are still far cry from taking all life on Earth with them. In fact, in the novel, people continue to defend themselves and to annihilate – or, at least, corral – wild animals, which they have failed to fully master. This notion tells us that, far from being a flaw in the plan, our current situation, our destruction of the natural habitat, is, quite the opposite, a key part of the project.

The project was to have the entire world dominated, “cleansed,” occupied and populated. Occupied! This will happen, as Vera Lúcia indicated, in 2025. In short, what I’m trying to say is that disaster is part and parcel of the script we are following – unlimited production, progress and economic growth –, not a contingency of the modern project that, owing to a series of mistakes, came to this.

Thus, I think we must all fight for these projects that want to save biodiversity and preserve what remains. But I also think it is absolutely necessary to change the modern foundation of their approach. Talking about “sustainable economic development goals” (like the UN does) is a contradiction in terms; the modern economy has no alternative but to keep accelerating and growing, because growth is its essence, because capital will collapse if it does not grow.

Actually, we need the collapse of the economy, not these crises that merely bombard it. In other words, we must stop – not produce more of what we already produce, not accumulate, not progress. On the contrary, we must slow down, distribute and rest: stop the car, get off the locomotive and let go of the illusion that we are saving the only thing that cannot be saved: time. There is no wealth, no agenda, no nothing that can capture time. Yet time is precisely what the modern project wishes to conquer and save. Seeing it cannot, it attempts to destroy everything that exists.