If we had given up Montedison for a firefly, I don’t think I would ever have been born: my grandfather, a chemical worker, was persuaded by some office in Via della Moscova to migrate to Porto Marghera in order to support his family, thus opening up the possibilities of new genealogical branches. He had to take care of a family that one might say was heteronormative and “seduced by the promises of the economic boom”, by the petit-bourgeois landfall scorned by Pasolini. For some years I have chanced to see fireflies among the night hedges, on those evenings when one looks at the sky in search of comets. For some years a string of new lights can be seen in the sky, those of the Starlink satellites, which take a low-latency, broadband, internet connection around the world: they promise to span the digital divide between rich and poor countries. But poets should not be taken literally, much less entrepreneurs; broadband speaks the same language as other conquests.
In pursuit of continuous technological breakthroughs, the present now crosses the threshold of likelihood: it escapes us, but follows ancient rules, already tested schemas. Amitav Ghosh writes that the mind must get used to an age when the improbable is proposed as normal, in India where he was born as in New York where he lives, among the floods, storms, droughts, landslides and tornadoes that reshape our idea of the ordinary. In The Great Derangement, an exploration into literary possibilities amid the confusion of the climate emergency, Ghosh suggests it could be a good idea to provide ourselves with a good sense of catastrophe, which he thinks always accompanied mankind’s development on Earth, until “the instinctive awareness of the planet’s unpredictability” was gradually replaced by the system of ideas behind scientific theories “like that of Lyell”, the geologist. In other words, gradualism, the idea that “nature never makes leaps”, a point of no return in the history of Western thinking. Lyell’s first book was given to the twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin embarking on the Beagle. Darwin observed and studied the southern hemisphere for more than five years, where he verified Lyell’s intuitions with his own eyes. As Elizabeth Kolbert notes (The Sixth Extinction), Darwin “became more Lyellian than Lyell”, ending up applying the master’s ideas to the organic world. Not only landscapes but also living beings, over time, change. At times though they disappear, become extinct, because every now and then nature actually does make leaps. In recent decades it seems to also make them frequently. There is no longer any doubt that we are experiencing a sixth extinction, but we who?
Geological and literary work are united by an exploratory drive, a desire to unravel the weft of things that have happened, in the hope that to close the series of cause and effect there will be something, at least a hook, to hang onto. Reconstructing the premises that have distorted the times that concern us, the flattening of a future horizon is more than possible; thousands of books are written on it, ecological movements are formed. Reality does not respond to the logic of the thriller, though, rather that of the noir: we know who the guilty parties are, the same ones who often give us a job or take care of our savings. So the protagonist, this we, is as reliable as can be the miserable 12% of the world’s population, the educated white person.
The educated white person is scattered all over the world, but his nest is the European continent. Only an outside observer can ultimately judge the ideology of a Progress described as universal. In Provincializing Europe, Dipesh Chakrabarty (born in Bangladesh, grew up in India) has systemised the criticism of the modernity advanced by a West that has imposed its own ideas of development as natural, without allowing any room for alternative modernities that may arise or already shape other societies. Throughout its history, says Chakrabarty, the “official” story has become (and perhaps has always been) a kind of institutionalisation of the European look at the rest of the world; a look that, moreover, was forged and solidified in the same years the capitalist structure emerged. The rest of the planet is automatically presented as something obsolete or anachronistic, destined to make a teleological effort, inevitably and definitively developing in the forms of Western modernity. As a historian, Chakrabarty tries to emphasise how the story of the world is actually a polyphonic song of local stories, of voices and possible presents that do not necessarily have to be sacrificed on the altar of a single future. The European look, including the pen that actuates my dissent, is projected by a dark consciousness that has multiplied in the use of not only theoretical violence; over the course of the centuries the colonial project, as known, has been justified starting precisely from a “civilising” premiss. The justifications are stories, and stories are packets of information: today, information runs in cables.
In 1848 Michael Faraday published a study on the prodigious insulating capacities of gutta-percha; a natural rubber that, within a decade, was to allow telegraphic cables to be laid on the ocean floor. On 16 August 1858 Queen Victoria wrote, online, to the US President: “The Queen desires to congratulate the President upon the successful completion of this great international work, in which the Queen has taken the deepest interest. The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the electric cable […] will prove an additional link between the nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem”. Queen Victoria and President Buchanan bowed to each other through a gutta-percha cable weighing 2000 tonnes. The production of one tonne of latex required 900,000 tree trunks. And as the telegraphic network grew, so did investments in the insulator; the sap was collected by underpaid labourers who climbed the trees holding a machete. The latex was then processed (in the British colonies there were no mechatronics or trade unions) and shipped to London. In 1883 the Palaquium gutta had almost disappeared, and with the tree also the term. What remained were destroyed ecosystems, slaves without work and deserted markets.
The gutta-percha story offers a glimpse of that web of suffering, inequality and squandering of resources that is activated every time we turn on the light, the wi-fi, those intangible services that seem to appear like spectres from the walls. Telegraph cables were replaced by telephone cables; fibre optics have since been added to these on the seabed. 97% of the global flow of information runs across the ocean floor, where 15 million financial transactions are processed every day, moving tens of billions of billions of dollars. Hundreds of transoceanic cables radiate across the planet, creating the Internet backbone.
It is a metaphor that has been repeated for centuries. As James Gleick reminds us in his The Information, telegraphic systems were immediately compared to biological ones: “Cables like nerve fibres, the nation (or the whole Earth) like the human body. […] The anatomists who examined nerve fibres wondered whether they were insulated with an organic version of gutta-percha” (inserire nota con “traduzione del traduttore dal testo italiano”). Walt Whitman preferred the heart to the brain, in one of his notes in Leaves of Grass, when in 1860 he praised the first transatlantic cable: “What whispers are these O lands, running ahead of you, passing under the seas? Are all nations communing? Is there going to be but one heart to the globe?”.
For almost two centuries, the communing nations were only a handful among the hundreds. Indeed, as with the telegraph revolution, the first channels to be reinforced were those between West and West. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, writes Keller Easterling, “East Africa – one of the most populous areas of the world – remains in a broadband shadow as one of last places on earth to receive an international fibre-optic submarine cable link and access to only one percent of the world’s broadband capacity”. In Kenya, until 2009, the cost of a megabit per second was almost forty times the global average. How was this possible? «The advent of the satellite in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the emergence of many developing countries and was seen as a way to override the infrastructure monopolies and hierarchies of industrialised countries with an overhead network. Yet some of these futuristic projections of the coexistence of a fully modernised world with a pristine pastoral landscape foundered in the so-called last mile, where fixed networks such as the electrical one would have to provide the necessary complement to the satellite signal. The receiving device had to be powered, and in the absence of adequate auxiliary networks it was necessary to create enclaves – closed commercial or industrial zones capable of attracting foreign investment – to which the transport network, the electrical grid and broadband could be brought in one go». (inserire nota con “traduzione del traduttore dal testo italiano”).
In the collective imagination, the setting of colonial history is a mix of ships, ports and caravans. In the twentieth century, though, the methods of invasion underwent irreversible changes, to the point of appearing in the radio waves exchanged by stacked machines, pulsating lights that blend with those of the stars.
In the 1960s and 1970s the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), one of America’s leading evangelical missionary organisations, landed in the Amazon rainforest. The SIL was involved in settling the infamous last mile during the postwar period, especially in the 1970s, often thanks to the interest of its sponsors, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The SIL’s mission, Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares recall in the Forest Law project, was to “pacify and civilise” indigenous peoples at different latitudes, from Guatemala to Vietnam.
Others would say, more technically, containment of dissent and integration into the capitalist structure. To achieve these aims, the strategy had to be expressed in space, inhospitable and alien. Frontier cities were thus established in the loops of the Amazon forest that were directly named Shell, like the industry that made them possible. From Shell, in a few decades, the heterogenetic aims of missionaries, army and oil industry worked up to the last mile using a form of increased violence, able to combine all the knowledge of colonialist tradition with the exploitation of new technologies. The indivisible work of satellites and radio signals framed the One of the forest, indivisible since the depths of time, to proceed with its fragmentation, quantification and reformulation.
The alliance between evangelisation and fossil industry is, in short, grafted onto the ground occupied for centuries by the plantation machine, a process that over time has developed along specific lines that cannot be generalised. Something that has not changed over time, however, is the blind application of knowledge and tools assembled in the West. Europe gave birth to the Euclidean vision of the planet, an Earth divided into slices and therefore able to be rationalised (according to calculation-reason and portion-ration), an Earth that can be measured and exploited. The many alternatives to the name Anthropocene as known now include that of Plantationocene: the geological epoch triggered by the imperialist force that mixes men and continents, viruses and money, allochthonous animals and dictatorial regimes.
The radical antithesis of the extractivist view is what at the dawn of anthropology was defined as “primitive”, a system of social and political relations that rejects a Cartesian and reductionist, precisely, measurable, idea of time; a symbiosis with the biosphere that relies on the repetition of natural cycles. In the hands of the white man, these are just words. It is certainly not the world that raised me, and that surrounded by books has protected me, by circumstances and genealogies, from the life of the Vargas family. Here is a testimony taken in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, on 8 July 2011, in the context of a lawsuit brought by the indigenous Kichwa people of Sarayaku against the State of Ecuador: “Mr Cesar Vargas had his lands in a place called Pingullo, and he lived there with his trees. When they [the people of CGC, an Argentinean oil and gas company] felled this Lispungo tree and with it the fibres used for cures, it made him very sad (…), and his wife died, then he died, and a son also died, and after that another son died, and now only two daughters are left”.
In the cities of Progress, trees end up being an ornamental nuisance; in pre-colonial societies they are manifestations of the genius loci, ancestors, conscious beings, arbiters of a people’s destiny. A few hours’ flight from the Vargas family, in the same Amazon forest that is being atomised, the Yanomami try to survive. Davi Kopenawa, a shaman and spokesman for the Yanomami people of Brazil, wrote The Falling Sky, in which he presents a previously unheard dialogue between his culture (the Yanomami language, spiritual life and value system) and that of the white man. Despite a history of massacres, mutilations and epidemics: “We do not want to tear minerals from the earth, or have their epidemic fumes fall down on us! We want the forest to remain silent and the sky to remain clear so that we can distinguish the stars when night comes. […] If the breath of life of all our people dies out, the forest will become empty and silent. Our ghosts will then go to join all those who live on the sky’s back, already in very large numbers. The sky, which is as sick from the white people’s fumes as we are, will start moaning and begin to break apart”.
The sky is suffering, the sky is falling. Progress has transformed the Earth as far as up there, where satellites light up in rows imitating the stars. One day, they too will fall.