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The panel I was in discussed environmental issues.
Carlos González 25 June 2004 A Realignment of the Cuban Soul and Imagination: Reconnecting with Air, Land, and Water The conversation about the future of the island’s ecology seems overwhelmed by political concerns; the future of the island’s systems of life do not seem promising, but then again, where are the promising futures for the integrity of any of Earth’s life systems right now? We are all living in very difficult times. The planet is undergoing the most insidious human intervention, leading to the greatest devastation since the last great die off 65 million years ago. It is estimated that humans use 40 per cent of the planet’s “net primary productivity” (Suzuki, 1997, p. 146). Our use of this energy comes at the expense of other life forms through our participation in industrial agriculture, logging, and industry (Suzuki, 1997, p. 146). As a result, primarily of our current habits of so-called production and consumption, an estimated 50,000 species become extinct every year—this number translates to 137 every day, and six each hour (Suzuki, 1997, p.150). Our human ancestors never saw or experienced anything of this magnitude. The very fabric of life is being torn apart and it seems like only a small fraction of humans are actively responding. Many of us in the West are entranced by a consumer lifestyle that is becoming endemic and worldwide and now threatens the entire planet. This is the wider context of this particular conversation on Cuba.
It is difficult to live in South Florida and to escape the very recent history of the island. The wound of exile is deep, and the Cuban imagination in and off the island seems fixated on the last 45 years. The pain of this longer than expected crisis could easily lead to an embracing of what seems to be the brighter future of American style consumerism, but to move in this direction is to miss the opportunity to re-imagine and re-work what it means to be human in relationship with rather than in opposition to the life systems that support us. It is also useful to note that from a historical perspective the last 45 years is a very short period of time. From an ecological one, it’s is not even a blink of an eye. Looking at Cuba from a larger context is important because the threads of the current violence and destruction are embedded in our longer (yet still very recent) history.
I would like to focus on our immediate ancestors and look at the last 500 years of European settlement; the patterns for the current devastation could easily be seen as the Spanish stepped foot on Cuba’s shores. As they did, they planted the seeds for the current environmental crisis. My aim is not to focus on Columbus; instead, what is significant is the culture that survived him and somehow is still intact all these years.
On a human level, Columbus and those who followed him unleashed a genocide that even to this day many fail to fully acknowledge and internalize. Soon after
3 first contact, the Carib, Taino, and Siboney people in Cuba were exterminated. How was this mass murder possible? More importantly, have we learned anything from it? Given the news from so many places around the world today, the Sudan, Rwanda, and the Amazon region with the continuing extermination of tribal people by transnational corporations seeking new oil and mineral reserves, the lesson is one that I don’t believe we have learned all that well.
At the root of the genocide and mistreatment was a deeply held belief that native island people and the Africans who came after lacked subjectivity, that is inherent worth because of their own being and existence. In essence, they were seen and treated as objects, resources to be used and exploited for the benefit of those who held political and economic control and power.
The objectification of native peoples continues in many places around the globe. It is clear to me that this initial response by the colonizers was terrible and inhumane. The popular view may be that our ethics have evolved and we now have a more humane outlook that would never commit such an atrocity given the opportunity.
But the culture that gave fruit to the genocide of first people throughout the America’s is intact and now even more entrenched after more than 500 years of technological refinement. Cuba’s recent dabbling with communism is not a departure from a modern Western philosophical system that denies subjectivity
4 to all non-human forms. On the contrary, it is a logical extension of a thinking that values functionality, reduction, and production over all forms of life, including human.
Capitalism, as practiced in the West, also comes up short. This is clear as we observe ourselves living on this side of the Straits; the culture of death brought on by several thousand years of ever increasing separation from Nature is unfortunately seen as a blessing. Note our air conditioned houses, giant SUV’s, and inordinate reliance on fossil fuels. Progress at the cost of Air, Earth, Water, and the fabric of life is not questioned; it is the measure of our success and our progress.
For most of us living away from our beloved island, the culture of insatiable wants is completely invisible and unquestioned; it has become so much part of the fabric of current life. Viewing nature as a resource to be used primarily for human good is business as usual. Because of our myopic cultural lenses, much of what we call sustainability is usually seen within a framework of fine-tuning our technology rather than a dismantling of the culture that created the everdeepening ecological meltdown. We continue to assume that increasing economic prosperity, as measured by increased consumption, is most desirable.
Let me reiterate, Cuba’s current repressive and destructive regime is not a break from the historical past. The present, with its grave human rights abuses and
5 shady environmental record, is a logical extension of the same system that exterminated Tainos and all other first peoples since contact. At the core of this system is the belief that we live in a dead world of objects, a world de-souled, one where certain humans in power determine the value of plants, animals, entire ecosystems based solely on the benefit they may accrue from consuming and destroying them.
On a non-human level, the last 500 years have been even more devastating to the island. The colonizers not only brought their culture of consecrated greed, they also brought their diseases and domesticated animals. “Cuba lost most of its primary forests in the early years of European occupation…” (Silva Lee, 1996, p. 15). “Between one-quarter and one-third of all mammalian extinctions since 1500 occurred in the West Indies” (Silva Lee, 1996, p. 2). We could come up with a dreadful list of what has been lost and what is soon to go under the wave of so called development, but this is the work for others to do who have a clearer view of Cuba’s flora and fauna.
What I’m trying to say is this: The Cuban ecological crisis is grave and mirrors the ecological crisis found in the rest of the planet. Its roots are neither political nor financial; these are only symptoms. The root of the Cuban problem with Nature is cosmological. The island and the people who came after Columbus inherited and worked from a basic premise that sees and treats the Universe as a mechanism, as scenery, as backdrop, rather than as a living and evolving entity
6 with soul, mystery, and spirit where humans play a minor supporting role along with all of the other actors on the ever expanding cosmic stage. Moving the conversation toward the root of the problem rather than the symptoms, allows us to move away from the knee jerk reaction of blaming and focusing exclusively on the very recent past with its many failings or naively thinking that future so called sustainable development will be something other than a mirage, a form of green wash to allow the mechanics of the culture to continue turning the living into consumable and profitable products.
To talk of a possible future for the island that is truly sustainable inherently calls for a redefinition of the ethics of Western objectification through the careful practice of reconnection with Land, Water, and Air. We will need to learn to live freely, deeply aligned with the biotic communities of the island, knowing that to do so will allow the unborn generations of humans and other than human inhabitants of the island a possible future.
Ecological models that continue to place human interests above those of the larger biotic community will inevitably fall short and perpetuate the destructive understanding that humans are somehow separate from the rest of nature. The myth of controlling our environments has led us to dam and straighten rivers, drain wetlands, and cut down forests. Models that fail to grasp the inherent subjective nature of all beings, even if they do so in the name of ecological sustainability, will in the end continue to prop up the culture of separation.
The challenges facing Cuba’s ecology are profound. What an amazing time to be alive! Unlike our European forefathers, we may now be poised to reexamine ourselves to create a society that respects Earth and all of its diverse manifestations of life.
If we are to move in this direction, a deep reevaluation is in store for those who live in and off the island. The dreams of a consumer paradise with great beaches and memorable nightclubs must somehow transform themselves into something quite different. How that transformation will take place is not clear to me. I do know that there’s some really good work to be done, and hopefully, some of this work we’re engaged in at this conference.
I sense that to move in this direction will mean a new contract Cubans will have to make with the island and all of its biotic communities. All institutions, but primarily those related to education, will need to rethink their particular disciplines in light of the larger picture of an ecology that is cosmologically both human and non-human centered and focused. At the same time this institutional reimagining and reworking is taking place, an invitation will need to go forth to all Cubans to reinterpret our past within this larger framework of biotic participation based on the deepest respect for all life forms. The rebuilding of Cuba may then move not just to refurnish and remodel the decaying buildings of the past, but
8 more importantly, it will move into the deep waters of soulful heart work where Cuba’s people align themselves with Earth in fruitful coexistence.
With time this new contract with Land, Air, and Water—with biotic life that includes humans—will honor the memory the land still holds and will do so with the flavor and sounds that have for at least 6,000 years enticed humans to the island. Beginning this conversation, even as we have in this short amount of time today, is a vital opening. There is no greater and better theme to bring us together and re-imagine and reinvent ourselves as Cubans in harmony with our beloved island and ourselves.
The work ahead and inside each of us is daunting. If we set our hearts and minds to it, we probably have just enough time. The key is to start and do so knowing so much is at stake. I fear the onslaught of so called development that will ensue once there’s political change on the island. My hope is that somehow the efficiency that has laid waste to so much of this continent in so little time will find itself mesmerized by the greater pleasures of island breezes, colors, sounds, and yes, people.
References Silva Lee, A. (1997). Natural Cuba. Saint Paul: Pangea. Suzuki, D. (1999). The sacred balance: Rediscovering our place in nature. Vancouver: Greystone Books.
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