a new era in human-environment relations

Leonardo E. Figueroa-Helland


“The United States as a modern nation-state was never and should never be defined politically – in terms of political theory – as a democracy.”

Leonardo E. Figueroa Helland’s work revolves around “revitalizing indigenous knowledges in the light of the contemporary eco-crisis.” Helland urges us to avoid “separation”–a term he uses to refer to arbitrary divisions he draws between nature and culture. Separation, he argues, takes many forms in the contemporary eco-crisis. Such divisions begin with human attempts to distinguish ourselves from the rest of nature; Helland draws attention to cultures that offer a different model. His work focuses primarily on indigenous cultures that attempt to cultivate a relationship with the land itself. Separation, vis a vis the construction of metropolitan cities, forces us to face a crisis of civilization.

The rise of cities has established humans as a dominant force on the planet. Cities represent a particular mode of organization that cater to our peculiar necessities such as moving without effort and increasing other pleasures. Helland argues that this separation stems from an assumption that things are not necessarily tied together by biological processes and cycles. However, no matter how hard one tries, he argues that trying to separate these realities cannot be done and has created a certain artificial reality.

This artificial reality has much to do with Marx’s metabolic rift: we have extracted wealth from the land but we have extracted wealth so quickly that the land is unable to sufficiently and timely replenish itself. The metabolic rift led Helland to begin studying indigenous knowledges: he discovered that indigenous cultures view the earth as a living organism with certain responses. Indigenous peoples also are unable to treat the earth in any other manner – they cannot assimilate.

Helland also gave advice on how to navigate through the Anthropocene. He challenges us to always question if we actually live in a democracy and to question certain political structures/ideologies. When we ask ourselves the question, “Is this eco-crisis really as bad as it sounds?” he wants everyone to be aware of the fact that it really is. Everyone should realize this fact because then we may be pushed to react. We will only succeed in navigating this crisis if we are critical of institutional inequalities (especially among indigenous peoples). He gave us practical advice as well.  For example, when we go to the gym and work out, we are creating energy; however, all of this energy goes to waste. An environmentally progressive model might work to save some of the energy we are creating. Ultimately, we must keep our eyes wide upon. We must keep an ambition of true democracy and, if we act quickly enough, we stand a chance at surviving this crisis.

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