Going Gaia: The Month of the Great Flood or the End of the World as a Fractal Event

Octavia Butler and flooded settlement in the background. Image license: Public Domain
Octavia Butler and flooded settlement in the background. Image license: Public Domain

More than 1.6 million fans are estimated to have attended Madonna’s “free concert” on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach. Meanwhile, literally next door, one of Brazil’s worst climate disasters has been unfolding, costing countless people their homes and taking many lives. Understanding this simultaneity as symptomatic of our current predicament, Marina Pereira Penteado addresses climate change denialism and dormant potentialities to reimagine the end of the world.

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In March 2024, after years of discussion, members of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) decided that we are not in the Anthropocene, the name proposed for the geological epoch we may have entered due to the profound changes the human species has wrought on the planet. However, the decision did not invalidate the term, which continues to be used by the scientific community and also by the general public, as the group’s statement points out.

As I write this text from my house “at the end of the bottom of South America” (“no fim do fundo da América do Sul”), as sings Vitor Ramil, a writer and musician from the region of Brazil where I live, teach, and research climate fiction, the recent discussions about the Anthropocene have never seemed more pertinent. Since the beginning of May this year, the state of Rio Grande do Sul has been experiencing unprecedented climatic disasters, with heavy rains causing floods, landslides and the destruction of entire towns and communities. Some of them will even require new urban arrangements to ensure that “extreme weather” events do not cause the same damage in the future. It will be impossible to rebuild some cities as they were before. This kind of news inevitably brings to mind something that Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro argue in “The Ends of the World” (2014 ): the idea that the end of the world is a fractal event. That is, the world doesn’t end all at once, but gradually.

Climate fiction turns reality

In these nearly four weeks since the end of the world began for parts of this state in southern Brazil, amidst the 161 confirmed deaths so far, the words most heard in the local media are “climate crisis,” “climate catastrophe,” and “climate refugees” – all articulated in a country that has become known for electing climate change deniers. Jair Bolsonaro is a household name around the world when it comes to this issue. But he is only the tip of the iceberg, since in our Congress the number of these climate change deniers seems to increase with every election – a clear consequence of these dark days in our recent history. But to be completely honest, even in left-wing governments like the current one, environmental issues have always been sidelined and considered an obstacle to economic growth. One of our greatest hopes in the current government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, was Marina Silva, a name that was rumored during the elections for the Ministry of the Environment, but even though she took the position, she remains in the background, as if she were given a concession but not really taken seriously.

These days I see the maps of the cities I grew up in distorted, with danger zones drawn, entire neighborhoods evacuated, friends out of their homes, no running water in their homes, and all this from my privileged middle-class bubble. Reality now resembles much more the climate fiction I study than the reality I knew. Reality is now much more like the climate fiction I study than the reality I knew. The end of the world has come for a large part of a state, although not for the whole country. While we were witnessing the destruction of entire communities in Rio Grande do Sul on May 4, the rest of Brazil was watching on television Madonna’s concert, which was taking place at that moment on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro, sponsored by a private bank and the country’s largest television network. It took at least a few days for the rest of Brazil to realize the magnitude of what was happening.

Denialism kills

The end of the world did not happen at the same time and in the same way in Rio Grande do Sul. Many worlds can inhabit the same world, as I have learned from climate fiction and reading authors like Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Ursula Le Guin. As a high-end condominium in my city drains its water and dumps it into a low-income black neighborhood just behind the large mansions, exposing the environmental racism that most people try to ignore, stories of abuse against children and women in shelters built to house those who have been displaced remind us that climate violence is also gendered. The end will always come sooner for the most vulnerable. And contrary to what some may think, we will never all be in the same boat when it comes to climate disasters, because the abysmal inequalities caused primarily by the violence of our progress-at-all-costs way of life will not allow it. There are always groups that are more likely to lose their world first. As Danowski and Viveiros de Castro (2014) put it: “Naturally, these ends of the world occasioned by the advance of modernization front, which began precisely with the plus ultra! of European expansion in the sixteenth century, continue to take place at different scales, in several more or less remote parts of the planet, to this day.” Climate change is what Rob Nixon (2011) would call slow violence.

The floods, which have so far affected some 2.3 million residents of southern Brazil, according to a survey by the state’s Civil Defense, highlights the silenced and ignored environmental agendas of recent decades. We are witnessing the incompetence of governments in dealing with the climate crisis. Many did not even believe it existed until recently and are even now shouting that it is not the time to blame anyone, as the governor of Rio Grande do Sul has repeated since the disaster began. But this is the perfect time to do so. Now is the time to point out the failure of neoliberal governments and the collapse of the state in urban planning. It is time to point out that the capitalist logic of progress and destruction can no longer continue if, as Donna Haraway (2016) says, we are to “live and die well” in the Anthropocene. It is time to emphasize that climate change denial kills, as Octavia Butler’s Parable series showed us back in the 1990s. And it is time to emphasize that it also kills unevenly, and that not everyone experiences the same level of destruction and trauma in this kind of catastrophe. Some worlds disappear before others, even within the same state.

The brutality of Gaia

Perhaps it is interesting at this moment to return to Isabelle Stengers and her choice to speak of the intrusion of Gaia rather than the Anthropocene. The brutality of Gaia that we are witnessing this month here in Brazil is proportional to the brutality that has been inflicted on her for decades. There is no point in fighting Gaia, we know that. Therefore, it is indeed time to start pointing out the culprits, who are precisely those who ask us not to do so, and those whom they protect. Stengers (2009) points out: “offended, Gaia is indifferent to the question of ‘who is responsible’ and doesn’t act as a righter of wrongs – it seems clear that the regions of the earth that will be affected first will be the poorest on the planet.”

In May this year, there were many unequal, unjust ends of the world, mostly in marginalized communities and neighbourhoods – a process that will gradually scale up and escalate. So it is high time to start naming and shaming those responsible for climate disasters if we are to slow this process and avert the all-encompassing end of the world.

We must learn to “compose” with Gaia, as Stengers advises. To do this, however, we must collectively reboot the radical imagination. Fredric Jameson (2003) writes: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” But are we actually willing to do that?

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