The Future is Ancestral
Seasonal Neighbours - Our Invisible Hands
The Seasonal Neighbours exhibition Our Invisible Hands at Z33 examines the role of seasonal workers in the rich global agricultural economy and offers new insights into the interconnectedness of seasonal and economic rhythms and the relationship between humans and plants in the rural landscape. In this article, writer and curator Alice Bonnot expands on the themes of planetary interdependence, organic farming systems and regenerative land practices. The text brings to the exhibition the long-term temporality of ancestral time and questions the unsustainability of the Western relationship to agriculture.
In the midst of a severe climate and ecological crisis — as the ice cap cracks at an unprecedented rate and rising global temperatures fuel devastating extreme weather events — the world looks to the future in the hope that technological solutions will emerge to save us from the threat of global collapse. Yet the key to a sustainable future may not lie ahead, but behind us. If today’s frenetic, anthropocentric and energy-intensive practices are responsible for accelerating climate change, there was a time when our pre-industrial ancestors knew how to live in harmony with nature. Reconnecting with ancestral and traditional knowledge may be our chance to ensure a healthy planet.
In 1972, British chemist James Lovelock and American biologist Lynn Margulis presented the Gaia hypothesis, according to which the Earth is a synergetic, self-regulating system that deliberately maintains its temperature and chemistry at livable, life-supporting conditions. Named after the Greek goddess, the Gaia hypothesis posits that the (so far) habitable state of the Earth’s surface is made possible by living organisms, including plants, bacteria and fungi that work with the Earth to maintain its atmospheric composition and climate. Born in the 1970s as a plausible hypothesis of a biotic-planetary regulatory system, Gaia has since evolved, thanks to numerous corroborations of James Lovelock‘s predictions of the interconnectedness of life forms to survive, into a scientifically acceptable theory. These corroborations include the discovery in the mid 2010s that soil and rock organisms, such as silicate minerals, play a key role in maintaining the long-term stability of the Earth’s climate by capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air. By proving this, Gaian theory demonstrates that the planet and its atmosphere are not a passive environment, but an actively modulated environment for life — a holistic living intelligence whose components are mutually supportive. This idea of planetary interdependence, whereby all living things are integrated to form a single system, or super-organism, echoes that of deep ecology and ecosophy, in which the species of an organic whole are perceived as equal partners in maintaining the equilibrium.
Fortunately, nature did not wait for the Gaian scientists, deep ecologists and ecosophists of the 1970s to be considered sacred, or worthy of protection. For thousands of years, traditional, indigenous and local communities have lived in complete harmony with nature, using ethical and sustainable techniques to feed themselves, while ensuring that the environment in which they lived was balanced and cared for, so that nature could continue to provide clean water, nutritious soil and healthy food. Ancestral knowledge — in its most inclusive sense, including knowledge from indigenous and native peoples, ancient rural communities and local traditional populations — is based on centuries-old observations and interactions with nature. More exposed to the natural environment than we are today, our ancestors used knowledge and skills developed through close (reciprocal) relationships with plants, animals and ecosystems to thrive as abundant, non-hierarchical and interdependent species. Traditional communities in Ecuador planned their harvests according to signals from birds, insects and other living beings that indicated the change of seasons. The Maya understood that the forces of nature also encompassed those of the cosmos and followed the cycles of the moon and rainfall patterns, while Native American agriculture and culinary traditions were based on the cultivation of three complementary crops — also known as the ‘three sisters’ — corn, beans and squash, that complement each other, agriculturally and nutritionally.
In times of ecological collapse, organic farming systems and regenerative land practices based on traditional knowledge can indeed offer sustainable alternatives to current industrial food production systems based on intensive use of petrol and pesticides. Permaculture, which originated in Tasmania, Australia, in the mid-1970s, is a set of practices and ways of thinking formulated by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren that draw on ecological principles and the knowledge of traditional societies to replicate the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It involves reviving pre-industrial carbon-neutral techniques to reduce human impact and resource use. Widely used in permaculture, terraces and raised beds have a long-standing tradition in many ancient cultures, including the Incas and their predecessors, who, in the 1400s, built cisterns, irrigation canals and terraces that covered a million hectares in the hills of Peru. During the day, the stones of the terraces warmed up, and when temperatures dropped at night, they would slowly release the heat into the soil. This kept the roots of sensitive plants warm during cold nights, allowing them to grow faster, while also improving water drainage, productivity and soil regeneration. The Inca’s agricultural techniques enabled their empire to survive for 11,000 years and probably could have done so for even longer had the Spanish not conquered their lands and imposed their own crops, resulting in the loss of much of the traditional agricultural knowledge and technical expertise.
Many scholars, historians and environmentalists who study the ecological dimensions of European imperialism, such as author and professor of modern history Corey Ross, consider this colonial period as the starting point of the climate crisis. Environmental exploitation is acknowledged as a natural outcome of colonialism and imperial policies, embedded in supremacist, patriarchal and capitalist structures, and as a reflection of social injustices. The colonial logic of these ever-expanding global powers — global trade, resource extraction, mass consumption, etc. — have remained, and continues to participate in the devastating effects of climate change. On the other hand, inclusive and egalitarian movements have emerged, such as intersectional environmentalism, to advocate for the protection of people and the planet, and to address the interconnectedness between the injustices experienced by marginalised communities and the Earth.
Amid all this, the importance of addressing the ecological threat of human impacts is also becoming palpable in the arts and culture sector. Artists, curators and art workers are increasingly uniting to promote a climate-conscious sector, while many are retreating to the countryside, reviving the idea of ruralism and reoccupying nature as a place of cultural production. The group exhibition ‘Our Invisible Hands’ by Seasonal Neighbours, hosted at Z33, is part of this movement. The sixteen members of the collective each focus on a specific, sometimes hyper-local, eco-political aspect of the changing European agricultural landscape.
Modern industrial societies, if they are to continue to cruise safely on this symbiotic planet, must draw on traditional, intersectional and ancestral wisdom to respond to climate change. As permaculture, agroecology, low-tech agriculture and other organic farming systems are already doing, we need to integrate the cultural heritage and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities into everyday practices, including the production and presentation of art. For only a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature can guarantee a sustainable future.
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