Life is not useful

“What does that mean?” my daughter asked when she saw me reading Ailton Krenak’s book, titled ‘Life is not useful.’

It’s a striking phrase from an unusual author. Ailton Krenak is a Brazilian educator and activist on the environment and indigenous rights. He’s been a journalist and advocate for many years, and played an important role in securing the place of indigenous people in the constitution of Brazil in 1988. He has a couple of books to his name, though it wouldn’t be quite right to describe him as the author. They are pieced together from interviews and from conversations at conferences and festivals, and compiled into short essays.

There are five essays in the book, with axiomatic titles such as ‘You can’t eat money’, ‘Tomorrow is not for sale’, and the titular ‘Life is not useful’. It refers to a utilitarian way of thinking. For Krenak, life is transcendent. You cannot think of it as useful or not useful. That’s a colonial approach to life.

As an indigenous writer, Krenak sees the need to control, quantify and profit as colonial – a usurping philosophy from elsewhere. For a reader in the UK, that sounds more like a capitalist status quo and a philosophy that is all too familiar. Things are only useful if you can extract something from it, and are otherwise worthless. This is a view that utterly devalues nature: a tree is worthless. So is the shade, the habitat, the oxygen and the beauty it provides. Chop it down and saw it into planks, and then we’re talking.

The alternative to the colonial mindset is a “cosmic sense of life”, says Krenak. Those with a cosmic perspective see and respect non-human life, and think more in terms of inter-dependent relationships than individual rights. Brazil’s indigenous people do not see themselves as isolated individual units, says Krenak. “We walk as constellations.”

This way of living in the world is not respected, to Krenak’s mind. Those that hold it are dismissed by the “exclusive club of humanity” that benefits from consumer capitalism. Indigenous people are seen as “a more rustic and organic layer, a sub-humanity” that is excluded from the elites and their decision making. But it is this underclass that is “holding onto the Earth,” while the elites profit from destruction and speculate about colonising other planets.

This hierarchy isn’t just true across human populations, but across nature as well. There is a tendency in this ‘club’ of humanity to elevate people above nature, to dream of domination and destiny. But everything is nature and so are we, and we delude ourselves with our own anthropocentrism: “We humans are not all powerful – the Earth declares it.”

There’s a stinging critique of Western thought in Life is not Useful, and hints at deeper and truer ways of being in the world. But it also made me think about the role that Christianity has played in the development of that rapacious and extractive capitalist mindset. The industrial revolution unfolded in a Christian context. Plenty of commentators were keen to claim that the empire was built to the glory of God – bringing the Bible and the faith to the world along with trade, education and ‘civilisation’.

Neither is this in the past. Theologies of dominion continue to inspire extraction. Just last month Kentucky lawmakers were rejecting climate action and insisting that God gave coal to humanity. (Did God not also give us wind and solar?) Hierarchies that place humans above the rest of creation can appear to give license to oppression – God “put everything under our feet”, as the writer of Hebrews says. Little wonder that the welfare of farmed animals, or the stewardship of land, rivers and forests remain blind spots in many churches.

Of course, the Bible has plenty of passages that speak of compassion for animals and care for the land that would balance out any convenient misreading of those verses. That more ‘cosmic’ view of the world, that lives in humility with the land and with an awareness of our interdependence, isn’t the unique preserve of indigenous people, though we all have different ways to express it. I also see the perversity of a utilitarian view of life, and I agree: life is not useful. Life is a gift.

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