EARTH AND US – only passing by

Almost 20 years ago a declaration of the rights of the memory of the earth was proclaimed in Digne, South of France, where I am partly based as the outcome of an international/interdisciplinary delegation organized under the auspices of the UNESCO. This led to the creation of the UNESCO Géoparc de Haute-Provence in 2000 followed by more than hundred Geoparks around the world.

A rather hideous stone on the newly renovated Place Charles de Gaulle commemorates the “Digne Declaration”. The text, which came to my knowledge only recently, during a New Year city stroll, sparked both agreement and critique in me which I’ll try to formulate below. The text goes as such:

Memorial of the “Digne Declaration”, Digne-les-Bains, Place Charles de Gaulle, January 2021. Photo by Ingrid Hoelzl.

The text of the declaration, which came to my knowledge only recently, during a city stroll, sparked both agreement and critique in me which I’ll try to formulate below. The text goes as such:

INTERNATIONAL DECLARATION OF THE RIGHTS OF THE MEMORY OF THE EARTH

1 – Just as human life is recognized as being unique, the time has come to recognize the uniqueness of the Earth.

2 – Mother Earth supports us. We are each and all linked to her, she is the link between us.

3 – The Earth is 4,5 billion years old and the cradle of life, of renewal and of the metamorphosis of life. Its long evolution, its slow rise to maturity, has shaped the environment in which we live.

4 – Our history and the history of the Earth are closely linked. Its origins are our origins, its history is our history and its future will be our future.

5 – The aspect of the Earth, its very being, is our environment. This environment is different, not only from that of the past, but also from that of the future. We are but the Earth’s companion with no finality, we only pass by.

6 – Just as an old tree keeps all the records of its growth and life, the Earth retains memories of its past… A record inscribed both in its depths and on the surface, in the rocks and in the landscapes, a record which can be read and translated.

Now… I fully go along with the first six points., Earth is retaining memory of time passing, memory excavated by archeologists for the remnants of the tiny human fraction of it, by paleontologists for the imprint of life forms that preceded humans in the form of fossils, and by geology to reveal the mystery of its creation and evolution. But do we really need to destroy in order to take possession of this memory? Do we really need science and its methodology to acknowledge it? Do we really need to dig deep down into the earth – in the case of the Kola Superdeep Borehole near the abandoned Russian mining town Zapolyarny on the Kola peninsula some 12.300 meters deep – in order to “unearth” its past (and to predict its future, i.e. natural disasters such as earthquakes)?1

As Arie Altena writes,

The Kola Superdeep is drilled at a spot that is called Vilgiskoddeoayvinyarvi, or ‘Wolf Lake on the Mountains’. The Sami are the indigenous inhabitants of this subarctic area in Russia, just across the border with Norway. Dotted with open iron ore and nickel mines and watched over by enormous smelters in the mining towns Zapolyarny and Nickel, it is a bleak, heavily polluted landscape. Even now foreign tourists are forbidden from leaving the main roads – though most likely nobody will stop you from doing so.

Arie Altena, “Drilling Deep / Knowledge from the Underground,” Dark Ecology, https://www.darkecology.net/mobile/drilling-deep.

7 – We have always been aware of the need to preserve our memories – i.e. our cultural heritage. Now the time has come to protect our natural heritage, the environment. The past of the Earth is no less important than that of human beings. Now it is time for us to learn to protect, and by protecting, to learn about the past of the Earth, this memory from before the Mankind’s memory which is a new heritage : The geological heritage

The problem with point 7 is that the preservation of natural heritage too often led to the expropriation of indigenous community that occupied the lands destined to become National Parks, thus preserving a “wilderness” that served as such for an urban and westernized world, neglecting the land rights of its indigenous population. Under the smokescreen (sic!) of environmental protection, or ecological consciousness, a colonial approach was often pursued that needs to be critically dealt with.2 And the somewhat naive association of “protect” and “learn” and “new” makes me suspicious… Learning by protecting? Protecting what? How? And where? Only parts of the world that are not (yet) relevant for capitalist extraction, or where extraction has proven to be not profitable enough or not yielding enough anymore? And why would we be able to learn more about the past of the Earth than the indigenous communities living there? Should we not first try to learn about *their past, their culture, their religious beliefs and practices venerating Earth? Are we ready to accept that Rocks are persons, that they have sensations, and that there is a communion possible between them and us? That landscapes bear not only geological memory, but are themselves markers of an “ongoing present” as anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli put it?3 Geological heritage is far from new, it is for humankind the oldest heritage, and it is still alive in some communities; it is only the modern, Western world that is rediscovering this heritage.

8 – We and the Earth share our common heritage. We and governments are but the custodians of this heritage. Each and every human being should understand that the slightest depredation mutilates, destroys and leads to irreversible losses. Any form of development should respect the singularity of this heritage.

9 – The participants of the 1st international symposium on the protection of our geological heritage, including over a hundred specialists from over thirty nations, urgently request all national and international authorities to take into consideration and to protect this heritage by means of all the necessary legal, financial and organizational measures.

Insisting on the common heritage and on depredation as mutilation and irreversible loss, and that no “development” can justify it, is a point. But I want to ask the question: are we “custodians of this heritage”? A custodian (or guardian) has responsibility for taking care of or protecting something, (according to Oxford Languages). This statement is but a slight modification of the Jewish-Christian and then modern understanding of the role of the human as the guardian or master of the Earth, depending on the version of the Genesis we refer to. It still places the human above the rest of the creation, and turns the ecosystem Earth into a “thing” to be used and eventually protected.

What if we turned the idea of us being the custodians of Earth memory upside down? Isn’t the Earth and its long history (into which we as a species are inscribed already and will further inscribe, from the first Rock drawings onwards to underground nuclear waste deposits) our custodian, which enabled our emergence and proliferation? And here I come back to point 5, which I find the strongest in the entire declaration: We are but the Earth’s companion with no finality, we are only passing by. We are only passing by.

This image and featured image: Fossil in the banastier torrent river bed, near Digne-les-Bains. Photo by Remi Marie.

1 The Kola Superdeep Borehole is a scientific drilling project that took place in the context of the Cold War (in parallel to space conquest) and was abandoned in 1995 after the dissolution of the USSR. Its deepest borehole, the GSG-3, reached a final depth of 12.262 meters in 1989.

2 See the book Decolonial Ecology: Thinking of Ecology from the Caribbean World by Malcolm Ferdinand (Le Seuil, Paris: 2019). See also William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1: 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 7-28

3 Elizabeth Povinelli, Email conversation, May 2019. See also the recent anthology A World of Many Worlds, in which the editors and the assembled authors (philosophers of science as well as anthropologists) advocate the taking into consideration of non-humans ((such as sacred landsites, rocks or rivers) as persons having rights and argue for divergence (Stengers) or the “uncommons” as the ”negotiated coming together of heterogeneous worlds (and their practices).” Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser, “PLURIVERSE, Proposals for a World of Many Worlds,”, introduction to A World of Many Worlds, eds. de la Cadena and Blaser (London and Durham: Duke UP, 2018), 35.

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