Factory of insanity

Life is Not Useful, Ailton Krenak, translated by Alex Brostoff and Jamille Pinheiro Dias, 2023, Polity

At first sight it might be tempting to pass over Ailton Krenak’s short book as one of those occasional, quaint sources of native wisdom authored by an indigenous celebrity restating the existential danger to the natural world posed by humanity’s unsustainable lifestyle.

The reader prepares for a well-meaning lecture about over-consumption from someone existing outside modern, urban and above all “non-indigenous” society in order to connect with an immemorial cosmovision reminding us of a more pristine state of nature.

But such a casual, dismissive response would do a great disservice to Life is Not Useful because this text reflects an important, if fleeting, line of philosophical inquiry inspired by native epistemology loosely considered elsewhere as speculative anarcho-indigenism.

By placing the ideas in this book within a very Western category of thought, we can at least consider it in relation to revolutionary philosophical concepts that aim to challenge the nation-state and capitalism and hence to imagine alternative futures.

And there is no doubt that Krenak makes a potent anarchist statement, often with simple, sardonic humour: he challenges European concepts based on a rationalism that dissociates humans from the Earth and hence abstracts it, with disastrous consequences.

In this sense, he is considering not what humanity is doing to the planet, but what it is doing to itself, particularly in terms of how certain thinking both justifies the deep inequalities that are the source of environmental degradation and deludes us into believing we can solve this merely by chanting a rational mantra of “sustainability”.

Krenak writes: “The other day I made a public statement about how the idea of sustainability was personal vanity, and this irritated a lot of people. They said I was making a statement that disrupted a series of initiatives aimed at educating people about overspending on everything. I agree that we need to educate ourselves about this, but it’s not by inventing the sustainability myth that we’re going to move forward. We’ll just fool ourselves again, like when we invented religions. There are people who feel very comfortable contorting themselves in yoga, trudging across the Camino de Santiago, or roaming around in the Himalayas, thinking they are enlightening themselves. In truth this is just scratching the surface of the landscape.”

The real enemy, says Krenak is selfishness and individualism, and the all-pervasive institutions and conventions society has created to reproduce these traits through predefined, rational scripts that simply exist to justify exploitation.

There is a profoundly anarchic dimension to his thought—it is a powerful restatement of the virtues of collectivism—and his solutions are no less radical.

For example, he writes: “I think it’s bullshit that schools continue to teach students how to reproduce this unequal and unjust system. What they call education is, in fact, an offense against freedom of thought. It’s taking people who have just arrived in this world, brainwashing them, and unleashing them to destroy the world. For me, this is not education, but a factory of insanity that people insist on upholding.”

Life is Not Useful has been published at a time Covid-19 has forced the developed world to consider its lifestyles, and questions the value of “going back to normal” following the pandemic when “normal” is a failed vision of human life divorced from nature.

A longstanding activist, writer and public figure, Kenak has played a key role in unifying Brazil’s indigenous peoples. This is his third book after Ideas for Postponing the End of the World (2019) and Tomorrow Is Not for Sale (2020).

You can read this review on Substack