books lifestyle

Book review: Life is not useful, by Ailton Krenak

Learning from indigenous people is a recurring theme in climate justice circles. There are communities whose way of life is not destructive, and who never lost the connection to the land. Those communities manage some of the world’s remaining forests and biodiversity hotspots, often in the face of encroachment and oppression. Of course we should value these perspectives, and listen to how consumer capitalism sounds to those on the outside.

Being open to learn from indigenous ways of life is easy to say. It’s actually quite hard to do. By definition, wisdom that is closely tied to nature and the land isn’t something you’ll pick up on Twitter. Part of the reason that these ways of life persist is that they aren’t part of global culture and haven’t been commodified for easy consumption. So this book is a little unusual.

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 is the author of a couple of books, though he doesn’t exactly write them. 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’, or ‘Tomorrow is not for sale’. The titular ‘Life is not useful’ is a striking phrase that my kids asked me about when they saw me reading the book. 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.

This is a recurring theme: the contrast between approaches to the world that want to control, quantify and profit, and a “cosmic sense of life”. Those with the latter 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.”

Another theme is a scepticism of a universal ‘humanity’, something I’ve written about myself on occasion. There is no single human experience, no single human responsibility for the ecological crisis. There is, to Krenak’s mind, an “exclusive club of humanity” that benefits from consumer capitalism. Then there is “a more rustic and organic layer, a sub-humanity” that is excluded from the elites and their decision making. 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. Whether those ideas can challenge the dominance of our current systems, and how they might do that, is another question. This is a call from the margins, a denouncing and declaiming rather than a manifesto for an alternative. What we do with it is up to us, if we can take up Krenak’s invitation to “have the courage to be radically alive.”


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