“Lula knows that the ecological question is strategic and fundamental,” says Leonardo Boff

The Brazilian theologian discusses the direction of society, the need to save the people and the planet, and Pope Francis

December 28, 2021 by Brasil de Fato
In an interview, Leonardo Boff talks about Lula, Bolsonaro, Pope Francis and the direction of society. Photo: Brasil de Fato

Debates about the climate will be on the agenda of governments all over the planet in the coming years. Disasters related to changes in the Earth’s temperature have been on the rise, putting millions of people, usually the poorest, at risk.

For this reason, agreements between nations to block changes have become a priority at the negotiation tables. Today, they are even an impediment to the conclusion of commercial advances, such as the agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, which has been at a standstill until now.

For the theologian and ecologist, Leonardo Boff, although Brazil has lost prominence in the debates about the question, the 2022 elections will be decisive in order to get back on the track of environmental progress: “It is important for us to know how to choose next year, [knowing] those who are going to govern us and those who are going to take care of nature, because without that we commit a crime against humanity.”

Boff, who was a guest on BdF Interviews, believes that the Worker’s Party (PT) candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, knows how to recycle his government proposals and will present robust plans for environmental protection in Brazil:

“I think it is happening, across [Brazilian] society, especially with the most important leader, which is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. I can verify this because I visited him twice. I brought literature and he incorporated the ecological question as something strategic, fundamental,” says the theologian.

“He came from the workers’ struggle, from [fighting for] the rights of the workers, the right to eat, to have better salaries, but he didn’t have much awareness regarding nature. But now he has woken up and realized that either we save our nature, the ecological wealth that we have, or we are not going to have a future for Brazil and for our people.”

In the conversation, Boff also talks about ecosocialism, the direction of society, the Bolsonaro government, and Pope Francis.

Perhaps [Francis] is today the most important political leader—even though he is a religious leader—of humanity, because he speaks to the consciences of heads of state, that they have to welcome the climate migrants, those who come from Africa, come from the Middle East, fleeing from wars and extermination.”

Check out the interview in full:

Brasil de Fato: You have been increasingly dedicated to studies and analyses of ecology and environmental protection. In a recent article you pointed out that it is necessary to make a new “natural contract” with the Earth, but we see a relentless advance of neoliberalism. How do you see this balance?

Leonardo Boff: The cloak of sadness extends over all of humanity and doubly over our country, because of the coronavirus and the disaster of political management. Within this collective sadness, we still want to celebrate, because there is no sadness when life is born, life in the case of Jesus.

While it is important that everyone guarantees the vaccine and the hygienic measures, almost nobody sees the context within which the coronavirus emerged.

The context is that nature has been invaded, these little viruses that have had their habitat destroyed and they, not knowing where to go, have thrown themselves on other animals close to us, or directly on us, so we are responsible for this disaster that has hit only humanity and all of humanity. And not our pets, our cats, our dogs.

So it is a phenomenon of the Anthropocene of the Necrocene, that is, the new geological era, in which we humans are the ones who threaten life the most. With regards to this, in interviews almost nobody talks about the risk of us returning to the old normality, which is cruel and merciless.

We have to have a fresh start post-pandemic so that other deadly viruses do not arrive, which could come if we do not take care of nature and take care of each other.

BdF: The Bolsonaro years have seen record deforestation of the Amazon. We have seen historic fires in several regions, in environmental and Indigenous reserve areas, for example. Illegal mining has expanded to the point that we now recently saw a gold mining expedition with boats on the Madeira River, which took days and days to be suppressed. Is it possible to take back all that we have lost here in Brazil since 2018?

LB: The Amazon region, which encompasses nine countries, 60% of which is in Brazil, is fundamental for the balance of the planet’s climates and also for the biodiversity, for the waters that are there. Brazil is the world’s freshwater power. Wars will be fought to guarantee access to fresh water.

We may be the solution for the world’s famines and thirsts, but we have a president who has made himself an ally of the virus, who is dominated by the drive to death, who has privileged deforestation, logging, mining, and the invasion of Indigenous lands, because the Indigenous are our teachers and doctors, they know how to take care of nature.

He despises them, considers them savages, not even fully human. So we need to defeat him democratically, sweep him from the political scene to save Brazil and help humanity to have a more hopeful future.

It is important for us to know how to choose next year, [knowing] those who are going to govern us and those who are going to take care of nature, because without that we commit a crime against humanity.

A great Nobel Prize winner in Economics, [Joseph] Stiglitz told me, when I went to the UN (United Nations) to give a lecture at his request about water, about the earth, he said to me: “Boff, you are all responsible for the future of humanity. If you take care of the Amazon region or let it be destroyed, you affect the whole of humanity. We have a great responsibility to nurture our love of life and reject all enemies of life.”

BdF: Brazil had its best years [with policies] based on developmentalism, expanding growth, even over green areas. Do you believe that there is room to change this mentality from now on?

LB: I think it is happening, across [Brazilian] society, especially with the most important leader, which is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. I can verify this because I visited him twice. I brought literature and he incorporated the ecological question as something strategic, fundamental.

He came from the workers’ struggle, from [fighting for] the rights of the workers, the right to eat, to have better salaries, but he didn’t have much awareness regarding nature. But now he has woken up and realized that either we save our nature, the ecological wealth that we have, or we are not going to have a future for Brazil and for our people.

So I am very happy, one more reason to make sure that he can resume power and do more and better, in a more radical way, what he has shown he can do, in my view. I am not a politician, I don’t belong to the PT. I want to be a citizen who observes.

In the political space that I see, he is the only person with charisma, with the people’s trust, with capacity, because he has shown that he is capable of pulling Brazil out of this tragedy, this dramatic pit we were unfairly put in, sacrificing thousands and thousands of lives.

BdF: Beyond the debates about the limits of developmentalism, many point out the need to emphasize ecosocialism, which finds a place in part of Marx’s work and is preached by several intellectuals. Do you believe that it is time to guide this kind of debate, especially among progressive forces?

LB: I think that the great world discussion today is about what model of society and world we want in the post-pandemic period. We know that the multi-millionaires are orchestrating what they call the great reset, the great reboot, which is a more radical implementation of capitalism, in a kind of cybernetic despotism, controlling every single person in the whole society to guarantee their fortunes.

I don’t think this will prosper. The one who will defeat us will be the Earth, because she is a small planet, with non-renewable goods and services, which prevent unlimited growth. [The Earth] will defeat that system.

But I think there are several models that are viable, and I think ecosocialism is one of them, because it first puts the social at the center, when the whole neoliberal capitalist system puts the individual at the center, puts profit at the center, puts competition and accumulation on people.

[In neoliberalism] the social is not placed at the center, and, in the social, because we live rooted in nature, the social is rooted in ecology. In the natural agreement we make, the Earth gives us everything, and we need to give back with care and affection to the Earth.

I think that ecosocialism is a great, achievable proposal… Socialism is giving all that one can and receiving all that one needs. That is the greatest ideal of humanity.

I think that today we have the conditions, we have the technical and scientific infrastructure, we have the capital to be able to accomplish this model. We are all living in our “common home”* and we have no other. All cultures and nations come together inside the common home, we have to learn to live together.

That is why we are the center, not the individual. This project presents an alternative, it is viable, it is generous, it is deeply humanistic, it does justice to people and justice to the Earth. It achieves both justices, human justice and natural justice. And then we will save ourselves and guarantee a future of hope for all.

BdF: I would like to reflect with you on man’s actions. On this other side of the environmental question are the actions of man. And beyond pointing fingers, I would like to ask you about the moment in our society, which, of course, is not unique to Brazil. There are extreme feelings in all the poles of the Earth. Was this symptom of our times to be expected or did we take an unexpected turn along the way?

LB: You see, I think that it belongs to the historical process. We live—because history is not linear, it jumps and breaks—and there are two categories that are constant, cosmological and even mark the evolution of the universe, of society, even we ourselves are marked by it, which are the categories of destructive chaos and a new order, constructive chaos.

We have gone through destructive chaos. This kind of world we have has to be destroyed, otherwise it will destroy humanity, either with nuclear bombs, chemical bombs, ecological bombs, or the Earth itself will break free from us, because we threaten all other species.

Within this chaos the cosmos is forming a new order. It cleanses all this and a new order emerges, higher, more complex, but more encompassing of people and nature, and begins a new phase of history, higher, more balanced, more just.

We are in this painful phase. It is like a crisis. One goes through a crisis, one suffers, one goes into depression, but suddenly a new horizon of hope bursts in, one comes alive, and one has a new sense of one’s history.

So it is with Brazil, so it is with humanity. The current chaos that is revealed by people’s hatred through the tearing of the social fabric, by misogynistic violence, especially by the cowardly rejection of the poor and marginalized, is all an expression of this chaos.

What feeds us more and more is the hope, or Paulo Freire’s hope, that a more loving society will emerge, where it is less difficult to love, and I think that this is something that we are going to strengthen, with our consciousness, making our changes, knowing how to choose our leaders and ourselves changing, ourselves, together with our groups, so that this leap towards a different and better world is more accelerated and imminent.

I see that this will be the destiny, because life will prevail over death, which will be a good destiny for the whole Earth, for us Brazilians, here in this small province which Darcy Ribeiro said is the brightest and most beautiful of all provinces, which is the province of Brazil.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further widened the gap between the richest and the poorest. But at the same time, we have seen a very important wave of solidarity. Does this sharing mentality have the strength to stay with us?

The great biologists who decoded the genetic code, discovered that all living things have the same biological basis. They discovered that human beings are 20 little bricks, with four different types of cement, and from this we build all biodiversity and also build human life. These great ones also say that it is in the genetic code, within the inscription of our existence, an instinct for solidarity, an instinct for love.

Not because we want to or not, but because it is a major impulse of our life, to live in solidarity. Because we live together, we don’t live on our own, we already live together in the family, in society, at work. So, I believe that it is only now that selfishness is predominating, rejection, each one affirming itself.

But it has also been shown throughout Brazil, and even now, with the disasters that are occurring in the United States, in our country, in Bahia, Minas Gerais, the immense solidarity of the people who bring hundreds of items, tons of food, of clothes.

Especially, because I followed the MST (the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement) at a national level, which is so criticized by the corporate media, by the dominant class, by the backwards elite, and it was the group that showed the most solidarity. It donated tons of organic food, had thousands and thousands of kitchens to distribute hot food in the peripheries to respond to the hunger of our people.

There is solidarity, but it is still not the center, it should not only exist in tragic moments, it should be daily, it should be the basic attitude, to be in solidarity with others, to extend a hand to the fallen, to wipe away a tear, to be human, to have empathy, which our president has never shown, that is why he is cruel and merciless.

We want to show our humanity, our cordiality, that which is born from the heart, and that is where love, sympathy, ethical values, and spirituality is born that can redeem us as humans, together with other human beings, never alone, always with us, together, with each other, opening a future of hope and good for all, for us and for nature as well.

BdF: Pope Francis began his papacy with a lot of energy, putting forward a number of important themes, but soon these advances fell outside the everyday debates. Was it the structure, the establishment of the Church, that somehow silenced him?

LB: You see, the Europeans and Rome, where the Roman Curia is, the administration of the Church, which is almost 2,000 years old, were not used to a pope who came from the ends of the Earth, who came from the melting pot of liberation theology, representing the option for the poor, of simplicity. He didn’t want to live in the palace, he went to live in a guest house.

He renounced all those titles, those pharaonic clothes that they inherited from the pagans, from the Roman emperors, threw of that all away and said:

“Carnival is over, now begins the pope who is friend to the poor, human, who suffers with those who suffer, laughs with those who laugh, a different pope.” They are not used to a human pope, they are used to an emperor pope, a pharaoh who is there with all pomp and glory, living in palaces.

For this, they oppose him, and he is not bothered, because he is a charismatic man. But thanks be to God and partly to the influence of us theologians, his friends, because we knew him before, he was in our group and we pressed him and said: “Holiness” and he said: “No holiness, Boff, holiness is the Dalai Lama, I am Francis”. Human like us.

So we said to him: “It is important that you fight against pedophiles, against the Vatican bank’s robberies, but more importantly, that you help to save life, help to save the common home and take on ecology.” He said, “Very well, then help me”. And we sent him materials, he did two extraordinary encyclicals, to which the big names in ecology said, “The pope is at the cutting edge of the world ecological discussion.”

It is not only a green ecology, but an comprehensive ecology that takes in the environment, culture, politics, daily life, spirituality. So, his two documents, On Care for Our Common Home, (Laudato Si’), and the last one, Fratelli Tutti, together with nature, also considered as sister and brother, we can save the planet. And he has taken this on and this now has a world leadership.

Perhaps he is today the most important political leader—although he is a religious leader—of humanity, because he speaks to the consciences of heads of state, that they have to welcome the climate migrants, those who come from Africa, come from the Middle East, fleeing from wars and extermination.

And the pope said: “They are here, because before we were there, dominating their lands, stealing their wealth, and we were welcomed. Now they come and we don’t want to welcome them, because we have lost the sense of solidarity, we have lost humanity and we reject them. We have forgotten how to cry with those who cry.”

So he is able to make this criticism and calls these systems that dominate us—he never uses the term capitalism, because it would narrow things too much-but he uses a system that focuses on accumulation, on money, on wealth, it is perverse, it is murderous, we have to overcome it. It is capitalism, everybody understands. He is an ally of ours, who comes from below.

This article by José Eduardo Bernardes first appeared in Portuguese at Brasil de Fato.

*Common home is a phrase used by Pope Francis in his book Lautado Si’ to discuss the need to protect the environment and the planet, “our common home”.

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