The Land Is Burning And So Are We

Agnė Bagdžiūnaitė interviews the physician, activist, artist and writer Rupa Marya

In 2021 Rupa Marya published her first book with political ecologist, food system activist and policy professor Raj Patel, Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. This book advances a new level of diagnosis that incorporates history and lines of power into our understanding of the root causes of health disparities and the rise of inflammatory disease in industrialised places, offering compelling treatment options for what is ailing people and the planet.

During a Zoom conversation while Marya was on a remote farm in California we talked about the key terms of the book, the age of pandemics and ways to deal with the total collapse of our ecosystems caused by eurocentrism and the greed of capitalist accumulation.

[Agnė Bagdžiūnaitė] First and foremost I am greatly honoured to have the opportunity to interview you. I read Inflamed, the book you wrote with Raj Patel and, I must admit, it was the first time I had read such a theoretical book but at the same time it is very concrete and precise. In a way it is not very complicated to understand, on many levels, what is wrong with the world (capitalism), the relationship between people and the environment they live in. The most striking thing for me was that you have written about these things with a sense of practicality. You present the recipe, which explains how the mess that a certain part of the population created and the catastrophic consequences could be put in balance by taking a completely different direction, away from the apocalypse. I wonder whether you feel the same way as you read books about climate change, that I feel – that radical leftwing politics has a sort of fatalism inscribed in it which turns the reader into a zombie who ceases to think of themselves as a social being. In other words, what prompted you to write the book?

[Rupa Mar ya] Most people, when we’re talking about the climate crisis, are not looking at the right diagnosis. They’re only looking at the temperature and see that the planet is heating up. So they conclude, we have to stop using fossil fuels here, buy this electric car or drink through stainless steel straws and everything will be better. That’s not true. The urgency for myself and Raj was to really give the proper diagnosis. Why are we in a place of climate that is on the verge of collapse? Why are we in a place of ecological destruction? Why are we in a place where 1% of the population holds most of the world’s wealth? Why are we in a place where the Global North still demands debt payments from the Global South after they’ve already ravaged those countries and dismantled their economies and their societies and plundered them for several hundreds of years? Why is it acceptable that the current international financial systems reinforce the impoverishment of the Global South? Why is California on fire right now? Why is England experiencing temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit? All these things are related to the same way of seeing the world that has damaged our relationships and duties of care. When we understand that, then the action becomes very clear. What we wanted to offer was the clarity of diagnosis and a set of ideas that were developed at a particular time and place in order to conquer the world and extract its resources. We wanted to emphasise this dominating mentality that is underlying all of the disruptions that are impacting our health in the ways that they are driving chronic stress and inflammation in our bodies forcing masses of people into precarity, either economic or climactic. These things have to be addressed at a systemic level because they’ve been implemented at a systemic level through the onset of colonial capitalism. In the book, we interrogate where these ideas and thought patterns come from and then follow their traces of destruction in our bodies and of the planet at large.

[AB] In the book you expertly connect the history of colonialism, examples of westernised modern medicine and real cases of people who became ill. As you put it, you are connecting our health with our histories and our societies. Therefore, it is easy to relate to the narrative of the book even if you as a reader are far away from the United States because modern medicine is everywhere, pollution is everywhere, the hand of the white colonial man reaches the furthest corners of the world. Could you say more about how you came up with the term colonial cosmology? What is the story behind it?

[RM] We actually talked about the colonial capitalist cosmology. Colonialism has been around as long as humans, people have been going around colonising different places and subjugating other people. That is not a new phenomenon but what colonial capitalism does is bring within an economic system that reinforces extraction practices and systems of hierarchy that predispose certain people to poor health. Intellectual thought tools were used to separate humans from nature, making nature something that we get to subjugate and do whatever we want with as opposed to something that we are in a relationship with, and we need to understand this. The same was done with women by subjugating them and taking them out of positions of authority, of medicine that they used to be in in Europe. They were once the keepers of the herbal medicines, but now they are put in households to reproduce labour, reproduce the labour pool, the humans. That is what’s happening here in the United States with the forced birth movement, where women can’t even choose how to reproduce. People with bodies that can become pregnant don’t have the power to choose anymore. That Cosmos of dominating, reproducing bodies, dominating the earth, dominating different people and pitting people against each other. These are all intellectual tools that were developed in the time of Enlightenment, that have had its full manifestation all over the world. And what they have brought is ecological destruction. They have brought death, the mass extinction of animals and species as forests have been cleared and there’s no respect or responsibility to steward those things.

So as we destroy the world around us, through these thought patterns we are destroying ourselves. And what we are looking at is the connections between the body and the literal connections between what happens when we damage our world. What happens when we follow these architectures of dominance, how does that damage our bodies? If you don’t have the right diagnosis in healthcare, you prescribe the wrong treatment, which is what we’re seeing right now. You can’t have a climate that is stable within capitalism. Those two things are mutually exclusive. Either you live in a robust, beautiful ecosystem of which you are a part and with duties to care for it or you live in an extractive capitalist system. That is what we show in the book as best as we can and believe it is the right diagnosis.

There are actions that we must follow and they start with actions of care that are already happening right now. You don’t have to tear everything down in order to get started but we have to keep building these (ancient) systems of care that are happening all over the world. Care for the earth through an ecology and through growing food in ways that uplift relationships of reciprocity and care for each other – mutual benefit, mutual aid. You can see from a government level, at least in Western societies, that those supports are being clawed away as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter that 500 people are dying every day in the United States. The Covid-19 pandemic is not over. Right now I think there are around 146,000 people dying a year, which puts the virus in the top 10 of killers in the United States. For some reason everyone’s saying the pandemic is over, which to me is shocking because we wouldn’t declare cancer is cured when it’s still killing that many people each year.

[AB] Could you say more about how colonial cosmology divided and made a gap between our body, the environment we live in and the mind – the sort of master of everything – and what it means for our ecosystem as whole? I know that the book tries to reconnect these two things and make it into one again. However, I think it would be helpful to understand the scope of harm made by the concept which created a superficial gap between humans and their surroundings, the ecosystem where we live together.

[RM] Descartes theory was a very convenient one, right? If there is a hierarchy in the body and the mind is in the upper part of the body and the rest of the body is on a lower level it’s therefore dirty and it’s savage and uncivilised. The fact that you defecate is presented as a terrible thing, but we now know that the gut is actually a part of the brain or the mind. So, just as the gut has direct access to the brain, it also has direct access to the lungs. What we’re learning about long Covid, what we’re learning about the microbiome is that the mind is a whole emergent phenomenon from the entire body. It is the body. That kind of misunderstanding has led to so much violence in medicine. It causes so much disregard of a patient’s actual concerns and their experiences as doctors continue to follow the Cartesian dualism in their training and in the ways in which we learn. The ideas that originated from Descartes have real ramifications in the world that humans might be separate from nature. Therefore, by willfully killing the forest you are thereby killing yourself. It shows that we don’t have a sophisticated understanding of the way it all works together whereas indigenous cultures that are intact with nature have that fundamental understanding. We actually are nature, our body is this planet. If we destroy this planet, we are destroying ourselves. You can’t understand if you’re following the intellectual tools that were developed so that Europe could conquer the world and take everyone’s money.

It’s funny, I just recently saw a headline that said that the Pope was apologising for the 10,000 dead children found in the schools of indigenous people. These were the indigenous residential schools in Canada where they took the children from the native people in order to enculturate them as Western. That’s an act of genocide. How can a Catholic church function as an operational entity when it has committed acts of genocide all over the world, especially here in what we call a Turtle Island where indigenous people and their children continue to be raped. So you have an international ring of child abuse, genocide, land and resource theft that is a legitimised international body. If these were the Nazis, we’d be very much opposed to their actions, right? However, this is the Catholic Church where you start to see that these ideas have been so entrenched in the Western mind that they can’t even look at them as violators and hold them accountable. There’s no accountability. The Pope gets to apologise. Well, I don’t want him to apologise. I want him to sit on trial in international criminal court and not only him but the whole Church.

[AB] We are now talking about the whole Western European identity and the Catholic Church is very much a part of it. By questioning the liability of one of the most powerful institutions in the world the whole identity of Western Europe crumbles into pieces.

[RM] That identity holds a ton of land here in California. That identity is responsible for the native Americans that I work with here on this farm. The farm’s land that now we’re giving back to people for whom it belongs. We found arrowheads under the barn just yesterday. There are bones coming up here on the riverside. The trauma that people are living with is still alive and active in their bodies today. Their grandparents were taken and put in these boarding schools. Then you have Junipero Serra who would shackle the runaway native people attempting to escape from the schools and bring them back to whip them. Just recently he was made into a Saint and that is the Western mindset right there. When we talk about who’s civilised and who’s savage we have to look at the mentality which has destroyed the earth.

Has it been a mentality of people living in reciprocity and care of our ecosystems and all the entities that kept us well? No, that has not destroyed the earth. It is the Western mindset that is part of the Catholic Church. The same mindset that today runs the multinational corporations that have expanded all over the world. It doesn’t mean Western people are bad. I was raised in the West. I am married to a man who has European ancestors. You have to understand that Europeans had to be colonised before Europe colonised the rest of the world. The women had to be colonised. Ireland was the first colony. Many European nations have been colonised by the same economic and social structure. When we understand our oppression and what comes from it, the outcome it has not just on us, but on the entire planet, then we can start to move forward with a different cosmology, a different understanding. It’s not about borrowing from other cultures but remembering back to a time in our own cultures where we had an agreement with nature. This is the reason humanity has survived for 200,000 years. It’s how we survived the ice age. It wasn’t capitalism that guided us through the ice age, it was the agreements that we had with each other and with the environment.

[AB] In the subchapter Decolonizing Our Guts you also mention the importance of education in helping us to unlearn colonial cosmology while engaging in ‘decontamination of the cosmology’. Who are these educators and how should this education be organised? Who could we rely on to learn the main principles of care?

[RM] I think that schooling is critical in this work. But I don’t think the school systems that we have right now are adequate for doing that work. I think that bringing children back to plants, learning how to care for plants, learning the value of life cycles and the proper relationships with plants is the critical first step to unlearning. Once you realise how much culture is carried in our plants, in our seeds, in our trees, by that, I mean, culture, in terms of fibre, medicine, food, and what makes the histories of your areas. It is very specific for every human population in every corner of the globe.

Certain people historically used certain items for their clothing and their shelters. I think that once you start to understand how the land is giving you things, then it becomes your duty to care for it because your whole culture is based on it. Only through reattachment and re-understanding can we advance a different kind of culture of care. However, it can’t happen for everybody who has been forcibly moved off of land that then gets turned into private property. Therefore, the laws of land ownership have to be transformed. The work must happen collectively and simultaneously. Some children don’t have access to being on land. How do you create spaces where land is held in common so that all children can have that critical opportunity?

We also have to have understanding teachers for this purpose. The most important thing for our children to learn is that there is already a mass migration of people, who have been made vulnerable by climate catastrophe. They are already moving, and they’re going to show up very soon. So how are we going to attend to that? It is our duty to accept them – the nations that have created the problem are the ones that should be hosting the people who are now living with the problems. Basically, learning how to work across cultures, and how to take care of each other so that a lot of people don’t have to die are really critical skills for young children.

If we look at the way Covid tested the systems of the Western nations they passed very poorly. Most of the deaths that we are seeing took place in societies that have been organised by the West. The same happened in India, a former British colony in its post-colonial reality where the capitalist structure is still intact. The farmers are still being abused and poisoned there. Covid has shown us how societies can deal with climate shock. Western societies fail because they are focused on the individual over the collective, which is very much a part of the Enlightenment and Christian ideology. You’re seeing millions of deaths and you’ll see millions of people disabled by Covid. Now we’ve got Monkeypox as we’re entering the age of pandemic, this is where we are. Thus, teaching our kids correctly is the most important thing we can do. Personally, I homeschool my children on a farm with native people and elders. Other families want to educate their children outside of this system as well. The children are learning maths and science and history but they’re also learning additional useful stuff which is really powerful.

[AB] Now I would like to turn to the concept of care. Could we talk about the balance in gender equality a bit more because when we talk about care, especially in this patriarchal society, it is most likely that we have women in mind. The patriarchal system works very well in sync with capitalism and the exploitation of women. We all know who does the lowest paid jobs and it is precisely because they are mostly occupied by women that they are seen as jobs with lower value. I was wondering about the new concept of ‘deep medicine’ you are proposing in your book and how you imagine the balance between genders could be achieved so that it is not only women doing the care work? Most of the educators, workers in healthcare and service sectors are women. So they own this knowledge, how to care well, but how can it be transferred in a way that men are capable and knowledgeable enough to do it?

[RM] I think that it should be not only about engaging men in care work, raising our young boys as carers, but also recognising that women have a very important role in the care revolution, because we are the carers all around the world. We are the ones who are doing the most farming, child rearing, caring for the elderly, and caring for the sick. The problem is that we have been subjugated in that as opposed to honoured. What would it mean to honour those roles that women are doing? Actually, it means political power. If we are the ones doing all the labour, we should have the voice in how things should happen. For example, if you had put the nurses in charge of the COVID pandemic, we wouldn’t be in such a disastrous situation right now. We would not have deaths in such big numbers. These structures are not coming from women sitting around and developing what society should look like. That’s why the work of dismantling patriarchal systems is critical in deep medicine and in the care revolution by inverting structures of power. The people who are the carers have to become the ones who determine and set the policy in order that the care can be enacted and not just used as a temporary measure for alleviating the violence of capitalism. The shifting of power is absolutely necessary for the health of the planet and the health of humanity. Thus women actually do need to be uplifted into positions of power, not just one or two, but collectively, and not just women who are biologically women, but all people who identify as women, etc.

[AB] My next question is about social reproduction. In your chapter ‘Reproductive System’ you reveal, and I quote, ‘Medicine, in service to colonial state institutions, often mistakes social reproduction for biological reproduction’. I think it is always convenient for men and institutions in power not to talk about social reproduction and there will always be ‘a magic pill’ that prevents us from talking about the conditions to develop a healthy relationship towards people, animals, and everything that surrounds us.

[RM] The social reproduction is really what’s happening in the schools and that is how the colonial capitalist cosmology is seeded into the next generation. If we’re not understanding the process of social reproduction, we cannot imagine another world, another way the world could work. It’s critical to be looking at the way those things have been tied together. It just comes into really sharp focus right now in the United States with the overturning of women’s constitutional right to abortion where a group of right wing Christians can determine what happens to everybody’s body. I’m not Christian. I can have a different faith but I’m supposed to live by a Christian ideology and act on my body according to its laws. It is a very colonial reality that we’re living with right now. People often think that colonialism happened hundreds of years ago. We always disagree because these arrangements of power are recreated every single day. When you see it, when you start seeing how social reproduction works, then you can start making different choices. But if you don’t even see it, if it’s been invisibilised, which is what happens in modern medicine, then you can’t even get at the right diagnosis. You can’t actually name the real problem. So you’ll be offering these solutions that talk about diet and exercise, as opposed to what’s really going on and that is namely that people are being oppressed. It doesn’t matter how well you eat or how much you exercise. If you’re being oppressed, it’s going to make you sick.

[AB] You yourself work in the healthcare system as a professor of medicine in a hospital and you see what is happening every day. I was wondering, how do you apply your theory, the kind of a critique you write about, in practice?

[RM] Oh, in many ways. Sometimes it gets me into trouble, especially when I’m advocating for the health of Black people in the system. People in medicine don’t really like that. I’ve been called aggressive and unprofessional when I speak up for my Black patients. This is in California where I work, a very liberal open-minded state. We love everyone in California but the architecture of medicine is so deeply racist, so deeply sexist that you see it play out every single day. If you pay attention, you’ll see it and once you see it, you can’t unsee it. That’s the thing. Then you become morally obliged through your oath as a physician to act on it, to do something, whether that’s organising and demanding better conditions with nurses or the low wage workers in the hospital, or whether that is working closely with patients to help them achieve a sense of dignity, when they’re going through the system. These are all really critical, important things to do.

I work at a public hospital, I mean, I work at the university of California and it is paid for by the public, by taxpayers, but it’s a corporate capitalist structure. All medicine in the US is run through entities that are for-profit, which are the insurance companies. When you’re in this system, you’re obliged to participate in the most violent healthcare system I’ve ever seen which impoverishes people daily.

[AB] Could we finally talk about deep medicine? Would it be fair to say that deep medicine equals radical care? Could you help us to understand what it is and how it can be practised beyond the borders of the United States?

[RM] Deep medicine is an extension of the concept of deep ecology. Deep ecology is a vibrant ecosystem that does not centre on humans. Deep medicine is the medicine you can practice that doesn’t centre on the individual and health is understood as a phenomenon that comes out of systems working well together. If the systems are harmonising well together, health will be apparent, not just for one person, but for the whole system and that means the people, the water, the food, the soil, all of these entities, including the animals, when all these entities are in a balance you have healthy system and healthy people in it. Deep medicine seeks to restore the layers of mutual benefit within systems.

[AB] When you speak about the role of the humans is it also the kind of participation that is more about observation than intervention?

[RM] Somehow it includes both interaction and observation. The ecosystems here were tended for 30,000 years before European genocide. The humans were very much a part of the ecosystems. They were participating, they were composing the willow, they were harvesting the nettle, they were making medicines and foods. The people were engaging in practices in a way that their actions would benefit the health of the bear and the salmon and the wolves, and all of these things were interrelated. It wasn’t about the extermination of all the beavers or the wolves or the bears, which is what the Europeans did when they got here and has resulted in drought. Now you can’t drink the water out of the rivers, they’re poisoned. The land is also degraded and on fire. All these things are a direct outcome of not understanding systems of reciprocal care.

When we talk about climate change, we have to recognise that human-caused climate change started in a concrete time and a place because it wasn’t happening before the European conquest. We have to admit that the European mindset has infected the entire planet and that has caused our own demise and destruction. How can we throw that mindset off and find better ways of being on this planet? There are better ways and there have been for thousands of years. We see the last 600 years as an aberration of humanity and we need to get to the basic principles of care and repair that can bring us all back together to live well on this planet.

It really requires reparations. Europe needs to return all the money that has been stolen from my homelands, that’s $62 trillion. It needs to pay for slavery which I think it was something like $92 trillion. It needs to pay back, it needs to give land back to people whose lands they’ve stolen and are still being held by various European entities around the world, they need to give the land back and allow communities around the world to thrive. As opposed to constantly trying to undercut them if they try to get up, which is what they’ve done. There was a fabulous New York Times article about Haiti and how the French enforced a debt on Haiti for having the only successful slave rebellion in the West, when the slaves threw off the French colonisers and then the French made them pay a debt.

This is an example of the sickness that has forced people into extreme suffering. If you create economic and government structures that force starvation, famine, the death and disease of millions of people around the world, that is the sickness which you can call savage. It is pure savagery. We have to enter a time of welcoming a compassion and care that we know is there because there are multiple experiments also throughout Europe of groups autonomously organising, and they’ve been there for a long time. We need to uplift those groups and really start to follow their ideas that can help bring everything into a better balance.

Arthur Jafa, Dreams are Colder than Death, 2013. Video Still. ©Arthur Jafa. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Agnė Bagdžiūnaitė lives and works in Kaunas, Lithuania. She holds Master’s degrees in the visual arts (Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm), political science (Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas) and gender studies (Central European University, Budapest). Her curatorial research interests include art and politics, the theory of critical feminism, social reproduction, and social movements. Bagdžiūnaitė is currently the curator of a programme of residencies, exhibitions, events, video screenings, performance evenings and community-based projects at Kaunas Artists’ House. She is also involved in running the social centre Emma in Kaunas and the left wing media platform Gyvenimas per brangus (www.gpb. lt). She is an organiser of the International Left Festival Kombinatas and the Queer Film Festival Kreivės.

This article appears in full in BODY AS A JOURNAL, NO. 4.