A Story of Disconnections

From climate change to the lack of interdisciplinarity in academic and policy spaces — a natural scientist explores the unseen reasons behind the social unrest in Chile

BBC News 25 October 2019, Mundo Ángel Bermúdez (@angelbermudez).

A child, not more than eleven years old, is seen unarmed and panicked in the above photograph. At least four police officers, in an attempt to bring order, have surrounded and contained him forcefully. In fact, both public and private spaces have been deeply disturbed in Chile since 18 October this year, when an unprecedented social movement sprouted in the country. 

The announcement of a further increase (the second of the year and the fifth since 2016) in the price of the metro ticket of 30 Chilean Pesos (~3 Rupees) was received with discontent. School and university students decided to denounce the situation by entering into the subway without paying. Standing in the main entrance of several metro stations of Santiago, the youth tried to raise awareness inviting every user to follow them hoping to expand the contestation. The malaise increased with the awkward and disconnected responses from the Chilean government and escalated to violence in response to repression by the police.  

By the time the president of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, announced the suppression of the measure, the unrest had moved onto larger demands and had spread throughout the country. Since then, non-stop pacific and violent manifestations of it have been witnessed. 

The underlying reason of the movement is not how expensive the subway ticket is, but the inequalities deeply embedded in Chilean society. Despite having one of the highest economic growth rates in Latin America, Chile is ranked among the 15 most unequal countries of the world in terms of income (Gini Index). In addition, salaries are very low for a cost of living equivalent to European standards and access to basic services (education, health, retirement pensions, etc) is expensive because they are mainly managed by the private sector. This historically perpetuated pattern has created a strong feeling of frustration and lack of dignity in the low and medium classes. Therefore, what Chile is currently witnessing is actually a political and social crisis incubated several decades ago, as symbolised by the slogan “it is not thirty pesos, it is thirty years.” 

Indeed, every political, economic and social sphere, state and non-state actor, each institution and all the interactions between them are part of the problem. Whatever happens in one component inevitably impacts the others, and the system as a whole. This is true for both domestic as well as international events and their repercussions – what happens in the lower and middle class will always affect the upper class; major events in Chile will always have regional and even international repercussions; and what happens in the world also impacts every country. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges today is to understand how we are related and how the various global and local crises are interconnected. 

Incidentally, one of the biggest problems the world faces today is the ecological crisis generated by climate change. How is climate change related to the Chilean crisis? In at least two ways: both are the outcome of the same paradigms; and between them there is a cause-effect relationship. Allow me to explain.

The socio-political crisis in Chile and climate change are a result of the paradigms that govern us since at least the first Spanish Colonial Empire (late 15th century) – the capitalist economic system. Under this system, we consider nature as an endless provider of resources, while human beings perceive themselves to be disconnected from it. However, nature is a system that connects both humans and non-humans, and the Anthropocene is the maximum expression of those links. Therefore, the overconsumption of natural resources has led to a disruption of both nature and social structures. 

Further, climate change is exacerbating the gaps between social classes – rich and poor – since the most affected are the poor and the marginalised. This imbalance is manifested both at the domestic level, and the inter-state level, since only a few rich countries control the global economy. Similarly, climate change is also jeopardising the natural resources that support the current economic and political structures, making them unsustainable. This has brought uncertainty to future generations and is probably fuelling a lot of the protests, as the youth express their hopelessness about the future we are leaving for them. As the French sociologist Bruno Latour writes in his book ‘Où Atterrir’ (Where to land), we cannot understand anything about the political positions of the last fifty years if we do not give a central place to climate issues and their denial. Even now, in the middle of the crisis in Chile, the issue of climate change is only considered from the perspective of what the country might lost (politically and economically) for not having hosted the COP 25. Nobody saw that climate change is a primary contributor to the issues triggering the social movement. 

I am myself able to see this relation today because of my experience working as a natural scientist and studying the impact of climate change on the water resources of several glacierised basins located in remote and poor areas of South America. During one of my research projects, focussing on the Patagonian glaciers, I carried out numerous field campaigns over nine years, that gave me the opportunity to establish a direct contact with the inhabitants of the remote valleys. While I was impressed by their deep connection with their natural environment, and their ability to adapt to it, I was also shocked by their total lack of information regarding the reasons for the changes they had observed (such as increased flooding). Being a marginalised community (both geographically and socially), they were also unable to take the measures needed to protect themselves. After spending time on the field and interacting with the communities that were affected by my work, I was able to integrate political and social perspectives to the scientific problem I was studying. I could understand how climate change was generating social problems since it imposed modifications in modes of life at a faster pace than the current capacity of State response. 

In the case of Chile, the more distant are the communities from the economic and political centre, the greater the risk for survival. The Chilean government clearly neglected this, creating a feeling of unfairness amongst them. 

In this lack of vision, academia is not abstained from responsibility. Indeed, one of the characteristic aspects of academia today is the division of disciplines that has led to a rigid separation of exact sciences, human sciences and most importantly, philosophy. This trend has increased over time, and has led to a multiplication of specialisations: dividing the world and its complexity into smaller and smaller parcels. 

In view of our connectivity, today more than ever, a holistic approach is needed to schematise, analyse and understand our political, economic and social world. In that sense, to break disciplinary barriers is not only an option, but a fundamental need. To truly implement this, it is not enough to recognise that there are other disciplines (as multi-disciplinarity does), or study the same object from different perspectives (as proposed by pluri-disciplinarity). For that, the existence of a common project must be acknowledged, and efforts must be made to transfer methods, competences and epistemological contributions from one discipline to another. This is the aim of interdisciplinarity. 

Interdisciplinarity, which seeks achieving a dialogue between disciplines, is not simple since the kind of academic training practiced today rigorously structures our way of perceiving, interpreting, thinking, synthesising and interacting. The only way to undo the cleavage created by these structures is through critical thinking. 

Thanks to my experience in India, one of the countries most affected by climate change, I have confirmed and reaffirmed my conviction that we will not be able to deal with the ecological crisis without an interdisciplinary dialogue. In this sense, the artist and environmentalist Ravi Agarwal showed me that art provides a fundamental space to break up with disciplinary structures. The work we are carrying out together represents a permanent challenge inviting me to criticise models, to debate and to legitimise the richness of the convergence of art, science and nature. 

Today, as we stand on the brink of various social, economic and ecological crises across the world, academics and scientists need to understand and adapt such interdisciplinary practices, that move their engagement beyond a mere livelihood generation activity, and onto one that can sincerely and meaningfully address our most pressing concerns. Scientists cannot ignore that reality at the moment to make decisions related to the problems to be studied and the manner in which we face them.

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