‘With all the damage that the capitalists have done to the people through their misuse of science, can you create a science that is truly human? Can we work collectively to defend life and humanity?’
In December and January, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, Zapatista National Liberation Army, commonly called the Zapatistas) held a 10-day educational conference titled Las Zapatistas y las ConCiencas por la Humanidad in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico.
The word “ConCiencias” combines Ciencias (sciences) with Conciencia (awareness or conscience). It expressed the purpose of the meeting — to bring together members of the EZLN, scientists from 11 countries, and working people and peasants from the Chiapas region to discuss scientific topics ranging from quantum physics to ecology to neurological diseases — and to consider the role of science and scientists in the fight against oppression and poverty.
The talk below was given at the opening session by Zapatista spokesperson Subcommandante Galeano. He says he is only two and a half years old because until mid-2014 he was known in Chiapas and around the world as Subcommandante Marcos.
The @ symbol, used in companer@, for example, is used by many in the Latin American left to combine words that have female and male endings — in this case, compañera and compañero.
Some Initial Questions for the Sciences and their ConSciences
Scientists [Científicas and Científicos]; Compas of the Sixth; Observers and Listeners who are present here and those who are at a distance…
Good morning, afternoon, night, and, as always, the dark hours before dawn.
My name is SupGaleano. As I am only a little over two and a half years old, my version of what used to be called a “curriculum vitae” and now is called a “user profile” is quite brief. In addition to being an insurgente and a Zapatista, I have various other professions. One of them, for example, is to make those who consider themselves fine upstanding citizens uncomfortable, and to awake the basest instincts of those who do not. I do this by showing my clearly seductive and voluptuous figure, which I have achieved, through much effort, via a rigorous diet of greasy meals along with supplementary junk food at my discretion.
I am also, much to my own dismay and that of many readers, the unwilling scribe for the whims of a particular being—mythological for people over 12 years of age and of obvious existential importance for any person passionate about science and any child [niño, niña, or niñoa] who doesn’t care about calendars except to play with. I am referring, of course, to that being whose mere existence lays social and biological Darwinism to rest and marks the emergence of a new epistemic paradigm: the cat-dog. Perhaps, when this entity abandons the prison of the word, world history will be marked and its calendar redefined with “a before and after the cat-dog.”
(The Sup takes out two figurines of the Cat-Dog, carved out of wood and painted by insurgents.)
Another of my professions, at times and on the orders of my bosses, is to feed the paranoid conspiracy theories against the always “suffering,” “selfless,” and well-behaved institutional left that, for lack of real arguments and proposals, resorts to the role of eternal victim in the hopes that pity will translate into votes and for whom fanaticism substitutes for reason and even a minimum of decency.
Yet another of my professions is transgressor of laws such as those of gravity, seriousness, and good manners.
One more profession, which is most relevant in this case, is that of alchemist. Really I should be a scientist, but as I have not yet managed to transform the essence of one thing into its contradictory opposite, I have not received the level of recognition that my admirable labors deserve. But not to despair, I continue experimenting in my laboratory with test tubes and plants, under the ever-critical gaze of the cat-dog, trying to eliminate the essence of that aberration of nature called squash soup and transmute it into something likable and nutritious like pecan ice cream, which, along with popcorn and hot sauce, are some of the few things that science has produced for the benefit of humanity and which differentiate us, along with the opposable thumb and despite the specimen of Donald Trump, from non-human primates.
Thus, today it is my job to try to make you feel, not know, our happiness as Zapatistas that you have accepted our invitation and, despite the calendar, have found the way and means to participate in this gathering.
As Zapatistas we have been waiting for you for almost 23 years. As original peoples, well, you can do the math.
Of course, many will say that it is not their first time here and that they have, in heart and body, come before. They are right. They have been here, but not as they will be here in the coming days, that is, here to teach and maybe, possibly, to learn from us.
We as Zapatistas are here as your students, your apprentices.
Although are ready to learn like anybody else, we are a very other kind of student. So that you can get to know us as Zapatistas, we will start by telling you what we don’t want and what we do want.
For example, we won’t help you to haul around your books, nor prepare a bibliography, nor bring your lab materials. Nor we will be hoping that you don’t show up so that we have an excuse to leave. We aren’t looking for good grades, credits, degrees, or, upon finishing our studies, to start our own business based on science, pseudoscience, or false science hidden behind an official letterhead.
We do not aspire to profit from knowledge, nor to achieve prestige by offering the glass beads that are the pseudosciences and philosophies claiming “change comes from within,” “love will redeem the world,” “this concoction/party/politician/leader-of-the-moment-will-bring-us-happiness” that come into fashion or not in times of crisis when the least common of senses, common sense, is defeated by the offer of magical solutions for everyone and everything.
We do not think of knowledge as a social status symbol or measure of intelligence. It’s clear that anybody can graduate using plagiarized material, or by pretending to have valid solutions thanks to the increasingly weak magic of the mass media.
We don’t want to go away to the university, we want to build a university in our communities, for you to teach and learn alongside our peoples.
We don’t want to go to the big laboratories and scientific research centers of the metropolis; we want them to be built here.
Instead of army and police barracks, open air mines and fancy hotels, we want—constructed here, under our leadership and collective operation—astronomical observatories, laboratories, physics and robotics workshops, sites for the observation, study, and conservation of nature, and even a Large Hadron Collider or something that allows us to free the graviton from the hypothetical prison of that particle and to thus begin to determine, once and for all, whether the physicists who subscribe to String Theory are members of a frustrated neo-cult or a group of paradigmatic scientists.
We want to erect schools to train scientists, not workshops disguised as schools that only teach vocations that serve capitalism (cheap and unskilled labor), or that only serve to pass the time or for the bad governments, or whoever aspires to become them, to say they built new schools or institutes.
We want scientific study, not just technical study.
We don’t just want to know how to drive or repair a vehicle, a sewing machine, a carpentry tool, a microscope; we also want to know the scientific principles of mechanical movement and optic physics, what combustion is; we want to know that speed is not the same as acceleration; one shouldn’t confuse value and price.
We don’t want to enter those scientific and technological competitions that so enthuse the public and private universities in order to see which machine or machinist is best. We want to learn and do science and technology to win the only competition that is worthwhile: that of life against death.
We don’t want to go to the big cities and get lost there. And that isn’t because we don’t have the knowledge to do so—the kids who have been educated in the autonomous schools have a greater level of knowledge then those who were educated in the state-run schools—nor is it for lack of intelligence or money.
It’s because we do not want to cease to be what we are. And we are original peoples, indigenous, as they say. What makes us what we are is our land, our people, our history, our culture, and as Zapatistas, our struggle.
In sum, we want to understand the world, to know it. Because only by knowing the world can we make a new one, a bigger one, a better one.
A wise man of the original peoples, Purépecha by blood, Mexican by geography and internationalist by heart, Tata Grande Juan Chávez Alonso, once said that the life of the original peoples is, among other things, a continuous preparation.
“We have to prepare ourselves for everything: to be born, to grow, to love, to hate, to learn, to build, to destroy, to struggle, to die. And in the end, this is what we leave for those who come after us. We do not leave them an inheritance of riches, surnames, and positions. We only leave them the lesson that they must prepare themselves—for everything, all of the time, everywhere.”
That is why you should know that we have been preparing ourselves for this event for months.
We didn’t just show up here in front of you to see what you say, to see how you are, what your ways and times and geographies consist of. No, we came here prepared.
The doubt that moves us, the scientific curiosity, the eagerness to learn and know, comes from long ago, so long ago that the scientific calendars can’t keep track.
For example, we prepared questions.
We know well that just as you have to prepare to teach, we who don’t know yet have to prepare to learn. We also know that, just as one has to study to give answers, one also has to study to ask questions.
It hasn’t been easy. For example, we had to study how to say and write words like “anabolic,” “salbutamol,” “clenbuterol” “pre-eclamspia” and “eclampsia.” We had to learn to say “el mioma” [myoma] and not “la mioma.” We had to find a way to explain to you what it means “to burst with fish” and other things that we see in our world as indigenous people.
We met multiple times. First we met as zone-level assemblies. There we chose who would participate in this event given their area of work, for example, those who are promotores [trained practitioners] in the area of health, education, agro-ecology, medicinal plants, community radio, bone-setting and midwifery, etc. It didn’t matter if the person is young or old, if they are 15 or 524 years old. They did however have to understand Spanish, in order to understand all of you. And of course, they had to be interested in science.
Later the compañeras and compañeros who were selected met multiple times to prepare our questions. The first and most important questions we created were: what are we going to ask these brother and sister scientists? Do we only ask them what they know about science? Or do we also ask them how they see the current situation, if they think things are bad or everything is calm? Do we ask they how they view their scientific work? Do we ask them how they struggle for justice and freedom?
These questions that we are going to read to you now are some of the ones that we prepared in our meetings. As you will see, many of the questions don’t correspond to the exact and natural sciences, which should give you an idea of what the next gathering will be. Here goes:
Do genetically modified organisms do harm to Mother Nature and human beings or not?
Is there a scientific explanation for why, in some regions, in gullies where in times of drought there is no water, as soon as the first rains come (in May and June), there is a sudden spike in the production of fish? This is what we call “bursting with fish.”
Let me see if I can clarify these questions. Many years ago, let’s say about 30, about the middle of 1986, we were in the mountains…
1986, when Michael Jackson was still of African American complexion… 1986, when the Green Ecology Party of Mexico, the Citizens Movement, the Workers Party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party [PRD] and the party of the Movement for National Regeneration [MORENA] were all still called the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI] and they had as designated successor Carlo Salinas de Gortari whose economic policies they all still back today. The New Alliance Party and the Social Encounter Party still went under the name of National Action Party.
(Decades later, the eezeeelen has recognized its defeat and has another structure; Michael Jackson, even with a different color, kept being Michael Jackson; the PRI and the PAN are still all the same people, although now with other colors…)
Around the middle of 1986, during the soccer World Cup, that intermediary between heaven and earth, the dervish named Diego Armando Maradona, took off from midfield, leaving every British player in the dust until, satisfied, he shot the ball into the net in a play that marked the 20th century and still causes old fans to say, when watching Lionel Messi play, “Pfff! I saw Maradona perform a scientific demonstration that god exists and is round.”
Okay, I guess that wasn’t a very orthodox example.
Well, in 1986, we were in an insurgent camp called “Recruits.” A group of recruits asked the commander in charge for permission to go to a nearby village to collect fish. “You mean to go fishing,” the commander said. “No,” they replied, “to collect fish, because this is the time when the stream bursts with fish.” The commander wanted to know what this was all about, and they told him: “the stream is dry, and at the first rain, it bursts with fish, but since there is no water, you just grab them.” “So are they tiny fish then?” the commander asked skeptically. “No, they’re grown, big fish, sardina or bobito,” they replied. “There’s no such thing as magic, but go ahead,” the commander said. The next day they came back with a burlap sack full of fresh fish. That afternoon we ate so much fish soup that the trees that shaded the camp took on a fluorescent light that could have been seen without difficulty from the space telescope Hubble.
In sum: there’s just a dry riverbed, a first, timid rain, and then, with the riverbed just barely moist and spotted with a few puddles, thousands of adult fish flap around disconcerted with that same distrustful look that you all have right now. What is the scientific explanation? End of the pointless clarification. Continuing with the questions:
When a patient suffers a bone fracture, a doctor amputates the affected area or installs a metal rod or screw. But if the patient is treated by a bonesetter, they’re cured. What is the explanation for this?
With all of the damage that the capitalists have done to the people through their misuse of science, scientifically can you create a science that is truly human in order to avoid falling into a science that is inhuman, and if it is possible create a truly human science, who can create it?
In our struggle for liberation we see and feel the reality produced by the capitalist hydra. We are therefore creating a new society and a new world to save nature for the sake of a humanity, without injustice, inequality, exploitation, and poverty. For this we need the original peoples, all exploited people, the artists and you as scientists to be united, because your inventions and discoveries are very important for the development of humanity. What do you think and what do you have to say about this?
Brother and sister companer@ scientists, you have a different kind of knowledge, but we, and other sectors, all have something in common, because capitalism exploits us all and appropriates our knowledges for its own evil ends. Do you think that we are going to allow this exploitation to continue, or is there another way to live with justice and freedom, a way to work collectively and with unity, to defend life and humanity?
Brother and sister companer@ scientists, the exploitation and abuse of human beings and nature has caused much suffering and death. We want the exploiters and also whoever doesn’t suffer as we do to put themselves in our shoes. This has made us think that something must be done and made us ask who should do it. We have concluded that the artists, scientists, original peoples, and those below must put together our wisdom and begin to construct a new world where those of us who live will live well. Will you agree to be part of the construction of a new world together with us?
Brother and sister companer@ scientists, as Zapatistas we think that science itself is a series of knowledges that can help us to develop a more human system, where our dreams of unity and the conservation of Mother Earth and living beings can be possible. Simultaneously they will help us to soon destroy this capitalist monster. So we ask, is there room for your dreams, your knowledges and your science in the world of oppression? Is there room for your dreams within dispossession, horror, fear and the extermination of life? Do you believe that science can humanize in conjunction with the peoples of the countryside and the city?
Brothers and sisters, companer@s, scientists, what do you think about the women who are being exploited, manipulated, marginalized, assassinated, tortured, kidnapped, racially discriminated against and used as objects to promote capitalist commodities? What do you think about the fact that they use us as publicity for their propaganda and their transport of drugs, and as objects to satisfy their sexual needs? That they prostitute us to sell articles to make money? Why must we suffer to see the violence and death faced by millions of women across the world on an everyday basis? And we do not only feel pain, but also rage and fury. For example, as Zapatista women we are exercising our right and freedom to participate in our autonomous government of lead-by-obeying, which we see is a space for us to construct a new society. What do you think as scientists can be done to free us from all of this suffering and evil that the capitalist system does to us? And what can we do about it, you and us together? And given that without us women the world cannot live, how much time to you think that we women have to wait to be free? Is it now or never? As Zapatista women we see that it is possible to organize, struggle and work, we see that you and us need one another.
And so to bring this section to a close, I put two questions to you. The first came from Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés:
What is the scientific explanation for why whenever you start to talk about politics the insurgentas and insurgents fall asleep? Some of them even claim that they have trouble sleeping, but all that you have to do is start talking about politics and they start snoring. Is there a scientific explanation for this? Or are they just acting a fool?
The second question will make more sense in the next session:
Why is this flower this color? Why does it have this shape? Why does it have this smell?
(The Sup takes out his little Einstein and Sherlock Holmes dolls and places them in the middle of the table, surrounded on either side by a pair of cat-dog figures.)
Like any self-respecting alchemist, I feel a mixture of envy and admiration for the person who, without stopping to attend to the global problems of injustice and slavery, also practices the hard sciences (like Albert Einstein here) and for those who manage to go beyond the abstract universe and apply the sciences in pursuit of human justice (like detective Sherlock Holmes). Einstein and Holmes, both represent the commitment of their scientific and technical work to social transformation. Both remind us that, as Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés highlighted earlier, we cannot delegate our tasks as full human beings to others.
That is why, despite the fact that I am only a mediocre alchemist, you, who have made scientific work your motor and your destiny, share with me and with those who are huddled here with you, the idea that we must do something. And this something doesn’t have anything to do with the irresponsibility of delegating the responsibility of doing something to others.
Of course, you will say that I am setting a trap. That, in placing the figures of Albert Einstein and Sherlock Holmes in front of you, I am resorting to a crude and caricatured form of blackmail in order to oblige you to adhere to a political proposal that seeks to hegemonize and homogenize everything: the sciences, the arts, life.
Maybe, maybe not. Let’s leave aside for a moment the blackmail, perhaps more appropriate for adolescent romance and the politics of above that pays lipservice to “love” and “fraternity” while they traffic in discrimination, racism, intolerance and the “with me or against me” that all fascists resort to.
Note that alongside Einstein and Holmes I have placed the little Cat-dog figures, which are both looking at them and looking at you. The Cat-dog is acting like Doctor Watson, ready to sum up his scientific achievements, that is, his human ones.
But the Cat-dog is also pointing to the shadows of Moriarty and the Manhattan Project, alerting you to the ominous and predatory presence of the Hydra, the system that is always inclined to operate its perverse alchemy and convert knowledge made for life and for creation into knowledge for destruction and death.
That is how – one more blackmail – I am showing you what this encounter is about, an encounter between your science and the conscience of us Zapatistas. I am showing you that we look at you and that our gaze is also a form of listening to you and understanding you. That our gaze has this mix of admiration and envy for what you are; for what it is that, at least according to us Zapatistas, makes you special.
And our gaze is neither hopeful, nor not hopeful,
Our gaze is simply asking: And what about you? What are you doing?