“Sustainability is a Process of Self-Knowledge"

Aline Matulja is a Brazilian activist and environmental engineer working to find a more integral and human approach to sustainability.

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For Aline Matulja, the environmental movement must break out of its green bubble in order to make the transition into a more sustainable world. 

The Brazilian activist and environmental engineer has been working for 10 years to engage local communities in environmental projects, using education as a tool to encourage greener and more sustainable practises. As one of the co-creators of digital platform YAM, she runs the course Sustainability: Deep Ecology in Practice to help people to integrate ecological thinking into their daily routine. 
In thriving communities there is a lot of systemic knowledge that is often not organised or written down.
Aline also coordinates the Sana project, an initiative working to bring sanitation to the 4 million Brazilians living without a bathroom, as well as consulting with schools and organisations in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro on how to implement zero waste practises. 

In this interview, Aline speaks with Maria Clara Parente about why people - not technology - should be the center of the sustainability movement, the importance of humour and what we can learn from indigenous communities.

This interview was originally in Portuguese and has been edited for clarity. Translation by Maria Clara Parente. Watch a video recording of the unabridged  interview.

Maria Clara: How does your training as an environmental engineer influence your work?

Aline: What I realised as an engineer is that we are developing technology for almost everything, but people need to be at the center of this transition movement if it is to be successful. In thriving communities there is a lot of systemic knowledge that is often not organised or written down, but it works. What I try to do is work with communities and find the places where there is a possibility to create a more sustainable way of life. 


Maria Clara: What is the biggest challenge to working in the field of sustainability during a climate emergency?

Aline: I believe that recognising and facing our fears - whether that is fears of climate change, fear of lacking in basic sanitation, or the fear of looking at yourself and understanding your vulnerability - these are the cracks that we need to transform our way of being in the world.

Maria Clara: Some of the videos you've created for Instagram about the climate crises are very funny. You’ve said that humour is key for dealing with the climate crisis. Why is that? 
When we understand that our biggest problem is how to live together, then we can realise that indigenous villages are the biggest schools.
Aline: When we bring in humour to the environmental crisis we break this wall of sadness, anxiety and fear that immobilises us. When we laugh at our difficulties in making this transition to a more sustainable world we are better able to face our shadows. Let's laugh so that we can celebrate our vulnerability and build on it from a space of change.

Maria Clara: So that is also realising that you are part of the problem too, right?

Aline: Yes, but feeling ashamed every time you pick up a plastic bag or straw is not helpful. We have to move from this guilty mindset to a more proactive mindset which decides to look at it and try to improve.

Maria Clara: Tell me, what is this bag that you brought to the interview?


Aline: It’s a 100% biodegradable straw basket that I was taught to make by some of the women that we work with. We have been building bathrooms in the houses of people who do not have them for three and a half years and throughout this process we’ve learnt how important this kind of exchange is.

There are 1.6 million women without bathrooms at home in Brazil today, then there are at least 1.6 million women in São Paulo - where I live - who do have bathrooms. Through the exchange of learning and teaching we build bridges.

Maria Clara: Yes it’s about realising how much we have to learn from each other. For example, there is so much to learn from indigenous people.

Aline: Yes. When we understand that our biggest problem is how to live together, then we can realise that indigenous villages are the biggest schools in the transition to a more sustainable world. From indigenous people we can learn about how to live together, how to build a relationship with place, how to raise children collectively, the role of people in the community, the role of medicinal plants, the management of forests... It's a huge school. 
Sustainability shouldn't become a moral issue. Instead, we should seek to have self-knowledge.
Maria Clara: What does the world look like when we bring back this more holistic perception of life?

Aline: It is on this land that we stand and breathe and eat. As Indigenous people teach us, we don’t need the word ‘nature’ because we - as human beings - are nature. Sustainability is all about raising awareness of how interconnected our world is, and this is reflected in our ancestral cosmologies. The holistic perception of life changes our idea about what real ‘success’ is, and that changes everything.


The transition movement will be gradual because sustainability is a process of self-knowledge. Knowing who you buy your food from, where it comes from, why this matters. At the same time we have to have compassion for who we are, for our history, our ancestry and the vision of the future. A lot of people have this internal critic that says “I am unable to be the sustainable person that I want to be.” The first thing I say to them is that sustainability shouldn't become a moral issue. Instead, we should seek to have self-knowledge, look inside ourselves, recognise vulnerability, and then act from that place.

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Words by Maria Clara Parente
Maria Clara Parente is a Rio de Janeiro based journalist, artist and documentarist. She is the co-founder of This is not the Truth, a platform for Emerging Narratives that explores possible futures in the present.
Photos by Lucas Zomer
Lucas is a Rio de Janeiro based photographer and film director.
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