To enter this dialogue with respect, we need an introduction to this movement, which some call the “Pachakuti”, a term taken from the Quechua “pacha”, meaning time and space or the world, and “kuti”, meaning upheaval or revolution.
By Bob Thomson
[Update. Oct. 27, 2010: A Spanish translation of this article is online here]
In its efforts to exert some political influence on solutions to the current world financial and climate crises the nascent international ecosocialist movement should direct some attention to a synthesis of the western ecosocialist discourse with the growing Latin American indigenous discourse that is making exciting progress, albeit in fits and starts, toward an international charter for the protection of the planet, Mother Earth, and all forms of life on it.
Put less academically, we have to talk to, learn from and support the indigenous movements which have inserted ecosocialist and degrowth like concepts into the formal constitutions of the Bolivian and Ecuadorian states, who convened the “Peoples World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights” held in Cochabamba, Bolivia from April 19-22, 2010 and who presented numerous workshops and proposals at the Fourth Americas Social Forum in Asuncion, Paraguay from August 11-15, 2010.
To enter this dialogue with respect, we need an introduction to this movement, which some call the “Pachakuti”, a term taken from the Quechua “pacha”, meaning time and space or the world, and “kuti”, meaning upheaval or revolution. Put together, Pachakuti can be interpreted to symbolize a re-balancing of the world through a tumultuous turn of events that could be a catastrophe or a renovation. The main form that this indigenous perspective seems to be taking is the presentation of a “model” called “Live well, but not better”: Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir in Spanish, Sumak Kawsay in Quechua and Suma Qamaña in Aymara.
The following necessarily sketchy overview of some indigenous perspectives on “buen vivir” is my modest contribution to this dialogue. I hope this may encourage others to read the texts synthesized here.
Pre-colonial indigenous societies were in part organized with relationships of reciprocity and complementarity, and a respect for plurality, coexistence and equality. To be sure, there were and still are elements of inter and intra ethnic conflict, conquest and differences over tactics, and it would be dangerous to romanticize the “noble savage” and some forms of indigenous fundamentalism. Nevertheless, indigenous societies offer us much to learn from, as they contain elements central to the degrowth and ecosocialist movements’ calls for a new economic, cultural, environmental and political paradigm.
Following a distinct historical path from “modern” anti-capitalist struggles, indigenous anti-colonial rebellions and victories managed to achieve certain degrees of legal, land tenure and cultural rights and autonomy in the face of exceptionally brutal colonial conquest and latterly capitalist exploitation. Today Victor Wallis notes, it is amongst the peasants and indigenous peoples of the global South that “the most radical expressions of environmental awareness” has arisen.
Andean and other amerindian indigenous peoples have navigated a complex historic path as both subjects and objects, a path in which both negotiations and armed rebellion have played a role. Their still incomplete and inadequate victories have nevertheless preserved a historical “memory” which Cusicanqui notes could nourish the struggles for a new equilibrium in Bolivia and elsewhere today.
One of the results of these struggles, Sumak Kawsay, has been defined as “a complex concept, non linear, historically developed and constantly under revision, which identifies as goals the satisfaction of needs, the achievement of a dignified quality of life and death, to love and be loved, the healthy flourishing of all in peace and harmony with nature, the indefinite prolongation of cultures, free time for contemplation and emancipation, and the expansion and flourishing of liberties, opportunities, capacities and potentials.”
Racist western ideas, including those of some parts of the “traditional” left, have often portrayed indigenous cultures and their sophisticated cyclical appreciations of time, as “turning back the clock” or even barbaric. Yet the time has clearly come when humanity and the planet, to survive, must return to a balance based on current solar energy flows. We have depleted some three hundred million years of accumulated solar energy flows in the form of plant based fossil fuel stocks in less than 300 years of the industrial era. Indigenous culture and knowledge of and respect for planetary flows and cycles could be crucial to our survival. This does not mean a return to the cave as some have argued. Democratically negotiated syntheses with elements of western knowledge and science can complement indigenous knowledge in new pluralist paradigms which stop destructive western over consumption and accumulation while redistributing sustainable “income” to the heretofore exploited global south.
The western discourses on degrowth, steady-state economics, deep ecology, ecosocialism, climate change and others, based on an analysis of energy, entropy and economics, and to a lesser degree on their social and cultural manifestations, has generated a large volume of scientific work on historical energy flows in the development of modern capitalism and globalization which is crucial to understanding the old paradigm. Appendix C to this paper provides a sample of works which clearly show that the past several hundred years of homo industrialis, but a blip in our 200,000 year sojourn on the planet, has brought us to the brink of an environmental precipice.
However, convincing northern consumers of the need for a new paradigm and new lifestyles, given the impossibility of endless growth on a limited planet, will not be an easy task. A synthesis, of elements of sometimes overly holistic indigenous wisdom and of excessively compartmentalized western science, seems to me the a fruitful combination to provide guidance for a way out of the current crises which threaten the planet, our Mother Earth.
Appendix B provides a sample of references to indigenous perspectives on ecosocialism and degrowth. Below is my synthesis of a few examples of these contributions.
Xavier Albó , Catalan-Bolivian Jesuit and founder of CIPCA, a peasant research and education centre, looks at the Aymara roots of Good Living (Suma Qamaña) in order to help us understand it’s full meaning and potential to guide us to “the good life”. Living well but not better (than others), now a central element of Bolivia’s national development plan, outlines the virtues the new Bolivia should have – respect, equality between all, solidarity, harmony, fairness, etc. – “where the search for living well predominates”. Albó’s review of the Aymara semantic origins of “Suma Qamaña” parallels the degrowth movement’s debate over the terms “decroissance” vs “degrowth” as to their adequacy in describing the new paradigm we seek.
Indeed, the phrase “to live well but not better” (than others, or at the cost of others) is potentially confusing in English since “well” and “better” are similar if used to denote qualitative vs quantitative meaning. Language and culture are crucial elements if we are to convince others to understand and then follow this “dictum”. For example, English is a language based largely on nouns, while Anishinabe languages are dominated by verbs, resulting in cultures which focus respectively on objects versus process, with a resultant tendency to objectivize or integrate nature. This may in part explain the domination of the planet today by English dominated cultures and may make the task of undoing this domination extra difficult.
Bolivian historian Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes that, what a western linear perception of history condemns as a “turning back of the clock”, is viewed in the Andes as the redemption of the future, a past that can yet turn the tables. Analysing the history of indigenous rebellions and struggles over the paternalistic yet protective colonial Leyes de Indias, as well as conflicts with the traditional left earlier this century, Cusicanqui shows how indigenous autonomy is the starting point for building a new egalitarian, multi-ethnic nation. She asks: “In a complex, multi-ethnic ‘nation’ composed of diverse societies, who should constitute the umbrella authority that would link its many segments?” and speculates on whether the coming Pachacuti will lead to catastrophe or renovation.
Ecuadorian ex-legislator Monica Chuji contrasts the trillions of dollars allocated last year to save the world banking system to the “mere” $100 billion that would be needed to meet the UN’s millenium development goals to overcome world-wide poverty, to highlight the distance between the speeches and the realities of power. She notes how the discourse on globalization has been constructed in a way which has narrowed the horizon of human possibilities to the coordination of markets and economic agents and points to Sumak Kawsay as the alternative to progress, development, modernity – a notion that wants to recover the harmonious relation between human beings and their surroundings, between humanity and its fellows.
Ecuadorian economist Pablo Davalos provides a brief survey of the evolution of dependency, Marxist, world system and neo-liberal classical economics to show how we have arrived at a state of economic autism. He concludes that “Of the alternative concepts that have been proposed, the one that presents more options within its theoretical and epistemological framework to replace the old notions of development and economic growth, is Sumak Kawsay, good living.”
Ediciones MASAS provides us with a Marxist [Trotskyist?] critique of indigenous post-modernism in Bolivia’s ruling party, the MAS (Movement toward Socialism). MASAS claims that post-modern proponents downplay capitalist exploitation as the central configuration of society and pose “an infinite number of identities with no socio-economic structure” over the working class and other “standard” Marxist class identities, thus weakening the class struggle (and challenging left-wing leadership of that struggle).
The Chavez and ALBA proposal for a Fifth International has been presented as an effort to bring together a wider spectrum of traditional left political parties and social movements, including indigenous movements. Miguel D’Escoto, former Sandinista Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly in 2008-2009, and Brazilian liberation theologian Leonard Boff, appear to support this call, relating it to their own proposal for a Universal Declaration on the Common Good of the Earth and Humanity following the UN General Assembly’s acceptance of Bolivia’s resolution on the declaration of April 22 as International Mother Earth Day.
The Zapatista indigenous “model” has had successes and difficulties. It is difficult however, to find evaluations of the Zapatista’s impact on health, agriculture, education and nutrition in Chiapas fifteen years after their January 1994 rebellion. The creation of “autonomous” zones of power in Chiapas, with parallel institutions of governance are said to have brought significant political transformation, but some say they have not yet created a viable model of economic autonomy for poor peasants. Others cite civil – military tensions in the Juntas of Good Governance as reducing local autonomy. Some feel that internal political organization has taken priority over social and economic improvements and weakened earlier efforts to reform the broader Mexican state and guarantee indigenous rights of self-determination. Nevertheless, the Zapatista carcoles are models of governance which include many elements implicit in the ecosocialist and degrowth paradigms and further research on these experiences is sorely needed.
In this regard too, the Vivir Bien “model” is not unlike the ecosocialist “model”. Much has been written about the need to downshift in the face of the economic and environmental crises, and even about how to change relations of production from capitalist modes to collectivism, reciprocity and complementarity, or how to measure gross domestic happiness or define genuine progress indicators. Not enough however has been offered to-date on what and how to produce, or what a new dynamic “equilibrium” would look like. Without more concrete examples and basic research or macro-economic models, it remains a laudable and even logical goal, but with still inadequate road maps on how to get there.
Recent New Economics Foundation books on Growth Isn’t Possible and The Great Transition are laudable western beginnings to this task. Serge Latouche points briefly to a starting place in his recommendations to reduce or eliminate negative externalities of growth such as excessive transport, obsolescence, advertising, energy conservation, drugs, disposable gadgets, his 8 Rs, etc. The Climate and Capitalism web site and the Ecosocialist International Network group/list on Yahoo are also good sources of discussion and debate on these issues.
But the ecosocialist and degrowth movements, as well as the proponents of Vivir Bien, still have much work to do to show how our new paradigm(s) would work.
Appendix A – Bolivia’s Living Well, Not Better
[My synthesis of an 8 page document on the website of Bolivia’s UN Mission]
Bolivia’s Living Well proposal means living a sovereign and communal life in harmony with nature, working together for our families and for society, sharing, singing, dancing, producing for the community. It means living a modest life that reduces our addiction to consumption and maintains a balanced production.
The protection and preservation of balance in the natural world, including all its living beings, is a primary goal and need of our proposal. Mother nature has inherent rights to exist on the Earth in an undiminished healthy condition.
Faced with so much disproportion and wealth concentration in the world, so many wars and famine, Bolivia proposes Living Well, not as a way to live better at the expense of others, but an idea of Living Well based on the experience of our peoples. In the words of President Evo Morales Ayma, Living Well means living within a community, a brotherhood, and particularly completing each other, without exploiters or exploited, without people being excluded or people who exclude, without people being segregated or people who segregate.
Living Well is not the same as living better – because in order to live better than others, it is necessary to exploit, to embark upon serious competition, concentrating wealth in few hands. Trying to live better is selfish, and shows apathy, individualism. Some want to live better, whilst others, the majority, continue living poorly. Not taking an interest in other people’s lives, means caring only for the individual’s own life, at most in the life of their family.
Within the framework of Living Well, what matters the most is not the individual. What matters the most is the community, where all the families live together. We form part of the community as the leaf forms part of the plant. Nobody says: I will just take care of myself; I don’t care about my community. It is as preposterous as if the leaf were to tell the plant: I do not care about you, I will only take care of myself.
Development has proven to be a failure, as evidenced by the crisis of nature and the severe effects of climate change. It is now the leading cause of global crisis and the destroyer of planet Earth, because of the exaggerated industrialization of some countries, addicted consumerism and irresponsible exploitation of human and natural resources.
Thus Living Well means redesigning urban and non-urban living environments, the restitution of the local, regional and national communal goods, and a quick transition toward renewable energy at a small scale, that must be oriented to the locality and owned by the local community, without hampering the natural balance, and including wind, solar, small scale hydro and wave and local biofuels, not global agrofuels. Living Well means reallocating the trillions destined for war in order to heal Mother Earth.
Living Well also means promoting an orderly reconstruction of the countryside and the revitalization of communities by way of agrarian reform, education and application of eco-agricultural microfarming methods, based on our cultural and communal practices, the wealth of our communities, fertile land, clean water and air. All of these approaches are in preparation for the inevitable de-industrialization of agriculture as cheap energy supply declines.
In Latin America, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, a new perspective on energy, culture and “development” is coming alive, even in the form of a proposal for a UN Charter of Rights for Mother Earth, led by indigenous peoples.
See the bibliograph at http://www.web.ca/~bthomson/degrowth/draft_degrowth_bibliography.html for links to most of these references
- ALAI, “IV Foro Social Americas: Desafios para profundizar los procesos de cambio”, America Latina en Movimiento #457, July 2010
- Xavier Albó: “To Live Well = To Coexist Well”, CIPCA Notas 217, 10 February 2008
- Leonardo Boff: “The Rights of Mother Earth”, IPS, Rio de Janeiro, 1 March 2010
- Bolivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Living Well as a response to the Global Crisis: A manual for building the good life for our communities in the face of global crisis and probable collapse of western development models.”, pp.202 (Spanish only)
- Bolivian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the earth: Messages from President Evo Morales Ayma about the Pachamama (the Earth Mother) and climate change 2006-2010)” (English)
- CAOI (Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indigenas), “Buen Vivir, Vivir Bien: Filosofia, Politicas, Estrategias y Experiencias Regionales Andinas”, Lima, February 2010, www.minkandina.org
- Monica Chuji G.: “Modernity, development, interculturality and Sumak Kawsay or Living Well but not Better”, Uribia, Colombia, 23 of May 2009
- Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui: “Pachakuti: The historical horizons of internal colonialism”, which NACLA published as “Aymara Past, Aymara Future” NACLA Vol 25 No 3, December 1991
- Pablo Davalos: “Reflections on Sumak Kawsay (good living) and theories of development” ALAI, 5 August 2008
- François Houtart: “Interview with François Houtart: For a general well being of humanity”, Sally Burch, ALAI, February 2010.
- Irene Leon (Editor), “Buen Vivir y cambios civilizatorios”, Fedaeps, Quito, 2010, ISBN: 978-9942-9967-3-2
- Guiseppe De Marzo, “Buen Vivir: Para una democracia de la Tierra”, Editores Plural, La Paz, March 2010, ISBN: 978-99954-1-268-5
- Ediciones MASAS: “El Postmodernismo Indigenista del MAS: Una crítica marxista”, October 2009
- “The Indigenous Postmodernism of Bolivia’s MAS: A Marxist Critique”
- Mignolo, Walter: “The Communal and the Decolonial”, Turbulence, No. 5, December 2009
- “Indigenous De-Colonial Movement in Latin America” Wikipedia
The energy/entropy history of the planet and Homo Sapiens’ impact on it are the subject of a number of new and not so new western studies and reviews.
See the bibliography at http://www.web.ca/~bthomson/degrowth/draft_degrowth_bibliography.html for links to many of these references
- Frederick Soddy, Cartesian Economics: The Bearing of Physical Science upon State Stewardship, 1921
- Ester Boserup: The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure 1965
- Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen: The Entropy Law and the Economic Process 1971
- Meadows, Randers and Behren: The Limits to Growth 1972
- Herman Daly, Steady-State Economics 1977
- Jeremy Rifkin: Entropy: A New World View 1980
- François Partant: L’économie-monde en question, Genève – 1984
- Jared Diamond: Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies 1997
- Serge Latouche: In the Wake of the Affluent Society: An Exploration of Post-Development, Zed Books, London, 1993
- Lester Brown: Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress & a Civilization in Trouble 2003
- James Lovelock: The Revenge of Gaia 2006
- Thomas Homer-Dixon: The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity & the Renewal of Civilization 2007
- Alan Weisman: The World Without Us 2007
- Herman Daly: A Steady State Economy 2008
- Peter Victor: Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster 2008
 See Francois Houtart, “For a general well being of humanity”, ALAI March 2010 for a discussion of “Living Well” or “Buen Vivir” or “Sumak Kawsay”
 Cited by Cy Gonick in “Exploring Ecosocialism as a System of Thought”, Canadian Dimension, Vol. 44 No. 5, Sept/Oct 2010
 Carol Smith in the same December 1991 NACLA issue, cites Mayan resistance as one root of this historical “memory”.
 Rene Ramirez in Ecuador’s “National ‘Buen Vivir’ Plan”, cited in Irene Leon, “Re-significaciones, cambios societales y alternativas civilizatorias”, America Latina en Movimiento #457, ALAI, Quito, July 2010
 Immanuel Wallerstein has said this “may turn out to be the great debate of the twenty-first century.”
 Even convincing sympathetic colleagues in the progressive “development” discourse is proving difficult based on one response to a January 2010 London UK public meeting.
 Ministry of External Affairs of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, “Manual de construcción del Vivir Bien” pp.202
 Some French proponents of “decroissance” actually believe English speakers are incapable of understanding the concept.
 Personal conversation with Mireille Lapointe and Bob Lovelace, traditional leaders of the Ardoch Algonquin, June 2010
 See also “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”, Guy Deutscher, New York Times Sunday Magazine, 29 August 2010
 Ibid, NACLA December 1991
 Monica Chuji G.: “Modernity, development, interculturality and Sumak Kawsay, or Living Well but not Better”, Presentation to the International forum on Interculturality & Development, Uribia, Colombia, 23 May 2009
 Pablo Davalos: Reflections on Sumak Kawsay (good living) and theories of development ALAI, 5 August 2008
 Ediciones MASAS: “El Postmodernismo Indigenista del MAS: Una crítica marxista”, October 2009
 See also “Two Takes on the Bolivian Uprising in Potosi”, Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 404, August 20, 2010
 See for example the report of an April 2009 conference “Fifteen Years After the Zapatistas”
 The Zapatistas Break Their Silence, January 2003
 Journal of Cleaner Production, April 2010, “Growth, Recession or Degrowth for Sustainability and Equity?”