Pachakuti: Indigenous perspectives on degrowth
Bob Thomson, Ottawa, 18 December 2012
An earlier version of this paper appeared in Development, Vol.54 No.4 December 2011
The impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet is slowly gaining currency via the largely European sustainable degrowth “movement” and a plurinational Latin American cosmovision, largely indigenous, but also criollo, known as “living well”, “buen vivir” or “sumaq kawsay”. This paper looks at some indigenous perspectives on degrowth, with a view to identifying those areas where a synthesis of western critiques of our unsustainable industrial “model” and indigenous concepts of “living well” could lead us to a decolonization, not only of our economies, but of our imaginations, which are predominantly locked into a consumer, growth oriented cultural narrative.
Convivial degrowth is a relatively new concept, especially in North America. Degrowth or decroissance has been around for a number of years in France and other parts of Europe, with some proponents even calling it a movement. However, it is not just (or even) about negative economic growth, as the English word might imply, but rather represents a complex paradigm shift away from our current industrial society and its model and culture of consumption and accumulation.
As one would expect with any idea which proposes a radical rejection of, and move away from, our current industrial consumer society, degrowth is a complex subject, with many elements and many diverse proponents arguing passionately about their particular interpretation and/or priorities for an urgently needed new society.
Why degrowth? It should be increasingly clear that with global warming and it's threats of extreme weather events, our dependence on fossil fuels for over 70% of our industrial society's energy needs will make it impossible to meet the goal of the maximum 2 degree global temperature increase required to avert the worst possible consequences of global warming.1 The conservative International Energy Agency has warned that we must leave two thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves in the ground or pass this limit.2 A recent World Bank report stated “a 4°C warmer world must be avoided”.3 The reduction of industrial production required to meet this goal can only come about if planetary economic output is significantly reduced, a task that cannot be accomplished without a wide range of social, political, cultural and lifestyle transformations which are tantamount to a paradigm shift of enormous proportions - a shift proposed by the degrowth movement.
When we talk about alternatives to the dominant economic growth model, there are three broad streams or “cosmologies” of post growth or de-growth discourse:
a largely European convivial degrowth discussion,
a Latin American, largely Andean, indigenous “live well/buen vivir” approach,
a North American steady-state and/or eco-economics model.
One hears of a-growth, post-growth, anti-growth, sustainable degrowth, convivial degrowth, objectors to growth, slowcialism, voluntary simplicity, deep ecology, eco-socialism, right relationships, right-sizing, steady state, buen vivir, sumaq kawsay, suma kamaña, ñande reko, küme mongen, etc. - an indication that the growth critique is as varied as its many proponents and the many cultures and contexts in which it is challenged.
An introduction to degrowth approaches
A recent overview article in the journal “Ecological Economics” by Joan Martinez Alier, Unai Pascual, Franck-Dominique Vivien and Edwin Zaccai4 provides a good comparative review of the various degrowth “schools”, including the French decroissance movement, steady-state economics, ecological economics and sustainable development – opting for a process they call sustainable de-growth and making recommendations for research, analysis, strategies for social change and other work necessary to move beyond the fragmented body of existing work to political strategy and change. Many of these themes have been the subject of a series of four international conferences on degrowth between 2008 and 2012.5
For those who read Spanish, Uruguayan author Eduardo Gudynas has written a good synthesis of the Andean indigenous concepts of “buen vivir”6. It is now also available in English7.
Many of the processes of economic, political and cultural colonization which have become the accepted doctrines of our Western, growth dominated cultural narrative, are rooted in the classical economic ideas of Adam Smith8 and David Ricardo9. They established the basis for today's “laws” of the “invisible hand of the market” based on self interest and competition, with their emphasis on the exchange value (price), rather than the utilitarian value of products. These “laws” have been “written” into our minds and cultures as incontrovertible truths via modern marketing and media, and by intellectual monopolies in our universities.
But David Graeber notes that:
“At a time when 'the free market' is being rammed down everyone's throat as both a natural and inevitable product of human nature, the work of [French anthropologist] Marcel Mauss demonstrated not only that most non-Western societies did not work on anything resembling market principles, but that neither do most modern Westerners.10
Mauss found that the exchange of objects within indigenous groups in Polynesia and the Pacific north-west are based on reciprocal, complementary and communal relationships between humans, rather than on strictly utilitarian cost or price “values”.11
In the Andean/Inca “allyu”, kinship, geographic, linguistic and culturally based socio-political factors generated communal obligations to contribute to shared public “works”, such as roads, buildings, the feeding of elites, armies, artists, priests, the elderly, the sick and emergency situations.
Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes:
Before Inca times, interlocking kinship groupings (the ayllu orjatha) were dispersed in several ecological tiers along the highlands, valleys and lowlands on both sides of the Andes. Despite the distances involved, these achieved an ecological complementarity, not by trade, but by intra and inter-ethnic relations of redistribution and reciprocity, which did not seem to require the presence of a strong central state.12
Indigenous peoples throughout the world have struggled against colonial domination for centuries. Navigating a complex historic path as both subjects and objects, their still incomplete and inadequate struggles, victories and defeats have nevertheless preserved a historical ‘memory' 13 which can serve as a source of inspiration and practice for our modern struggles against the combined crises of climate change, the impossibility of endless growth on a finite planet and a culture of consumption which reduces life to physical accumulation at the expense of non-material growth.
Again, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes:
This does not mean that the Andean world was free of conflict; in fact, it was rife with inter-ethnic rivalries and internecine power struggles. At the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, Tawantinsuyu was embroiled in a particularly bitter war of succession between two brothers, Waskar and Atawallpa. The conquistadors easily exploited these divisions, initiating a cycle of violent domination best expressed by the Andean concept of pachakuti - a Quechua and Aymara word meaning the disruption of the universe.14 [Note: The internal Inca conflict at the time of the Spanish conquest was significantly influenced by the apocalyptic European measles and smallpox epidemics which killed fully half of the Inca and Aztec populations.15]
Wade Davis has noted that:
Indigenous cultures are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the peoples of the world respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species over the coming centuries.16
Indigenous peoples have elected governments which have inserted “buen vivir”, a degrowth like concept, into the formal constitutions of the Bolivian and Ecuadorian states17. They convened the “Peoples World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights” held in Cochabamba, Bolivia from April 19-22, 201018 and presented numerous workshops and proposals at the Fourth Americas Social Forum in Asuncion, Paraguay from August 11-15, 2010.19
This “cosmovision” 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. Miguel D’Escoto, former Sandinista Foreign Minister and President of the UN General Assembly in 2008-2009, and Brazilian liberation theologian Leonard Boff have proposed a Universal Declaration on the Common Good of the Earth and Humanity20 following the UN General Assembly’s acceptance of Bolivia’s resolution on the declaration of April 22 as International Mother Earth Day.21
In his review of Latin American approaches to “buen vivir” or “good living”, Eduardo Gudynas of Uruguay notes that:
“Buen vivir” is a pluralistic concept with indigenous roots, still in construction, with many sources. While clearly wanting to break with the modern European “project”, it shares a questioning of development and a search for substantial change with some criollo and western critiques. It is not however, a hybridization or multi- or pluri-culturalism. Indigenous cultures are diverse, with each having their own conceptions or cosmovisions.22
“In the wide field of Western knowledge, critical positions on development exist as well. They have often been marginalized or excluded, but a close examination shows that they too are searchers of Good Living. In these critiques, which originated from within those same Western positions, for example, critical studies of development, biocentric environmentalism, radical feminism, or the decolonization of knowledge, just to name some of the more recent... These and other examples serve to show that even within western thought, there are critical currents, which seek alternatives to development, and in almost all cases have been marginalized or subordinate, and therefore remain under the same cover of the concept of Good Living. Not only this, but these kinds of positions are very necessary to strengthen the current stage of construction of Good Living, as complements to other positions, and each brings specifics which in some cases are missing or are weaker in other streams.23
What is “buen vivir” or “sumak kawsay”? It 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.”24
Within the Latin American living well “discourse”, one needs to look at the pluralinational ideas of “buen vivir” in Spanish, “sumak kawsay” in Quechua, “suma kamaña” in Aymará, “ñande reko” in Guarani, “shiir waras ” in Ashuar, “küme mongen” in Mapuche, amongst others. They are not synonymous, despite some shared roots and concepts. At the risk of simplification, many authors writing about “buen vivir” come from a “criollo” critique of development and colonialism, many with “traditional” left or Marxist roots, and are developing eco-ecology elements and critiques as new and innovative responses to climate justice and the failure of the capitalist system.
At the risk of simplification, proponents of indigenous cosmovisions such as “sumak kawsay” are centred in indigenous communities which have resisted colonization for centuries through the defense and protection of cultural historical memories, based in non-western, non-international paradigms and communities.
This colonization went well beyond economic exploitation. Felipe Quispe Huanca notes:
“In reality since 1952, the Bolivian colonial system has formed us as if on a shoe or hat mold, melted and molded by the heat of punishments in schools and rural educational institutions ... The whites homogenize us...via ... the Catholic and Evangelical churches, NGOs, political parties of both Left and Right, radio, television, the press, magazines, textbooks, the official history of Bolivia and other novels, etcetera.25
Similar comments have been made about the Canadian Indian residential school system, a policy called "aggressive assimilation" to be taught at church-run, government-funded industrial schools, later called residential schools, in order to pass an adopted lifestyle on to their children, and diminish native traditions with a view to their complete abolition in a few generations.26
Language is an important element of our planet's thousands of “cosmovisions” or cultural narratives. For example, English is a language based largely on nouns, while Anishinabe languages (Algonquin, Cree, Ojibwe) are dominated by verbs, resulting in cultures which focus respectively on objects versus process, with a resultant tendency to objectivise or integrate nature.27 It is perhaps no accident that English (nouns-objects) is the dominant language of capitalism, which sees all objects as something to commodify.
In a recent paper presented to the Institute for New Economic Thinking, William Rees of UBC, one of the founders of the ecological footprint concept, has noted:
All cultural narratives, world views, religious doctrines, political ideologies, and academic paradigms are ‘social constructs.’ They are products of the human mind massaged or polished by social discourse and elevated to the status of received wisdom by agreement among members of the social group who are creating the construct... By the time most people have reached mature adulthood they will have accepted their culture’s overall ‘narrative’ and will subscribe, consciously or not, to any number of subsidiary religious, political, social and disciplinary paradigms28.
This “learning” or “acculturation” process, flows from the application of highly individual filters to identify patterns in masses of unsorted “facts”.29 We all synthesize “data” into “information” by identifying patterns in the “data” - patterns based on filters, which are determined by gender, language, class, culture, religion, etc. – a myriad of factors which condition our individual cultural narratives. Over time, we further synthesize “information” into “knowledge” and eventually “wisdom”, applying broader and broader patterns built on our original cultural narratives. If we were truly wise, we would recognize from time to time that the original filters and patterns used to identify “information” in “data” might be wrong, or biased, or require adjustment, and thus force us to return to the original data and re-assess our original syntheses or “information”.
The Internet has brought a huge expansion of access to more “data” than can be easily synthesized by individuals, as well as software tools to sort the “data” and disseminate the resulting “information”. This has led to a dependence on commercial or politically motivated media syntheses, which become entrenched, making an often necessary reassessment of “knowledge” difficult, if not impossible. Reassessment (or the decolonization of our imaginations) is thus not an easy process. The history of entrenched ideas and resulting conflict in and between human societies attests to this difficulty, with reassessment not often done or even seen as necessary.
On the other hand, the Internet also offer spaces for exchange, learning and mutual respect for very different and pluralistic visions of the future and the potential for a synthesis of the rich complex of planetary “cosmologies” or cultural narratives. So despite the difficulty of reassessments of our multiple cultural narratives, it seems legitimate to ask: Is some synthesis possible between the western degrowth discourse and the growing Latin American indigenous discourse, one which respects the diversity and pluralism of their origins?
To enter a dialogue to this end with respect, we need an introduction to this Latin American cosmovision, 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.30 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.31 As noted above, the main form that this indigenous perspective seems to be taking is the presentation of a “paradigm” called “Live well, but not better”: Vivir Bien or Buen Vivir in Spanish, Sumaq Kawsay in Quechua and Suma Qamaña in Aymara.
The following necessarily sketchy overview of some 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 fundamentalism32. Nevertheless, indigenous societies offer us much to learn from, as they contain elements central to the degrowth and eco-socialist 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.33 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.34
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.35
Racist western ideas, including those of some parts of the “traditional” left, have often portrayed indigenous cultures and their sophisticated cyclical appreciations of time and nature, 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 those natural cycles and on current solar energy flows in a closed planetary system.
In less than 300 years of the industrial era, we have depleted some three hundred million years of fossil fuel stocks accumulated via plant based photosynthesis of solar energy and slow planetary sedimentation processes.
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.36
The western discourses on degrowth, steady-state economics, deep ecology, eco-socialism, 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.37
Romanian mathematical economist Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen, the mentor of most Western critics of growth, argued in 1971 that individual preferences were based on far more factors than price, and therefore that classical economists' slavish devotion to only economic value, versus biological, social, environmental and cultural values, was fundamentally flawed.38 The translation of his work into French in 1979 stimulated a French degrowth movement which has brought together the work of Georgescu-Roegen and Marcel Mauss and many other authors.
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.
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.39 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.
The bibliography in Appendix B provides a sample of references to indigenous perspectives on 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”.40 Living well but not better (than others), now a central element of Bolivia’s national development plan,41 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 a debate within the degrowth movement over the terms “decroissance” vs “degrowth” as to their adequacy in describing the new paradigm we seek.42
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”.
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.43 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 in 2008 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.44 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.45
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.” 46
Ediciones MASAS provides us with a Marxist (Trotskyist) critique of indigenous post-modernism in Bolivia’s ruling party, the MAS (Movement toward Socialism).47 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).48
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.49 Others cite civil – military tensions in the Juntas of Good Governance as reducing local autonomy.50 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.51 Nevertheless, the Zapatista carcoles are models of governance which include many elements implicit in the degrowth paradigm and further research on these experiences is sorely needed.
In this regard too, Vivir Bien “models” are not unlike the sustainable degrowth paradigm. 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.52 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.53 The Climate and Capitalism web site54 and the Ecosocialist International Network group/list on Yahoo55 offer some discussion and debate on these issues.
In addition, recent work on peer-to-peer production and sharing has generated networks for a collaborative economy which show promise for a synthesis with degrowth research through a shared antipathy to capitalism.56
Most importantly, a series of four international degrowth conferences have been organized over the past four years which have brought together academics and activists, not only to discuss what a post-growth society might look like, but to develop research priorities, propose concrete local activities and sketch out macro and micro policies for social, cultural, political and economic transformation as a way out of the impending climate, fiscal and environmental crises faced by the planet Earth.57
The degrowth movements, as well as the proponents of Vivir Bien, still have much work to do to show in a concrete way how our new paradigm(s) would work. Stay tuned for the programme of the next international conference on degrowth for ecological sustainability and social equity.
9David Ricardo: On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation 1817
12Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, “Pachacuti: The Historical Horizons of Internal Colonialism”, NACLA Vol.XXV No.3, December 1991
13Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, op cit
14 Pacha is "time-space," and kuti is "turn" or"revolution." As with many Andean concepts, pachakuti can take on different shades of meaning, in this case either "catastrophe" or "renovation."
15Ronald Wright, “Stolen Continents”, Viking, 1992, p.14
22Gudynas' review of Latin American approaches to “buen vivir” is available in Spanish & English at the AlaiNet web site. See also his article “Buen Vivir: Today's Tomorrow” in Development (2011) V54 N4, pp. 441-447
24 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
25 Felipe Quispe Huanca in Chomsky et al : New World of Indigenous Resistance: Noam Chomsky and Voices from North, South, and Central America page 293
27 Personal conversation with Mireille Lapointe and Bob Lovelace, traditional leaders of the Ardoch Algonquin, Hartington, Ontario, June 2010
31 Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, op cit
33Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, op cit
35 Carol Smith in the December 1991 NACLA issue, cites Mayan resistance as one root of this historical “memory”.
37See footnote 1 for a list of some studies in this area
41 Ministry of External Affairs of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, “Manual de construcción del Vivir Bien” pp.202
42 Some French “decroissance” proponents believe English speakers incapable of understanding the concept.
43 Ibid, NACLA December 1991
44 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
46 Pablo Davalos: Reflections on Sumak Kawsay (good living) and theories of development ALAI, 5 August 2008
56Michel Bauwens and Hilary Wainwright, “Peer to peer production and the coming of the commons”, Red Pepper, July 2012