What Lies Beyond?

Last week, JA co-hosted an International Seminar called ‘Beyond Development, Extractivism, Globalization and Capitalism: Alternatives for Economic Justice’.

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The seminar was organised jointly by JA along with Friends of the Earth International, Transnational Institute and Center for Civil Society (CCS). The 3-day workshop pulled together diverse people, from grassroots struggles against coal in Tete province Mozambique to academics from South Korea. For three days, we discussed the main drivers of the extractive, neoliberal ‘development model’, the struggles for rights and for the commons and especially the concept of ‘development’ and what lies beyond it.

 Gloria Chicaiza from Acción Ecologica, an eco-feminist organisation from Ecuador shared the important concepts of Sumak Kawsay. Sumak kawsay is a Quechua term, from an indigenous language of the Andean region. Sumak Kawsay translates to Good Living in English, Buen Vivir in Spanish and Bem Viver in Portuguese. But this is not Good Living in the way the world understands it currently. The entire paradigm of Sumak Kawsay is different from today’s dominant capitalist culture, so totally consumed by, well, consumption. Instead of unlimited economic growth, sumak kawsay embodies a balance with nature and taking only what is needed. In Southern Africa, we call it ‘ubuntu’.

 So what does this mean? What is the definition of Good Living? What does it include and what doesn’t it include? Does it include CAT scans? And computers? And ARVs for AIDS? And Universities? If Buen Vivir includes these things, then we need to get the material inputs to make these things. Again, the paradigm is important; are we using aluminium for military hardware, or for making cooking pots. This is an important conversation that needs to continue.

 The dominant paradigm is to move everyone to a first world type of existence; but the simple question is whether it is feasible given our energy and planetary limitations.

We heard this staggering example from Tristen Taylor of Earthlife Africa:

Swedish energy use is not extravagant by First World standards and 45% of it comes from renewable energy. So, if we were to have everyone who is currently denied energy (1.4 billion people) living like the Swedes, we would need 5 times more oil than what Saudi Arabia currently produces, and in only 25 years we would exhaust the carbon budget that corresponds to a 2ºC temperature rise. We can’t all live like Swedes, so the fundamental issue is redistribution of wealth and power.

So, what lies beyond?

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Well, Beyond Development: Alternative Visions from Latin America, the title of a book (written by The Permanent Working Group on Alternatives to Development and published by Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) released during the seminar, might be good reading material if you are curious.

 During the seminar, there was an interesting discussion on the need to deconstruct ‘development’. Some said the idea of development had to be scrapped. It couldn’t be modified with adjectives like sustainable, popular etc., because those are just reformist. We need to abandon the very idea of development, including exports, extractivism, everything about the way it exists now.

But is it a semantic dilemma? i.e., a problem with the word ‘development’? Because development also implies meeting people’s needs and basic necessities like water, sanitation, basic electricity, a simple house, a health clinic a school. So it’s hard to abandon the word, when it represents basic needs aspirations, as distinguished from hedonistic overconsumption.

But it was argued that it’s not just semantic – it is a problem of who gives meaning to the word, but it goes beyond. There is power associated with the word development; it is used to control territories and people on the basis of a certain dominant idea of development. That’s why the concept of Sumak Kawsay and Buen Vivir is being discussed by movements; the idea of a ‘dignified life’ not one based on the dominant notion of ‘development’.

On the other hand, others felt that saying, ‘we don’t want development’, might be extreme, perhaps what is needed is to investigate the question of ‘development for whom?’

These are the newer, ever newer strategies of capital, as it tries to reinvent and re-legitimise itself, while also generating more and more profits. After many decades of this ‘development’, we see that it doesn’t work and hasn’t worked; extraction and pollution continue; and now we are tottering on a cliff of ecological collapse and runaway climate change. And the re-legitimising tactics just continue. Carbon markets are just the latest tactics.

So what does this all mean? This blog doesn’t aim to provide answers, just to raise more important questions.

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