Let us hope that the coronavirus pandemic, as the plague in Ancient Greece before it, results in a paradigmatic historic event such that human conscience becomes attuned to life’s intelligence; such that the Aristotelian syllogism, “all men are mortals,” is recodified to reassemble the life of Gaia, of the Pachamama. Such that a new syllogism may become the basis of thought: life is nature/I am a living being/I am nature. –Enrique Leff
The crisis of our times is multiple, generalized, multifaceted, and interrelated, as well as systemic, with clear signs of civilizational decline. Never before have so many problems flourished all at once, reaching areas beyond public health. The negative impact of these crises affects politics, economics, ethics, issues related to food and vitality, and, of course, culture. But that is not the end of it, for the pernicious imprint of these crises on the environment are of such gravity they cannot be denied.
To begin, let us see reality for what it is, however harsh. Enough talk of climate change. Let’s be precise with our terminology. We are in the midst of a climate collapse. We ought not to forget that changes in the climate have always been a constitutive part of Earth’s history, while our present collapse is human made, forged within the framework of what we superficially call the “Anthropocene,” and which, in more precise terms, should be called the “capitalocene.”
The Crisis of Coronavirus and Its Perils
The root origins of this multifaceted crisis are easy to glimpse. Let’s mention a few. Consumerism and productivism as they pillage natural resources and offset the environment’s equilibriums. Technologies that, instead of making life easier for human beings, exacerbate the accumulation of capital with an increasing effect on society’s psyche, simultaneously allowing for the establishment of gradually more authoritative states, China being a case in point. Ambition and egoism, which lead to the destruction of social tapestries built on community values and to a further deepening of an individualism that has become a social ill. Hunger for millions of people, due not to lack of food—of which there is more than enough—but because many people lack the capacity to acquire (or produce) it, or simply because it is wasted, subjected to speculative market tactics, or used to feed automobiles (biofuels). Biodiversity pillaged, all the while obesity rates reach worrisome degrees in societies elsewhere. Extractivisms gone wildly offhand—mining, oil plundering, agribusiness, logging, fisheries—which destroy life’s base while consolidating an economic system based on inequality and predatory tactics. Labor flexibility to enhance competitiveness through worker exploitation. A prioritization of the finance sector, especially in its speculative phase, in the production of goods and services, which, in its turn, far exceeds the Earth’s capacity to endure such a level of activity. A cultic following to the religion of endless economic growth, even as it exceeds the biophysical limits of the planet. All of it in the name of capital accumulation, which propels an unstoppable marketization of life—a true “mutant virus.”
Now, the word from the powers that be, obfuscating undeniable truths, is that we ought to prepare to recover the time we’ve lost. At this juncture, rather than delving deeper into threats and perils, let us take a glimpse at the opportunities presented to us, for going back to normal is not an option when “normal” is the root of the problem. “Normal” has always been an anomality created by capitalism.
Rebuilding and Building Community-Based Alternatives
As we speak, alternatives from various parts of the planet are gaining newfound steam and traction. There is a diverse range of different, complementary notions and visions of how to imagine and actualize a vital socio-ecological transformation that cannot be actualized within the logics of modernity. Such visions may even grant us alternative ways of reading reality so that a better understanding of the world in which we live becomes available to us. They may also invite us to reconsider the categories of analysis we’ve traditionally utilized.
Some of these notions are a fortunate rebirth of Indigenous peoples’ cosmovisiones (or worldviews); others have emerged from social and environmentalist movements inspired by old traditions and philosophies; and yet many others respond to the calls of different people within different collectives—such as those that come from feminist movements—whose actions in the face of the harshness and frustrations of quotidian life may even begin to build alternatives to galvanize civilizational transformation. Amid the pandemic, we begin to sense the emergence of a multiplicity of responses born of creative and community-based labor.
Unlike development, which is a concept based on a false consensus, these alternative visions resist being reduced to one singular vision, and cannot, therefore, represent one indisputable global mandate. Neither can they aspire to be adopted by international organizations in order to come to fruition. Many of these ideas arose as proposals for radical change at the local—especially grassroots—levels, but some of them are also of national and even global reach.
This deconstruction of development offers a wide open window to buen vivir, a life culture that has different denominations and variations across South American regions: sumak kawsay or suma qamaña; ubuntu, with its emphasis on human reciprocity in South Africa and its equivalents in other African regions; swaraj with its emphasis on self-sufficiency and self-government, in India; Kyosei, in Japan, and many others. [Translator’s Note: buen vivir is often translated as the “good life” or “well living.” This translation will keep the source wording for this concept as neither option fully captures the philosophical underpinnings of its original meaning in Spanish. However, the richness of its meaning will unfold through the reading.]
We insist that the principles of ecofeminism and the paradigm of care offer yet further potential for transformation within the rainbow of post-development, which in its turn must necessarily be post-extractivist. Fights for liberation are being staged in many other spheres—healthcare, education and social welfare, even housing and the market sectors. Decoloniality must be incorporated into each of these fights.
Buen vivir represents, in sum, a clear alternative to development, beyond the conceptual vacuum it has become due to its appropriation by progressive governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. More than once, Indigenous buen vivir—let us remember what is happening in the Amazon, for example— has protected woodlands and forests, sources of water and bio and cultural diversity, as a concrete means of taking action against climate collapse. And the principle that inspires it—thinking plurally, buenos convivires (well co-existings)—is harmony, or, if you will, living in equilibrium with one’s own life, living communally in harmony, among communities, peoples, and nations. And, all of them, individuals and communities, coexisting harmoniously with nature. Understanding that, as human beings, we are nature. The concept of buen vivir offers an orientation for red natural history—opening up ways of seeing and relating to the natural world that break from the extractivist logic of capitalism.
A Greater Cause, the Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth
Reclaiming and building a harmonious relationship with nature is a big task. Its endless exploitation must be put to a halt; its marketization must be undone. We ought to reconnect with nature in ways that ensure its regeneration and sustainability, from a position of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity, and with an understanding of the depths of what this relationality means.
To get there, we will need to change the history of humanity, the history of man’s dominion—yes, man in the masculine—over nature. For centuries, the society-environment relation has been characterized by utilitarianism and resource plundering. This reality attests to the disconnect between humanity and nature. And that led to a relationship of subjugation over nature—reinforced by ideas of “progress” and “development”—which ultimately led to all kinds of pandemics (recall the recurrent and ever-increasing fires in the Amazon), and which presage a terrible socio-environmental crisis.
At the same time, though, even as we navigate this mega-crisis, there lurks the powerful possibility that humankind and Mother Earth will meet again, through the visions we have mentioned of buen vivir. This will be a long and complex process, buttressed by the struggles of resistance and re-existence led by various grassroots movements—rural, urban, and especially Indigenous ones.
Indigenous peoples’ concepts of nature differ from those of the Western world, and their contributions are key. Indigenous peoples of the Andes, for example, understand perfectly that Pachamama is their mother, not a sheer metaphor. In this sense, all efforts to implement the rights of Mother Earth reside in reiterating an emancipatory mestizaje that can lead us to a “juridical hybridity” and which may recuperate all those elements from Indigenous and western cultures whose intrinsic kinship is part of life. We find in the Pachamama a lens through which to interpret nature—a territorial, cultural, and spiritual territory where marketization and exclusion have no room to exist.
Beyond undue romanticization, Indigenous communities—bearers of centuries-old memories—have demonstrated that human beings are capable of organizing life in sustainable ways. Such harmonious relations to nature—present in many regions of the Indigenous world, though not all—proves to be in tune with “sustainability”: a concept which, by the way, has been perverted and trivialized to the extreme, utilized to mask a developmentalist logic.
The focus of the rights of Mother Nature is nature itself, which obviously includes humankind. From a biocentric view, nature has a value in and of itself, independent of the uses to which it is put. These rights do not defend an untouched version of nature. The aim of the rights of Mother Nature is to maintain life’s systems and assemblages. The focus is on ecosystems, on collectives.
But we ought to take this further. The point is not to find a balance between the economy, society, and ecology; much less if the fulcrum of our articulations involves an implicit or explicit turn toward capital. Humankind and its needs will necessarily always prevail over capital, but under no circumstance shall they oppose nature’s harmony, the fundamental basis of any form of existence.
This combination of approaches is key.
Toward the Pluriverse, A World Free of Pandemics
At a time when neoliberalism and rampant extractivism brutalize the daily lives of citizens all over the world—particularly in the Global South—it is vital that dissident voices and grassroots movements commit to joining efforts through research, participation, dialogue, and action, taking inspiration from a multiplicity of existing alternatives instead of dogmatic sermons. We need our own narratives. Acts of resistance and re-existence give us hope in the here and now. And that’s why we say that a faint murmur of a different future can already be heard in the framework of the pluriverse: a world where all worlds belong, that ensures a life of dignity for all its beings, human and nonhuman.
The time has come to take strategic action and fight at every scale. One contentious point, which we need to explore, is the direction of our efforts.
Not much can be expected from nation states and other spheres at the global scale—still, we must try to exert our influence at this level even if only to negotiate minor gains. For example, promoting the elimination of tax havens; introducing a global tax on international financial speculation; or implementing an international court to tend to cases of corrupt and extortionist foreign debt management, to mention only a few points pending consideration.
That said, the main field of action concerns where and from where we need to act, to foster lives of interconnectedness and interdependence, where pluralism, diversity, justice, and equity coexist in common spaces. We need common horizons that allow us to resist the rising tides of authoritarianism while simultaneously edifying buenos vivires—common spaces of well-living.
Therefore, taking this brief synthesis as a point of departure, let us commit ourselves to the full implementation of the rights that ensure a life of dignity for humans and their mother—the Earth. In the resounding words of relentless Argentinian fighter Fernando Pino Solanas, as he stood before the International Court of the Rights of Mother Nature in Paris in December 2015: “It may be that there is no greater cause, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, than to fight for the rights of Nature.”
Translated from the Spanish by Inma Zanoguera, PhD Candidate in English, City University of New York, Graduate Center
Alberto Acosta is an Ecuadorian economist. He is currently a university professor, lecturer, and, above all, a comrade of popular struggles. He was formerly Minister of Energy and Mining (2007), President of the Constituent Assembly (2007-08) that enshrined the rights of Mother Nature in Ecuador’s constitution, co-author of Ecuador’s offer to forgo oil ex-ploitation in the Yasuni National Park, and a candidate for President of the Republic (2012-13).