Earth News: More than News of the World

End of the Year Special edition

December 30, 2016


Optimists trade on hope, and activists on visions.  It seems good then to end a year which lacked both with this hopeful vision of the future, rooted in a visionary dream from the past.

Maybe you’d like to read and meditate on, share and discuss one of these amazing stories every day for twelve days as 2016 winds down and 2017 arrives.

Then let’s start a new year of 365 days of building a more powerful climate justice movement.


We know some of the faces and forms of radical climate justice activism: they can be found on the front lines everywhere, occupying, blocking, lying down on the tracks, swarming over and past the machinery, disobeying all illegitimate laws in the name of militant nonviolent civil disobedience.

But when do we actually find the time to think about the alternatives to this world we reject?

Not often enough.

If we look carefully, however, all over the world we can just make out the thin green shoots of hope: in transition towns, on the website of the Next System Project, the meetings about degrowth, the myriad alternative economies, enterprises, and currencies, festivals of alternatives, ecosocialist autonomous zones, and much else besides.

From the Andean highlands of Bolivia and Ecuador comes the indigenous concept of Sumak Kawsay, translated as Buen Vivir or Vivir Bien in Spanish, and with more difficulty into English as Living Well [it’s not a great translation, so think in Quechua or Spanish for the moment].

This past summer, Bolivian climate justice stalwart Pablo Solón took the time to give us this encouraging report from the future we seek: ¿Es posible el Vivir Bien?: Reflexiones a Quema Ropa sobre Alternativas Sistémicas (La Paz, Fundación Solón, 2016).  It has been beautifully translated and introduced by Richard Fiddler here, from which these extracts are taken.

Is Vivir Bien possible?

Candid Thoughts about Systemic Alternatives

Pablo Solón

August 2016

Why systemic alternatives?

We are living through a systemic crisis that can only be overcome through systemic alternatives. It is not only an environmental, economic, social or institutional crisis that confronts humanity. It is a crisis of humanity and of the Earth as a system. It is a systemic crisis caused by a set of factors, an egregious one being the capitalist system’s relentless search for profits at the expense of the planet and humanity. This system is leading to the extinction of species, to major losses of biodiversity, to the degradation of the human being; it is exceeding the absolute limits of nature. It is not a cyclical crisis, or even a crisis of capitalism, which in the wake of a depression will recover to continue its expansion, setting new records of growth. It is a much more profound crisis which has extended to all aspects of life on Earth and which now has its own dynamic without the possibility of reversal within the framework of the capitalist system.

Our most urgent task, if we wish to stop this collapse of life, is to overcome capitalism. Far from imploding from its internal contradictions, capitalism is reconfiguring itself and will continue its pursuit of profit until it has squeezed the last drop of blood from people and planet. Everything can be commodified. Everything is converted into a business “opportunity”: natural disasters, financial speculation, militarism, human trafficking, war, etc. Capitalism knows no limits. Super-exploitation, overconsumption and waste are the principal motors of this system as it pursues infinite growth in a finite planet. Increasing inequality and the destruction of vital cycles of nature are its legacy.

The alternatives to this system can only be constructed if we deepen our understanding of the process by which capitalism reconfigures itself. Capitalism has shown that it has great flexibility to adapt, capture, remodel and create ways out for itself. What begins as an idea or a progressive movement is co-opted, transformed and incorporated in order to maintain and reproduce the system. The challenge is to build alternative societies capable of breaking with the logic of capital and of avoiding co-optation by capitalism. The alternatives do not arise in a vacuum, they emerge in the struggles, experiences, initiatives, victories, defeats and resurgence of social movements. The alternatives arise in an often contradictory process of analysis, practice and proposals that are validated in reality.

There is no single alternative. There are many. Some come from the indigenous peoples, such as “Vivir Bien.” Others, such as “degrowth,” are being built in industrialized societies that have gone beyond the limits of the planet. The “global justice” movement is a reaction to the globalization of the transnational corporations. “Ecosocialism” is an attempt to rethink alternatives from a non-anthropocentric perspective. “Food sovereignty” is a proposal that develops the concrete alternatives originating among the small farmers, peasants and indigenous peoples. “Ecofeminism” contributes the women’s dimension that is essential to overcoming the patriarchy linked with anthropocentrism. The “rights of Mother Earth” are designed to construct new relationships with nature. The concept of “the commons” emphasizes the self-management of human communities. The “economy of solidarity,” the “economy for life,” the “economy of transition”… all of them contribute from various perspectives. Each has strengths, limitations, contradictions and points in common. All are ideas under construction. They are pieces in a puzzle that has many responses, and that will constantly change with the worsening of the systemic crisis. Our purpose is to understand these alternatives in their process of development, to identify their potentialities, and to look for the complementarity among these distinct visions in order to tackle the systemic crisis.

In what follows we will focus on one of these ideas: Vivir Bien (Bolivia), Buen Vivir (Ecuador), sumaq qamaña (Aymara) or sumak kawsay (Quechua). Our objective is to analyze the way in which the concept of Vivir Bien is constructed, to point to some of its essential elements in the construction of systemic alternatives, to assess how it has been implemented in Bolivia and Ecuador – with greater emphasis on the first country owing to the author’s involvement and knowledge – and attempt to reply to a question that many are asking after a decade of progressive governments in the Andes: Is Vivir Bien possible beyond the indigenous community? After a decade of governments that embraced this indigenous vision, are we closer to understanding and implementing it? And if we have lost our way, how can we return to the path of Vivir Bien?


Vivir Bien Is Possible

If what we have experienced [in Bolivia and Ecuador] is the application of an extractivist-populist model in the name of Vivir Bien, what might have been a practical implementation of Vivir Bien more consistent with its principles and vision? Is Vivir Bien possible in the reality of one country? Where is the problem? In its inapplicability beyond the limits of the indigenous communities? In the lack of understanding of this vision? Is this proposition ahead of its time?


International complementarity

The experience of this decade shows us clearly that Vivir Bien is not possible in a single country in the context of a global economy that is capitalist, productivist, patriarchal and anthropocentric. If this vision is to advance and thrive, a key element is its articulation and complementarity with other similar processes in other countries. This process cannot be limited to the promotion of agreements for integration that do not follow the rules of free trade, nor can it exist merely at the level of states or governments. One of the biggest shortcomings of the last decade was probably the failure of alliances of social and indigenous movements to develop independently of the progressive governments. Looking back, the global justice movement in Latin America, instead of becoming stronger, was weakened by its inability to articulate its own independent vision of change. It confused its utopias with the political plans of the progressive governments and lost its capacity to criticize and to dream.

If the processes of transformation are to flourish, they need to expand beyond the national borders and into the countries that now colonize the planet in different forms. Without that dissemination to the crucial centers of global power, the processes of change will end up isolating themselves and losing vitality until they have repudiated the very principles and values that once gave birth to them.

To that extent the future of Vivir Bien largely depends on the recovery, reconstruction and empowerment of other visions that to varying degrees point toward the same objective in the different continents of the planet. Vivir Bien is possible only through complementarity with and feedback from other systemic alternatives.


Teaser photo image: Drawing inspiration from Buen Vivir, this mural is by the famous Brigada Ramona Parra, a political street art collective in Chile. Alternautus, CC BY-NC-SA