Good Living: Sowing the seeds of alternatives to development

Eduardo Gudynas

America Latina en Movimiento, Numero especial 462, febrero 2011

Translated by Bob Thomson, Ottawa, Canada, 13 July 2011

Good Living or Living Well encompasses a set of ideas coming forward as both a reaction and an alternative to conventional notions of development. On these terms diverse reflections are accumulating which, with great intensity, explore new creative perspectives, on both the level of ideas and in practice.

Given this situation it is useful to consolidate some of the main ideas under discussion. That is the goal of this article. We don’t intend to defend any unique definition of Good Living; actually, as will be seen, no one definition is applicable to all cases. The proposal is to provide a panoramic look, even at the at risk of being incomplete, but to make it clear that Buen Vivir [hereafter translated as Good Life and sometimes Good Living] at this time is germinating in various forms in different countries and from different social actors, that it is a concept under construction, which necessarily must adjust to each social and environmental circumstance.

Despite this plurality, we are defending the idea here that one can arrive at a shared platform for Good Living from distinct traditions of thought. Therefore, the current priority is to support these discussions, encourage even more diversification and promote concrete actions.

Starting points

You can start this tour from the testimonies of key persons in the debate on Good Life in the Andean countries. Alberto Acosta, who as president of the Ecuadorian Constituent Assembly was one of the most active promoters of the idea, understands it as an “opportunity” and an option “to be built”. In his view, Good Life cannot be reduced to “Western wellbeing”, and should be supported in the cosmovisions of indigenous peoples, where what could be called social improvement is “a category in permanent construction and reproduction”. Following a wholistic position, Acosta adds that material goods are not the only determinants, but that there are “other values ​​at play: knowledge, social and cultural recognition, codes of ethical and spiritual behaviour in the relationship with society and nature, human values, the vision of the future, among others.” But he also warns that there are other sources of inspiration, and that even within Western culture “more and more voices rise which may somehow be in harmony with this indigenous vision.”(Acosta, 2008).

The aymara intellectual David Choquehuanca, current foreign minister of Bolivia, argues that Living Well is to “recover the lives of our peoples, to recover the Culture of Life and regain our lives in complete harmony and mutual respect with Mother Nature, with the Pachamama, where everything is life, where everyone is uywas [beings], servants of nature and the cosmos. ” He goes on pointing out we are all part of nature and there is nothing separate, and from the plants to the hills they are our brothers. (Choquehuanca, 2010).

Both understand that Good Life implies a substantial challenge to contemporary ideas of development, especially to its adherence to economic growth and its inability to solve the problems of poverty, not to forget that its policies lead to severe social and environmental impacts. They also point out that this idea owes much to the vision of indigenous peoples, and a review of other definitions shows that both intellectuals and activists, Creole and indigenous, converge. As a complement, we offer a set with examples of other conceptualizations.

These and other contributions allow us to point out that there are at least three levels on which to address the construction of the concept of Good Living: the ideas, the speeches and the policies or practices. In the first are found the radical questioning of the conceptual bases of development, especially its adherence to the ideology of progress. In some ways, these critiques go beyond development, and reach other essential issues, such as the ways we understand ourselves as individuals and the ways in which we conceive the world.

A second level refers to the discourses and the legitimations of these ideas. Good Living departs from the discourses that celebrate economic growth or material consumption as welfare indicators, and doesn’t praise obsession with profitability or consumption. Their appeals to the quality of life run in other ways, and include both individuals and nature. The doors are opened to other ways of speaking, writing or thinking about our world.

In the third field are concrete actions, such as political projects for change, government plans, policy frameworks and ways of elaborating alternatives to conventional development. Herein lies one of the greatest challenges to the ideas of Good Life, in the sense of becoming strategies and concrete actions which do not repeat the conventional posturing which they criticize, and also must be viable.

Critique of development and beyond

A central aspect in the formulation of Good Living takes place in the formulation of a crtique of contemporary development. For example, it questions the rational of contemporary development, its emphasis on economic aspects and the market, its obsession with consumption, or the myth of continued progress.

An example of this position is offered by Ana Marίa Larrea of Ecuador (2010), who believes that development is a concept in crisis, with clear colonial implications, and is an expression of Modernity. Her critique simultaneously addresses current development and capitalism, and presents Good Life as a way to overcome these limitations.

These critiques of conventional development unfold on several fronts. There is on one hand a set of reactions to their negative effects, either due to specific projects (such as a road or hydroelectric plant), for broad sectoral reforms (such as the privatization of health or education). Contrary to what it proclaims, conventional development leads to “bad development”, which leads to a “bad life” (appealing to the characterization popularized by José Tortosa, 2001).

Another set of reactions point to the different ideas in play. For example, they ask hard questions about conventional understanding of welfare only as having to do with income or material possessions, or can only be solved in the market. Good Living emphasizes quality of life, but does not reduce it to consumption or property. It has also heavily questioned the reductionism of presenting development as economic growth, and warned that this is impossible in that natural resources are limited and the capacity of ecosystems to cope with environmental impacts as well have limits.

It is very common to argue that a country develops if the economy grows, especially if they increase exports or investment. In many cases, GDPs have increased and exports have soared, but little or nothing has improved in terms of social and environmental conditions. However, this classical development position is still current, and in turn expresses a firm belief in a lineal progress and evolution of history. Its classic examples rest in considering Latin American countries as “underdeveloped”, that must move through successive stages mimicking the trajectory of the industrial economies. Thus a wide range of reflection on Good Life focuses on the fallacies of conventional economism (eg Acosta, 2008 or Dávalos, 2008).

Other questions address the anthropocentric base of current development, which makes everything valued and appreciated in function of its utility to humans. There are also those who denounce the loss of affective aspects. In these areas the contributions of traditional knowledge are very evident, especially in the Andes, which have become key ingredients in nurturing reflections on Good Life. Expressions like the “sumak kawsay” of Ecuador’s Kichwa [Quechua] or the “suma qamaña” of Bolivia’s Aymara are of enormous importance for the ideas they explain, being made in their own languages, and its potential for decolonization.

Finally, another essential component of good living is a radical change in how we interpret and value Nature. In several of its formulations, the environment becomes a subject of rights, breaking with the traditional anthropocentric perspective.

Thus, it is possible to conclude a first point of agreement: Good Life implies profound changes in development thinking which are more that just corrections or adjustments. It is not enough to try “alternative development”, as these remain within the same rationale of understanding progress, the use of nature and relations between humans. Alternatives are certainly important, but deeper changes are necessary. Instead of insisting on “alternative development” we should think of “alternatives to development” (following the words of Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar). Good Life appears as the most important current of reflection which Latin America has offered in the past few years.

The new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador

In its first formal expressions, Living Well crystallized in the new constitutions of Ecuador (adopted in 2008) and Bolivia (2009). That substantial step was the product of new political conditions, the presence of active citizens’ movements, and a growing indigenous protagonism.

In the Constitution of Bolivia it is presented as Living Well [Vivir Bien], and appears in the section dedicated to the fundamental bases of the state, among its principles, values ​​and purposes (Article 8). There it says that we “assume and promote as ethical-moral principles of the plural society: ama qhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (do not be lazy, do not be a liar or a thief), suma qamaña (Live well), ñandereko (harmonious life), teko kavi (good life), ivi maraei (land without evil) and qhapaj ñan (the noble path or life)”. This Bolivian formalization is pluricultural, as it offers the idea of ​​living well from several indigenous peoples, and all on the same level of hierarchy?.

This set of references to Living Well are in parallel, with the same ranking as other classical principles such as unity, equality, inclusion, dignity, freedom, solidarity, reciprocity, respect, social and gender equity in participation, communal welfare, responsibility, social justice, and so on. (All included in Article 8).

In turn, these ethical-moral principles are directly linked to the form of economic organization of the state where Living Well reappears. The new Constitution indicates that the “Bolivian economic model is plural and is oriented at improving the quality of life and living well” (art. 306). It also postulates an economic order linked to the principles of solidarity and reciprocity, where the state is committed to equitable redistribution of surpluses to social policies of various types. And more, it emphasizes that to achieve “living well in its multiple dimensions”, economic organization should accept proposals such as the generation of social product, the fair redistribution of wealth, the industrialization of natural resources, etc.. (Art. 313).

Good Living is treated differently in the new Ecuadorian Constitution. It is presented as “the rights of good life”, and within these are included various rights, such as those on food, healthy environment, water, communications, education, housing, health, etc.. In this perspective the Good Life is plurally expressed by a set of rights, which in turn are at the same level of ranking [hierarchy] with other sets of rights recognized by the Constitution (those referring to individuals and groups of priority attention, communities, peoples and nationalities, participations, freedom, nature, and protection).

On the other hand, the Constitution presents a section dedicated to “the regime of Good Living “, which has two main components: those related to inclusion and equity (such as education, health, social security, housing, social communication, transport, science, etc.); and those focused on the conservation of biodiversity and natural resource management (e.g., protection of biodiversity, soil and water, alternative energies, urban environment, etc.).

In turn, this regime of Good Living is articulated with the “regime of development”. Herein arises an important clarification, because it clearly states that development should serve the good life. The “development regime” is defined as “the group of organized, sustainable and dynamic economic, political, socio-cultural and environmental systems which guarantee the realization of the good life, of sumak kawsay” (art. 275). Its objectives are broad, such as improving the quality of life, building a just, democratic and solidarity economic system, encouraging participation and social control, recovering and conserving Nature, or promoting balanced land use.

We hypothesize a direct relationship between the development strategies to be followed and rights; the “good life requires that people, communities, towns and nationalities effectively enjoy their rights and exercise responsibilities within a framework of inteculturalism, respect for diversity, and harmonious coexistence with nature” (art. 275) This development regime must include participatory planning and is expressed in the areas of work, and in food and economic sovereignty.

With these major constitutional expressions of Good Living established, we need to examine both the similarities and differences. It can be seen that in both cases, this idea is directly linked to indigenous knowledge and traditions. In the Ecuadorian text terms in Spanish and Quechua are side by side, while in the Bolivian case references are even wider. The inclusion of names in languages ​​other than Spanish is not a minor attribution, and it forces you to think of these ideas within their original culture reference points. Also, in both cases, the Good Life is a key element to reformulate development; it seeks and tests a new conceptual framework, and pays special attention to determining, for example, economic reform.

But there are also important differences. In the case of Bolivia, suma qamaña and the other associated concepts, are ethico-moral basics, and appear in the framework of the definition of plurinationality. In Ecuador however, sumak kawsay is presented at two levels: as a framework for a set of rights, and as an expression of much of the organization and execution of those rights, not only in the State, but throughout society. It is a formalization of greater breadth and depth, since sumak kawsay goes beyond being an ethico-moral principle and appears within the entire set of rights.

On the other hand, in the Bolivian Constitutional text, this link between suma qamaña and rights is not explicit; for example, there is no reference to this concept in the section on fundamental rights. As well, in the case of Bolivia, Living Well is clearly presented as one of the purposes of the state, while the Ecuadorian text is broader. The Bolivian version leans a bit more on the Ecuadorian State than the Ecuadorian text, but puts more forward on plurinationality than the Ecuadorian. As well, the Ecuadorian sumak kawsay is plural in the sense of accommodating a wide range of rights and is articulated simultaneously with other rights that are not in the text.

Other important differences revolve around approaches to the environment. In this field, the new Ecuadorian Constitution has formalized a recognition of the rights of Nature, which means recognizing it as a subject (art. 72). The position of classical rights is held in parallel to a healthy environment (which are part of the so-called third generation rights and are focused on individuals).

The formulation of the Rights of Nature offers several remarkable characteristics. On the one hand, they are used as synonyms and at the same level as categories of Nature and Mother Earth, which reinforces the importance that is given to indigenous knowledge. On the other hand, their rights are focused on fully respecting their existence, their structure and all their vital and evolutionary processes. This position is reinforced by another innovation which consists in the consideration that the integral restoration of nature is also a right (art. 73). Note that in this way, the environmental component of Ecuadorian Good Living rests on both human rights and the rights of Nature.

In the Bolivian Constitution there are substantial differences. The classical figure of third generation civil rights is maintained, which includes environmental quality and protection. But there is no explicit recognition of the rights of Nature, and it’s only possible to move within the framework of classical rights, as one more within economic social and cultural rights.

Tensions with the classical visions of development crept into the Bolivian Constitution in those articles where the proposition is that one of the goals of the State is to industrialize natural resources. While this goal can be understood in the context of historic demands to break the dependence on exports of raw materials, the problem is that it leads to a tension with the goals of the protection of Nature. When it says the “industrialization and marketing of natural resources is to be a priority of the State” (art. 355), it opens the door to all sorts of contradictions with those who demand the protection and integrity of Nature. For example, you could argue the unconstitutionality of protective environmental measures in natural sites where there are mineral deposits or oil to be industrialized, which could fall into a Living Well which avoids the environment.

The Diversification of ideas

Simultaneously with constitutional developments the discussion has diversified on the implications of Good Living. It is appropriate to begin a review of the Bolivian contributions on suma qamaña.

Some of its most enthusiastic supporters, such as Xavier Albó, argue that the best interpretation should be the good life in community or “good convivial living”. It is a complex concept as the result of input from analysts like Simón Yampara, Mario Torres or Javier Medina. It is linked directly to a full experience, austere but diverse, including both material and emotional components, where no one is excluded, as Javier Medina says. In the same direction the aymara philosopher Simón Yampara (2001) points out that more than material wealth, “harmony between the material and the spiritual” is sought as a “comprehensive wellness / holistic and in harmony with life”. It is a position that has a touch of austerity, in that the goal is to live well, and this should not mean living better at the expense of others or the environment (Albó 2009).

Suma qamaña operates in a special social, environmental and territorial context, represented by the Andean ayllu, as discussed in detail by Torrez (2001). It is a space of living will with people, animals and crops. There is no duality that separates society from Nature, since one contains the other and they are inseparable complementarities.

Along with the particular emphasis that different social actors give to suma qamaña, there is also a debate on the adequacy of the concept. For example, the aymara intellectual Pablo Mamani Ramirez (2010) believes it is an inadequate approach, and at least two other words should be added: qamiri and qapha. With this he seeks to explain more emphases, such as the “richness of life” in both material and spiritual aspects, self dignity and welfare, and a good heart. For these reasons, Mamani begins by postulating that qamir qamaña is the sweetness of “being still”, which reclaims a life style in the face of the imposition of colonial styles of western development.

The Guarani’s use of ñande reko (which translates as a way of being), is currently included within Good Life. It expresses a number of virtues such as freedom, happiness, celebration in the community, reciprocity and invitation, and others. All these are articulated in a constant search for “land without evil”, which is supported by both the past and the future (see for example the contributions of Bartolomeu Meliá in Medina, 2002).

Not only are there several contributions re Good Life, and varieties in each of them, but even some of their origins are in question. For this reason, Uzeda (2009) asks “whether we can consider sum qamaña a legitimate indigenous reference, genuine or a postmodern invention of Aymara intellectuals of the 21st century (that are still indigenous)”. Their response acknowledges that this concept, in the formulation discussed above, is not part of the everyday language or the local representatives of Aymara communities, but then warn that this idea, as “part of a recreation and cultural innovation is no longer indigenous and can, in turn, be appropriated, ‘carved'” into an indigenous identity.

This is precisely one of the positive characteristics of ​​Good Living, since trends such as suma qamaña would not be a return to the past but the construction of a future that is different from that determined by conventional development. Its various expressions, whether old or new, original or the product of different hybridizations, open the door to another path.

But as has become clear, any of these are manifestations of Good Living are specific to a particular culture, language, history and social, political and ecological context. You can not take, for example, the idea of ​​sumak kawsay of Ecuadorian Kichwa to transplant it as a recipe for good living that can be applied across all of Latin America. Likewise, neither can you convert or reformat Modernity into a postmodern version of Good Life. As Medina (2011) warns, there is no room here for simplifications such as thinking of the ayllu as a collective farm, or of the indigenous as proletarian.

We must also be alert to other simplifications: Living Well is not restricted to Andean sumak qamaña or sumak kawsay. Similar ideas are found with other peoples, and just by way of example we can cite the shiir waras, the good life of the Ecuadorian Achuar, understood as a domestic peace policy and a harmonious life, including a state of balance with Nature (Descola, 1996). Or the küme mongen, the “living well in harmony” of the Mapuche of southern Chile. Beyond indigenous peoples cases can also be cited for multiethnic and non indigenous groupings. For example, in the so-called “Cambas of the Amazon forest” in northern Bolivia, the product of more than 150 years of meetings and cultural mixing, they defend the “quiet life” with an emphasis on safety, welfare and happiness from an identity closely tied to the jungle (Henkemans, 2003).

The crtique from within

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.

For example, deep ecology (based on the work of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, 1989), rejects the anthropocentrism of modernity, defends a biocentric position which results in rights for nature, and explores an expanded identification with the environment. It is a position which, while criticizing basic assumptions of Western thought, comes from its own ranks, but by its very content is undoubtedly an expression of Good Living.

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. A clear example of this type of necessary input is provided by contemporary feminist critique.

Finally, another area of input comes from the reformulation or critique of conventional concepts in politics and justice. For example, René Ramirez, Ecuadorian Minister Secretary of Planning, conceives of Living Well beyond utilitarianism and classical justice. In his view, this is a concept that, while becoming more significant, should aim to create a justice that is both post-utilitarian and post-distributive. His conception of Good Living covers a wide range of attributes (see box), such as meeting needs, ensuring peace and harmony with Nature, developing personal skills, recognizing ourselves as different but equal.

Ramirez continues his reflection, to lead into an affirmation that Good Living is a “republican bio-egalitarianism”. We briefly explain his idea is “bio” by recognizing the rights of Nature, is “social-egalitarian” because it defends future generations, broadens democracy (for example with plurinationality and socio-economic justice), and “republican” by relying on institutionalization, requiring the concurrance of the State as well as the responsibility of citizens. As you can see, this exploration of Good Living is a critical dialogue in the face of contemporary political postures.

Various analysts who follow this route, have come to see that Good Living could be part of the socialist tradition. Ramirez himself speaks of a “socialism of sumak kawsay” or a “republican biosocialism”. This analogy has several justifications, and in particular is based on shared concerns for social justice and social equality. But there are also a few difficulties. Some of the proposals of Good Living undoubtedly involve a break with the classical ideas of progress or of Nature as an object (approached on the basis of exchange values or even of use values), and therefore moving away from socialism of the classic Marxist mold. The Good Life can not be treated as materialism and in particular the contributions coming from indigenous [cosmovisions] worldviews. And on top of it all, socialism is one of the great traditions of European modernity, and Good Living precisely wants to break subordination to that perspective. This explains, for example, why the Bolivian Simón Yampara holds that “aymara man is neither socialist nor capitalist”, stressing the importance of complementarities.

But you cannot forget that as Good Life advocates social justice and equality, its closest counterparts are in many expressions of the classical left which originated in Europe. This explains why for some, Good Living will still be maintained within the socialist camp, and therefore feel comfortable with placards like “sumak kawsay socialism”; but for others, what we now see is something new and its denomination is simply Good Living, with no other adjectives or conditions.

Finally, we add that the two components in the these last sections (one nourished by indigenous knowledge and another that retrieves the internal criticisms of western tradition), overlapping in many cases, both as concepts as by the very circumstances of the personal stories of activists and intellectuals. At any rate, there are different emphases, and it is just as well this is, so since in itself it is a reflection of diverse and multicultural societies where all these positions exist, and each of them are necessary to achieve substantive changes.

Trends to go beyond Modernity

Good Living without doubt offers a very important role to indigenous knowledges. And more than that, they can be said to have been the “trigger” of this new view. But once this is recognized, there are several possibilities that should be weighed, as each contains different options for meetings and misunderstandings.

It has been argued repeatedly that one of the cornerstones in this view is the rejection of several concepts of modernity of European origin. Within that there are a lot of concepts known to all, from the myth of progress in the defense of capitalism, from colonialism to the present concept of the Nation-state. Development itself has drawn on these ideas of modernity, its pretension of rationality and the exclusion of what they consider primitive or savage.

It is clear for all that has been indicated in previous sections, Good Life imposes a substantial critique of development, leading to a questioning of these central ideas of Modernity. Its complaint goes beyond “adjustment” or “reform” because it involves generating new ideas, discourse and policies. In that effort several expressions of indigenous knowledge are key because they themselves are outside of Modernity, and thus are a key component for others to set out on their own escape routes. But as we have also seen, it is true that there are critical traditions and alternatives within Western thought, which are providing fundamental critical inputs, and therefore join themselves to this effort.

It is appropriate to examine in a little more detail the confluence of contributions from these two areas. Some may push to an extreme that says Good Life can only be an indigenous conceptualization. If it were so, should the position of a certain indigenous people be favoured? Which? How to select them? As we saw above, there are several positions on Good Life, and even within each culture there are different opinions as to its definition. It is even necessary to note that a good part of the current reflections revolve around the Aymara suma qamaña, but this idea of ​​Good Living can not be transplanted, for example, to the Shuar of the Amazon jungle. Similarly, it is very difficult to argue that Good Life can be expressed in a “pure” indigenous knowledge because such purity would be a motive for questioning.

Other questions are relevant, such as what would the role be of other cultural traditions. For example, there is a Good Life too in Afro-descendant communities in the Colombian Pacific or with the rubber tappers or nut-gatherers of the Amazon. These groups live in the jungle, but are not indigenous or of African descent, but express an intense mixture of their own, where their own way of life depends on the integrity of certain ecosystems.

Even more. It’s necessary to promote the debate on Good Life in other circumstances and with other actors. For example, what should be the Good Life to which residents of a favela in Brazil aspire?

This brief discussion demonstrates the importance of establishing meetings and dialogue, mutual learning between all these positions, both among the different indigenous expressions, and in those which the Creoles of the entire continent have developed, not forgetting the alternative and marginalized expressions within Western thought itself. Various analysts have shown this sensitivity to meetings between alternative worlds, such as Alberto Acosta of Ecuador and Javier Medina of Bolivia.

Finally, it is also necessary to guard against another danger: the “modernization” of Good Life, converting it to an acceptable form within the modern Western repertoire (for example, as a South American variety of “human development”). Good Life cannot be “ingested” and co-opted by conventional views (such as Walsh notes, 2010).

Encounters between cultures

Both contested Western options as well as traditional knowledge must deal with the current dominant culture; which is where the production and reproduction of the ideas that underpin conventional development take place. In other words, Good Life is a concept which serves to group diverse positions, each with its own characteristics, but which overlap in questioning actual “development” and seek substantial changes, calling for other relationships between people and the environment. Thus, Good Life should be recognized as a plural concept, where, for example some defend sumak kawsay and others identify as biosocialists, and meet not only in the critique of actual development as in the defense of another ethic, in the commitment to certain social actors and in carrying our a transformation which has utopian horizons.

The form in which these diverse positions are found must be analyzed. Let’s start this journey by saying that for some, Good Life would express new “hybridizations” between different cultural positions critical of development. Using this expression, the analysis of “hybrid cultures” of the anthropologist Néstor Garcia Canclini immediately comes to mind. In his view, blends and creations make the distinction between traditional and modern blur, and the local and global are intertwined.

However, the proposals of Good Living deviate in important aspects from Canclini’s perspective, since they are specifically built as a rupture with the Modern, and many of them build from the revindication of traditional knowledge. As well, the deterritorialization of symbolic processes which Canclini defends at times, is not easily adjusted to the situation of today. This is because several manifestations of Good Living are motivated by express attempts to give back meanings and control of territories; it is a resignification of geographic space against what is seen as an invasion or usurpation, not only of natural resources, but of lifestyles.

Good Living is different as well from other uses of the word hybridization, especially when it describes that which has no identity or which is on the “frontier” between cultures. By contrast, Good Life allows the strengthening of identities, and for many cultures puts their essence into play, not in its margins.

Finally, Garcia Canclini also refers to hybrid cultures as a way of “entering and leaving“ Modernity. While this may be the case of some art forms, Good Life clearly wants “out” of the Modern European project.

Other analysts appeal to the image of a cultural “collage”. But this also isn’t an adequate description, since Good Life is not small individual pieces that are placed side by side in a great pastiche on the same plane. Distinct “planes” are in play and there is much more than aligning different elements.

One could adjust that idea, calling for a juxtaposition where there are no mixtures, as different cultures do not merge, but interact with each other, either in complementarities or antagonisms. It is this image that Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui uses (a Bolivian intellectual who describes herself as aymara – european), calling on the aymara word ch’ixi (which refers to a colour that results from the juxtaposition of two opposite colours, where something is and is not at the same time). Good Life, can it be described as ch’ixi?, a juxtaposition between the indigenous, creole or western critiques of Modernity, where each maintains its essence, but are complementary in their challenge of development. This is partly so, but in addition to the complementarities there are also mixtures and fusions (such as reconceptualizations on the environment or the contributions of feminism). Therefore this figure does not adequately describe the situation, since Good Life, as a plural concept under construction, takes advantage of many contributions.

To deal with these comings together and going aparts, it is common to call on the ideas of multiculturalism, pluriculturalism and interculturalism. In our case, although Good Life is a plural concept, it may not find the best place to continue growing under multiculturalism or cultural pluralism. For example, multiculturalism could become a reduced Good Living simply to maintain the style of mainstream development, while some alternative strategies are tolerated in the use of natural resources in very specific sites, such as an indigenous reservation. At this point, it is useful to turn to the Quechua intellectual Víctor Hugo Quintanilla, to make it clear that beyond good intentions, under multiculturalism a dominant knowledge persists which structures development , and accepts and even protects other cultures as minority expressions, like a species in extinction, without sacrificing its own conviction of superiority.

Pluriculturalism assumes that every culture is on a same footing of equality, something that few can defend for the Latin American case, and so is of little use. In this case, and the previous, there may be cultural enclaves, confined and possibly reinforced with testimonial value (e.g, peasant agro-ecology, ecotourism, etc.). but with little political power.

It is necessary for Good Life to be built under a double process: on one hand to decolonize knowledge, to abandon Western superiority, and on the other to respect the diversity of other cultures, without hierarchy of one over another. It is a position which is more comfortable with an interculturalism which includes a dismantling of the “foundations which justify the superiority of one culture or subject over other subjects and cultures” (e.g. in the sense of Quintanilla), but which also is expressed from the critique and function of liberation (a stance exemplified among others by Estermann, 2009).

It’s also important to be clear that this cultural outlook shows there is no indigenous Good Living, because the category “indigenous” is artificial and only serves to homogenize within it many different peoples and nationalities, each of which has or may have their own conception of Good Living.

This allows us to address another key question about Good Living. Suma qamaña is Good Living, and so is ñande reko, but that does not make suma qamaña equal to ñande reko. Similarly, sumak kawsay is Good Living, and the same can be said of some manifestations of deep ecology, but they cannot become synonyms of each other. All of them, suma qamaña, ñande reko, sumak kawsay, deep ecology and many others, complement each other, show some equivalence, converging sensitivities, and it is precisely this complementarity which allows a delineation of the building space of Good Living.

A platform to see the world in other ways

As we have seen, Good Living expresses different ideas, including cultural, seeking to move away from Modernity. This makes the questioning of development advance toward questions of enormous complexity, where some even believe that they should go beyond the field of culture. While the use of the word “culture” can be understood in very broad ways, it almost always has connotations that are made toward interactions between humans, where different ways of conceiving of Nature become mere attributes of a relationship outside of themselves. Remember that Good Life challenges the dualism of Modernity that separates society from Nature and turns the latter into an object (or set of objects) that can be dominated, manipulated and appropriated. As well, Good Living seeks to highlight other forms of relationship with its surroundings.

This explains why in many Good Living analyses, references appear to “cosmovisions”, to “being in the world,” to “ontologies”, or the “Andean cosmic home” (in the words of Yampara, 2002). Beyond the terms or words used, they refer to questions such as our conceptions of ourselves as individuals, the form in which we interact with everything around us, the ethical frameworks and values ​​that are granted and the concepts of becoming historic.

In recent times, these issues are considered using the concept of ontology, and while it’s a word that can generate a fear of leading us to an unfathomable philosophic debate, it can offer a working definition to convey the idea presented here. We will appeal to a recent summary the Argentine anthropologist Mario Blaser (2010).

An ontology is the form under which one understands and interprets the world, and is based on a series of assumptions about what exists or not, relationships, etc.. An ontology although it is not a predetermination, is built from the practices and interactions with both humans and our non-human surroundings. Under these, one generates stories, practices, myths and beliefs, which can be understood as “stories” that make our experiences and actions believable. Ontologies, Blaser concludes, can be understood as the determinants of overall representations, discursive or not, of our worlds.

Having appealed to Blaser is not capricious, as his work is focused on indigenous groups in the Chaco of Paraguay, with profuse comparisons with other cultures. In his studies he cautions against ontological conflicts, where questions such as the objectivity and validity of knowledge are in play, or which are acceptable practices. Just this sort of thing also appears in the different expressions of Good Living. For example, in some cases they attack the “objectivity” that separates Nature from society, while in others it is considered valid that trees or spirits are integral to a “political community” with humans. Determinations on questions such as true / false, right / wrong, subject of value / object of value, are determined by each ontology, and from them create and reproduce the cultural frameworks which are discussed in previous sections.

Conventional development corresponds to the ontology characteristic of European modernity. Among its main characteristics are policies, which for the purposes of this review may be cited the separation of society from Nature (duality), a unfolding of history which is considered linear, the pretension of control and manipulation, faith in progress, the insistence on separating the “civilized” from the “wild” and so on. It appeals to expert knowledge which determines the best strategies, and imposes a notion of a similar quality of life for all nations. The demands of local groups or indigenous communities must be “translated” into a technocratic knowledge or demonstrate economic relevance in order to influence the progress of this development. Consider the case of a local group that thinks that mining “will kill” a hill that is part of their “community” of life, all of which should be “translated” by the Modern to a list of environmental impacts, with the hope of influencing the decisions of an undertaking, which in turn is legitimated as a sign of “development.”

In these cases, one is questioning the discourses, policies and institutions of development inherited from Modernity, in the form of cultural conflicts. But at the same time something more profound happens, since Good Life also makes it clear that there are “other” ontologies, which are built differently and have their own mechanisms to generate validity and certainty, and which understand, value and appreciate their worlds differently. Therefore “ontological conflicts” will be expressed. At this level the ontologies of different indigenous peoples appear, and while some of us who come from the western heritage, “understand”, or “feel” that the project of Modernity has been exhausted, and we have reached a critical point which allows us to “see” these other ontologies, not necessarily understand them in all their complexity, but at least observe their expressions, recognize them as valid and respectable alternatives, draw inspiration from them and re-appropriate them to transform our own worldviews.

Among all the new and different ontologies now being displayed, particularly interesting are those that are “relational”, in the sense that they establish relationships beyond just human beings. While the modern ontology is dualistic, separating society from Nature, in the ontologies of several indigenous peoples such distinctions do not exist. They are relational in that the human community is integrated by other living and non-living, and even spirits, the same sensitivity is found in some proponents of deep ecology.

The complementarities and articulations indicated above are, in this way, limited by an incommensurability. You cannot reduce amerindian ontologies from the highlands to the amazon tropical rainforest, nor to the modern western. They are expressed in languages, cultures, geographies and different histories. Medina (2011) was right when he emphasizes again and again that the aymara suma qamaña code implies an amerindian cosmovision of complementarities and reciprocities which cannot be reduced or tailored to the europeans’ own cartesianism.

Recognizing these characteristics, it is possible to specify that Good Life can be understood as a platform where multiple ontologies meet. The points of arrival into that common space originate in distinct ontologies, and in different cultures. This common platform should be built from the practice of an interculturalism that looks to the future, to build alternatives to development.

This platform to “see the world” in distinct ways revolves around axes that are shared either by these cultural critiques, or on a deeper plane, also through the distinct ontologies; they are the common components of each particular expression of Good Life. Among the most important are the following:

Another ethic to recognize and assign values. When we say that Nature becomes the subject of value, what has happened is a radical change compared to the prevailing Western ethic, where everything around us is an object of value, and only people, as conscious beings, can assign values. We also depart from the actual ways of valuation on proposing to abandon the insistence on converting everything around us to merchandise with use or exchange value. And so successively, it may be seen that another ethic toward the world is shared.

Decolonization of knowledge. This consists of recognizing, respecting and even taking advantage of the diversity of knowledges. Breaking (or trying to break) with the dominant power relations, abandoning the pretension of a privileged knowledge which should master and direct the meeting of cultures and knowledges. This is more than epistemological relativism, as it lies on a decolonization of knowledge. The other knowledges become legitimate and the political dynamic must be reconfigured to deal with them.

Leave behind the rational of manipulation and instrumentalization. Good Living is a space where you leave the pretensions dominating and manipulating everything around us, be it people or Nature, to convert them to means that serve our purposes.

A vocation oriented to meeting, dialogue or interactions between the different knowledges. The very points indicated above prevent Good Living from becoming itself a reductionist stance, where one version claims to be hegemonic, and displaces all the rest. In turn, this interaction should be on both an intercultural level as well as rescuing critical positions within western Modernity itself.

Alternative Conceptions of Nature. This is not a minor issue nor colourful folklore, since conventional development encloses within itself a certain concept of Nature, and in turn, these ideas about Nature allow some certain types of development. In this way, any alternative to development requires reconceptualizing the western idea of ​​a Nature external to us, disjointed as objects, which can be manipulated and appropriated as resources. Good Living covers distinct ways of dissolving the duality that separates society from Nature, and repositions human beings as integral to the fabric of life.

Extended communities. Political communities (in the sense of hosting actors with political expression) are not restricted to people, and there is a place in them for the non-human (in some cases they may be other beings or elements of the environment, or spirits).

A place for experiences and emotions. Good Living could have its material base, but is not restricted to this, as there are protagonist roles in their expressions for emotions, the experiences of joy or sadness, rebellion or compassion. Materialism is not enough for the Good Life.

Transitions to Good Living

As the discussion on Good Living advances, there is an increase in demands for concrete action for change based on the current consensus. Many of the critics of Good Living charge that these measures imply an obscurantist imposition of hunter-gatherers living in the jungle. This is totally unfounded, and Good Life is not even an anti-technological proposal.

On the contrary, they continue taking advantage of scientific-technical developments, but certainly in another way, and without excluding other sources of knowledge, and all subject to the precautionary principle. To offer a clear example, under Good Life one should build bridges or roads, although they could have another design, be located elsewhere and serve other distinct proposals to the actual today.

Under these changes it will certainly be expected that the State play important roles. This is very necessary in those countries still stuck in market reforms, such as Peru or Colombia. In the case of countries under progressive governments they have been moving in that direction, giving better conditions to promote subsequent changes toward Good Life. Even some analysts, like Raúl Prada (2010), who notes its determining role in “shaping a social and communal economy”. Understandably this position is a reaction to the long and profound neo-liberal reforms of past decades, where the market prevailed, but also one must admit that the situation in countries with progressive governments is distinct. In these contexts it is necessary to be cautious against the temptation to decree Good Life from government offices, assuming that the State knows all and that by itself represents citizens’ demands. This is particularly complicated when the same State goes back to a style of conventional development, high social and environmental impact, and therefore moves away from the concepts of Good Life.

Some can claim the new development strategies that some progressive governments try are examples of Good Life. The conceptual bases of this idea deserve to be analyzed. This position is usually based on the strengthening of the State, the reorientation of development to certain popular demands, and in particular the plans to combat poverty (in particular putting in place cash transfers). It is beyond discussion that these social assistance programs have been very important in reducing homelessness and poverty.

But the current problem is that funding for these programs is based on conventional development, appropriating Nature, maintaining the pattern of subordination to natural resource exports. Even more, in some countries the increase in social spending and public works, makes governments even more dependent on exporting minerals, hydrocarbons and promoting monoculture. It’s such that you can say that this progress is close to Good Living for its fight against poverty and support for some popular demands. These grey areas are suffered in particular by indigenous communities, especially in tropical areas, as the new frontier of progress in mining and oil companies is located there. The impacts and dislocations generated by this extractivism explains many of the demands and social protests in several countries.

Some views of the heterodox economy may claim to be the best expression of Good Living practices. No doubt some contributions, for example, of ecological economics agroecology are essential, but alone do not create an alternative to development. As well, among the current policies in place in South America, positions like the neo-developmentalism of Brazil, may be presented as the best path to Good Living, by its greater state role, defense of national companies, autonomy from the IMF, and so on. True, it may have some positive elements, but it does not on its own complete the content expected from the alternatives of Good Living.

In both Bolivia and Ecuador they have tried to apply, although in different ways, the constitutional mandate of Good Living. In Bolivia there are several questions in this regard about the National Development Plan (e.g. Medina, 2011), while in Ecuador, the National Plan for Living Well, tries to do it in different ways. These cases serve to make clear that one of the specific areas of dispute over Good Living compared to conventional development involves extractivism.

One must be very clear that a proposition committed to Good Life implies getting out of extractivism. That is a type of activity because of its social and environmental impacts, is clearly incompatible with Good Life in all its concrete expressions. Ecuador’s plan recognizes this by posing as a future goal to reach post-extractivism, where the immediate task is to give this proposal concrete actions.

It should also be indicated that the immediate goals of a program toward Good Living should be focused on two objectives that are equally relevant: zero poverty and zero extinction of native species. The eradication of poverty and halt of the environmental debacle appear as urgent measures, and where one and the other are at hand, they are equally urgent.

There will be those who demand specific radical measures of transformation and in rapid succession. Is it possible to propose a revolutionary or radical change, where in a short time one could implement some form of Good Living? It seems difficult to defend that position. As has become clear, the Good Life is plural and in addition a concept under construction, and therefore it’s difficult to pretend to have a recipe of specific measures of something still brewing at this very moment. But undoubtedly Good Life, in its own conception, implies a rupture and a substantial transformation with the current order. However, in the very essence of Good Living there is a relativism that allows adjustments to fit each cultural and environmental context; therefore, a “prescription” cannot exist. The Good Life, plural in itself, can not be essentialist.

By one way or another, current demands for change must be directed in a program of “transitions”, which encompass moments of rupture and permanent transformation. This process offers opportunities to continue to deepen Good Life, generate a larger base of social support and provide concrete examples of viability. The key is that the balance between the permanent and transformations generates a real movement for change; each new transformation should open the doors to a new step, avoiding stagnation and fixing a sustained pace of change.

Transition initiatives, especially those oriented toward post-extractivism, are being discussed in several organizations in South America. For example, the Peruvian Network for Globalization with Equity is exploring transitions to stop reliance on extractive sectors such as energy, mining, fisheries and agriculture.

Conclusions: After development, Good Living

A final balance of this brief overview allows us to note that Good Life emerges as a meeting point for questioning conventional development, and as well as an alternative to it. Perspectives are incorporated, and even the mood, of indigenous knowledge and other western alternative streams. In this context it should be clear that Good Life should not be understood as a western re-interpretation of an indigenous way of life in particular. Nor is it an attempt to return to or establish an indigenous cosmovision that supersedes conventional development.

In fact Good Life is delimited as a platform where several elements are shared with an eye toward the future; has a utopic horizon of change. This aspect is even present in the contemporary Andean perspective. For example, Sánchez Parga (2009) indicates that in Ecuador sumak kawsay “is no stranger to the recent past, and has nothing to do with tradition”, but rather with people who want “to make their lives”, without leaving them at the mercy of factors that are alien and hostile. In a context where “modern” means abolishing cultures, traditions and collective past, this position has more of a future project future than revindication of the traditional.

This meeting platform on one side is expressed in terms of cultures, and in addition to them in the ontologies that support them. For this reason, In the plurality of Good Living there are multiple ontologies. Consequently, it cannot generate an essentialist proposal that is identical for all cultures and all places. As a plural concept, it may be said that strictly speaking we are referring to “good lives” which adopt different formulations in each social and environmental circumstance.

While each of the concrete manifestations can not be reduced themselves, it is still possible to identify common elements that allow us to refer to this multiple platform. Beyond agreement in rejecting conventional development and denouncing its negative effects, Good Life shows other agreements. Let’s review some of them: in the first place, it abandons the pretension of development as a linear sequence, of historic sequences to be repeated. Good Life, by contrast, has no opinion neither linear nor unique of historicity. In the second place, it defends another relationship with Nature, which it recognizes as the subject of rights, and postulates diverse forms of relational continuity with the environment. Third, social relations are not saved, nor are all things reduced to commodified goods or services.

This allows us to note a fourth element, where Good Life reconceptualizes the quality of life or welfare in ways that do not depend solely on the possession of material goods or income levels. This explains the emphasis given to exploring happiness and spiritual good living. Next, a fifth element ensures Good Life cannot be reduced to a materialist position, as living within it are other spiritualities and sensitivities.

Next should be noted that there is a series of elements that enable weaving links between the different cultural and ontological viewpoints. Among those examined in this article we need to re-emphasize the importance of ethics: Good Life is expressed in a different way of conceiving and assigning values. Identifying intrinsic values in the non-human is one of the most important elements which differentiate this position from western Modernity. From this new viewpoint communities are immediately redefined, expanding them to the non-human, and generating alternative conceptions of Nature. To these are added other components, such as the decolonization of knowledge or abandoning rationales that seek manipulation and domination.

It can be seen that while reaching the platform of Good Living from different starting points, they share a series of postures which means alternatives to contemporary development in practically every aspect.

No doubt, at stake here is a new kind of diversity, and decision-making should be subject to democratic processes to deal with it (although the detail of these mechanisms is a matter for a future article). Many tensions do not disappear by magic, nor will all citizen’s demands be won. But what will happen with Good Life is a radical change in the conformation of scenarios and the deployment of mechanisms to discuss different options, the assignment of values, the forms under which agreements are reached and political projects are designed. Until now, certain knowledges have been denied or rejected, but under Good Life they become legitimate. As well, the defense of cultural plurality by Good Living gives it a strong vocation oriented to meeting, dialogue and other forms of interactions between distinct knowledges.

For all these reasons Good Life is now a living concept which, as it is common to hear in many Andean valleys, is germinating new ways of life.

Eduardo Gudynas a researcher at the Centro Latino Americano de Ecologia Social (CLAES) –


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[1] Interview with The Raz?, La Paz, March 27, 2010.

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