Another World is Possible: The Post-COVID-19 World – Buen Vivir

Keyword: 
Economic growth
Topic: 
Macroeconomics - Economic growth - Monetary Policy

“Wealth, if limits are not set for it is a great poverty.” – Epicurus

Introducing remarks

In December 2019, the world came to know a virus that rapidly turned into a pandemic. Although in the first weeks and even months many had been thinking China/Wuhan are “far away” and would not be affected by it, COVID-19 proved to be stronger than this. It is among the largest pandemics humanity has ever witnessed. And it gave humans the possibility to calm down and slow down, to decelerate and think. One of the most important questions will be whether or not humanity will learn from its past mistakes as to not repeat them, undo past mistakes and begin to heal.

One of the largest mistakes – if not the largest one – humans have created is undoubtedly capitalism. Capitalism, with its production and consumption chains based on free market economy, necessitates constant growth to sustain itself. For growth more production and more consumption is essential. For more production more consumption is needed and for more consumption more production. More production and consumption are based on the use and consumption of more natural resources. Although this system expects unlimited consumption and production, the required natural resources are limited and will at one point be finished. What kind of a world would we live in if globally all people were involved in this unlimited, endless chain of production-consumption, consumption-production? Ecological economist Herman Daly defines this as the “Impossibility Theorem” of unlimited economic growth. [1] It is impossible because the realization of such an economic growth and consumption by 7 billion people would consume all resources of the earth and make present life impossible. For such continuous growth and continuous consumption one world would not suffice.

This article is a call for a shift and change in paradigm. It aims at showing the “buen vivir” philosophy as to show that another world is possible.

Buen Vivir

Es la etica del estado – It’s the state’s moral obligation" [2] Deputy Miguel Carvajal expressed this in the National Parliament of the Food Sovereignty Committee in Ecuador in 2015 to emphasize the importance of supporting and protecting peasants and farmers, who survive with small and medium farming and farm animals. The committee brought together civil society organizations, representatives of the indigenous peoples, agricultural associations and workers’ unions and released a draft for land reform. Ecuador’s land reform law (Rural and Ancestral Land Law) will basically shake up land acquisition and property rights. A very important concept that is included in the law is food sovereignty. Via Campesina, a transnational movement of peasant organizations and non-governmental organizations had first described this concept at the World Food Summit in 1996. Whereas food security expresses each person’s right to food and nourishment, food sovereignty goes further and includes the right to democratic access and control of resources such as land, water, seeds and crops. The goal of the food sovereignty movement is to carry out a more just land distribution reform, to establish and implement a system of international exchange based on fair trade principles (bringing gains directly to the producing peasants and farmers) and to build and develop democratic and decentralized food production systems. The concept of food sovereignty has been able to find itself a well-deserved place in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution as a result of the struggle of non-governmental organizations. In 2009, food sovereignty was also included in the national law. Another phenomenon that Via Campesina promotes is agroecology that is ecological agriculture, which conserves agricultural systems with traditional knowledge and practices. [3]

A social philosophy that affects South America increasingly is named sumak kawsay in the native language of the Kichwa/Quechua, buen vivir in Spanish and good living in English. The object of “goodness” is not the individual, but the individual’s social situation within the society and the environment. Sumak kawsay, a society-centered, ecologically balanced and culturally sensitive lifestyle is based on cosmovisión, or worldview, where human and non-human populations live in harmony with each other and with nature. [4]

In this frame of alternative thinking, harmonious, friendly living and working relationships are established between humans, nature and local communities; all of which are based on more participatory forms of social justice and democracy. Sumak kawsay is also included in the 2008 constitution of Ecuador: “We … hereby decide to build a new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living." [5Sumak kawsay is placed in the constitution as an ethical imperative side by side with other ethical principles like freedom, equality, solidarity, gender equality and justice. This philosophy, which can be summarized as “living well, but not better than others, or not at the expense of others,” is an understanding that indigenous people have internalized deeply and that reveals the deep link between nature and humans. [6]

By completely changing the production processes, we can reveal that we can live in harmony with our history, with each other, with animals, agriculture, nature, forests and seas. Going beyond, this is an essential and an ethical change, if we want to continue our very existence and save the earth. We have to end the classical anthropocentrism [7] as it gives people/humans priority, so that everything is for, about and by human beings while ignoring and belittling the nature and its needs.

Similar social movements are spreading throughout South America. The connection of sumak kawsay with belief systems of indigenous peoples is obvious. Therefore the people of Aymara in Bolivia, the people of Quichua in Ecuador, the people of Mapuche in Chile and Argentina live buen vivir. Eduardo Gudynas states that this cosmovisión simultaneously is a political philosophy because sumak kawsay has been deeply influenced by the indigenous peoples and concurrently over the last 30 years by critiques of Western capitalism, by feminism and gender studies, and environmentalism and green theory. While capitalism puts the individual at the forefront (the right to buy, sell, possess, throw, etc.), buen vivir places the rights of the individual below the rights of the people, societies and nature. As an example, regarding property, in buen vivir people can never own soil, land, water, resources, and forests. Placing a price to the nature would means to own and possess the planet, to buy and sell it like a commodity. In a similar way, it also opposes the converting of people into objects to be bought and sold. [8] Shortly stated, sumak kawsay opposes commodification as a whole.

In this context, consumers do not pay the “real price” of the product when they buy it. In fact, environmental and social costs of a product offered for sale are not included in the sales price; however, these costs ought to be included. As an example, we can think of any electronic product that is sold for a very cheap price. Most probably it was produced in a place far away from the country you live in, or different parts were assembled in different countries; most of the parts were made of non-recyclable plastics, workers were employed for long periods of time for low wages and perhaps even child workers were used and exploited. The selling price is never seen in all these labor chains. You buy that product very cheaply. In fact you do not actually pay the real price of the product. Who pays, then? Exploited workers, children, employees, brutally destroyed nature, irresponsibly consumed natural resources, they pay. And it is very likely that you will use the products you buy for a very cheap price only for a very short time and then you will just throw them away and produce more waste and garbage. And you will again harm nature. Only few of the pieces in those products may be suitable for recycling, while others will continue to exist for thousands of years of garbage, waste and poison. To see this destructive production chain called free market economy in a very impressive style, the “Story of Stuff" [9] videos will be very useful and impressive.

In an economy in harmony with the sumak kawsay, the capitalist production and consumption model has to undergo major change. One of the important points is size. Gudyana’s expression “Small is beautiful” means that all production chains have to be small and thus, to shrink. Small-scale production directly involves local people, and therefore their needs and decisions. Local culture is taken into account, local protection, local needs are addressed, and nature is protected. [10]

Invitation for change

Whereas in the past our planet had been able to live in peace and harmony, long without, then with a few humans, today it is trying to cope with extreme population growth, ecological destruction, excessive consumption of natural resources, destruction, garbage and poison waste and more. While some parts of the world live in extreme luxury and luxurious consumption in amounts never seen or heard of before, consuming and depleting resources senselessly, the larger part of the world is far away from meeting their most basic human needs with human dignity, fairly, equitably. While a minority consumes much too much, the majority consumes not enough, with even the most basic rights being unreachable. Ending global poverty in the world is the most basic duty, responsibility and obligation of humanity. [11] Instead of slowing down, economically rich countries continue to rapidly and severely consume the nature, the planet and of course they also consume and finish themselves.

According to the Global Humanitarian Forum, headed by the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, 300,000 people die each year due to climate change-related reasons. In other words, these people could have survived; they could live if there was no climate change. The majority of these are children. Globally diarrhea and malaria cases increase immensely due to global warming and lead to death. In today’s world, every 210 seconds a child dies because we cannot control greenhouse gas emissions. A society that allows this loses its right to consider itself “civilized”. [12]

All the problems we face in today’s world are in fact interconnected and all have inequality at their core: patriarchy, racism, discrimination, colonialism, neo-colonialism, capitalism, neoliberalism, corporate controlled globalization, poverty. Along with climate change, we are about to enter a human suffering process that will reach dimensions we have not yet met. It may still be possible to reduce the size of this tragedy which will affect both humans and all life. [13]

A world in which fossil fuels, the main component of climate change, is reduced and eventually totally abandoned is possible. Daily energy from the sun is 15,000 times over the amount that people can actually use. It is therefore perfectly possible to get rid of fossil fuels and all the destruction by giving much more weight to renewable solar energy. [14] In this context, it is possible to use small-scale roofs with photovoltaic panels, and also to use solar energy much more efficiently by placing photovoltaic panels on empty roads or areas, in rural areas and cities. And this would be clean energy. An interesting point is that the photovoltaic effect was discovered by Edmond Becquerel as early as 1865 and the first prototypes were produced then. Unfortunately, capitalists at that time preferred fossil fuels as to make more profits instead of investing in this innovation. Even today, solar energy is not the first priority of energy research programs. [15] However, it is obvious that we do not need coal, gas, petroleum and petrochemical products, but we can meet our need for energy with the sun that warms us smoothly.

The alternative to climate change is buen vivir. It is a world of self-confident, inclusive, decisive, conscious, intellectual people, real human beings who live in harmony with nature, in harmony with all live.

Pablo Solón says “The future is not written. It depends on what we do now." [16] We must be aware of our historical responsibilities, our responsibilities to indigenous peoples, our commitment to gender equality, our standing against all kinds of discrimination and inequalities, our obligation for future generations, our determination to carry out global social justice, our responsibility for climate protection in every single step we take, in everything we do. And we have to act according to these responsibilities.


1. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What every environmentalist needs to know about capitalism: A citizen’s guide to capitalism and the environment (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011) 7.

2. Karla Pena, “Ecuador’s quest for food sovereignty and land reform”, Third World Resurgence, no. 305-306, January-February 2016, p.2, http://www.twn.my/title2/resurgence/2016/pdf/305-306.pdf

3. Karla Pena, “Ecuador’s quest for food sovereignty and land reform”, Third World Resurgence, no. 305-306, January-February 2016, p. 2, http://www.twn.my/title2/resurgence/2016/pdf/305-306.pdf

4. Oliver Balch,“Buen vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America”, The Guardian, 04 February 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas

5. Karla Pena, “Ecuador’s quest for food sovereignty and land reform”, Third World Resurgence, no. 305-306, January-February 2016, p. 2, http://www.twn.my/title2/resurgence/2016/pdf/305-306.pdf  and Oliver Balch,“Buen vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America”, The Guardian, 04 February 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas

6. Gönül Turgut, “Ekolojik Sürdürülebilirlik ve Küçülme”, Dokuz Eylül Üniversitesi, İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Dergisi, no. 2, 2014, pp. 137-165, p. 156-157.

7. Eduardo Gudynas, “A summary of the differences, similarities and possible articulations between ‘buen vivir’ and the ‘green new deal’”, Heinrich Böll Foundation, November 2012, http://eu.boell.org/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/11/gudynas_buenvivir_greennewdeal_eng.pdf

8. Oliver Balch, “Buen vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America”, The Guardian, 04 February 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas

9. http://storyofstuff.org/and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GorqroigqM

10. Oliver Balch, “Buen vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America”, The Guardian, 04 February 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/blog/buen-vivir-philosophy-south-america-eduardo-gudynas

11. Samuel Alexander, “Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it”, The Conversation, 01 October 2014, http://theconversation.com/life-in-a-degrowth-economy-and-why-you-might-actually-enjoy-it-32224

12. Ian Angus, “Why we need an ecosocialist revolution”, Climate and Capitalism, 02 July 2013, http://climateandcapitalism.com/2013/07/02/why-we-need-an-ecosocialist-revolution-2/

13. John Foran, “A few thoughts on studying the most radical social movement of the 21st century”, System Change not Climate Change, 14 March 2016, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-03-14/a-few-thoughts-on-studying-the-most-radical-social-movement-of-the-twenty-first-century

14. Ian Angus, “What would a sustainable society look like?”, Climate and Capitalism, 28 March 2011, http://climateandcapitalism.com/2011/03/28/what-would-a-sustainable-society-look-like/

15. Daniel Tanuro, “Humanity, Society and Ecology: Global Warming and the Ecosocialist Alternative”, Climate and Capitalism, 21 October 2008, http://climateandcapitalism.com/2008/10/21/humanity-society-and-ecology-global-warming-and-the-ecosocialist-alternative/

16. Pablo Solón on the Paris Climate Conference – COP21: A new disguise for an old agreement, Global Justice Ecology Project, 07  November 2015, http://globaljusticeecology.org/pablo-solon-on-the-paris-climate-conference-cop21-a-new-disguise-for-an-old-agreement/

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