An exchange on Vivir Bien: Old Cosmovisions and New Paradigms
Helena Norberg-Hodge is an author and filmmaker as well as a pioneer of the new economy movement. She is the producer of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness and the Director of Local Futures at the International Society for Ecology and Culture. She has received a Right Livelihood Award and a Goi Peace Prize for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, or Little Tibet, later described in the book and film Ancient Futures.
Many thanks to Pablo Solón for his insightful essay on this important alternative to the catastrophic juggernaut of industrial modernity. Having spent so much of my life interacting and working with a land-based, indigenous society in a mountainous region very distant from the Andes—Ladakh, in the Trans-Himalaya—I was struck by how the philosophy of Vivir Bien, or Buen Vivir as it is also known (coexistence, interdependence, relational ontology, cyclical versus linear time, etc.), and its principles of social organization (cooperation, reciprocity, respect) correspond to those in traditional Ladakhi culture. Pablo’s lovely and evocative image of the Pacha as “the cosmos in a permanent state of becoming” sounds like an ancient Buddhist sutra.
It is tempting to think that this correspondence of beliefs and practices is somehow related to geography—both arose in rugged mountainous regions where ecological constraints would favor sensitive and respectful practices and beliefs. But the core of both belief systems is closer to the rule than the exception among traditional cultures that—despite five centuries of conquest, colonialism, development, and now globalization—have remained close to the land. While certainly agreeing with the cautions made by Solón against a one-size-fits-all Buen Vivir blueprint, I would argue that many of the elements of the philosophy—the importance of genuine community, connection to other people and to the rest of nature, and an ecocentric ethic that guides all action—are indeed universally applicable.
I do find it interesting (and possibly a bit contradictory) that after explaining Buen Vivir’s cyclical rather than linear notion of time, Solón emphasizes that Buen Vivir is forward-looking and future-oriented, not a “utopian regression to an idealized past.” This is fair enough, but in my experience, this hastening to avoid accusations of romanticism is a pressure imposed on us by the very system of “progress” we are critiquing. It is the urban consumer culture that is romanticized throughout the western media and advertising.
Pablo Solón’s observations on colonialisms old and new are excellent. I have witnessed the same phenomenon of psychological colonization all over the world, including very painfully in Ladakh. The “pressure to modernize” as I have called it, is everywhere turning people against their own cultures by painting the modern world as infinitely superior, while effectively portraying traditional practices as backward and stupid. The corporate media and its main vehicles—TV and internet—are particularly effective agents in the homogenization of cultures, as is Western-style schooling. These have helped multinational corporations penetrate the remotest recesses of the Himalayas and the Andes—and everywhere in between—enabling them to insinuate their harmful products into cultures, bodies, and landscapes. Coca-Cola is used in sacred agricultural ceremonies in the Andean altiplano just as it is displacing homemade chang and butter tea in Ladakhi homes.
As Solón points out, the systems behind these changes are mutually reinforcing: when the global economy arrived in Ladakh, it brought not only the media and consumerist advertising, but also Western-style schooling that separated Ladakhi children from the knowledge on which their culture was based; it brought subsidized food that made local agriculture seem “uneconomic”; it brought Western tourists whose seemingly infinite wealth made local people feel poor by comparison; and it replaced cooperation with competition as the primary mode of human interaction. Our work in Ladakh to counter these changes did not involve trying to wall off Ladakh from the rest of world, but bringing more complete information about what modernity and “development” really mean. So much of the psychological damage was the product of idealized—in fact, “romanticized”—images of modern life. So we organized reality tours to the West for community leaders, to show them many of the environmental, social, and economic problems that Westerners know all too well. I called this work “counter-development,” and in essence, it is the same as the “decolonization” work Solón describes. But perhaps most importantly, we also connected Ladakhis with grassroots groups from the organic agriculture, renewable energy, ecovillage and permaculture movements. These exchanges raised esteem for land and community-based ways of living, and demonstrated how the Ladakhis’ genuine prosperity was valued by many Westerners.
I agree that the signal challenge for a Buen Vivir transition is the decolonization and liberation of our minds, souls and beings—that we need to “see with our own eyes, think our own thoughts, and dream our own dreams.” But I also believe that this kind of psychological independence requires belonging to a community with a degree of economic independence—the kind of community-based self-reliance that the global economy systematically destroys. This is why my organization focuses on economic localization as a systemic solution, not only in Ladakh, but worldwide. I am therefore glad that Solón pointed out that “the fundamental role of the state should be to empower and help coordinate local networks of production, exchange, credit, traditional knowledge, and innovation.” As things stand today, governments are doing the exact opposite by supporting and subsidizing global trade and high technology, which actively subvert those local networks.
As dependence on the global system grows, it will be increasingly difficult for Buen Vivir and similar ways of thinking to confront the incomprehensible power and reach of corporate media, screen culture, digital technologies, etc., which are systematically colonizing imaginations, especially of the young. Given the deep penetration of media, is it even possible anymore to “think our own thoughts”? This question will grow in relevance with succeeding generations of “tech natives” increasingly estranged from the natural world and genuine community. It also raises the issue of urbanization and the considerable challenges of enacting Buen Vivir in a hyper-urbanized world, where an affectionate and intimate relationship with nature is difficult if not impossible to achieve. It seems to me that a stance against the structural forces driving urbanization should also be a central part of Buen Vivir—which is not to say that its principles and practices shouldn’t be vigorously applied in existing urban areas to green them and increase their self-reliance.
Regarding the role of the state and of policy, Solón writes, “A more popular and decentralized democracy, the only way to identify and correct mistakes made as we build a new eco-society, is essential to VB.” Inspired by the way traditional village governance systems worked in Ladakh, my organization has been promoting such a vision in the name of localization. What ideas and proposals could help effect this radical decentralized democratization? Here is an opportunity for a fruitful dialogue between Buen Vivir advocates and localization, transition, and “new economy” movements that are working to build up and re-seize community ownership and democratic control of the economy. Solón also alludes to the need for this sort of cross-pollination and international solidarity of alternatives.
Relatedly, while I very much sympathize with the sentiment of “encouraging emancipation and self-determination from below,” to what degree is self-determination from below sufficiently able to confront and fend off the depredations of international capital? In other words, are entities of the scale and power of states necessary to confront the power of corporations today? It is obviously complicated, since states today are the main enablers of transnational capital. In some parts of the world, however, people’s movements are providing the hope that there is a way of transforming the state through civic involvement. And it seems to me that this is something we need to promote. We would need a certain degree of centralized state power to reign in the power of global monopolies. This however doesn’t mean strengthening the power of nation-state vis-à-vis local communities. On the contrary, a simultaneous process of decentralization is entirely possible and very much needed.