The pathway of the current global system has already hit a dead end. This system sees nature as a commodity or as an object that must be privatized and/or transformed and exploited solely for the benefit of humans. In this context, other beings can be dispensed with at will. Unfortunately, nature does not need humans in order to evolve and sustain itself. But humans need the gifts of nature to survive. Humans are indeed part of Nature and are unable to stand apart from her.
It is the understanding of the fact that humans are part of nature that humbled the ancients and also provided them with the wisdom to treat nature or Mother Earth with utmost respect. The search for viable alternatives and societal models, including for measuring progress, continues to yield poor results while a look back at the wisdom of the past seems to be the pathway to the future.
Pablo Solón’s essay on Vivir Bien is an essential contribution to the search for an understanding of how this pathway can be delineated and understood. It traces the historical roots and divergences of the key Andean concepts that are driving current understandings and misunderstandings of the indigenous cosmovisions that promote living in harmony with nature. Solón recognizes the fact that building the future on the pathways of the past cannot be a romantic exercise because the historical footprints of Vivir Bien have certain negativities that must be resolved. Such negativities include the issues of patriarchy and related forms of social organization.
Living in harmony with nature and with one another is the controlling core of relationships in African communities and societies. It is the foundation of Ubuntu. Our humanity is all interconnected, and it is in community that we express our individuality. This is why ostracizing or expelling individuals from many African communities or societies constituted the worst form of punishment for any individual.
We learn in nature that diversity, not uniformity, is the basis of resilience. This is one reason why monocultures and food systems dependent on risky technologies and toxic soups are criminal. In unpacking the dynamic equilibrium in nature, Solón reminds us that these complexities cover the human, the non-human, the material, the spiritual, the cultural, and more.
As Solón notes, there is no single Vivir Bien, and the objective realities of peoples around the world help shape the meaning of well-being or living well. What needs to be forged is a complementarity of the variants of Vivir Bien on the platform of dignity and solidarity and as a continual struggle for decolonization of socioeconomic, political, ecological, cultural, and ideological systems.
Solón’s describes Vivir Bien as an “incomplete and insufficient translation” of the traditional Andean ethos, whose meanings more closely approximate terms such “plentiful life,” “sweet life,” “harmonious life,” “sublime life,” “inclusive life,” and “to know how to live.” As much as I agree that it is an evolving and contested framework for reconceptualizing social relations, I would submit that this complex set of meanings contains the seeds for the construction of a universal understanding and application of Vivir Bien. Nevertheless, as much as the concept provides the platform for building harmonious human societies, we must acknowledge the fact that the pathway must be built in a way that does not negate the sovereignty of the peoples.
With the complexities involved in the understanding of Vivir Bien, it is easy to see how a superficial adoption of the concept can easily go awry. This could explain why the adoption and inclusion of the concept in the national constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador have not turned out as major planks for rebuilding societal relations between the peoples and between humans and nature. While the concept was a rallying cry for political and social mobilization, it remains statist, and its core economic direction remained extractivist and mercantilist and not as inclusive as had been promoted. Moreover, the concept of development has remained lineal, and its measure has stayed trapped in highly defective indices such as the often-cited Gross Domestic Products (GDP). As someone has said, things that are gross are hardly positive.
Pablo Solón’s paper deserves to be studied by exponents of alternatives to development as well as future scenario builders. Well-being is best built from below and while the state can provide the scaffolds for its growth, it cannot be legislated. The great transitions will come with the popularization and nodal interconnections driven from below and across borders and by peoples in various jurisdictions.
Having hit the dead end and knowing that the era of raw colonialism, slavery, and reckless exploitation is coming to a close, humanity must consciously rethink the way forward. There should be no shame if that pathway means humbly seeking out wisdom from indigenous communities.