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Buen Vivir: The Good Life for People and Planet

What do you think of when someone talks about the ‘Good Life’? There are many ideas about what the ‘Good Life’ should look like, most of them involving wealth accumulation.

What if I suggested that a Good Life should no longer revolve around wealth and economic growth, but should be something that enhances and protects the wellbeing of humans as part of a broader community, and that it should also protect the wellbeing of our environment? After all, one cannot really exist without the other. That is the aim of the Latin American conception of the Good Life: Buen Vivir.

Buen Vivir is a complex concept for social and environmental sustainability based on Indigenous worldviews – one that has evolved over time to include ideas from politics, academia and non-Indigenous communities.

It’s about abandoning old ideas of individual happiness backed by an accumulation of wealth and economic growth, towards a life with more intention, a reciprocity with nature and embracing the idea of community.

As an alternative to sustainable development, it addresses the gaps in policy that have led to the type of social and environmental injustices we see today. Policies that are driven by top-down visions of what communities need. These injustices are part of the structural failures that are driving climate change.

You may of heard of other culturally-originated concepts like the Danish Hygge or Lakom, the South African Ubuntu, or the Japanese Ikigai. But what stands Buen Vivir apart from these other cultural concepts is that it is both an aspirational goal that can be used by the likes of governments and policymakers to ensure a more socially and environmentally just order; but on the flip side, it is also a lifestyle driven by the same key principles.

Just what those key principles are I will discuss in later posts, but this means that Buen Vivir has both the potential to change policy for more responsive and participatory democracies, but it is also rooted in the attitudes, behaviours and practices of individuals and their communities. Both feed into each other, but ultimately it starts with the people. And that’s the beauty of it.

Buen Vivir’s ability to marry both people’s behaviour with policy is one of the most important parts of the concept, and it is why I have chosen to focus on developing a framework tool that not only helps guide communities for the changes they want to see to meet their own needs, and implement Buen Vivir within their own homes and communities; but also helps guide government institutions when working with communities and their needs to make sure that the developmental goals match the community realities.

The most crucial aspect of Buen Vivir though lies in the way both policymakers and communities change the way we view our relationship with each other and with our earth.

That is where Buen Vivir has the innovative ability to ensure both social and environmental wellbeing – of our communities and our planet. Sustainable communities for a sustainable earth for generations to come. In these challenging times, that is exactly what we should be aiming for.

What comes after COVID19? Buen Vivir and a social and ecological ‘reset’

In the space of a few short, but seemingly long months, the world as we know it has changed. Perhaps forever. We should neither long nor need to return to the old ‘normal’. The normal that perpetuated an economy of overexploitation of the people and the planet. The old normal that preoccupied our minds and hands with the business of wealth accumulation and economic growth without limits.

If we return to the old normal, what have we learnt? The time has come, as Ateljevic rightly argues, to “mainstream previously marginalised ideas…To potentially move what was considered either radical, over positive or naïve into the centre of (y)our attention and (y)our consideration.”

“During this great pause, we could potentially embrace the holistic paradigms and practices that have been waiting on the margins. In our humbled state, we could bring them into the centre and build a new system around them (Eisenstein, 2020).”

One such idea that has applicability now more than ever is the Latin American concept of Buen Vivir. If you know my work, you will know that I have dedicated the past few years trying to understand what it entails and how to practically bring it into other contexts. It has in the past been labelled vague. Rooted in Indigenous cosmology, it has grown to involve grassroots, political, and academic interpretations. Yet, the way it has evolved in recent years – honouring its Indigenous past but co-constructing it from those who have influence in its meaning (without co-opting the term) – means that we have a great deal to learn about how to change our relationship with others and our planet.

It is about learning from those previously marginalised voices who have something extremely valuable to contribute to the wellbeing of people and the planet.

Taking those co-constructed meanings about Buen Vivir, through my doctoral research I developed a framework from 17 principles of Buen Vivir that I identified from communities in Ecuador, academia and policy. My aim has always been to enable lessons from those voices to help us on the trajectory for a better planet. My upcoming book will outline how this can be done in any context using the framework as a community tool for change – for the transformative change that we need.

We have already started this shift on the margins in many societies, and in multiple ways not labelled Buen Vivir, but nonetheless in the same ethos. People have been increasingly scaling-down their way of life for some time now. Environmentally, individuals, households and businesses have started to change their consumptive ways, striving for low waste or even no waste lifestyles and product offerings. We see this through the numerous vocalised ‘No Waste’ movements that have cropped up all over the world.

Economically and socially, focus has been turning from mass-consumption to local, fair and ethical trade; socially, communities have been slowly becoming more connected through local initiatives community centres, gardens, knowledge-sharing activities. The unprecedented shift from global to local during COVID19 has accelerated that change to a pace that might just have some transformative impact.

If this change is already occurring, do we not have a moral obligation to pursue it and continue its momentum, rather than long to return to a state of chaos and despair that perpetuates the status quo that is global capitalism and neoliberal development?

It seems to me illogical in the period that follows to turn the tables on local trade, community solidarity, greater connections with nature, communal wellbeing, increased leisure time, renewed focus on family and friends and the positive ecological benefits that have ensued the tragedy that has come from the COVID crisis; and instead return to the individualistic, anthropocentric and globally focused exploitative ways of the past.

COVID19 has been a tragedy of unprecedented proportions. I am not so naive as to think that society will have completely learned from it and we will entirely upend all that is wrong with the world both socially and environmentally, but we have a rare opportunity to change the course of direction, and an open door to change. Let’s not slam it in the face of social and ecological wellbeing for the sake of the few beneficiaries of the wealthy.

This is my first blog post of many navigating this New Normal (capitals and no apostrophes, because it is a fact rather than an idea). Thanks for reading and please follow me here, and on twitter, as we navigate this together. I will not only be writing about Buen Vivir, but also about all the issues implicated in Buen Vivir such as climate change, ecological sustainability, nature, social justice, human rights and economic alternatives.