A Good Life for the SDGs

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Time to change the lens for sustainability?

The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to social and environmental sustainability, with an overarching goal of ending poverty and protecting the planet by 2030.  Universal is the keyword. This means they apply to everyone, everywhere, regardless. This makes them more aspirational than practical and because of this, it’s argued that they are impossible to achieve. Indeed, by all accounts, they are failing. And, we’re running out of time.

The 2022 Progress report on the SDGs details the immense challenge ahead of us in terms of achieving social, environmental and economic sustainability. The report admits a backward slide against the Goals (albeit in the face of significant “cascading crises”, most notably in terms of poverty, climate change, and environmental indicators.

Climate change and sustainability come hand in hand. A changing climate is a major challenge for social and environmental sustainability. In turn, the way modern society functions is far from sustainable long, or even medium term and is hastening the speed of climatic changes that are occurring.

The IPCC has confirmed that climate change is caused by human activity, and it is happening at a speed faster than first realised. Thwaites “doomsday” Glacier in Antarctica, for example, is melting at a speed faster than could ever have been anticipated, threatening global sea levels to rise up to .6m https://theconversation.com/thwaites-glacier-the-melting-antarctic-monster-of-sea-level-rise-podcast-191057

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has called the current climate situation a “code red for humanity”. Everyone everywhere will (and already is) experience the wrath of the past decades’ inaction. As I have argued many times, we cannot continue to decouple human and environmental wellbeing. These “cascading crises” are complex, and they are entangled.

The outlook is not good. While it seems like we are on a one-way course for destruction, there is definitely hope in limiting the scale of future destruction, if we band together, separately. That is, if we change divert the approach from ‘universal’ to ‘contextual’. Immediately.

In the words of Sneddon et al. (2006)

“Sustainability may yet be possible if sufficient numbers of scholars, practitioners and political actors embrace a plurality of approaches to and perspectives on sustainability, accept multiple interpretations and practices associated with an evolving concept of “development”, and support a further opening up of local-to-global public spaces to debate and enact a politics of sustainability.”

Because climate change is a global challenge (perhaps the biggest!) with no geographical limits it requires a global response. Let me rephrase that, it requires a response globally, that is anchored in local geographical, climatic, ecological, socio-political, economic and cultural context.

The thing about place is that no one locale is the same. Place is a complex notion. Each comes with its own identity, challenges, and socio-economic situation. The identifying factors aren’t just social, each place is unique with its own environment, biodiversity, ecosystems, topographical, geological, and geographical advantages and disadvantages. Place influences a person’s identity and their empathy towards nature, which plays a role in the motivation for climate and sustainability action. The perception of place is then vital to social and environmental justice at the community level. This makes the community context the most practical viewpoint for addressing social and environmental issues.

What’s more, climate change is not and will not affect each place equally. Each community will mount its own challenges that are unique to that place. So, it is nonsensical to then believe that we can apply a universal approach to these issues, even if they have global scope. Plus, large-scale transformational systemic change is inherently complicated, and especially drawn out – a major issue when dealing with issues on an urgent timescale like climate change.

Global declarations and treaties are a vital part of the international system. They are an important tool to set the wheels in motion for action in all parts of the world, and they outline states responsibilities and obligations in responding to challenges that affect us all. But, they are not effective in their own right. International action is firmly squared within the boundaries of neoliberalism, which promotes universal values in line with Western standards, and ignores the diverse realities of communities everywhere. This has indeed been one of the most common critiques in relation to global climate declarations. International climate diplomacy must be coupled with locally anchored solutions within a context that speaks to locally-identified needs and challenges, otherwise they are all but useless.

What alternative approaches like Buen Vivir do is remove local action for social and environmental justice from ideal and aspirational universal values and provide local communities with agency to drive solutions that meet their realities. As a hypothetical example, let’s look at two climate-related flood disasters, the solutions that are required for (comparably) affluent communities in Northern New South Wales in Australia will not work in the poor communities of Pakistan who are currently experiencing climate flooding of biblical proportions.

 Small-scale transformational change breaks up larger big-picture goals like the SDGs and makes them amenable to place and context. Smaller chunks are easier to swallow and (notwithstanding all the complexities in a community) quicker to achieve real change. Concepts like Buen Vivir also help reconcile the social and environmental aspects, that builds bridges between the two rather than having them almost compete for attention.

Local action for climate change is crucial and Buen Vivir provides a framework for locally driven solutions that build resilience, mitigate impacts, and allow communities to adapt in relation to their own realities. It that respect it provides a tool for increasing social and environmental wellbeing in the face of these challenges. Having local solutions unadulterated by the global agenda yet capable of working together in cooperation with it is vital for transformative action at this point. ‘Together yet apart’ – much like the catchphrase of the COVID lockdown period.

Even the upcoming COP27 in Egypt has recognised the importance of working together for implementation against the old notion of a single negotiated outcome. The Presidency Vision states the need “to replicate and rapidly upscale all other climate-friendly solutions towards implementation in developing countries”. “Together for implementation” is the theme, with the Presidency saying that implementation needs to happen “on time and at scale”, and be “specific, measurable, and impactful”.

Each of the principles of Buen Vivir has the potential to cooperate with the wider global Goals, but leaving it to the communities to identify the needs and respective solutions. I outline just how the principles converge with the Goals in my book and more recently paper published in the Community Development Journal .

Never before has the term “think globally, act locally” been more prevalent than now. And never has the call been more urgent!

The People’s Charter for an Eco-Social World

The Global People’s Summit: Co-Creating a New Eco-Socio World was held 29 June – 2 July 2022. I was honored to have been included in the program, presenting my research on Buen Vivir.

One of the key outcomes of the Peoples’ Global Summit was the ‘Peoples’ Charter’ shaped by diverse voices across the globe and based on the values of Buen Vivir, diversity, respect and Ubuntu, for the co-creation of globally shared values.

The People’s Charter is a living document and reference point that will grow as the world’s populations share their solutions for a sustainable planet where people live in peace and security. It is co-designed and co-built.

“The People’s Global Summit recognises that the pledges made by governments since the founding of the United Nations – the pillars of peace, development and human rights – have facilitated crucial steps forward but have not yet been realised. Challenges are at crisis point. Rights have been eroded. Inequalities and fractures have grown. Poverty sits alongside extreme wealth. Nature has been degraded, leading to climate warming and environmental destruction. Millions of people have been displaced as a result, adding to the millions more displaced by conflict and violence. The governments that made these commitments have prioritized competition over collaboration and sovereignty over solidarity. They have not yet served the people they represent.”

The Charter sets out five values for a new Socio-Eco World and seven implications going forward. The purpose was to create a call to action for world leaders at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum and General Assembly in July 2022.

If you missed the Summit, you can still watch the presentations by clicking the sessions in the program here. Be sure to check out some of the amazing keynote speakers, as well as the opening ceremony by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez and climate activist Dr Kumi Naidoo.

You can read the contribution book here.

Transformation for Climate: but, of what?

The latest warnings from the IPCC predict that the world is heading towards critical temperature limits. We have already reached 1.0 degree of global warming. The IPCC report estimates that global warming is likely to triple to 3.2 degrees unless urgent, radical action is taken immediately. The IPCC warns that incremental change is no longer enough, and what we need now is transformation. But, what does this mean?

The IPCC defines ‘transformation’ as, “a change in the fundamental attributes of natural and human systems.” Is this enough to prevent it from becoming another catchphrase amenable to co-optation as the status quo sees fit?  To avoid perpetuating what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls, “a litany of broken climate promises” the course will have to change. We are running out of options.

Transformation, therefore, should effectively address and change the structural and systemic causes of social and environmental injustices that impede any genuine change. Confronting the crisis requires urgent political and societal change.

Transformation then is not only about technology and energy policy, but also a holistic approach to how we govern society on an interwoven planet. So, when we talk about transformation, we also have to talk about what type of transformation, who is involved, how, and at what scale.

The type of transformation that can see us through the change we need is plural, locally embedded, embraces all forms of knowledge (not only technological), and is inclusive of all geographic, cultural, socio-economic, developmental, and linguistic realities. It also needs to transform behaviours and practices from a largely anthropocentric model of society to a more holistic view that embraces a human society interwoven in harmony with nature.

To speak in metaphors of interwoven systems, humans have long viewed the world like a double helix, one strand representing nature as a living being, necessary for life, and the other strand representing society seeking to dominate nature and control it. The two strands coil around each other but running in opposite directions, their purpose intertwined, yet never touching. Yet, nature and society are more like an intricately woven tapestry. One loose thread in one part, can see the rest come completely undone. We are part of nature and any attempts at transformation to save it from climate change must recognise this.

Transformation is more than about scientific and technological mitigation strategies. Part of this is shifting mentalities firmly towards a post-extractive economy, not only discussing transition. The transition to just climate policies is important, we have to get it right, but merely focusing on discussions of what it looks like takes away from the immediate radical change that is needed and the larger goal of what comes after. Continual discussion about transitions without immediate action only sustains current convictions, planted in short-term fixes.

A hybrid approach that incorporates daily social transformation with the ultimate vision of what needs to be achieved to limit global warming will help achieve both long and short-term goals. In the quest for daily transformation, education plays a major role. That is, education on all levels, formal, in the home, in communities, and in policy. Education must be strategic not to continue the messages of the past. The transformation of education thus must also be systemic. I will discuss the transformation of education in my next post.

Post-Extractive Circular Society

The theme of Earth Day yesterday was “Invest in our Planet”. The question needs to be asked, at which point does the fix-all economic narrative become redundant? While we do need future investment in new technologies, we can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of techno-fixes for reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Yes, technology and will play a crucial role in transformation, but relying on it to achieve the real physical change that is needed in urgency is not the solution. Perpetuating the myth that we can build our way out of this through technology that supports exponential economic growth is dangerously digging us a deeper grave.

The IPCC report states that other mitigation strategies are likely to be prohibitively expensive, and that is the excuse used in ideological stances to abandon any kind of concrete change. According to Munich Re Research, in 2020, climate change disasters have led to estimated global economic losses of A$272 billion. Yet, when we look at the costs of inaction the argument mounts that it may very well be more economically expensive to continue down the same path of slow transition and economic justification, but more than that it will also cost us much more than money, it will and is starting to cost lives. In 2020, there were approximately 31 million internally displaced people from climate change impacts alone. By 2050, think tank IEP estimates that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate-related events. We can therefore legitimately argue that there is more at stake than economic growth.

A move to a low carbon society will not be effective at its aims if it destabilises ecosystems and puts efforts to protect biodiversity in jeopardy. This is why transformation must not only be about the types of energy we transition to, but also how much and on what scale. For true transformation, the use of renewable resources has to be in harmony with nature, as well a society. After all, even renewal resources perpetuate an extractive mentality on a large-scale as part of a neoliberal economic growth strategy. Our global economic model, for starters, has to evolve and transform with the challenges that lie ahead.

The ways we transform the energy sector should also be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge to sustain transformation in harmony with nature. Policy strategies like moving towards a circular economy, which embed multiple approaches with the same aims such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, Regeneration, or even Degrowth can be part of a just economic transformation towards a post-extractive society. Instead of thinking about it as only economic as we do with a circular economy, by embracing these various approaches in tandem, we can then evolve towards a circular society – renewing and regenerating all life in harmony with the natural environment.

The UN calls for “transformation [that] requires attacking the root causes that generate and reproduce economic, social, political and environmental problems and inequalities, not merely their symptoms” but there is no concrete blueprint for this type of transformation. Many scholars have argued that this requires visioning a post-extractive society that focuses on regenerative approaches to society and natural resource management.

In regeneration, it’s important to look beyond fossil fuels and carbon emissions because of the circular effects of environmental destruction. Here, the models and frameworks I mentioned earlier work within a regenerative, circular society, such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, and Degrowth, for example. For future actions that are compatible with nature, so that the environment may regenerate and flourish, incorporating the rights of nature into future global and national climate policies would be beneficial.

Regenerative alternatives to development promote a state where human society and nature live in harmony. Regenerative approaches are not just about reaching Net Zero, but they are holistic and integral in that they seek to leave environments and their societies in a better state, having a positive impact on human wellbeing and the environment as a whole. 

So, in summary, when we think about the type and scale of change needed to tackle the environmental challenges that lie ahead, transformation must be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge, particularly Indigenous knowledges. It is regenerative, seeking structural and systemic change which includes, as a foundation, formal and informal education systems. Transformative regenerative approaches work in harmony with nature and seek to enhance environmental wellbeing, as well as societal wellbeing. Transformation then, upends the way the world currently works, towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable future, not solely towards better economic growth.

The IPCC Report on Climate Change: What you can do

What’s the Issue?

In this part II of my post on the IPCC report I’d like to look at the positive aspects of the report – that is, the ways we can help limit global warming below at least 2°C by a wholesale change in behaviours, attitudes, practices, and a mindset that is better coupled to the human-nature connection. A decoupling of this connection is what has ultimately led to the changes found in the report including a 1.1°C temperature rise since 1850-1900 from CO2 emissions.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the inactions of governments on climate change, which can lead to eco-paralysis and the inability to act, so in this post I’d like to focus on what individuals and communities can do and the power we have to drive change. I’m not saying that individuals are wholly responsible for slowing climate change, but I am saying that everyone has a part to play.

Climate change is an ecological, scientific and technological issue; but it is also a social, political and cultural one, and tackling it will involve social, political and cultural changes that need Joe Bloggs as much as the highest levels of government.

Let’s stay solutions-focussed!

This will mean looking to alternative ways of limiting our impacts on the environment, which will include changing attitudes, mindsets, behaviours and practices.

The most detrimental “solution” is the one that believes that we can tackle the changes needed using the same tools we have always used.

We can change behaviours and attitudes about our place on the planet by recalibrating our understandings of our connection to nature. Humans are part of nature, not superior to it. Indigenous knowledges of the role of nature in human society and vice-versa were instrumental in the ways in which people lived for millennia before industrial activities. In recent times, activists and policymakers alike have pointed to the need to return to Indigenous knowledge in environmental management and social policies.

Ideas like Buen Vivir (among similar traditional and Indigenous concepts and philosophies) recentre Indigenous approaches to the environment and community, thereby making them potential solutions for changing the way we live and organise society, globally. By changing this aspect of society, not only in how we act and the choices we make on a daily basis, but also in the policies that governments adopt, we can lessen our usage of natural resources and thus impacts on the natural environment.

However, we have one big global problem: political inaction. So rather than waiting for policies to change, we can start to do our part in slowing the changes to climate. How? It starts with a change in the way we think, followed by a change in the way we live.

The Indigenous Kichwa Peoples of the Andes in South America call this change in mindset and practices Vivir Bien.  If you’re familiar with Buen Vivir, you will know that Buen Vivir is the big picture idea of what sustainability and wellbeing should look like. It involves not only environmental sustainability, but also the social wellbeing of communities (not just competitive individuals), which in many ways is connected to the ways we value the environment. So, environmental and social wellbeing are inherently connected to each other in an idea I call Socio-Eco Wellbeing.

Vivir Bien is the same idea, based on the same principles as Buen Vivir, only it is described as how it manifests in daily living. The full matrix of principles can be found in my book. There are many examples on the internet about daily actions individuals can take to tackle climate change such as:

  • contacting leaders
  • adopting a climate friendly diet
  • limiting our resource use
  • switching to renewable sources where possible
  • consuming less, and
  • using your vote wisely.

These are great micro ideas that make important changes, but they also need to be backed up with the right mindset. That is, a switch to communal thinking and away from individualism, and; a consideration of the reciprocal human-nature connection in every action and decision taken. This also calls for macro ‘big picture’ thinking.

Here is an excerpt from my book on some of the (non-exhaustive) ways in which communities can implement the principles in their daily lives:

•• Adopting a reciprocal approach to our relationship with nature;

•• Public participation and enabling decision-making in a manner that honours

that reciprocity;

•• Fostering solidarity and harmony through an environment of community;

•• Ensuring equity in participation in public decision-making;

•• Manifesting a responsibility to participate in decision-making;

•• Educating future generations;

•• Participating in economic life;

•• Understanding their fundamental rights and responsibilities, including those

of the environment;

•• Exercising those rights;

•• Promoting and protecting cultural values and practices;

•• Valuing the role of health in a community.

Adding to that is the reducing consumerism and the material vision of the environment as a commodity – a consequence of adopting a reciprocal relationship to nature in our decision-making and behaviours.

These changes combined can help empower individuals and communities to do their part in limiting environmental impacts and therefore slowing climate change. Inevitably, the changes flow up.

In the words of the Dalai Lama, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

More reading:

Buen Vivir as an Alternative to Sustainable Development: Lessons from Ecuador, Routledge, 2020

How to Live the Good Life, Sustain the Mag

A Reset for Unprecedented Times

Maria Zambrano* lives in the highlands of Ecuador’s Cotacachi Canton, home to two of the world’s 36 internationally recognized biodiversity hots pots. It is also home to a people fiercely committed to their own social and environmental well-being. Zambrano is an Indigenous Ecuadorian of the Kichwa people. Sitting at a café in Cotacachi, the seamstress is dressed in a black wrap-around skirt and a traditional embroidered white shirt, on which she’s done all the embroidery. The colorful stitching, she explains, is symbolic of her land, depictions of the connection between humans and Pachamama, which she uses to refer to Mother Earth. Pachamama, she says, is at the heart of everything she does.

Read more

Published in Yes! Magazine Winter 2020 https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/what-the-rest-of-the-world-knows/2020/11/03/a-reset-for-unprecedented-times/

COVID-19 is the chance for a social and ecological reset….but, how? Part I

We are living in unprecedented times. This period will go down in the history books, and today’s children will be telling their children stories about times of climate change and COVID-19. How the stories end is in great part up to us, now.

It is a tale of two emergencies. They are really intersecting rises. Only one is being responded to with urgency, but they are both connected to each other, and both entail unprecedented threats to humanity.


COVID-19 has led us to a deeper understanding of how we are connected to each other and to nature. This highlights the urgent need to radically address climate change to ensure the health of that relationship.


The World Health Organization has affirmed that there is an increase in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic viruses making a jump between animal hosts and humans, and that there is a link between this and climate change.

Not only will biodiversity loss due to climate change makes pandemics more likely, but we will have reduce capacity to tackle global health crises due to the intersecting nature of more extreme weather and environmental events on human health.


We know that climate change puts pressure on many species to move to new areas due to loss of habitat and food sources. This puts more animal and bird species in contact with human populations, increasing the risks of novel virus spillover.

According to a recent study, by 2070, around 4,000 mammal species are “predicted to aggregate in areas of high human population density…sharing novel viruses between 3,000 and 13,000 times.”


It is not yet know the definitive links of findings such as this and the potential for global pandemics, but science suggests the risks are high. For such reasons, the IPCC is currently modelling the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics to include in its next assessment report in 2021.


Regardless of the science, we know that the wellbeing of the natural environment affects human wellbeing and vice-versa. It is this society-nature continuum, that often gets forgotten and is in danger because of human activity and the continual search for developmental ‘progress’.


We live on a finite planet. The constant, unrelenting quest for economic growth is creating more ecological destruction that we cared to imagine at the start of the industrial age. Because of this we are now living a climate planetary emergency. This has been internationally acknowledged and declared in over 1,750 jurisdictions worldwide, yet the political will to address the climate emergency with as much urgency as the health emergency is still lacking.


Nonetheless, COVID-19 has demonstrated that we have a chance for a social and ecological reset. This gives us the possibility to address climate change in the process. But, how?


I will discuss further in the second instalment of this post

We Need to End the Racism Pandemic

This is not a post about environmental justice but it is about social justice.

I am an Australian of mixed heritage: Kenyan and English. The reality my black brothers and sisters are living angers me every time I think about it. I have lived racism, thankfully not often. I have seen my father live racism. I do not want to bring my children up in a world where this is real life. I don’t want other children to grow up in a world where this is real, where they may experience racism, hear it, see it, or heaven forbid take part in it.

This can no longer be ignored, something must be done, by you, by me, structurally.

Leaders must confront the uncomfortable truth head on and change must happen. Now! I like to believe that in 2020 racism exists in a minority, but that is not good enough. We have 400 years of the most disgusting hatred. It must stop now. Here. With us.

That people can be killed, humiliated, subordinated because of the colour of their skin, but also because of their religion or culture is beyond not being ok. It is a despicable act of hatred that must be addressed at both the highest and lowest levels. On the street. In parliaments. In the White House…in the White House!

What has happened to George Floyd is a pandemic of another kind. It kills. It hurts. It leaves scars. This should not be happening, and yet it is. At the hands of so called law enforcers, in a seriously ill criminal justice system.

There needs to be structural change, systemic change, societal change if we are to overcome this illness.

I stand in solidarity.

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.