Sustainability: Design for the pluriverse

This article has been published in SID quarterly journal Development, Vol. 54.2 (2011) 'Challenges to Sustainability'. It will be free to view with permission of the publisher until the end of June. Development is SID flagship publication which has been published continuously for 55 years. It enjoys a broad readership within the development community and is published by Palgrave Macmillan on behalf of SID.



The world has changed immensely since the Earth Summit in Rio of 1992. China has taken on a tremendous role in the global economy; a realignment in global geopolitics came after September 11 2001; the Washington Consensus came to an end in Latin America with the wave of democratically progressive governments; the dismantling of really existing socialism became irreversible in the 1990s. And now we have the popular insurrections in North Africa and the Middle East. These changes point in contradictory directions – some reinforcing, some challenging conventional sustainable development views and agendas. More than ever, it is imperative to go forward, but how? How to make sustainability less illusory and more tangible? Some current narratives of transition give us some clues; they involve radical proposals for moving towards a pluriverse. We can also apply novel ideas of design to think about a transition to a truly sustainable planet.

Sustainable development (SD) was riddled with tensions and contradictions from the outset. Many pointed out the impossibility of harmonizing the goals of development with the needs of nature within any known economic framework, as the Brundtland report and Agenda 21 – bravely perhaps but implausibly – purported to do. At present, it is clear that SD amounts to no more than ‘reducing unsustainability’ (Ehrenfeld, 2008). Flawed from the start, the SD movement can be said to have arrived to its natural end.

Discourses of transition: Emerging trends
Arguments about the need for an epochal transition are a sign of the times; they reflect the depth of the contemporary crises. Transition discourses (TDs) are emerging today with particular richness and intensity from a multiplicity of sites, principally social movements, some civil society NGOs, and from intellectuals with significant connections to environmental and cultural struggles. TDs are prominent in several fields, including those of culture, ecology, religion and spirituality, and alternative science (e.g., living systems and complexity).

A hallmark of contemporary TDs is the fact that they posit radical cultural and institutional transformations – indeed, a transition to an altogether different world. This is variously conceptualized in terms of a paradigm shift, a change of civilizational model, or even the coming of an entirely new era beyond the modern dualist, reductionist, and economic age. This change is often seen as already happening, although most TDs warn that the results are by no means guaranteed. Thomas Berry's, notion of The Great Work – a transition ‘from the period when humans were a disruptive force on the planet Earth to the period when humans become present to the planet in a manner that is mutually enhancing’ (1999: 11) – captures well this spirit. Berry calls the new era Ecozoic. The radical discontinuity between the human and the non-human domains is at the basis of many of the critiques. Along with the ideas of a separate self and of an economic domain disembedded from social life, this discontinuity is seen as the most central feature of modern ontology, or worldview. The bridging of these divides is posited as crucial to healing society and the planet by secular and religious visions alike – whether it is through the notions of inter-connectedness and interdependencies of ecology, the idea of interbeing and dependent co-arising of Buddhism, or frameworks based on self-organization and complexity focused on co-emergent systems of relations.

Many TDs are keyed in to the need to move to post-fossil fuel economies. For Vandana Shiva (2008), the key to the transition ‘from oil to soil’ – from a mechanical-industrial paradigm centred on globalized markets to a people- and planet-centred one – lies in strategies of re-localization, that is, the construction of decentralized, biodiversity-based organic food and energy systems that operate on the basis of grassroots democracy, place-based knowledge, local economies, and the preservation of soils and ecological integrity. In emphasizing re-localization and the rebuilding of local communities, this ‘ecology of transformation’ (Hathaway and Boff, 2009) goes directly against most globalization discourses and forces; it bets on the fact that the re/constitution of place-based (though not place-bound) societies are not only possible but perhaps inevitable (Hopkins, 2008). They advocate for a diverse economy that has a strong base on communities (Gibson-Graham, 2006). The focus of many TDs on spirituality is a reminder of the exclusion of this important area from our secular academies.

Toward a pluriverse

Some of the changes envisioned in TDs are under way in some fashion. The 2008 Ecuadorian and Bolivian constitutions have garnered well-deserved international attention because of their pioneering treatments of development and nature. The Constitutions introduced a novel notion of development centred on the concept of sumak kawsay (in Quechua), suma qamaña (in Aymara) or buen vivir (in Spanish), or ‘living well’. These notions entail a rupture with the conceptions of development of the previous six decades. They grew out of decades of indigenous struggles as they articulated with manifold social change agendas by peasants, Afro-descendants, environmentalists, students, women, and youth. The buen vivir upholds a different philosophy of life into the vision of society, one that subordinates economic objectives to ecological criteria, human dignity, and social justice. These arguments apply to another prominent idea of the Ecuadorian Constitution, that of the rights of Nature, or the Pachamama; it represents an unprecedented ‘biocentric turn’, away from the anthropocentrism of modernity. This biocentric turn represents a concrete example of the civilizational transformation imagined by the TDs.

The modern ontology presumes the existence of One World – a universe. This assumption is undermined by discussions in TDs, the buen vivir, and the rights of Nature. In emphasizing the profound relationality of all life, these newer tendencies show that there are indeed relational worldviews or ontologies for which the world is always multiple – a pluriverse. Relational ontologies are those that eschew the divisions between nature and culture, individual and community, and between us and them that are central to the modern ontology. Some of the today's struggles could be seen as reflecting the defense and activation of relational communities and worldview (including some of those in the Arab World?), and as such they could be read as ontological struggles; they refer to a different way of imagining life, to an other mode of existence. They point towards the pluriverse; in the successful formula of the Zapatista, the pluriverse can be described as ‘a world where many worlds fit’. At their best, it can be said that the rising concepts and struggles from and in defense of the pluriverse constitute a post-dualist theory and a practice of interbeing.

The end of globaization (as we knew it)
Globalization discourses of all kinds assume that the world is some sort of ‘global space’ that will progressively and inevitably be fully occupied by capitalist modernity. There is something terribly wrong with this imaginary if we are to take the pluriverse seriously, let alone if we are to confront the ever worsening ecological and social crises. This view of globalization as universal, fully economized, and de-localized is made possible by the immense power of corporations and maintained within manageable levels of dis/order by military might. From its very global conditions are emerging, however, responses and forms of creativity and resistance that make increasingly visible the poverty, perniciousness, and destructiveness of this imaginary.

Rather than in terms of globalization, the evolving pluriverse might be described as a process of planetarization articulated around a vision of the Earth as a living whole that is always emerging out of the manifold biophysical, human, and spiritual elements and relations that make it up. Many of the features envisioned in the TDs – from strategies of re-localization to the rise of an ecological civilization – will find a more auspicious home in this notion. We need to stop burdening the Earth with the dualisms of the past centuries, and acknowledge the radical interrelatedness, openness, and plurality that inhabit it. To accomplish this goal, we need to start thinking about human practice in terms of ontological design, or the design of other worlds and knowledges. Design would no longer involve the instrumental taming of the world for human purposes, but building worlds in which humans and the Earth can coexist and flourish (see essay by Kathryn Cox-Shrader in this issue for some ecological design principles and references).

Pluriversal studies cannot be defined in opposition to globalization studies, nor as its complement, but needs to be outlined as an altogether different intellectual and political project. No single notion of the world, the human, civilization, the future, or even the natural can fully occupy the space of pluriversal studies. Even if partly building on the critical traditions of the modern natural, human and social sciences, pluriversal studies will travel its own paths as it discovers worlds and knowledges that the sciences have effaced or only gleaned obliquely. This, it seems to me, might constitute the basis for conceptions of sustainability that go beyond the business as usual understanding of sustainable development. This notion of sustainability would be one capable of inspiring the popular and scientific imaginations alike to take steps that are at once pragmatic and transformative in the path towards more ethical and ecological words.

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Arturo Escobar is a Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and associate editor of Development. His research interests are related to political ecology; the anthropology of development, social movements; Latin American development and politics. Escobar's research uses critical techniques in his provocative analysis of development discourse and practice in general. He also explores possibilities for alternative visions for a post-development era. He is a major figure in the post-development academic discourse, and a serious critic of development practices championed by western industrialized societies.

Photo: Philippe Gillotte/Flickr