Utopia or reality: can South America lead a fossil-free future?

bvivirphotoecastromtheguardianProponents of the South American philosophy of Buen Vivir have proposed an action plan for moving towards a more sustainable, more balanced economy – report by Oliver Balch, The Guardina, 11 February 2015.

Business, as a rule, doesn’t do utopia. The reason is simple: as the French author and philosopher Albert Camus put it, “utopia is that which is in contradiction with reality.” And reality, as far as conventional capitalism sees it, is about the no-nonsense pursuit of financial profit.

On the face of it, therefore, an abstract philosophy based around indigenous Andean precepts of harmony between humans and nature has little to say to rational, money-minded economists and business executives in the twenty-first century.

Yet proponents of the South American philosophy of Buen Vivir (literally, “living well”) beg to differ. To prove it, proponents of the belief system have laid out a series of tangible policy steps that they say portend a shift towards a more sustainable, more balanced economy.

Manifesto for ‘living well’

Central to the 54-page manifesto (pdf) entitled ‘Climate Change and Transitions to Buen Vivir’, circulated during the UN climate conference in Lima last year, is a transition away from fossil-fuel dependency. Top of the list, therefore, is an immediate moratorium on all oil and gas projects that cause environmental harm. As for those hydrocarbons that remain, these should only be traded within the Andean bloc and sales revenues should be used to fund investment in renewables.

“When these countries run out of hydrocarbons, they won’t have the likes of wind or solar to replace them,” says the report’s co-author and leading Buen Vivir writer and activist Eduardo Gudynas, who warns of a pending energy crisis on top of the very real threat of severe climate change impacts.

A second, related goal is the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions. The manifesto calls for a massive investment in public transport (particularly buses in cities) and a phased transition away from private car ownership. The Colombian capital of Bogotá provides a model in its car-free day. Introducing mandatory green building regulations in major cities is also proposed.

A third focus of the proposal is around agriculture. Using fertile land to grow cash crops for export and then importing food from overseas “makes no sense”, Uruguay-born Gudynas maintains. Ecuador’s export-oriented fresh-flower industry serves as an archetypal example of the “strange” logic of exporting cash crops to earn dollars so as to import staple foods. “Ecuadorians don’t eat flowers”, he notes.

Instead, the Buen Vivir-inspired proposals suggest a return to more organic (or “agro-ecological”) modes of agricultural production. There is food and job security in a post-oil society, the logic runs. Likewise there is no longer a dependency on fuel-thirsty machinery or expensive, petroleum-based chemicals. A more manual style of farming, meanwhile, will provide work for those formally employed in the extractive sectors and related industries.

The proposals, which are aimed at the Andean countries and Amazon region primarily, are unashamedly utopian. “The specific objectives for this programme are zero poverty and zero extinction of the species,” says Gudynas, who notes that one fifth of the Amazon biome has already been lost and one fifth seriously deteriorated.

Urgent transition

A sense of urgency is also a feature of the manifesto. “Our message to the Andean regions is that they can’t wait for a global change [in the economic system] because when that change comes it will be too late,” states Gudynas. Why? “Because the impacts of climate change are already being felt in these countries. And secondly, because they are going to run out of oil soon.”

For the best part of a decade, the resource-rich states of the Andes – Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador – have seen sharp escalations in economic growth thanks to surging world demand for basic commodities. Not only is that external demand beginning to slow, but their capacity to keep pace with supply isn’t infinite. Several of the Andean states are already facing “peak oil”, he argues.

That may be up for debate, but what appears incontrovertible are the social and environmental costs of Latin America’s current “extractivist” model. Nowhere is that clearer than in Ecuador. Despite enshrining the rights of the environment into in its constitution, the green light was given last year to extend oil exploration in the Amazon.

For all his radicalism, Gudynas is not blind to life’s realities. “We realise that you can’t do this from one day to the next, and it’s for this reason that the proposal promotes the notion of ‘transition’”, he states. That said, he doesn’t buy the line that the Andean economies would collapse tomorrow without extractive export revenues. “Ten years of growth means that domestic consumption and sales taxes are now more important that duties or royalties,” he states.

Neither he nor his fellow proponents are under any illusion about the region’s entrenched attachment to a neoliberal form of development. Even in Bolivia, whose national constitution also reflects elements of Buen Vivir thinking, the government is considering a nuclear power station to fuel industrial growth. “I mean, how much more anti-Pachamama can you get?”, Gudynas asks, referring to the Mother Earth figure of indigenous belief.

It may be too late in the day to stave off a climate crisis, Gudynas fears. But Buen Vivir-inspired policy measures represent the best defence against what lies down the road. Action cannot be delayed, however. That way, as Camus said, “some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.”


Report by Oliver Balch, The Guardian, 11 February 2015; original article here …

Photo reproduced from the original article.