Post-Pandemic Development: Lessons from Indigenous Philosophies

A social philosophy emerging from the Quechua peoples of the Andes, the Buen Vivir movement imagines and practices an alternative, community-oriented future, unshackled from the myths of capitalism that are driving the planet to disaster.

Photo by Stiven Gaviria on Unsplash.

For many of us, the idea that the development of humanity and nature are connected is not a new one. However, the manifestation of such an idea into reality has proven difficult. Thus, as humanity expands, we are instead encroaching upon vulnerable ecosystems part of a larger system of life of which we are part. Our endless desire for development is founded upon resources we know not to be boundless, but that we perceive as expendable towards the teleological good of our own progression. One alternative philosophy is inspiring a political movement emerging from within the depths of the Amazonian forest, termed by its Indigenous advocates as the Buen Vivir Movement. The philosophy by which this movement draws its name – Buen Vivir, literally, well-being – emphasises the intrinsic connection between humans and nature in an extended community envisioned as the goddess Pachamama.

Philosophies such as Buen Vivir gain a renewed sense of purpose as the world enters into its second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in a long while, the world is collectively prioritising the public health and wellbeing of the global community over development models bound by economic growth. As the world locks down, human activity and development stagnates, having profound effect upon the economy as well as the environment. Resultingly, we are reminded of the value of nature, and of how it relates to the wellbeing of all of us. Among the many things the pandemic has vividly demonstrated, is that the way we are currently developing is unsustainable and fragile. Disruptions to international movement and trade causing profound socio-economic distress has many questioning the foundation upon which we develop, and of what matters in the long run.1

However, as the global community shuts their doors amid lockdowns, other doors are swiftly opened: change becomes inevitable in the post-pandemic restructuring period, resultingly creating an impetus for renewed discussion. In fact, it might offer a unique opportunity to uproot and challenge the prevailing discourse on development, a challenge long confronted by the aforementioned Buen Vivir Movement.

“Change becomes inevitable in the post-pandemic restructuring period — in fact, it might offer a unique opportunity to uproot and challenge the prevailing discourse on development.”

This movement draws its momentum from Indigenous Andean philosophies embedded in the theory of an interdependent community connecting humanity and nature. It has risen in opposition to our contemporary development models rooted in the ideology of a “the-market-is-king model of capitalism”,2 resting upon the conception of humanity as “a noble wanderer who roams the ‘illimitable plains’ of endless discoverable resources”.3 Our encroachment upon nature, on which the global market rests, has tangible effects upon the wellbeing of this extended community, evidenced by climate change and environmental erosion. A developmental system whereby such exploitation is fundamental to human development is thus flawed; the erosion of nature similarly affects the wellbeing of humanity as the two are intrinsically connected. Thus, the South American movement has used this philosophy as a basis for discussing and advocating for sustainable development, placing the wellbeing (buen vivir) of our extended community above our unending desire for economic growth.

As our contemporary approach to development experiences difficulty amid this pandemic, an influx of articles and commentaries on the future of development in the post-pandemic era has resulted, exposing some of the limitations forecasted by the movement. As the world fights to prevent the spread of the virus, human activities have come to a halt with air and road transport taking the most significant toll. Air travel, for instance, dropped by 96% in April, the lowest it has been in 75 years.Furthermore, the industrial sector has suffered similarly, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, the oil sector has been significantly impaired, with “crude oil [prices] turning negative for the first time in history”.Our current approach to development relies upon such activities, causing the economy to suffer when activity stagnates. These developments are likely to have a profound effect upon the world economy, and therefore, the wellbeing of large parts of humanity. These are some of the pitfalls associated with the myth of ‘eternal growth’, and its fragility — as foreshadowed by the Buen Vivir Movement — has now been exposed.

The lesson here is evident; when we can no longer sustain this system, be it from the impediment caused by a global pandemic or the steady erosion of our planet, the costs are profound for both humanity and nature.

However, with such a disruption to the status quo, other aspects of life are flourishing. NASA and the European Space Agency recently released evidence suggesting an improvement in environmental quality with the global emission of NO2 reduced by 30%.6 With reduced emissions due to lowered human activity, nature is enabled to stabilise itself enough for a slight improvement, demonstrating the connection between human activity and environmental quality. Resultingly, nature seems to be reclaiming its vigour, and with it, the life around it thrives due to improved water and air quality. Albeit these changes are not enough to foster long-term positive results, but they do fuel the flame of a growing debate about the future of our shared development. Perhaps as a comforting silver lining amid otherwise uncertain times, this debate might spark the potential for change.

The pandemic has demonstrated an important point, key to Buen Vivir; nature and humanity share an intricate connection whereby the actions of one affect the development of the other. Rather than the dominance of one over the other, the two are part of a united whole; “one contains the other, they are not separable”.7 So is the philosophy of the Buen Vivir Movement; the development of one cannot come at the detriment of the other. Amid the changing atmosphere of the post-pandemic world, whereby change is ripe and numerous, a discussion incorporating such philosophies is now burgeoning and, moreover, vitally important. The pandemic has exposed many flaws in our current approach to development, but it has also provided us with a unique opportunity to uproot and challenge it.

Thus, without holding all the answers, but with the desire to spark a profoundly important debate about development, the Buen Vivir philosophy urges us to ask: what if development did not start with money, rather, it started with human wellbeing? The pandemic has shown us that this is possible and, moreover, that it is necessary to better face the challenges of tomorrow.

1. Institute for Economics and Peace, 2020. Covid-19 and Peace, Sydney: Institute for Economics and Peace.
2. Balch, O., 2013. Buen Vivir: The Social Philosophy Inspiring Movements in South America. The Guardian, np.
3. Alston, J. M., 2019. The Case for Ecological Economics. Inomist, np
4. Muhammad, S., Long, X. & Salman, M., 2020. COVID-19 Pandemic and Environmental Pollution: A Blessing in Disguise?. Science of the Total Environment, 728(1), pp. 1-5.
5. Institute for Economics and Peace, 2020. Covid-19 and Peace, Sydney: Institute for Economics and Peace, pp 12.
6. Muhammad, S., Long, X. & Salman, M., 2020. COVID-19 Pandemic and Environmental Pollution: A Blessing in Disguise?. Science of the Total Environment, 728(1), pp. 1-5.
7. Gudynas, E., 2011.  Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow. Development, 54(4), pp 444. 

Julie Sjø Pedersen is an international student from Norway, currently studying a Masters in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. As she specialises in theories of peace and conflict, she has gained a particular interest in the environment whereby indigenous cosmovisions of ecological peace and justice has become a core concern. Followingly, she aims to undergo further research particularly into peace as a concept in indigenous movements such as Buen Vivir, and the impacts of such philosophies on our future development.

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