-the good life
von Sandra Weiss
The supreme goal is life in harmony with itself, with others and with its environment.
When the cell phone is more intelligent than its user
Alberto Acosta is a man with a mission: he wants to convince mankind that it is following the wrong path with its consumer society. The criticism is not entirely new; the pope hit out along the same lines with his encyclical “Laudato si” in 2015. However, the answers that are given by this economist and one-time Ecuadorian energy minister, who was born in 1948, are new and go beyond Marxist dogmas. For they are simultaneously close to actual practice and are founded in theory. Acosta was inspired by the principle of “Good Living”, a mission statement derived from the indigenous cosmic vision of his homeland. But Acosta, who has studied in Germany, is a long way from rolling back history. As chairman of the constitutional assembly he succeeded in a remarkable synthesis of traditional ways of life (among other things, of natural rights) and modern Western elements like equality, human rights and pluralist democracy.
Mr. Acosta, what is “Good Living”? Can one establish what it is absolutely in general terms?
There are ancient values and experiences of humanity which still exist in indigenous communities. This is valid not only for Latin America but one finds elements also in India or in Africa. To see the individual not as a freely floating atom but as part of a community, is a substantial element of Good Living. A further aspect is the coexistence with the natural world. A third element is spirituality, which I as an economist cannot grasp so well. It is all to do with how everything is interconnected. The supreme goal is life in harmony with itself, with others and with its environment. So it is a sort of collective memory that can help us to create a better world. A world in which all can live with dignity.
Why do stupid people, and I include myself here, need a still more intelligent cell phone when we actually use a tenth of its capability at best?
To see the individual not as a freely floating atom but as part of a community, is a substantial element of Good Living.
How did Good Living get to be on the political agenda in Ecuador?
The concept has survived among indigenous groups even when it was repressed and marginalised by the Spanish colonisation. For the Spaniards the traditional values and practices of the indigenous peoples were a sign of backwardness that needed to be subdued. But in the 1990s the oligarchic, post-colonial state and the liberal economic model ended up in crisis. At the same time there took place an emancipation of indigenous peoples who came out of the shadows and took up a clear political position. No longer did they want to be the object of politics but rather the formative subject, above all in order to lend a voice to their philosophy of life. This logic is reflected in the new constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador from the years 2008 and 2009.
At the same time there took place an emancipation of indigenous peoples who came out of the shadows and took up a clear political position.
How have you, as president of the constitutional assembly, managed to get the whites and the mestizos to take seriously this indigenous world view?
We have idealised individualism but that has not made us happy.
That was not at all so difficult because many elements have a general validity. Let us take the example of the human being as a part of a community. This is something fundamental as humanity has lived over the course of millennia in a communal logic. It was only 200 years ago during the Enlightenment that the vision emerged of the free individual who enters into market competition with other individuals, and if the state guarantees private ownership as well as the regulatory framework, the common wealth of the general public increases. That is the core idea of liberalism but it is just 200 years old and we are now discovering its limits.
What is so bad about it then?
We have deified individualism but that has not made us happy. In England now even a government authority to overcome solitariness was set up to reverse the isolation of people in the anonymous large cities. We must cease feeling that we are something better. We are not the lords of nature but rather a part of it. Nature may not be privatised and exploited. That is the basic idea for a new juristic concept which is rooted in “Good Living” [Buen Vivir] and grants rights to nature. There are already the first model processes in place. So in Colombia young activists have successfully brought charges before the state in court in order to force it to protect the Amazon. Political demands can then flow from this juristic concept, like for example a ban on the merchandising of water. Water may not be a tradeable good, neither by the hand of the state nor by the private individual. It must belong to all because it is a human right.
There are countries like Bhutan in which the state no longer sets as its goal the economic growth but rather the maximisation of happiness of the citizens. There seems to be therefore something in the air world-wide…
Yes, the papal encyclical opens the door to a deeper and more interesting consideration. It reflects the Catholic vision but in it one finds elements of ecology throughout. The encyclical relativises the statement in the first book of Moses regarding the domination of nature by humans. The pope says that this is a misunderstanding and thereby smooths the way for the end of biblical anthropocentrism. When he writes that a double cry can be heard, one from Mother Earth who is being destroyed by capitalism, and the other from the poor who become the sacrifices to this capitalism and its inequities, he opens the door for a debate.
Nature may not be privatised and exploited.
Sarayaku is one the few examples of indigenous communities which were able to successfully resist the big oil concerns. What is so special about Sarayaku?
The success, in my opinion, lies in the large international support, in the unity of the community and coherence of ideas. Sarayaku was decisively involved in the discussion about the new constitution in Ecuador and it has contributed ideas in the debate on Good Living. The community tries to preserve its culture and tradition without refusing to engage in progress. There are solar panels and satellite internet there. This change leads naturally to tensions, but it is an interesting ridge-walk. In world-wide terms, Sarayaku is an example of resistance which is tied to an alternative model of civilisation.
This change leads naturally to tensions, but it is an interesting ridge-walk.
Sarayaku is now a manageable indigenous community in the rain forest. How can this work in a nation state with a centralised government and in a globalised economy? Does Good Living need a new political system?
Firstly, we must not idealise indigenous communities. Many of them have met disaster in their search for a harmonious life. But it is clear that we have to re-invent democracy anew. Democracy should not consist solely in the act of voting, rather the community must also have a share in the important decisions. Democracy is an ongoing process of discussion and decision-making. Autonomy is of central importance so that the people themselves can find answers to their problems. These cannot be imposed in an authoritarian way from outside or from above because there are no patent recipes. Hereby it naturally becomes harder and more tedious to reach decisions, especially when they have to be made in consensus like in the indigenous ayllu. But the solutions are then all the more long-lasting because the people stand behind them.
The community tries to preserve its culture and tradition without refusing to engage in progress.
How would something like that be saleable in such a complex system as the EU, for example?
Every country and every region must find new ways by themselves. But there is an interesting example in Europe and that is in Switzerland with its system of plebiscites and the revolving executive. That is a good idea for avoiding the concentration and abuse of power. One can certainly learn something from that.
What do we do about mining, the oil industry, the cities, all fundamental things for our civilisation?
We cannot get a new civilisation up and running overnight. Firstly, we must understand for once and for all that our way of living, which needs so many resources and fossil fuels, is not sustainable and cannot be a model for the world. Even the International Energy Agency, which is neither particularly ecologically minded nor leftist, is saying this. It concludes that we must leave 2/3 of known existing raw materials in the ground is we do not want to heat the atmosphere by two degrees Celsius. Therefore we need an economy based on renewable energy. This is a challenge exactly for industrial nations like Germany, where the freedom of the citizens is measured according to the speed at which they can roar along the freeway. Such taboos must be called into question. Will the Germans lose quality of life if they drive more slowly or use public transport more? In Vienna, for example, more than half the population travels by good and efficient public transport. Good Living is not a dogma but, on the contrary, gives specific answers to specific problems. The fact that in Germany already 30% of the energy comes from renewable sources is an example which Latin America could copy. Then next, the energy generation must decentralised, and therefore moved away from big hydro power plants to small producers, to solar power generators or roofs, for example.
What is happening with the large cities; is Good Living possible there?
This is one of the most complicated problems. A few cities are plainly no longer to be rescued, as in the mega-agglomerations like Mexico City, Saõ Paolo or cities in India and China. The rest must be made more liveable by us rethinking and organising them from the bottom up, that is from separate parts. By laying out city gardens, for example. Then we must stop collecting useless things. In the USA, for example, 80% of households own a drilling machine. On average they use it for just 13 minutes. It would indeed be much more logical if several neighbours were to share a drilling machine, or also a washing machine or a juicer. That way, then, better neighbourly connections arise. All this demands new organisational structures. In Ecuador, for example, there are more cell phones than inhabitants. Why do we need so many things that are useless or for which we have absolutely no time to enjoy?
Frstly, we must not idealise indigenous communities. Many of them have met disaster in their search for a harmonious life.
Despite this, I cannot imagine that someone gives up their television, their tablet or their cell phones voluntarily. And for all this technology we need minerals, and yet mining is one of the biggest destroyers of the environment worldwide. How can we confront this conflict?
For example, by putting sustainability demands on our gadgets. A greater part of modern electronic tools have a date of obsolescence planned by the producer, the so-called programmed attrition. This is perverse and France is already considering hitting those gadgets with a short lifespan with a tax. Besides, advertising has channelled us into thinking we need a new cell phone every year. Why do stupid people, and I include myself here, need a still more intelligent cell phone when we actually use a tenth of its capability at best? Why do we not buy simpler but more durable cell phones? Then we would consume fewer raw materials also.
Are electric cars a solution?
No, they are a self-deception. Firstly, their total energy balance does not turn out particularly well if one calculates how many raw materials like, for example, lithium or coltan one needs for the manufacture of the batteries. The demand for these raw materials cements the colonial exploitative relationships in Africa and Latin America. And secondly, electric vehicles do not solve the problem of mobility. We need fewer cars, not more cars, no matter how they are powered. We need more space for cyclists, pedestrians and public local traffic and fewer roads.
And how is it with regard to cleaner “green” technologies?
Technology can help us, but can also enslave us. Especially if it serves the accumulation of capital. And we must understand that products do not solve our fundamental problems. There are no sustainable products per se, but only a sustainable life-style or sustainable chains of production.
There are no sustainable products per se, but only a sustainable life-style or sustainable chains of production.
According to economic theory, consumption and profit are motors for innovation…
Innovation or capital accumulation? Let’s just take patents and medicines. They repudiate market logic because they protect the enterprise that owns this knowledge and they have the goal of increasing profits. Why do we not abolish patents? And find other mechanisms for the advancement of innovation? People are driven not only by the wish for wealth, there is also the necessity for social recognition. This is merely another way of seeing the world. And technology is not neutral, it serves certain interests. The Austrian priest Ivan Illich has already warned for years that applied science estranges people because it follows its own logic and creates more and more useful things for always more unsuitable people. We need machines indeed, but ones that we control. Therefore, for example, tractors which farmers can repair themselves.
Is international trade then becoming superfluous if we manage everything ourselves, produce locally and, on the whole, make do with less?
Yes, we must again invest in local production, that is a question of logic and environmental protection. We must give up having at our disposal all foods right around the year. This requires a rethinking, a renunciation of consumption. In Europe there are already some very beautiful projects with this goal, for example “Zero km” in Spain. As well, it is about buying local foods…
That sounds very much like asceticism. Can one then make that palatable for humanity, or do we first need a new human being?
We have to be clear that the industrial nations are not an example and therefore it will be impossible for all of humanity to own a car. Then we must proceed from what we have and construct new, sustainable patterns of behaviour and consumption. This is no academic exercise but ‘learning by doing’ with its corresponding mistakes and new beginnings. But naturally there are certain concepts like de-growth, that is the theory of the turning-point of growth.
Which are very strongly criticised by classical economists…
The economy has colonised all the other sciences and it is time to banish it to its boundaries. All the social sciences strive according to the political economy with their mathematical models and distance themselves from their actual goal. The human being must always stand above the market and capital, and also above the state. The state can be useful for certain goals but it is never the solution. And the market, as sociologist Karl Polanyi says, is a good servant but a miserable ruler. The world has sufficient resources for all, but not enough to satisfy the greed of individuals. We need, therefore, a fairer re-distribution of the wealth.
What could such a re-distribution look like?
This starts with putting a brake on waste. According to the World Food Programme, 1.3 million tonnes of foodstuffs are lost every year. These could nourish two billion people. And then we produce food to fatten cows or to run cars on biofuels. For this we need gigantic monocultures with genetically modified organisms and suitable pesticides in addition. As result we lose an enormous amount of diversity. 85% of humans are nourished by just five types of animals and ten types of plants. And food production is, like oil and other resources, and object for speculation that is traded on the stock exchange. On the futures markets in Chicago and London, crops are sold which have not even been sown yet. 70% of grains in the world are liable to such speculation that serves the maximisation of profit, not the purpose of feeding humans.
Alternative models for living have remained as marginal phenomena from time to time. You yourself even once received 5% of the vote as a presidential candidate with a relevant platform. Does theory ever become capable of majority support?
That is our great challenge. In Ecuador the constitution – which anchors the collective rights, the Good Living and water as a fundamental right as well as the bans on genetically modified organisms – received the support of 82% of the population in a plebiscite. But the fact that these rights are written in the constitution does not mean that now the reality has changed in one stroke. Our task is difficult, but we must not give up.
Acosta’s books are also partially available in German, for example "Buenvivir, vom Recht auf ein gutes Leben (2015 oekonom-Verlag). " Together with the post-growth economist Ulrich Brand, he published “Radikale Alternativen”. At the climate summit in 2021 he was a judge on the Rights of Nature Tribunal. This involved the consideration of the threat to the Amazon rainforest, and of incorrect solutions for the climate crisis.