Sustainability: Design for the pluriverse

Sustainability: Design for the pluriverse
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. Escobar0
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.
KEYWORDS transition; development; unsustainability; buen vivir
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.
Development, 2011, 54(2), (137–140)
r 2011 Society for International Development 1011-6370/11
Development (2011) 54(2), 137– 140. doi:10.1057/dev.2011.28
Discourses of transition: Emerging
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 planetcentred 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 welldeserved 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 qamana (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 theTDs.
Development 54(2): Upfront
The modern ontology presumes the existence of
OneWorld ^ 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 globalization (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
viewof 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 theTDs ^ 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.
Berry, Thomas (1999) The GreatWork: OurWay into the Future, NewYork: Bell Tower.
Ehrenfeld, John (2008) Sustainability by Design, New Haven:Yale University Press.
Escobar: Design and Sustainability
Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hathaway, Mark and Boff Leonardo (2009) The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation, Maryknoll,
NY: Orbis Books.
Hopkins, Rob (2008) The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, White River Junction, VT:
Chelsea Green Publishing.
Shiva,Vandana (2008) Soil, Not Oil. Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, Cambridge: South End Press.
Development 54(2): Upfront

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