The Good Life: A Radical Notion?

Included in the readings of the Land and Food Systems 250 course that the faculty has all second years take is a paper called “Buen Vivir: Today’s Tomorrow”, written by Eduardo Gudynas. The central purpose of this paper is to use the indigenous traditions of living a whole and fulfilling life in the context of the wider community, which includes the people, their livelihoods and farms, their religious, ethnic and cultural traditions, their past and hopes for the future, and nature. This idea is called suma qamaña by the Aymara people of Bolivia, Chile and Peru; ñandereko and qhapaj ñan by the Gurani of Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. It has many different names and connotations, as befits a principle which can only be manifested in unique communities. Gudynas terms it, simply, buen vivir.

Promoted in the paper as an alternative to the Western development model, the principle has indeed made its way into several constitutions, among them Ecuador and Bolivia. In Ecuador, this has been manifested in the form of several different rights, very much in the western tradition, which recognize the rights of nature, among other things. In Bolivia, it is viewed more as an integral principle on which the rights described in the constitution are based. This again is in line with the fact that its interpretations by different indigenous groups in the two countries impacted how it was implemented into the foundations of the State.

The community in which the good life is taken as a value no longer can adhere to the dominant political and economic model of development as the sole goal of the modernizing country. Rather, development must be taken in a framework in which its purpose is to better an economy meeting the real needs of the community, the needs of people who find value and fulfillment in their communities, through personal relationships with kin, society and their natural lands and surroundings. This is especially important for the vast numbers of landless and small farmers, peasants, rural dwellers indigenous groups and “urban tribes”, that make up a large section of the countries of the global South. That said, it may well be equipped to solve the reported problems of alienation, personal and cultural, experienced by many who want to “make it big” in the cities, and those who, having acquired wealth, wish to give back to their communities.

Those of us in LFS are lucky enough to be at a nexus of activity in Vancouver and the lower mainland, to build sustainable economic and ecological structures and reimagining the community. Given that the city is indeed a very useful combination of locality and community on the one hand, and yet a political entity on the other, we would do well (especially those of us living in the Vancouver area) to become involved in our communities, not simply as part of volunteer work or to put on a resume, but to create a personal connection between ourselves, our home and our communities. The UBC Farm, for example, is a nexus for such communities, which create a new space in which that entity we call Vancouver, the people and land as much as the skyscrapers and city hall, can manifest and develop in new and different ways. The towns (such as Maple Ridge, in which I live) that make up the GVRD can and are evolving similar programs as well.

This shift in values to create an economy which fulfills the needs of the community, rather than communities which can add efficiency to a development scheme which they did not conceive of or vote for, is highly evident in the case of the ancient Greek city of Sparta. Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver who created the warrior State for which it is so famous, believed that wealth created degeneracy, both mental and physical, in those who acquired it. Lying on their fancy couches, growing fat in the dark with fancy food, such people were useless for developing the ethos he believed essential for the survival of the city. When Sparta allowed him to make its laws, he replaced its gold currency with one of iron, worthless outside Sparta and which had to be carried in carts, similar to the situation in late Weimar Germany. Lycurgus, however, believed this extreme devaluation in Sparta’s money to be a good thing, as no one could acquire any great amount of wealth, and those who did were not respected for it. Thus, Sparta’s citizens had to dedicate themselves to their training, developing bonds with their kinsmen and serving the Spartan state in order to prove themselves to their fellows. As time went on, Sparta became renowned for its hand-crafted everyday items, as well as producing men of cultural achievement. But their primary worth for Spartan society lay in their role as warriors. Thus, in order to meet the needs of that society, Lycurgus not only rejected the development of the day, but did what he could to minimize it to bare essentials.

Probably not something to bring to the Economist anytime soon.

2 thoughts on “The Good Life: A Radical Notion?

  1. Good post, Ash, though I have some problems with your appraisal of Lycurgus. His laws and customs for the Spartan community were only made possible through the abuse of the “lower caste” helots – while the Spartan concept of value was not economic and geared more towards ethical and physical conduct, they were in effect a powerful economic state with vast influence and range. My question lies more in the possibility of such conduct without slavery or power dynamics of any kind, for communities like the displaced peasants you mentioned.

    Also, to what extent do you think enshrining the rights of the land and nature in the constitution would work in Canada? I feel Vancouver is undergoing some fairly radical changes but the national scope leaves me pessimistic, especially as deals like FIPA are being passed right under our noses. Cooperation, rather than competition, is the direction we must take – how possible this is, I do not know.

    I look forward to reading more of your articles.

    • Thanks for the comment. I made the point about Sparta to show how radically an economy which serves a system of values instead of the other way around can differ from the development economy we take for granted as the standard. It’s true that this was only possible based on the helot system, but then their ways, their time, and their world weren’t ours. We are living at a time when the social damage done by disenfranchised slave classes has become clear and deploring them is part of our value system. Thus the economy we develop would incorporate these values, and we should try to make sure that unfair power dynamics are eliminated. I would say that, getting away from questions of rights and morals, we can just as well show that unfair power concentrations are antithetical to sustainable, enduring, united societies in which the members can develop and reach their potential.

      I think that Gramsci was right when he said that the cultural shift must come before politics. It is necessary to change the culture, and to change the fundamental assumptions on which people operate before political change can be achieved. Vancouver is a city where this is happening. A counterculture, where principles manifest in career choices, aesthetics, communities, art, areas of scientific and economic study, and even consumer products, needs to spread and displace its parent, becoming the culture. I would say in a place like Vancouver it is also necessary for the different cultures and ethnic groups to develop and maintain a healthy sense of identity (including Canadians of European origin – perhaps for a future post) in order to be able to have a dialogue in which the values of smaller communities can create those of the wider, more all-encompassing community. We must strive to become a model for Canada and North America as a whole.

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