Blog / 23 May 2012

Searching for the good life

Searching for the good life

"I have a dream", declared Rev. Martin Luther King in the 1960's, a quotation that certainly ensured him a place in the history books. His dream of a United States free of racism, where everyone enjoys equal opportunities, became the symbol of one of the largest emancipation movements ever.

The dreams and visions of a different, better society, have always been a source of inspiration. Visionaries have moved the masses throughout history. From Jesus of Nazareth to Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela: they've inspired people to take action and did this by coming up with an attractive message: all efforts are worthwhile because God's Kingdom, or a classless, nonviolent and just society, is close at hand.

Are we still dreaming these same dreams today? Are there still visionaries around who can inspire us? There is no single unanimous answer to this question. Visionaries appear regularly and present us with their appealing and inspiring ideas. Think of those people who came up with the Cradle2Cradle principle, the dream of a world without waste and framed within a perfect closed cycle. Prior to that, new concepts such as sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and, more recently, the Green Economy, were also sources of inspiration.

On the other hand, one observes that these visions have not actually managed to mobilise crowds, especially not in the West. We have grown increasingly sceptical, cynical even. Credulous individuals have all too often been disappointed by self proclaimed leaders who promised them paradise. We seldom fall for this type of rhetoric. We also stopped believing in a society that can be transformed. The idea of a group of motivated people realising actual changes has been portrayed as either naive or fanciful. That's why we no longer like talking about visions (let alone dreams); we prefer scenarios, which give us the room to produce the best possible results.

There is also something else: concepts like Cradle2Cradle or the Green Economy are Western visions that originated in North America and Europe, and are chiefly Anglo-American capitalist-based ideas. And so, where are the analyses, experiences, and dreams of non-Western thinkers and doers? While more and more Asian, African and Latin American products are reaching our shores; their ideas and visions seldom reach us. Are we not open to them? Are they making too little effort to reach us? In any event, we are depriving ourselves of the visions that originate elsewhere, and with them, potential out-of-the-box ideas from parts of the world we know less about. We need to do something about this situation.

Therefore, prompted by Both ENDS and Cordaid, we, two Dutch journalists, started searching for new, inspiring alternatives from the rest of the world. The following pages include numerous interviews with prominent thinkers, doers and analysts from the South. We would like to make it clear from the start that we do not pretend them to be in any way representative of the entire spectrum of ideas regarding a green economy. We chose from a list of names supplied to us by Both ENDS and Cordaid. This list includes their contacts, their colleagues in the South. They are people who are familiar with both actual practice and participating in international conferences where they regularly meet one another at venues around the world. They have all been active in the lead-up to the Rio+20 conference, as members of one or more working groups. Some of them, such as Chee Yoke Ling from Malaysia, have been part of this process for some twenty years or so. She was one of the most prominent spokespersons of the - then still so-called - 'Third World' during the first Earth Summit. All of the interviewed visionaries have strong criticism for how free market thinking and globalisation affect their own societies and the world as a whole. This criticism is nothing new. But what does their ideal society look like? How would things be different if they were in power? These are some of the questions we asked them.

Dare to Dream

On YouTube there is an interesting film about the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellows, entitled Vision 2050. Participants were asked to envision the year 2050 and - this is even more difficult! - to imagine the planet is all right, everything is going well in 2050! "Now close your eyes. What do you see?" The participants' responses varied: "I see solar panels on every rooftop." "I see people knowing each other's names." "Older people who tell stories that others are listening to again." "I see windmills and mini-power plants in the river so that children can study at night with electric lights. The message of the movie is clear: "You can't make it happen if you can't even imagine it!"

This may be true, but daring to dream is not all that easy. Who is ready to respond to the questions of what the ideal society will look like? Isn't it a bit naïve in this day and age to even bother to dream of a better world? And maybe it's even a bit pretentious to think you have the answers. And yet, another response might be: Isn't it all kind of trivial to be translating these grand designs for a better society into concrete images?

For whatever reason, several candidates we approached were slightly shocked when we asked them to share their dreams with us. Some of them even considered our questions inappropriate. "So sorry, but I'm not a guru," was the response of Janaki Lenin, an important environmentalist, columnist, and moviemaker in India. "The challenge is to build a sustainable lifestyle that is so appealing that everyone wants to adopt it. Then, you have to begin thinking about how to realise this. But that's a dynamic process, and the outcomes are uncertain. So I will not speculate."

She is probably right. However, we were looking for something more. Others also politely declined our invitation. There was also a more strategic reason for declining. When you're continuously struggling with major issues such as uncontrolled globalisation or the unbridled profits of venture capitalism on a daily basis, you often feel you like you are just shedding tears in the middle of a desert. You have identified the problem, you have a potential strategy or solution but idle dreams of a better society during an interview also has its pitfalls because, before you know it, your opponents will simply dismiss you as a naive dreamer.

Fortunately, others were prepared to take up our challenge. Our challenge was inspired by the Rio+20 conference slogan - The Future We Want. Our question was simply: Which future? Who dares to dream of a better and more just world these days? And, to make it perfectly clear, it didn't necessarily need to be a feasible vision of this world or a world you were willing to settle for, but the world you truly desire.

Obviously, this vision would use a sustainable world as its starting point, a world in which the planet was no longer headed for inevitable ecological disaster. The major components of a sustainable world are generally agreed upon: using only renewable natural resources, banning waste streams, addressing hunger and extreme poverty, and working towards true democracy, with equal right for one and all. Nice notions, but not exactly what we were looking for either. We wanted the interviewee to actually envision an ideal society. What would they change for themselves, for their children and/or grandchildren? What is the first thing they think of when they hear the term "ideal society"? Imagine you are in power, you are the mayor, the governor or even the enlightened dictator: what would you do first? These are the kinds of questions we posed to help clarify our request for the interviewees.

Blue Skies
Our questions aroused a multitude of images: blue skies over Beijing again - that was Chee Yoke Ling's dream. She has been living in the Chinese capital for several years now and has not been able to adjust to a state of permanent smog. Meanwhile, Egypt's Emad Adly dreams about approaching the Cairo of the future in an airplane and seeing an ocean of green rooftops. He also dreams of tens of thousands of unemployed youth being properly trained to become urban farmers. They will lease flat rooftops and supply the city with vegetables and fruit on a daily basis. Farida Akhter from Bangladesh also dreams of vegetables and grains: she envisions the return of forgotten species to the plates of her fellow countrymen. Moreover, she also hopes that Europeans will discover the wonderful flavours of the various kinds of vegetables, rice and lentils that could become plentiful once again. Kenya's Janet Awimbo envisions new opportunities for an African form of consensus decision making - but she is seeking brave citizens willing to take up this effort. Eduardo Gudynas from Uruguay, meanwhile, dreams of unaffordable digital watches that have become the symbol of the increasing consumer desires of the global middle class, which the planet cannot possibly hope to satisfy. A little further inland, Brazilian Moema Miranda wants to ensure that every peasant family has its own parcel of land. She believes that this will benefit the entire country. While Zenaida Delica Willison from the Philippines envisions a world where all live to be as old as her father (who passed away last year at the age of 103), if only we can be convinced to a live a healthier lifestyle.

And we eventually discovered the remarkable common thread of all of these dreams: the conviction that there was a significant need to return to the human dimension. One after another, they all advocated smaller, more human cities, combined with a revitalisation of the countryside that so many people have left in their pursuit of a better life. Perhaps the only exception to these modest dreams was Adly, who envisioned radical changes for Cairo. The others prefer shifting the emphasis on large-scale agriculture to supporting the millions of small farmers. This would also entail choosing for traditional knowledge, respect for nature, and ecologically sound farming methods and against large-scale farming, monocropping, and the unlimited use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds. "Large-scale agriculture has saddled us with a climate crisis, a water crisis, and a bee crisis," Farida Akhter observed. Furthermore, she points out that this type of production method also has a very negative impact on the position of women.

Are these the dreams of a handful of greenies or resurrected hippies who reject all progress and deny the reality of a world population that will soon surpass 9 billion people? No way, was their unanimous response. Traditional values and new technologies are wonderfully interlinked, Adly, a Muslim, pointed out. Isn't it the Koran that inculcates in Muslims the need to spare limited natural resources such as the soil and water? Is it not the same Koran that stated that every Muslim has a duty to learn as much as possible, including from non-Muslim countries? The traditional indigenous vision of the relationship between man and nature is experiencing a revival in South America. The concept of buen vivir - loosely translated as the simple good life - has now even been integrated into the constitutions of both Ecuador and Bolivia. "Even if we switch over to the concept of 'buen vivir', we'll still actually need good computers and other equipment," notes Eduardo Gudynas with a laugh. There is a need for modern technology, to ensure that consumer products last a lot longer than they presently do and also that these products can be easily repaired.

Janet Awimbo advocates the return of the typical African form of decision making, which is based on consensus, the palaver, but this time as applied to new clothing. Young people and women would be able to join the roundtable negotiations or simply a discussion under a tall, shady baobab tree. "We no longer want a group of old men making all the decisions," she emphasises.

Meanwhile, when Farida Akhter works together with Bangladeshi farmers to re-evaluate traditional farming methods and products, she creates a permanent links between this approach and efforts to alter the rigid social structures, such as male-female relations and the caste system. It is no problem, she insists, as long as it is all done with respect, and "taking into account everyone's feelings, while still managing to change the system."

These dreams span the oceans. Akhter in Bangladesh totally agrees with Gudynas in Uruguay, that people can be happy without having to live a life of luxury. Basically everyone wants to live a good life. "That is also what the peasants keep telling us. To be happy, that is what they want. They do not need a big car or a lot of money in the bank. Safe and good food, health for themselves and their children, nature in balance. That is what ordinary people want."

Over the past two decades, Chee Yoke Ling has seen much of the optimism and hope that characterised the 1992 Earth Summit, go up in smoke. But now, in the period leading up to the Rio+20 conference, she has begun noticing some hopeful developments. "I still dream of social equality, justice, and harmony with nature, and of a lifestyle that fits into this vision. To see that more and more young people are fighting for sustainability and for a different way of life is an enormous source of inspiration to me."

Hans van de Veen & Han van de Wiel

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