Climate Change, Buen Vivir, and the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Toward a Feminist Critical Philosophy of Climate Justice
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calgary
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The issue is not… what the critics of civilization… have in mind. The point is rather that the Enlightenment must consider itself, if men are not to be wholly betrayed. The task to be accomplished is not the conservation of the past, but the redemption of the hopes of the past. (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972, xv)
1 The Climate Crisis in Latin America: A Crisis of Modern Civilization?
In the lead-up to and wake of the failure of the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP 15) in Copenhagen in December 2009, a number of important mobilizations focusing on the climate crisis have been initiated and/or held in Latin American regions severely affected by climate change. Most of these regions—notably, the Andes and the Amazon—also have a significant indigenous presence. The 2009 World Social Forum, which met in the Amazonian city of Belém and marked the first significant inclusion of indigenous perspectives within the WSF framework, opened with a Pan-Amazonian Day focusing on climate change. In an initiative originating at this meeting, indigenous delegates invited groups from around the world to organize local actions later the same year, as part of a Global Mobilization for Mother Earth, in order to “open up the debate… with the proposal of the indigenous peoples, so as to halt climate catastrophe” (CAOI et al. 2009). This was followed by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights, called by Bolivian president Evo Morales and held in Cochabamba in April 2010. Discussions on indigenous responses to climate change continued at the 2010 Americas Social Forum in Asuncíon, Paraguay—the only Latin American country to grant official status to an indigenous language (Guaraní)—and at the Rio+20 People’s Summit, held in conjunction with the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The Cochabamba climate conference and the Asuncíon ASF were also notable for the inclusion of workshops bringing urban feminists together with indigenous women to discuss the implications, for women, of these proposed responses to climate change.
Although most activists and NGOs from the Global South attribute the climate crisis to “the prevailing socio-economic system in the world today—a system that has proven capable of generating unprecedented wealth for some at the same time [as] impoverishing the majority of people and devastating the planet” (Quintos and Corpus 2010, 6), these recent Latin American mobilizations have shifted the blame instead to what they describe as a culturally oriented “civilizational crisis.” This focus is illustrated by the 2009 call for the Global Mobilization for Mother Earth:
Greed for profit and accumulation, the individualism of capitalism, have brought about a deep financial, economic, productive, social, cultural, racial and religious crisis.… So many and such deep simultaneous crises form an authentic crisis of civilization itself: a crisis of the myth and the snare of “capitalist development and modernity”; of Eurocentrism, with its one-nation state, cultural homogeneity, Western positive law, developmentalism and commercialization.… We, the indigenous peoples, for thousands of years have built civilizations based on balance and harmony between human beings and Mother Nature. For that reason, we knew how to conserve biodiversity and to produce foods essential for humanity, in societies without exploitation. Today we offer our values, our practices and our knowledge to save the planet, without capitalist imposition, destruction nor contamination. (CAOI et al. 2009)
In more specific terms, what has been offered at recent Latin American mobilizations, as values, practices, and knowledge capable of responding to climate change and “saving the planet,” is the recuperation of the indigenous Andean cosmovision of sumak kawsay(Quechua) or suma qamaňa (Aymara), which translate into Spanish as buen vivir or vivir bien (Huanacuni Mamani 2010, 15) and into English as “good living” or “living well.” This stance is stated most forcefully and most clearly in the position statement drawn up and distributed by a coalition of indigenous organizations at the Rio+20 People’s Summit:
The climate crisis is not a technical but rather an ethical and political problem. We must turn our eyes toward Mother Earth, see her as something sacred, treat her with respect. This is the main contribution of the indigenous peoples of the Andes and their organizations: a new civilizational paradigm, Buen Vivir as the alternative to climate change and to the civilizational crisis. (CAOI et al. 2012, 7)1
Hence, as Christophe Aguiton and Hélène Cabioc’h succinctly observe in the title of their article discussing the emergence of the concept of buen vivir at the Belém WSF and the Cochabamba climate conference, “climate justice calls into question Western modernity” (Aguiton and Cabioc’h 2010, 64). Moreover, the key aspect of modernity questioned is modern reason. Buen vivir is thus presented as a “new approach to Nature, different from modern rationality such as the West has brought” (69).
This call for a civilizational shift to buen vivir in response to climate change has to be understood in relation to contemporary political developments in Ecuador and Bolivia—which have large indigenous populations—as well as trends in wider academic circles in Latin America. Both Ecuador and Bolivia reformed their constitutions, in 2008 and 2009 respectively, officially adopting the status of “plurinational” states and incorporating buen vivir/vivir bien as ordering principles in their new constitutions (León 2010, 98). According to Aymara sociologist María Eugenia Choque, these reforms are in keeping with an “Indianist ideology” that, in response to five centuries of extreme racism and marginalization, seeks to recover indigenous identity and self-esteem by reconstructing indigenous communal authorities (Lanza 2012, 3). It is important to note here, as well, the involvement in these debates of Latin American academics—mostly sociologists and economists—whose previous work focused on critiques of Eurocentrism, coloniality/modernity, Enlightenment universalism, and Western epistemology (Escobar 2010, 76–80), and “civilizational models” (Lander 2000, 12).2
Most indigenous advocates of buen vivir and their academic allies call for the rejection of Western values and “modern rationality,” except for limited applications or hybdridizations in fields such as (green) technology (Quirola Suárez 2009, 107; cf. Lanza 2012, 3) and law (Santos 2010, 157). However, certain Latin American feminists are questioning this proposed “civilizational shift.” Pointing to the dangers of idealizing and essentializing traditional communities, Bolivian sociologist Cecilia Salazar, for example, contends that modernity cannot be reduced to capitalism and that it contains emancipatory elements like the individual rights associated with leading one’s own life (Lanza 2012, 15).
While searching for alternatives to the multifaceted crisis of global warming (Acosta 2010, 78), “there is no room, then, for either dogmas or orthodoxies” (87), insists Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta. Indeed, given its incorporation of “critical” trends in Western thought, Acosta emphasizes that buen vivir is not purely Andean in either its origins or its aspirations (Escobar 2012, xxvi). In a debate that has turned into a minefield of identity politics,3 Acosta’s intervention opens up space for a contribution from feminist political philosophy in order to examine, at a more theoretical level, some central assumptions being made in the above responses to global warming. Hence, the discussion that follows will delve further into Salazar’s stance on the emancipatory elements in modernity by linking a more developed version of this position to a critique of certain problematic suppositions about nature, the reason/nature divide, and Enlightenment prevalent in contemporary debates about buen vivir. It will argue that, in order to adequately address both the climate crisis and feminist concerns about buen vivir as a response to climate change, a different critique of Enlightenment modernity is necessary—one drawing on Adorno’s nonidentitarian philosophy of negative dialectics and on the negative dialectical understanding of Enlightenment modernity that he developed with early Frankfurt School colleague Max Horkheimer.
In order to make the case that Adorno’s negative dialectical understanding of Enlightenment constitutes an important point of departure for a feminist critical philosophy of climate justice, this paper will be organized as follows. In part II, the arguments for buen vivir as a response to climate change, made by Latin American academics and indigenous intellectuals, will be analyzed in more detail in order to uncover problematic assumptions therein about nature, the reason/nature divide, and Enlightenment modernity. Part III will examine feminist critiques of buen vivir and relate these critiques to the assumptions uncovered in the previous section. In part IV, Adorno and Horkheimer’s understanding of nonidentity, the disenchantment of nature, and the dialectic of Enlightenment will be explored in order to reveal certain resonances with buen vivir while moving beyond the limitations of buen vivir as highlighted by indigenous Andean and Latina feminists. The paper will conclude, in part V, with a brief discussion of how feminist critiques of buen vivir and feminist calls for climate justice can be furthered via engagement with an environmental feminist philosophy informed by a negative dialectical critique of Enlightenment.
2 Buen Vivir as a Response to Climate Change and the Crisis of Enlightenment Reason
Ecuadorian feminist economist Magdalena León provides a useful summary overview of the main tenets of buen vivir:
Buen Vivir is described as the collective achievement of a full life or a life [lived] in fulfillment, based on harmoni[ous] and balanced relations among human beings and all living beings, [co-existing] in reciprocity and complementarity. It involves the acknowledgement that human beings are part of nature, that we depend on it and that we are inter-dependent among ourselves. This perspective signals a break with the centrality of the individual, as well as the superiority of human beings and the notions of progress, development and “well-being” in the capitalist sense. (León 2012, 24)
For León, global warming is the product of a “civilizing pattern” that is destroying the foundations of life. In contrast, buen vivir represents an evolving economic alternative that is “displacing not only the centrality of the market but also the centrality of human beings [and] giv[ing] way to the acknowledgement of life in an integral sense” (23).
The emphasis accorded by León to the break with the individual and to collectivity, harmony, reciprocity, complementarity, and interdependence among humans and with nonhuman nature all indicate that buen vivir subscribes to a holistic ontology of nature, at both the human and nonhuman levels. Moreover, acknowledging that humans form part of nature while insisting on their nonsuperiority/noncentrality to life as such—assertions in keeping with a holistic understanding of nature—problematizes the separation of human from nonhuman life produced by the Enlightenment’s disenchantment of nature. Finally, questioning the centrality of the individual, progress, and science-and-technology-based development—all central pillars of the European Enlightenment project—when added to the implicit call to re-enchant nature implies a fundamental challenge to Enlightenment and rationality per se. That these interrelated themes are central in the endeavor to recuperate buen vivir can be supported by a more detailed examination of how each is treated in writings of other Latin American academics and indigenous intellectuals supporting the buen vivir project.
In keeping with the holistic vision that it draws from ancestral knowledge (Benalcázar 2009, 130), buen vivir “proposes a cosmovision of harmony of human communities with nature, in which the human being is part of a community of persons that, in turn, is a constituent element of the Pachamama herself, of Mother Earth” (Quirola Suárez 2009, 105). Buen vivir is thus a communitarian paradigm (Huanacuni Mamani 2010, 40) that views the human being as naturally cooperative and gregarious, as “a social and solidary individual who attains fulfillment in life shared with others” (Ramírez 2010, 125), in a community extending beyond social relations to a profound relation to life itself (Huanacuni Mamani 2010, 33). In this larger community of humans with nonhuman nature, harmony is maintained by keeping consumption within the limits that the ecosystem can sustain (49). Hence, buen vivir is a value system specifying ethical and spiritual codes of conduct in relation to the greater social and natural environment (Wray 2009, 55-56).
Proponents of buen vivir insist on the need for strengthening and defending human rights and democracy (Acosta 2010, 91). Indeed, they view “buen vivir, then, serv[ing] as a platform to discuss and apply responses… [to both] the devastating effects of climate change… and increasing social marginalization and violence” (Acosta 2012, 299). The emphasis, however, is placed on new laws conceived in holistic rather than individualistic terms and thus rooted in complementarity (Lanza 2012, 21), collective rights (Benalcázar 2009, 144), intergenerational justice (Quirola Suárez 2009, 104), ancestral communitarian natural law (Huanacuni Mamani 2010, 70), and cultural rights (Wray 2009, 56).
It is true, as Mexican economist Ana Esther Ceceña notes, that the separation of society from nature originates with Western culture and is not typical of the aboriginal cultures of the Americas (Ceceña 2010, 46). However, to claim that this separation arose from differences, dating back millennia, between a predatory, dualistic, hierarchical, and individualizing—that is, a proto-capitalist—culture, “born with the exaltation of the human,” and one that was nonpredatory, pluralistic, fraternal, convivial, and nature-identified (Ceceña 2012, 307–11) is essentialist and ahistorical. Equally essentialist and ahistorical is the claim that the human struggle for survival was gradually transformed into the desperate effort to dominate nature, a project that was ultimately accorded justification in the European philosophy of Bacon and Descartes (Acosta and Machado 2012, 68–69). Indeed, it must be emphasized that in premodern Europe—as in the indigenous cultures of the Americas—the prevailing mode of social organization was communal and the earth was viewed as a nurturing mother (Merchant 1980, 1–2).4
Delving into the issue at a deeper level by drawing on the Weberian notion of the “disenchantment of nature,” Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander notes the rise to hegemony, in the Western world, of a form of reason that separates itself from the rest of nature. This reason is associated with a subject who turns nature into an external thing or object to be known, in order to control it and thus transform it into material goods for human consumption. For Lander, it is the sustained growth of this “industrial civilization” and its “logic of mercantilization” that has led to the contemporary civilizational crisis—a crisis whose leading edge is nature’s destruction “in most profound terms [via] so-called climate change” (Lander 2010, 161–65). This Eurocentric, colonial (171), and “carcinogenic civilizational pattern” (164), which naturalizes human inequality and wages a systematic war against nature, must be radically questioned (171). He elaborates on this:
This exteriority [of reason to nature] has big implications. In the first place, it implies that, unlike [in] other cultures, so-called nature is totally disenchanted; that is, nature completely loses all sacred character.… If the human is thought of as the other, different from so-called nature, an absolutely instrumental relation is thus established with so-called nature—I am saying “so-called nature” because obviously we are all part of nature, we are all part of life, there does not exist any possibil[ity of] separation between humans and life—a relation so instrumental that it appears perfectly normal to us that we speak of water, that we speak of iron, that we speak of the forest as natural resources.… Life is not a resource. Therefore, to think of life as a resource is to think in a totally instrumental form, totally negating of and destructive of life. (Lander 2010, 162, my emphasis)
Lander’s insistence on the need, before time runs out, for a new “cosmovision” capable of healing the radical human–nature separation introduced by the West and its modern civilizational pattern (159–63) is widely shared by proponents of buen vivir. Whereas Ceceña proposes “turning back” this separation that was spread by Western colonization (Ceceña 2010, 46–47), Acosta seeks to facilitate the “re-encounter” of humanity and nature by “bind[ing] the Gordian knot cut by the force of a conception of life that turned out to be predatory and indeed intolerable” (Acosta 2012, 297). If the disenchantment of nature is a totally negative phenomenon arising out of greed and the desire for vivir mejor—a “living better” rooted in unlimited progress, endless accumulation, and competition that relegates the vast majority to “living badly,” vivir mal—calling for its reversal would seem to be the only option.