This summer, we brought together Earth Jurisprudence practitioners from Cameroon, Benin, Uganda and Zimbabwe for a virtual weeklong retreat. Earth Jurisprudence recognises our living planet as the primary source of law, and The Gaia Foundation is leading a growing global movement committed to this worldview. One way in which we’re putting philosophy into practice is by running the unique and UN-commended Trainings for Transformation, accompanying African leaders who are reviving Indigenous lifeways that are rooted in reciprocity with the Earth.
The retreat illuminated a kaleidoscopic array of positive paths we can take in these most precipitous of times; Gaia’s Carlotta Byrne reflects on a week spent envisioning the life-sustaining futures they could lead to…
Our theme for the week was life-sustaining systemic alternatives to the dominant and destructive industrial growth system. Together we examined the myriad failings of the capitalist paradigm and explored other, ecologically-aligned ways of organising ourselves as human communities within the wider family of life – inspired by a collective vision of restoring a human-Earth relationship of mutual flourishing.
“We are living a systemic crisis that can only be solved through systemic alternatives. Humanity is facing a complex set of crises from environmental, economic, social to civilizational crisis. All of these crises are part of a whole. We cannot solve one of these crises without addressing the others.”
So begins Systemic Alternatives, one of the core readings of the Trainings for Transformation, co-written by Pablo Solón and others. The book explores alternatives to the interconnected structures of capitalism, patriarchy, productivism, extractivism and anthropocentrism and spotlights Vivir Bien, Degrowth, the Commons, Ecofeminism, the Rights of Mother Earth and Deglobalisation as examples of alternatives, among others.
Our endeavour this summer was to explore some of the many alternatives taking root across the globe, collectively offering life-affirming possibilities for what could be a flourishing future. Below are highlights from a few of our sessions.
Although capitalism treats the natural world as a subsystem of the economy, our human structures are of course embedded within our ecosystems. How might we co-create human systems that strengthen rather than undermine the integrity and health of our living planet and that grow wellbeing rather than profit? How might we co-create economies that can be sustained for generations to come?
At the beginning of the week, we were joined by Satish Kumar who shared his inspirations in the field of ecological economics, including Mahatma Gandhi, EF Schumacher, Thomas Berry, Vandana Shiva and, most recently, Kate Raworth. We contrasted decentralised, local, needs-based production with centralised, industrial economies. We discussed how work can be creative and spiritually fulfilling; ‘alivelihoods’ rather than ‘deadlihoods’ in the words of Manish Jain.
We were reminded that money is a means of exchange rather than an end in itself and explored how we might replace the focus on economic growth with efforts to instead ‘grow’ biodiversity and the wellbeing of humans and ecosystems. “Human dignity and the integrity of Nature should be the goal. Money should be the means to ensure the dignity of human life and the integrity of Nature. We have confused the means and the end.” We also reflected on the inevitable limits to growth and the need for economies that operate within the limits of the natural systems, just as a river is held within the boundaries of its banks.
Taking the long view, Satish reminded us that the dominant economic system is only 200 years old and was created by humans so can be unmade by humans too. ‘Business as usual’ is in no way inevitable and a whole host of alternative economic models are available to us which seek to engender harmony between people and planet, guided by a responsibility to the future generations of all species.
We learnt more about Doughnut Economics as envisioned by Kate Raworth, and considered how society might function ‘beyond money’, as explored by Anitra Nelson. We also considered Jason Hickel’s advocacy for degrowth and Manfred Max-Neef’s articulation of fundamental human needs.
Graduate of the Trainings, Simon Mitambo, introduced us to the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, of which he is a core member. This initiative seeks to create solidarity networks and strategic alliances amongst the radical alternatives to the dominant regime that are contesting capitalism, patriarchy, racism, statism and anthropocentrism. We also watched a recording of a presentation on Radical Ecological Democracy given by another member of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives’ core team, Ashish Kothari.
Strengthening Local Economies
Graduates of the Trainings for Transformation, Simon and Method shared reflections on how the communities they have been accompanying in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa have been able to reduce the need for cash transactions and reduce reliance on the market economy, instead reviving communal farming, barter and exchange, collaboration and mutual aid, and the restoration of traditional agricultural practices including seedsaving and farming without chemical inputs, allowing the communities to delink from the dominant system and strengthen local resilience and social cohesion. In the words of Method:
“People in Bikita, Zimbabwe, are coming together to generate an economy that does not need money. They are farming together and sharing the food that is grown collectively, as well as sharing songs and stories as they work together. ‘Employment’ is generated, the village is a great hive of activity. The work is not renumerated with money but rather with the shared fruits of our labour. There is happiness and resilience in this. We don’t want to buy our food, we want to be food sovereign – to grow the food we need. If we have all the things we need we are rich, even if we are viewed as poor through the lens of conventional economic metrics such as GDP.”
Towards the end of the week, we considered the wider context of movements toward localisation through the Local Future’s film The Economics of Happiness, which “spells out the social, spiritual, and ecological costs of today’s global economy while highlighting the multiple benefits of economic localisation.”
Beyond Extractivism and the Rights of Mother Earth
Poet and environmental justice advocate Nnimmo Bassey joined us to bring focus to the Rights of Mother Earth and the all-pervasive extractivist paradigm that works to undermine these rights at every turn. Among other activities, Nnimmo is a founding member of Yes to Life, No to Mining – a global solidarity network of and for communities, organisations and networks who are standing up for their Right to Say No to mining and advancing life-sustaining, post-extractive alternatives. He is also on the Executive Committee of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature.
Nnimmo reminded us of the many gifts that Mother Earth has granted us – more often deemed to be “resources” for extraction within dominant culture. We reflected on our sacred duty to preserve the gifts of Nature and to stay alert to all the forms that extractivism takes in our modern cultures – from the relentless extraction of metals and minerals to the exploitation of human labour and appropriation from knowledge systems. These trends of extractivism and gross exploitation of Nature are relatively recent, however, and in these times we are called to bring to the fore the qualities of love, solidarity and cooperation that have been fundaments of human societies. We also need to formulate laws that promote relationships of harmony with the natural world and recognise that mountains, rivers and more-than-human animals have rights too, as well as criminalising ecocide. Nnimmo closed:
“We can’t do everything, it’s a long road ahead, but we can all do something. Doing nothing is not an option. We have to go beyond denouncing what is wrong. We need to build the alternatives.”
Trainings for Transformation
Our July retreat forms part of a three-year training programme, now in its third iteration. The Trainings for Transformation are inspired by Thomas Berry’s vision of Earth Jurisprudence and dedicated to catalysing a transition from human-centred to Earth-centred ways of seeing and being in the world. In the process participants undergo a journey of personal transformation, committing to practising a way of life that is aligned with the Earth’s natural cycles and working towards the revival of human governance systems that are in harmony with the ecosystems in which they are embedded.
Graduates become ‘Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners’ and members of the African Earth Jurisprudence Collective, a dynamic community of practice based in Africa and devoted to the rekindling of Earth-centred lifeways. Many graduates go on to accompany traditional and Indigenous communities on the continent to revive their traditional ecological knowledge and customary governance systems to ‘reweave the basket of life’.
The trainings blend wilderness experiences and a deep dive into traditional African cosmologies with practices to restore a human-Earth relationship of respect, reciprocity and reverence. Co-facilitated by The Gaia Foundation and the Siama Programme, among others, the programme covers the impacts of the industrial growth economy as well as systemic alternatives to the dominant paradigm and builds the skills for graduates to accompany Indigenous communities on a path where they believe again in their traditional ecological knowledge and can build back resilience in these times of polycrisis.