Radical ruralities in practice: Negotiating buen vivir in a Colombian network of sustainability – new article!

The Journal of Rural Studies just released a new paper on the conceptualisation and realization of buen vivit in a Colombian sustainability network. Martha Chaves as a part of her PhD-work (see earlier blog posts on this) led a team of authors that also included Thomas Macintyre, Gerard Verschoor and myself.


This paper explores the emerging concept of buen vivir –  interpreted as integrative and collective wellbeing  – as it is being envisioned and practiced by a network of sustainability initiatives in Colombia. As an example of a transition narrative currently taking place in Latin America and beyond, buen vivir represents a turn towards a more biocentric, relational and collective means of understanding and being in the world. Yet despite the many discourses into buen vivir (many of which tout it as an alternative to neoliberal models of development), there is a general lack of research into its varied forms of application, especially in terms of lived experiences. Drawing on the new ruralities literature, this paper explores the extent to which buen vivir visions and practices represent radical new ruralities e so-called alternatives to development. Data were collected from individuals and ecological communities in predominantly rural areas who are members of the Council of Sustainable Settlements of the Americas (CASA), a
network which promotes many of the principles of buen vivir. Through participatory methods, results demonstrate that CASA visions are based on constructing territorial relations through intercultural knowledge exchange and experimentation into alternative lifestyles. Despite the substantial challenges and contradictions of putting these visions into practice, we argue that lived experiences promote processes of self-reflection on what buen vivir really is or could be. We hold that the inclusive nature of buen vivir offers opportunities for diverse peoples to cohere around shared meanings of the ‘good life,’
while providing the freedom to live variations depending on social and ecological context.

Here’s the DOI: //dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2017.02.007

For a sneak preview you can also have a look here: Chavesetal2017RadicalRuralities

Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability

Just before the end of the year a fascinating paper appeared in the journal Sustainability authored by a multi-author team led by Martha Chaves who just completed het PhD in Wageningen last month.

Chaves, M., Macintyre, T, Verschoor, G & Wals, AEJ (2017)Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability. Sustainability 2017, 9, 21; doi:10.3390/su9010021  Link to the paper.

Abstract: In line with the increasing calls for more transformative and transgressive learning in the context of sustainability studies, this article explores how encounters between different ontologies can lead to socio-ecological sustainability. With the dominant one-world universe increasingly being questioned by those who advocate the existence of many worlds—a so-called pluriverse—there lays the possibility of not only imagining other human–nature realities, but also engaging with them in practice. Moving towards an understanding of what happens when a multiplicity of worlds encounter one another, however, entails a sensitivity to the negotiations between often competing ontologies—or ontological politics. Based on an ethnographic methodology and narrative methods, data were collected from two consecutive intercultural gatherings called El Llamado de la Montaña (The Call of the Mountain), which take place for five days every year in different parts of Colombia. By actively participating in these gatherings of multiplicity, which address complex socio-ecological challenges such as food sovereignty and defence of territory, results show how encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially transgressive learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate un-sustainability. Although we argue that a fundamental part of the wicked sustainability puzzle lies in supporting more relational ontologies, we note that such learning environments also lead to conflicts through inflexibility and (ab)use of power which must be addressed if sustained socio-ecological learning is to take place. Keywords: ontological politics; transformative learning; transgressive learning; sustainability; Colombia; narrative methods.

Here’s the cover of Martha Chaves’ PhD-thesis which can be downloaded from the Wageningen University Library system.


Unreasonable doubt, viral nonsense and the Post-truth Trump era – avoiding hopelessness and creating sustainability by default



On December 17th, one year ago, the warmest December 17th on record on The Netherlands, I gave my a second inaugural address at Wageningen University titled: Beyond unreasonable doubt –  education and learning for socio-ecological sustainability in the anthropocene  (link to the text) the address took place exactly 6 months after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the USA. At that time nobody really thought he had any chance but that was then. Now that we have entered a new phase of potential depression, hopelessness, psychic numbing, withdrawal, giving up, loss of energy, it seems like the challenge of moving towards a more sustainable world has become greater than ever before which is why I am re-posting the video that Wageningen University made back then about the role of education in creating more critical, mindful, empathic and responsible citizens willing and able to turn the tide and making living lightly and equitably on the Earth the default rather than the exception.

Here is the link to the 2,5 minute video that may be more accessible than the booklet (I hope it spreads as rapidly as some of the non-sense that spreads with lightening speed these days):

Breathing sustainability


Answering the “Call of the Mountain”: Co-creating Sustainability through Networks of Change in Colombia

It is one thing to talk about wanting to live in harmonious relations with people, nature and Planet or Mother Earth, but quite another to put this into practice.

Today, Tuesday November 22nd, the day the FARC and the Colombian government are signing a new peace treaty, one of PhD students, Martha Chaves, successfully defended her dissertation. Martha’s thesis represents a systematic attempt to investigate individuals, communities, networks and gatherings of networks that seek to develop a more relational and caring way of living and of being in the world. In her native Colombia she studied what is it like to attempt to bring the principles of buen vivir such as; reconnecting to ancestral wisdom, questioning values of competition and individuality, and forming new relations to place and territory, into practice. Below you see a happy group of people who all played a role in the ceremony.


Her research unveils the tensions between the dominant ontology or (ways of being) of modernity, and other marginalized more relational and cosmological ones such as those of Indigenous Andean communities. Her thesis also re-affirms the importance of plurality in creating the ‘dissonance’ that invites continuous learning that is sometimes at the edges of people’s comfort zones. More so, she shows how intercultural encounters between different ontological positions can lead to more a confronting and overcoming of our unsustainable habits. As such the thesis can help inform socio-ecological niches and movements across the globe that seek to provide a counter narrative to economic globalization, modernity and the neo-liberal agenda.


After the defence – from left to right: Prof. Danny Wildemeersch, Prof. Rutgerd Boelens, myself, Dr. Martha Chaves, Dr. Gerard Verschoor, Deputy Rector Prof. Francine Govers, Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka and Prof. Noelle Aarts.

Furthermore, her results show or at least suggest that encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially ‘transgressive’ learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers which tend to accelerate unsustainablity. This finding connects well with here future work within the ISSC-funded project on T-learning (www.transgressivelearning.org) that I blogged about in the post below this one.

Afterwards there was a WASS seminar Symposium “Disruptive Networks of Change: Can ‘Transgressive’ learning alter the status quo?” where some critical follow-up questions were asked such as: What types of learning are needed to disrupt ingrained unsustainable behaviour? And how can learning-based change be upscaled? With invited speakers from the fields of environmental education and social learning, and building on the ISSC funded T-learning project which addresses issues of transformative/transgressive learning, we will set out to explore these questions, and possible paths towards more sustainable futures. Martha Chaves first presented here work briefly (presentation-for-defense-22-nov-2016), followed by responding presentations by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University in South Africa (issc-tkn-seminar-wageningenn) and by Prof. Danny Wildemeersch (paper-presentation-maynooth) of the University of Leuven in Belgium.


Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

In a recent interview for EurActive.com  Environmental Education Professor and a dear colleague and critical friend of mine already for many years, Lucy Sauvé from Quebec, sees in the GEM 2016 report more evidence that there is no substantial change in the ‘language’ of the latest UN Report on education and sustainable development. She cherry picks some statements from the report to illustrate this. I agree, there are some or even many cherries to pick with a neo-liberal flavour. But I can also pick cherries with a different flavour – a flavour that was completely or mostly absent in the UN ESD world.


I have both worked with the UNESCO DESD and the Global Education Monitor Team which operates separate from the DESD – even though it is located on the same floor in the UNESCO headquarters as the ESD-team – indeed as a critical friend in the sense that I am sympathetic to any attempt that can re-orient education towards planet and people, but that I am also cautious of co-optation of such efforts by that same neo-liberal agenda. So when I read about People-Planet-Profit (as the GEM team used initially) then I must ask ‘who or what got the P for Profit in there?’ Why not just People and Planet? If you need to have something more explicitly related to economy in there then let us at least use the P of Prosperity. When I read that education for all is import for all, because it will lead to economic development which is prerequisite for ecological and environmental sustainability then this logic must be questioned: is education there to serve the economy first and foremost? Is all education by definition good or can it be highly problematic? Etc. When the ‘world of business’ jumps on the sustainable development, sustainability and ‘green’ bandwagon, then we must look critically at what the underlying motives are and what their efforts really entail. A car company promoting its hydride car using ‘sustainable excitement’ as its slogan, while at the same time manipulating its emission tests, needs to be questioned. Critical thinking is essential and asking disruptive questions is a part of that. When we read about sustainable development we must also ask ‘must we always develop?’ Or can sustainability represent an alternative TO development? When we read UN DESD documents or the GEM2016 report we must also ask are there any references to ethics? the non-human world? Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world? Etc.

Of course it is always easier to critique then to transform. Being near or within UNESCO circles I feel can have more impact in changing the dominant discourse than staying outside of it by raising the above questions from within in dialogue. Sure the UN is an enormous bureaucracy that doesn’t change overnight, but change does happen. Working with the GEM Team for about 5 months has given me some insights in how such a comprehensive report is written: framing of the key issues, commissioning papers to mostly external experts, carefully selecting, re-organising and editing texts, distilling key messages as GEM reports are message-oriented, creating a coherent grand document, several rounds of ‘fact-checking’ and copy-editing. The initial framing and the choice of experts who are to write about the key issues has a huge influence on the tone and direction of the narrative. When I came in, half a year before the report had to be finalized, the framing had been done and could not be changed much really (the thematic section, that I was involved in, is framed around 6 Ps: Planet, Prosperity, People, Places, Participation and Partnerships, whereas the second part of the report, the monitoring part, is framed around SDG 4 (Education) and 17 (Partnerships). Where I could still have some influence was the tone and direction of the narrative, tweaking it towards a more critical perspective on the role of education and the current economy – with regards to gender, equity, indigenousness and participation the people from the GEM team working on those sections already had a rather critical perspective.

I should point out that initially I was surprised that the framing and selecting of experts was done without any consultation of the UNESCO ESD section. I asked the GEM Team why there was no or little interaction between the two sections. The response was that the Team wanted to write a more evidence-based report not using an potentially rosy ESD lens but using a sober education lens to get a more accurate picture of the role of education in creating more sustainable futures for all. I also checked with the ESD section if this annoyed them but they were not. In fact they welcomed such an ‘independent’ attempt and hope it would lead to new insights and bring in new and more people into the conversation.

Now back to the initial question of this post: Does the GEM 2016 report signify a change from the dominant neo-liberal agenda that sees education as an extension and a driver of the globalizing economy and the its push for infinite growth, innovation and expansion?

If you are looking for confirmation of replication and affirmation of this agenda you will find it – as Lucy did, however, if you look for a shift in the common discourse, you will also find it. Below I have done some cherry-picking of my own by selecting some key messages that I think represent a counter narrative and a potential shift away from business as usual. Here are my cherries from the GEM2016 report, and believe me, some of them are quite radical and signify a departure form standard UN rhetoric:

  • Current models of economic growth cause environmental destruction
  • For education to be transformative in support of the new sustainable development agenda, ‘education as usual’ will not suffice.
  • Education cannot fight inequality on its own. Labour markets and governments must not excessively penalize lower income individuals. Cross sectoral cooperation can reduce barriers to gender equality.
  • A whole-school approach is needed to build green skills and awareness. Campaigns, companies, as well as community and religious leaders must advocate for sustainability practices. Non-formal education and research and development should also help solve global environmental challenges.
  • Expand education on global citizenship, peace, inclusion and resilience to conflict. Emphasize participatory teaching and learning especially in civic education. Invest in qualified teachers for refugees and displaced people, and teach children in their mother language. Incorporate education into the peacebuilding agenda.
  • Distribute public resources equitably in urban areas, involving the community in education planning.
  • Mobilize domestic resources, stop corporate tax evasion and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies to generate government revenue for fundamental needs such as education and health.
  • Include education in all discussions on urban development. Improve and fund urban planning programmes and curricula to include cross-sector engagement and develop locally-relevant solutions.
  • Promote the value of indigenous livelihoods, traditional knowledge and community-managed or -owned land through actions such as land conservation and locally relevant research.
  • Engage community elders in curricular development and school governance, produce appropriate learning materials and prepare teachers to teach in mother languages.
  • Incentivize universities to produce graduates and researchers who address large-scale systemic challenges through creative thinking and problem-solving.
  • Promote cooperation across all sectors to reduce policy-related obstacles to full economic participation by women or minority groups, as well as discrimination and prejudice that also act as barriers.
  • Support multistakeholder governance for the sustainable management of natural resources and of public and semi-public rural, urban and peri-urban spaces.

But there’s more – the GEM2016 has a somewhat different take on Sustainable Development than previous UN reports recognizing that there are different perspectives, including ones that critique the notion of continuous development (the quote below comes form page 4 of the report):

‘The different perspectives of sustainable development include viewing it as a model to improve current systems (endorsed by those focusing on viable economic growth), a call for major reforms (supported by those who advocate for a green economy and technological innovation) and an imperative for a larger transformation in power structures and embedded values of society (supported by transition movements). Some ecologists, such as deep ecologists, believe present-day human development focuses too much on people and ignores the plant, animal and spiritual parts of this world (Leonard and Barry, 2009). They believe humans must learn to be less self-interested and place the needs of other species alongside their own. Transformation advocates say societies should go back to ways of living that are locally sustainable – consuming and wasting less, limiting needs to locally available resources, treating nature with respect, and abandoning polluting technology that has become an integral part of modern society. Culture advocates believe sustainable living can happen only if communities truly embrace it as part of daily culture (Hawkes, 2001) so that it affects decisions about what to eat, how to commute to work and how to spend leisure time.

The South American buen vivir movement rejects development as materialistic and selfish, implying that living sustainably means finding alternatives to development (Gudynas, 2011). The buen vivir belief system comes directly from traditional values of indigenous people, and posits that collective needs are more important than those of the individual. In Ecuador, this concept is called sumak kawsay, the Quechua term for fullness of life in a community. It involves learning to live within boundaries, finding ways to reduce use or to do more with less, and exploring non-material values. Ecuador and the Plurinational State of Bolivia have incorporated buen vivir into their constitutions.

Most definitions of sustainable development challenge the status quo, believing human development lacks meaning without a healthy planet. This view requires people, communities and nations to reconsider basic values of daily living and change the way they think. Understanding one’s own values, the values of one’s community and society, and those of others around the world is a central part of educating for a sustainable future. This means education systems need to continuously evolve and change in order to identify what practices work best within a given context and how they need to change over time. Indeed, for many of its advocates in education, sustainable development is best understood as a journey, rather than a destination.’

So in short – yes it is easy to critique this report as an extension of hegemonic globalizing thinking and  as another attempt to hijack any efforts to change the dominant discourse, but I think that is too easy and not very generative. Rather I would look for the elements that represent a potential shift and a transition towards alternatives and help amplify them by highlighting and sharing them. Some of the texts above would have been unthinkable in mainstream UN-speak only 10 years ago. The glass is half full, not half empty this time.

Arjen Wals, September 14th, 2016

Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice – now available!


Australian colleagues Ralphe Horne, John Fien, Beau Beza and Anitra Nelson edited a fascinating book on ‘sustainability citizenship’ to which I was priviledged to contribute a chapter together with Frans Lenglet. Urban sustainability citizenship situates citizens as social change agents with an ethical and self-interested stake in living sustainably with the rest of Earth. Such citizens not only engage in sustainable household practices but respect the importance of awareness raising, discussion and debates on sustainability policies for the common good and maintenance of Earth’s ecosystems.

The publisher’s website describes the book as follows:

Sustainability Citizenship in Cities seeks to explain how sustainability citizenship can manifest in urban built environments as both responsibilities and rights. Contributors elaborate on the concept of urban sustainability citizenship as a participatory work-in-progress with the aim of setting its practice firmly on the agenda. This collection will prompt practitioners and researchers to rethink contemporary mobilisations of urban citizens challenged by various environmental crises, such as climate change, in various socio-economic settings.

This book is a valuable resource for students, academics and professionals working in various disciplines and across a range of interdisciplinary fields, such as: urban environment and planning, citizenship as practice, environmental sociology, contemporary politics and governance, environmental philosophy, media and communications, and human geography.

The chapter Frans Lenglet and I wrote is titled: “Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning” and emphasizes the role of learning and cultivating diversity and generative conflict in co-determining what it means to be sustainable within the everyday realities people find themselves. It is argued that in order to brake with stubborn unstustainabel routines – that are heavily promoted and strenghtened in a market, growth and consumption-oriented society, citizens will also need to develop disruptive capacity and engage in transgressive learning (see my earlier post about transgressive learning and the work within the ICSS project on T-learning led by Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes Univerity in South Africa). If you want to have a look at our chapter you can find it here: SustainabilityCitizenshipWalsLenglet2016 (for personal use). The full reference is:

Wals, A.E.J. & F. Lenglet (2016). Sustainability citizens: collaborative and disruptive social learning. In: R. Horne, J. Fien, B.B. Beza & A. Nelson (Eds.) Sustainability Citizenship in Cities: Theory and Practice. London: Earthscan, p. 52-66.

If you want to get a hold of the entire book visit: https://www.routledge.com/Sustainability-Citizenship-in-Cities-Theory-and-practice/Horne-Fien-Beza-Nelson/p/book/9781138933637



The relevance of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom to urban socio-ecology

jane+in+news+slideshowJane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom were both giants in their impact on how we think about communities, cities, and common resources such as space and nature. But we don’t often put them together to recognize the common threads in their ideas.

Jacobs is rightly famous for her books, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and for her belief that people, vibrant spaces and small-scale interactions make great cities—that cities are “living beings” and function like ecosystems.

Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her work in economic governance, especially as it relates to the Commons. She was an early developer of a social-ecological framework for the governance of natural resources and ecosystems.ostrombook

These streams of ideas clearly resonate together in how they bind people, economies, places and nature into a single ecosystem-driven framework of thought and planning, themes that deeply motivate The Nature of Cities. In this roundtable we ask sixteen people to talk about some key ideas that motivate their work, and how these ideas have roots in the ideas of either Jacobs or Ostrom, or both.

The natureofcities.com is a wonderful resource and platform for people interested in re-designing urban spaces to make them more liveable and sustainable. Every two months the site organises a Global Round Table that starts with input from scholars and practitioners from around the world. I was asked to provide an short input piece as well which can be found in the online discussion forum. In the past these roundtables  have been getting about 12,000+ readers, from 1000+ cities and 70+ countries and I encourage anyone to have go to visit and contribute at this roundtable by clicking on the link below.

Common threads: connections among the ideas of Jane Jacobs and Elinor Ostrom, and their relevance to urban socio-ecology

For more of their ideas, directly from them, good places to start are:

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York, USA.

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, USA