My Say: An alternative perspective on sustainability — lessons from indigenous peoples

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 28, 2022 - December 04, 2022.
My Say: An alternative perspective on sustainability — lessons from indigenous peoples
-A +A

A shift in mindset: Taking only what’s needed

As part of the Sustainable Development for Indigenous Peoples project in partnership with WWF-Malaysia, a research team from the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development Sunway made field visits to rural indigenous villages for interviews. During one such visit to inland Sabah, we encountered an interesting story.

An indigenous household was earning RM1,000 per month from planting two rows of corn when the price of corn doubled. The household then planted half the amount of corn in the following crop cycle. As a result, they still received the RM1,000 they needed to get by but had more leisure time to enjoy. (*Numbers and crop choice are illustrative, but the story is real.)

Mainstream economic theory would suggest increasing the crop output to take advantage of a price increase. The profit maximisation framework is the be-all and end-all for both corporations and households. The one and only objective of a corporation is to maximise shareholder value.

But that is not how the environment works. Planetary boundaries are finite. Extract too much too quickly, and we run out of resources. Indigenous peoples who live off the land understand this all too well. Take only what you need and leave the rest. The forest regenerates what was harvested, but only up to a point.

In Sabah, “Tagal” (which means “don’t” in Kadazan) is a community-led system that prohibits overharvesting of forest and ocean resources. Through harmonious consensus and compromise, the community is ensured of its own continuity. It is an elegant solution to the classical economics conundrum of the tragedy of the commons without needing elaborate policy and regulation, instead relying upon basic human decency and community spirit.

This is not to mark all indigenous peoples as living off the land minimally — there are also those who prefer to work harder within a modern capitalist framework. Some move to cities for better jobs and assimilate into mainstream culture. What is important is to give them the freedom of self-determination and not pigeonhole them into limited options such as “forest custodians”, religious conversion or forced assimilation.

There is still much room for improvement in terms of access to education and infrastructure in indigenous villages, which will then afford them the dignity of choice. Roads provide convenient access to nearby towns with superior health, education, financial and retail facilities. It also facilitates commerce, whereby villages can transport and sell their products to external markets, and makes it easier to bring materials for infrastructure to the village.

Nevertheless, we do not need “development for development’s sake” that displaces indigenous culture with scant regard for their needs and wants — any development needs to be done in proper consultation with the community according to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) principles. Some communities prefer not having roads so they can be left in peace.

Limitless growth is unsustainable

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a comprehensive list of 17 interlinked goals covering all aspects of human life, from poverty to education to the environment. Each goal is measured through a series of qualitative and quantitative targets and indicators, which make progress easier to track.

SDG 8 calls for “Decent Work and Economic Growth”, and its first target is “to sustain gross domestic product (GDP) growth per capita of at least 7% annual growth in the least developed countries”. Its fourth target mentions the “decoupling of economic growth from environmental degradation, with developed countries taking the lead”.

It is commendable that the SDGs are nuanced enough to advocate for more development in less developed countries, and more restrained consumption in developed countries. Nevertheless, we need to be very conscious of the dangers of pursuing limitless GDP growth. Simon Kuznets, the economist who developed the first comprehensive GDP measurement, cautioned: “The valuable capacity of the human mind to simplify a complex situation in a compact characterisation becomes dangerous when not controlled in terms of definitely stated criteria … measurements of national income are subject to this type of illusion and resulting abuse”.

Common criticism of GDP includes its inability to capture environmental impact, unpaid domestic work and resource extraction. There are various other approaches which are more holistic, such as the UN’s Human Development Index, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index, the World Happiness Report and Raworth’s Doughnut Economics model. The Doughnut is a visual framework that attempts to balance life’s essentials with planetary boundaries — with the ideal equilibrium lying within the doughnut’s area.

With the ongoing climate and ecological emergency, the pathway of zero GDP growth (and even degrowth) needs to be considered for developed countries which produce massive per capita carbon footprints that are destroying the environment. In nature, nothing grows forever — they simply approach and attain maturity. Developed countries, which have already achieved a high standard of living, should endeavour to do the same while reducing emissions and waste. On the other hand, we need to continue increasing access to basic needs for poorer countries and communities to bring everyone into the fold of the proverbial doughnut.

If the 2.8 billion people in India and China were to follow the footsteps of modern Western consumption patterns over the next few decades, the path would surely lead to ruin. The answer lies somewhere in between.

Within the context of indigenous peoples, indigenous “economic” activity eludes official statistics such as GDP and income. Most rural indigenous communities practise subsistence agriculture to fulfil personal nutritional needs and this form of “living off the land” is not recorded as an economic transaction. Despite their limited contribution to official GDP data, indigenous lifestyles are often more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The purpose of planting corn

The rat race required to sustain rapid economic growth has led to widespread disillusionment. In China, the “tang ping” movement rejects societal pressures to overwork, instead opting for a simpler life. The founder of the movement, Luo Huazhong, quit his factory job and went to live in the countryside on US$60 per month, saying: “I can just sleep in my barrel enjoying a sunbath like Diogenes, or live in a cave like Heraclitus and think about Logos”. Similarly, anti-work sentiment has sprung up in Western countries, through movements like “r/antiwork” (an online movement centred upon working conditions and labour activism) and the Great Resignation, with workers demanding a better work-life balance.

In happiness economics, it is well established that income beyond a certain level has greatly diminished returns on happiness. There are also many other factors that might have a higher impact on happiness than income, such as health, relationships, leisure time and therapy. A state of constant consumption not only destroys the environment but enslaves us to our basic desires and leaves us always wanting more. If happiness is the state of contentment with what we have, we can choose to want less instead of having more.

Humanity as a whole has to face the question: What is the purpose of planting corn? Is it to make money, or to feed ourselves? In Colors of the Wind, Pocahontas sings of the blue corn moon and says, “You can own the Earth and still / All you’ll own is Earth until / You can paint with all the colors of the wind”. Apparently, the phrase “blue corn moon” does not have an inherent meaning — it just sounded good to the lyricist. Sometimes, we just need to be, and not overthink things. Existing contentedly is its own kind of bliss.

Pursuing endless profit and economic growth is inherently unsustainable and to the detriment of all. Perhaps it is time to consider alternative lifestyles and principles that are simpler and in harmony with nature. It might just lead to greater personal happiness while saving the world.

Justin Liew Jin Soong is a research associate at Sustainable Development Solutions Network Asia, Sunway University

Save by subscribing to us for your print and/or digital copy.

P/S: The Edge is also available on Apple's AppStore and Androids' Google Play.