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Nature Relations: Buen Vivir

23.11.2022    Ronald Lutz

  1. Challenges
  2. Ways out
  3. Social work
  4. Outlook
  5. Literature

People always had a multifaceted relationship with what surrounded them and what we call nature: with the animals, which were often ascribed a personality of their own; with the plants, which likewise had their own characteristics; but also with rivers and mountains, as well as with spirit beings, which people saw everywhere and with which they were in constant contact. People were part of this diversity, they belonged to it; and yet it was also alien to them, because dangers came from it, such as storms or other catastrophic events. They dealt with this and formed rituals, which are seen by indigenous science as striving for balance, to shape one's own behaviour in such a way that a harmonious relationship remains possible (Yunkaporta 2021). In addition, a "knowledge" emerged that was constantly changing and expanding as new explanations were sought; it grew over long periods of time in a relationship of commonality. This was also evident in the fact that people used the fruits of nature, not in excess, but they protected and cared for them at the same time - certainly also out of fear of punishment. Some cultures are reported to have apologised to plants and animals with rituals before killing or picking and eating them. This relationship between humans and nature, as a result of colonial and global modernisation, is now only found in niches, but out of these it is now being re-emphasised as "indigenous knowledge" and gaining attention (Lutz 2021a). However, this should not lead to a general desire to revive it; that would be pure notalgia. Nevertheless, it can provide ideas for rethinking the completely different relationship to nature of the "Global North", from which modernisation processes originated that also led to dramatic climate change. In view of the challenges, a look at "indigenous knowledge" can provide arguments for the transformation discourses.


The relationship in the "Global North" between nature and humans is an instrumental one due to modernisation processes: Nature became an "exploitable mine" and is merely a mass of resources to be used for humans and which seem simply available (Beck 1986; Beck 2016; Rosa 2018; Eisenmann 2019). Nature became the object of a mechanistic science and thus also the object of engineers, who use it on the basis of the constructed laws of nature according to people's ideas and at the same time exploit it economically (Scheidler 2021a; Scheidler 2021b). Use and care are no longer the unifying factors, but exploitation, transformation and destruction become the dividing factors.

A dualism of nature and culture has emerged that limits life and is interpreted as the "Great Divide" in the Anthropocene (Eisenmann 2019; Scheidler 2021a). This refers to the age developed by humans, with a worldview and diverse actions to use and shape nature, the environment, landscapes, forests, steppes, rivers, seas, plants and other beings according to their own (human) ideas and needs. This has resulted in an anthropogenically overformed earth, which in a critical view is to be understood as a disregard for systemic and processual interrelationships and has led to massive consequences of human-induced climate change and initiated a tendency towards the collapse of ecosystems (Eisenmann 2019). In the late modernity of the "Global North", hardly anyone today knows what an "original state of nature" might look like (Klein 2017). What people encounter is humanly designed nature. Certainly, a return to an "original state" that we only suspect is not possible, nor should it be intended. Nevertheless, alternatives lie in "indigenous knowledge", which are now strongly positioned and receiving attention as to how a different relationship than the instrumental one would be possible and how nature can become a subject of coexistence in a new context (Weber 2019; Lutz 2021a). Against the backdrop of the multiple climate crisis, the challenge becomes clear: on the one hand, we must assume events that are hardly controllable technologically, economically and politically and lead to a transformation of the world to which we could all succumb (Beck 2016). On the other hand, there is also something to counter this: a "new way of thinking" and acting (Rosa 2018; Göpel 2019). I tend towards both: we will have to settle into an ecosystemically changed world, but at the same time we can prevent many things. My optimism stems from the fact that I interpret the Anthropocene and its consequences as a product of us humans. Thus, we are also capable of facing it in a shaping and transforming way and of shaping a (new) different world. In the meantime, many ways out of this are being sought, and "indigenous knowledge" should also be reflected. Nevertheless, these concepts must always be questioned according to their significance for the present. Once again: it cannot be about a return to something past, but about a departure into the future, which can contribute to other dimensions of natural relations, but also to equality, freedom, equity and sustainability.

Ways out

Hartmut Rosa called for the relativisation of the claim of the Anthropocene to be able to direct and control everything with science, economy, technology and politics (Rosa 2018). He contrasts this with the thesis of the unavailable; this means recognising the limits of the human being and the planet as well as the holistic interconnectedness of life in space and time and daring to think "anew".

"New thinking" is associated with the "Great Transformation" discussed by Polanyi (Polanyi 1973): economic and social processes that brought about profound change since the mid-19th century. In it, he analysed two dynamics, market economy and nation-states; he understood capitalism as the driving force of both processes, in connection with the commodification of land, money and nature. Critical authors call for a similar "Great Transformation", which would counter the prevailing independence of the economic with a new transformation and thereby also reconceptualise our understanding of nature (Beck 2016; Rosa 2018; Göpel 2020; Hanusch, Leggewie & Meyer 2021; Scheidler 2021a).

In the meantime, many considerations are condensing into "Real Utopias" (Wright 2017), which see themselves beyond the capitalist growth model and are reflected, among others, in concepts of a "post-growth society" (Seidl/Zahrnt 2010) or "strong sustainability" (Ott; Konrad 2011). The latter is defined by the demand to preserve remaining stocks of nature and to invest in them. Resources should only be used to the extent that they can regenerate. This also means respecting natural environments and a value system that questions growth and profit.

What connects everything and takes it further is the demand to develop a "planetary thinking" (Hanusch/Leggewie/Meyer 2021) that goes beyond the established political and economic systems of the Anthropocene, not only criticises them, but also intends to transform them. For this, the whole planet must be seen in its systemic, ecological and social relationships and interconnections. However, thinking planetary and sustainable also means reflecting anew on ideas that have been pushed aside in modernisation, allowing "other narratives", entering into dialogue, and also opening up to the cosmovisions and knowledge of indigenous population groups (Weber 2020). This is not about their cultural appropriation, which would be a new expropriation (Distelhoff 2021), rather they can be the starting point of a search for similar roots in the "Global North" as well as offer argumentative support for existing alternatives. Especially indigenous cosmovisions of "Buen Vivir" or "Sumak Kawsay", which come from the Andean and Amazonian regions, have for years experienced special appreciation as "indigenous knowledge" and have been described and thought through in many ways. Among many contexts, they express an understanding of nature that is thought-provoking and opens up perspectives on post-growth debates, strong sustainability and ultimately also social work as a possible agent of transformation (Lutz 2022). Buen Vivir The debates on "Buen Vivir" are similar in some aspects to discussions in the Global North, which also demand a fundamental change in thinking and understanding of development and no longer want to follow the anthropocentric ratio. However, the contents of "Buen Vivir" can only be understood if the contexts from which they grew are not ignored. They have a non-colonial origin and want to overcome the "colonial past" seen in the Western anthropocentric development model (Acosta 2009; Gudynas 2009; Fatheuer 2011; Gudynas 2012; Altmann 2013; Gann 2013; Acosta 2015; Cubillo-Guevara et al 2018; Lutz 2021a). Indigenous people in the Andean and Amazonian regions are reviving that knowledge that was displaced by colonisation and turned people into those that colonisers wanted to have. "Buen Vivir" is thus first of all a rediscovery of the repressed and at the same time represents a new departure towards one's own indigenous identity. At the same time, it is a counterweight against the still existing consequences of colonisation and its growth myths. Basically, it is a "culture of life" that, resting on the knowledge of indigenous peoples, emphasises a "way of being" that was suppressed by colonisation and now, revived and further developed, can suggest ways out of the dilemma of the Anthropocene (Acosta 2015).

Starting from indigenous movements, these reformulated ideas of "Buen Vivir" were even integrated into the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador; the Good Life became a constitutional goal and thus the formulation of rights (Acosta 2015). These include the right to food, health, education, water or clean air. Many of these "things" are not only reminiscent of human rights, but also of the list of a "Good Life" that Martha Nussbaum drew up in principle (Nussbaum 1998). However, "Buen Vivir" distinguishes itself from the ideas of an individual "Good Life" as well as egocentric thinking in the Global North (Guevara et al 2018). It focuses on the social cohesion of people that communities provide; this also includes recognising plurality and diversity of cultures. It is still unclear whether this is not just an attempt to create new worlds with words. The ideas and concepts conveyed cannot be presented as a unified world of thought; rather, there are heterogeneous and, moreover, contradictory interpretations. For example, it has led to conflicts in Ecuador and Bolivia over the use of resources, and even to neo-extractivism, the proceeds of which were supposed to benefit primarily the indigenous population (Fatheuer 2011; Acosta 2015; Cubillo-Guevara 2018). Buen Vivir" has not produced "islands of the blessed", and the actual processes are sometimes extremely contradictory (Fatheuer 2011, 26; Cubillo-Guevara et al 2018). According to Acosta, who was involved in the constitutional project in Ecuador, however, "Buen Vivir" clearly sets itself apart from the idea of prosperity and neoliberal capitalism, as it no longer focuses in particular on the exploitation of nature and its accumulation in growth and profit (Acosta 2015). Rather, it rests on Indigenous cosmovisions that are not about progress as a linear model of neoliberalism, but about the production and reproduction of a state of equilibrium. As a category of the philosophy of life of indigenous communities, this concept, without idealisation or romanticisation, could make an important contribution to giving space to other practices and reflections and to strengthening existing alternatives (Acosta 2009, 219f). Nevertheless, "Buen Vivir", like other indigenous models, cannot be grasped with simple definitions. Gudynas pointed out that it is a "concept under construction", an idea "in the making"; also, indigenous traditions in particular make it difficult to understand for those who do not share these very traditions (Gudynas 2012, 11). At this point, the breadth and heterogeneity of the debates conducted cannot even be remotely reflected; nor is it possible to reconstruct the political events surrounding "Buen Vivir". Nevertheless, despite Gudynas' objection, those positions can be considered which, in the context of a different relationship to nature, force the Global North (and not only there) to reflect and provide new arguments for the ideas of a post-growth society and sustainability thinking. I see the decisive and unifying element of "Buen Vivir" in the fact that nature is seen as a subject with its own rights. It propagates a fundamentally new way of dealing with nature than is familiar from the anthropocentric and western development model. As a hegemonic paradigm, this has, as already emphasised, above all the exploitation of nature for growth and profit as its goal. This rationality and the mechanistic understanding of nature is challenged by concepts of "buen vivir". There is also a demand to criticise the concept of development inEuropean origins and to show how it can be transformed (Acosta 2015). Development and nature are thus "rethought" "in order to rob the Western understanding of nature, which describes nature as something external to us and breaks it down into individual objects that can be manipulated and appropriated as resources, of its power to act" (Gudynas 2012, 26). "Buen Vivir", on the other hand, therefore emphasises the complementarity of all being. The focus is on "life in all its fullness": as harmony with oneself - dimension of identity -; with society - justice - and with nature - sustainability (Cubillo-Guevara et al 2018, 8ff). A "space" should grow "in which people, animals and plants live together in a relationship and nature and culture are not in opposition to each other, but complement each other, as one contains the other and is inseparable (Gudynas 2012, 13). This "utopian" relationship with nature comes from the "past" and focuses on the "future". The ideas of balance and harmony are explicitly directed against the dominant implications of the Anthropocene, its accumulation model and the embedded exploitation of resources (Acosta 2015). This is not a sustainable solution for life (Cubillo-Guevara et al 2018). Indigenous thinking and knowledge does not simply oppose anthropocentrism with a nature-centred worldview. Rather, it elaborates a "biocentric worldview" (Cubillo-Guevara et al 2018, 20), which postulates a "unity of life", "which is precisely not characterised by the opposition of nature and humans" (Fatheuer 2011, 24). This includes, above all, recognising nature's own nature and rights. This does not mean that they lead to nature (animals, water, plants, soils or mountains) no longer being used; that would be absurd and inconceivable. Nature is rather constituted as a separate good that has a right to exist as a counterpart of humans and thus may no longer be seen mechanically and instrumentally as a "thing" that can be exploited without restraint and dominated and shaped until its complete destruction. This does not work without "advocates" and constitutes an "anthropocentric paradox" (Fatheuer 2011, 24): Humans formulate these rights and enforce them at the same time. Their recognition would be an effective change of perspective in the aberrations of the Anthropocene. Nature would be introduced into politics in a new understanding, as shown in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador. This could promote or change existing discourses in the Global North. Especially the debate on rights of nature could establish a powerful and at the same time diverse dialogue between indigenous theories and alternative thinking in the Global North and give further impetus to the search for ways out of the nature-destructive development model. The "Laws for the Protection and Right of Nature" passed in Ecuador and Bolivia play a special role in this. The relationship between humans and nature was thereby placed on the basis of primordiality, reciprocity and dialogue (Fatheuer 2011, 18; Acosta 2015). Preserving the balance in nature is defined as a prerequisite for the regeneration of the planet, and respect for nature's own character and preservation of its rights is established. At the same time, these rights are placed in a larger context in the constitutions mentioned, which can be read as a new development model in which respect for diversity and harmonious coexistence with nature are enshrined.

Discourses of "Buen Vivir" also make clear that the Global North in its hegemonic nature only recognises one system, its own, and negates others, as it sees itself as universal (Acosta 2015, Sousa Santos & Meneses 2020; Lutz 2022). "Buen Vivir", on the other hand, calls for the simultaneity of different systems: something is and is not at the same time and includes a third (Fatheuer 2011; Acosta 2015). Allowing for contrasts, non-simultaneities and difference is one of the strengths of this way of thinking; the commitment to pluriversality points far beyond the universal and hegemonic thinking of the Global North and can provide new impulses. It also reinterprets the meaning of the local: as a lifeworld in which people locate themselves with the world, find affirmation and identity, and at the same time enter into a global network from there. Once again, it should be emphasised that this also entails a danger of integrating thoughts of "Buen Vivir" too lightly into the Global North's search for "healing" and new ways. The actual demystified image of the "noble savage" is peeking dangerously around the corner. However, as emphasised, this would be cultural appropriation and thus dispossession. The ideas formulated in the concept of "Buen Vivir", however, are not "doctrines of salvation", it is not about a new romanticism or nostalgia that allegedly wants to restore harmonious living conditions of "original peoples" in the 21st century (Cubillo-Guevara 2018). However, questions can be derived for a different way of dealing with nature and thus for social and economic concepts. Therefore: looking at the concepts can sharpen and point debates that have been going on for a long time. However, this is only possible in a dialogue between actors in the North and South. It is also true here that alternatives to the aberrations of the Anthropocene can only be found if, beyond the national container, injustices of the world order are not neglected. We are confronted with a global challenge that should lead to diverse, pluriverse, local and also global ways out (Fatheuer 201, 31). The reflection of the discourses around "Buen Vivir" can inspire, a platform becomes possible on which many things come together that can promote a dialectical process of exchange. A large-scale experiment seems feasible that enables equal and dialogical communication between North and South. This communication could be the expression of a cultural turn resulting from a paradox: the cultural heritage of indigenous traditions, historically incompatible with development, becomes the key to its renewal and comes into focus in a changed way (Cubillo-Guevara 2018, 23). This could release discursive energies that contribute to an intensification of global transformation discourses and thus to socio-cultural and political change (Cubillo-Guecva 1918, 23 ff; Lutz 2022). In this, however, "Buen Vivir" always remains an independent and Andean concept that must not be culturally appropriated or appropriated for other interests (Gudynas 2012, 18). This confrontation means questioning one's own rational and Western thinking in the Global North as well, decolonising it and opening up spaces for new thoughts that also exist in Western thinking: more and more people in different regions of the world are seeking their own roots and a different relationship to the surrounding nature, to life itself, in a process of re-encounter. "Buen Vivir" is similar to these critical debates on the capitalist economic system, which have been seeking new ways to turn away from the neoliberal model for a long time. In Western thinking, too, anthropocentrism is questioned and the rights of nature are pleaded for. However, the ways out for the North will bewill be different from those in the South. The reflection of "Buen Vivir" opens up discourses in which different movements, each with its own perspective on the future, meet. In summary, the preliminary result can be stated: Buen Vivir not only bundles the fundamental critique of the anthropocentric understanding of nature and development model, it also opens up views beyond its horizons that are quite similar to discourses of a "new way of thinking" in the Global North. Nevertheless, the differences must always be emphasised and acknowledged. Indigenous and Western perspectives nevertheless come into a communication context that can become fruitful. Consequently, these considerations can be used to discuss ways out of the growth compulsion in a more pointed way. In rudiments, even a different concept of development emerges, "which wants to say goodbye to Western paradigms of prosperity" (Fatheuer 2011, 7). Strong sustainability Recknagel has presented a comprehensive study that traces the context of "Buen Vivir" and strong sustainability in a broad approach that includes nature, economy, politics, society, development, sustainability and culture (Recknagel 2019). Only the results on nature and sustainability will be discussed here. These confirm and expand on the considerations that have already been presented. Overall, "Buen Vivir" provides a new understanding of nature and fundamentally sets itself apart from the anthropocentric understanding of nature. The propagated rights of nature are more than "protection of species and the environment", as emphasised in the sustainability debate in the Global North; they are directed more strongly against destruction and valorise nature as a subject in its own right. Nature comes to the centre, as the worldview is not anthropocentric but biocentric. This offers a new paradigm and enables a change of perspective that can influence environmental economic discussions. Despite its contradictions, "Buen Vivir" emphasises elements of the sustainability debate that are significant for debates in the Global North. This is sometimes reflected in a particular emphasis on aspects: The past is present in the future, everything must always be biodegradable, equal rights for all and sources of life must be preserved for future generations. Buen Vivir" confirms discourses in the Global North and provides further argumentation aids. Obviously, there are similarities between "Buen Vivir" and Strong Sustainability. This does not mean, however, that both are completely compatible with each other; rather, it becomes clear that both concepts come from different traditions and ways of thinking and also stand for these. Thus, in texts on "Buen Vivir", positions can also be found that criticise the dominant aspect of Western sustainability discourses and interpret them as an attempt to merely modify Western hegemonic thinking without fundamentally changing anything. "Buen Vivir" is altogether more oriented towards transformation processes. However, both can exchange views in dialogue and sharpen their own standpoint. This can lead to critically examining and expanding positions of sustainability as well as the Eurocentric way of thinking and the embedded horizon of values. In this way, the sometimes inflationary use of the term "sustainability" can also be questioned in order to make the actual core, which also lies in a revision of the relationship between humans and nature, clearer and thus support the transformational opportunities of strong sustainability.

Social work

In social work, there has long been a debate about an orientation towards "strong sustainability" as well as "socio-ecological transformation", which cannot be traced here (Dominelli 2018; Böhnisch 2020; Ross et al 2020; Schmelz 2021; Stamm 2021; Liedholz 2021; Pfaff, Schramkowski & Lutz 2022). Buen Vivir" can give stimulating impulses to these reflections, since the integration of human beings into their world is to be seen in a more comprehensive sense of "new", which goes far beyond the social. The community (we actually always knew it, we just repressed it) consists not only of fellow human beings, it encompasses life in its fullness - in this respect, relationships with animals (there is also a broad knowledge of social work on this), plants, landscapes and everything else must also be considered in "interventions". The discussion that has begun on "socio-ecological transformation", in which social work can also be an actor, would find further arguments. This also means questioning the previous functions of social work to individually deal with collateral damage of the neoliberal system and to develop a new critique of the "system" (Lutz 2021b). Education is always political, according to Paulo Freire (Freire 1973). Views on "Buen Vivir" provide arguments on how this could look like for sustainable social work, at least with regard to nature and climate change. A reflection of indigenous knowledge, which in the meantime has been included as "knowledge" in the global definition1, helps social work in the North to go beyond its limitation in the national and can become an essential element of internationalisation. It is precisely this that lives from dialogue with other positions and challenges from other regions of the world; it must be understood as an interwoven social work that acts locally but is globally networked (Lutz & Staus 2016).


"Buen Vivir" calls for a "critical negation of the present time with the intention of a better future (Gann 2011, 90). Future is a core term of the concepts, which are to be seen as normative utopia. Non-transferable, they provide inspiration. Utopianism can be realism, since realpolitik always means a narrow focus on constraints and given things that merely need to be improved. Utopian maxims of action, on the other hand, assume that things cannot go on as before: "Fundamental change is needed, not within the framework of existing practices, but a change of the framework itself" (Gann 2011, 90).

Perhaps a utopian normative view of "Buen Vivir" is what new thinking in the context of transformative approaches needs? Perhaps Western science also needs to engage with it beyond its own rational understanding? In any case, a reflection on "Buen Vivir" can show that the rational explanation of the world is not the only one. But this also means opening up to the plurality of knowledge and world relations. Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues for a dialogue between different epistemologies today rather than tomorrow, in which southern as well as indigenous forms are recognised as equally valid (Sousa Santos 2018). Courage is needed to transcend boundaries, including those of science, in order to liberate thinking from the brazen shell of the Antropocene.

1 See:; accessed 29.4.2022


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Prof. Dr. phil. Ronald Lutz
University of Applied Sciences Erfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
International Social Work
Sociology and Social Politics
Altonaer Str. 25
D-99085 Erfurt
fon: 0049 (0) 361 6700-510/701

A German version of the text has appeared: Ronald Lutz, Naturverhältnisse: Connections of Concepts of "Buen Vivir" and Strong Sustainability", in: Liedholz, Yannick/Verch, Johannes (eds.): Nachhaltigkeit und Soziale Arbeit, Budrich: Opladen 2023, pp. 93-105.

Cite this publication
Lutz, Ronald, 2022. Nature Relations: Buen Vivir. In: socialnet International [online]. 2022-11-23 [Date of citation: 2022-12-04]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: