Intervention – “Don’t Save ‘the World’; Embrace a Pluriverse!”

Saurabh Arora ([email protected]) and Andy Stirling ([email protected]), Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

The United Nations completed 75 years on 24 October 2020, an unfortunate year to be reaching this milestone. Beyond global pandemic turmoil, grave threats are posed by challenges such as mass extinctions of species and languages, rising inequality, and climate disruptions.

Arguably now more than ever, the UN is addressing these challenges through initiatives like the Sustainable Development Goals. However, it is difficult to deny that the UN has also often played a role in worsening the same challenges, particularly by promoting development as modernization around the world.

Under modernization, people’s diverse ways of living and knowing are classified as “traditional”. They are inferiorized using representations imputing traits like “backwardness”, “underdevelopment”, “irrationality”, “inefficiency”, and the “lack of capabilities” to innovate (Adam 1978; Tripathy and Mohapatra 2011). Through such negative labelling “inferiorized” ways of living-knowing are disqualified from what counts as progress, leaving it colonized by modernity.

This coloniality promotes the modern world as superior to all alternatives (Quijano 2007). Modernity is seen as made through the singular rationality associated with its own science, technology, industrialization, standardization, individualization, and bureaucratic governance.

But this hasn’t always happened without a fight. “Inferiorized non-modern” peoples have refused and resisted modernity, particularly under European colonialism (Estes 2019; Govindu and Malghan 2016; Landolfi 2015). Many colonized people have also made creative use of modernizing ideas such as nationalism and the economy (Bilgrami 1998; Mitchell 2008). In general, different regions have adapted modernity into their own contexts, including as part of neoliberal globalization (Sivaramakrishnan and Agrawal 2003).

Resulting alternative modernities (Gaonkar 2001) have been realized in many capitalist, socialist and variously hybridised forms. Yet they are all constituted in different ways through exaggerated ambitions to control (Arora et al. 2020) – control of “nature” by culture, of nations by governments, of organizations by bureaucracy, of reason by science, of production by industry, of (racialized) labour by capital, of genders by patriarchy, and of colonies by metropole.

Unfortunately, imaginations of control (Stirling 2019) have also been integral to the UN’s promotion of modernization as development. Within such overarching imaginations, the UN’s democratic ethos (Fox and Stoett 2016) of listening and learning has nonetheless enabled progressive change.

So, on its 75th anniversary, we commend the UN’s many achievements. Against a backdrop of severe adversity, celebrating hard-won successes can be crucial in nurturing hope. Perhaps the UN’s work on sustainable development is what most deserves to be recognised.

Saving Modernity through Our Common Future?

Consider the pathbreaking 1987 report, “Our Common Future”, which gave sustainable development its famous intergenerational definition. OCF linked human well-being to “non-economic variables” such as “clean air and water, and the protection of natural beauty” (UN 1987).

OCF highlighted the unsustainability of modern industrialization achieved by so-called developed countries. Yet, the UN proposed to continue with modernization, using new techno-scientific innovations. These “positive” developments were assumed to bestow on modern humans the “power to reconcile human affairs with natural laws”.

For example, this power allowed more efficient use of resources in modern energy and food systems. OCF’s dominant understanding of sustainable development was that of more efficient modernization: “to produce more with less”.

Overall, OCF was geared towards saving the modern world, by improving its efficiency for “a new era of economic growth”. But “efficiency” is simply a proportion between apparently given variables. If “non-economic variables” are indeed crucial for human well-being, why not look beyond the modern world for imaginations of well-being (Kothari et al. 2014) that do not depend on economic growth?

While directions of development based on diverse traditions of well-being were marginalised in OCF, alternatives to modernization were clearly acknowledged. Many of these alternatives were also observed to be under threat by continued modernization.

For instance, vulnerable communities of “indigenous or tribal peoples” were noted as “repositories of vast accumulations of traditional knowledge and experience that links humanity with its ancient origins”. Yet these vast accumulations were deemed insufficient for shaping “nonmodern” directions of development.

“Indigenous” people were consulted through public hearings in the preparation of OCF. In these hearings, “indigenous” people’s representatives opposed their displacement from ancestral lands in the name of development. One representative observed how his people were “the first to detect when the forests are being threatened, … the first to feel the pollution of our waters … [but] are the last to be consulted about how, when, and where developments should take place” (UN 1987).

Governing Hope with the Sustainable Development Goals?

Rolling forward three decades, the making of the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), involved consulting representatives of “indigenous” and marginalized communities – and of many other groups across different countries (Sénit 2020). Indeed, the SDGs are arguably the most comprehensive achievements of the UN in this regard.

With 17 goals and 169 targets, the range of issues addressed by the SDGs is impressive. In the preamble to the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, the UN and its member countries appear “determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world onto a sustainable and resilient path” (UN 2015, emphasis added).

The UN does not state that the world invoked in this new initiative is modernity. It overlooks the fact that other worlds – for example, of nomadic pastoralists or forest-dwelling Amazonians – are not urgently needing a shift to “a sustainable and resilient path”. None of these multiple possible other worlds are seen as helping, in their own right, to constitute new directions of sustainable development.

Notwithstanding good intentions, then, the UN’s SDGs seem implicitly attached to protecting existing modernity in the name of saving the world. Like OCF, the SDGs recognize the existence of alternatives to industrial modernization. But under chosen metrics, alternatives appear “inferior” as compared to a new and ostensibly sustainable modernity.

For instance, the UN’s SDG indicators (Hickel 2020) like the number of children attending formal schools or literacy rates, often score “indigenous” people as lagging behind a population’s average. This problematizes “indigenous” people as deficient (Yap and Watene 2019). Through this discourse of deficiencies, the UN inadvertently contributes to assimilation of “indigenous” peoples into modernity – a modernity now aiming for sustainability by 2030. Thus again, sustainable modernization is pushed to the forefront for saving the world.

At the core of this world-saving vision, lie cutting-edge technological developments and scientific research (Sachs et al. 2019). But adverse impacts of these techno-scientific fixes are downplayed. Uncertainties are suppressed (Scoones and Stirling 2020). Alternatives based on knowledges and materials of diverse practitioners such as agroecological smallholders, forest-dwellers and nomadic pastoralists are marginalised.

Embracing Many Worlds

Despite centuries of disqualification and destruction of (formerly) colonized peoples’ lifeways, the Earth is still home to many worlds that have resisted assimilation into modernity. These represent the Earth’s pluriverse, which may be defined, to use Zapatistas’ words, as “a world in which many worlds fit” (EZLN 1996).

Each of these worlds has its own ways of relating between different beings, human and nonhuman. Each world produces its own languages and techniques mediating relations between humans and with nonhumans. Through these relations, diverse knowledges and practices are produced to connect and communicate across categorical divides between nature and culture. Each world is thus composed by specific ways of living-knowing (de la Cadena and Blaser 2018).

Within this pluriverse, the globalized modern world remains underpinned by control and domination – of humans and nonhumans it mythologizes as inferior. In contrast, other plural worlds may be based on hospitality and kinship towards those considered different. They may approach animals and plants as persons with agency very similar to humans (Viveiros de Castro 1998).

Possible worlds of a pluriverse are contingent on the situations and contexts from which they are engaged. Depending on how reality is approached, what perspectives and tools are used, different worlds will be traversed. And no matter how comprehensive the techniques to know the Earth’s pluriverse, efforts will always be incomplete and imbalanced.

Thus, no complete charting of the pluriverse is possible in any single definitive sense. Yet in any given context, a pluriverse beyond modernity can definitely be embraced. This is not about rejecting every strand of modernity. That would – ironically – perpetuate the same reflex of dominating control (Stirling 2020). In a pluriverse, these strands can admit uncertainty (Arora 2019) and cultivate humility – like others – to weave and entangle in a rhizomic multiplicity of ways (Glissant 1997).

So, a country – even the Earth as a whole – can appear to be a single technologically interconnected world, encompassed by modernity. But both beyond and within it, there are always other worlds to be embraced, real and possible, historical and contemporary.

Sustaining Worlds

To sustain a pluriverse beyond modernity, multiple ways of living-knowing are needed. Supporting this is not to be engineered or furnished by “modern saviours” – or indeed heroic saviours of any kind.

Embracing a pluriverse is a more humble practice, situated in distributed struggles for three interrelated collective purposes:

  • to nurture the diversity of ways of living-knowing that make many worlds thrive – by working to unshackle modernity from coloniality that “inferiorizes”, controls and destroys other worlds;
  • to respect each way of living-knowing as relying on its own webs of relations between human and nonhuman beings, which stand on their own terms (rather than as lesser versions of something else); and
  • to acknowledge all ways of living-knowing as contributing their own possible directions of progress for sustainability – rather than promoting sustainable development as “improvement” or assimilation through modernization.

Where a pluriverse is embraced, hope is no longer colonized by modernity. The challenge, then, is not to “save the world” through any supposedly singular categorical template. A more flourishing way is to celebrate, nurture and interconnect the multiplicity of worlds.

Despite its many flaws and compromises (and the oppressive weight of the global hegemony in which it struggles), there is hope that (supported by continuing progressive movements), the UN can help enable a growing pluriverse – through a truly transformative agenda for sustainability.


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