Variations on the thoughts of a shaman about nature and human purpose


If you come to this place, so far away from your country, in search of the evil that afflicts you, there is no doubt that you must be very ill.





A shaman speaks his mind before officials who threaten to eradicate illegal coca crops in Colombia. Sustainability has to do with values, which cannot be dealt with as scientific or legalistic “truths”. It is a matter of learning how to manage our needs and aspirations in order to expand the possibilities of human development.


What to do with nature is something to be contested in the public’s mind. Even in the face of depletion of the goods and services that flow from present stocks of natural assets, technology implicitly supports the belief that it brings safe and sustainable satisfaction of needs and aspirations. Yet a world of unlimited possibilities is a tricky appeal. It may lead us to reduce —not increase— the asset base which future generations will inherit.


The trap lies in the idea of “optimal substitutability”. It increases the value of the capital stock available for income generation and is considered at present as an optimal path for accumulating assets. Yet it is possible that in the future, people may find other human potentials to be developed, not necessarily based on more abundant and perfected goods. If so, optimal substitution may no longer be an optimal accumulation path for coming geneeations. Technology in the future may allow people to reverse depletion. But it will be at a cost to those generations upon whom today’s values and parameters are being imposed.





he setting is a remote provincial capital in Colombia. National and U.S. officials are addressing community leaders about illegal crops, their harm and evils. When warning is issued that areas under illegal cropping will be eradicated by spraying, an old native man  ­–a shaman– stands up and addresses the foreign officers: “If you have come so far off from your land to seek among us cure for your people’s ailments, then there is no doubt that they must be very, very ill.”


The wise man’s irony underlines what is common sense: no cure will be found for society’s ills by eradicating a bush, in this case, the coca bush Erythroxylon sp.. For the old man eradication is nonsense. In his mind coca is not just a bush but an ancestral cultural legacy: hundreds of generations over thousands of years have improved it by purposeful domestication in response to their particular needs, values and environment. Its properties are widely valued: there was a time when coca leaves were universally accepted as trading currency among native peoples in large parts of South America, and today it gives its name to one of the world’s best selling soft drink. So the thought that any solution may be found by eradicating this or any other bush, amounts to as much nonsense as to condemn the cultural values of the people that nurtured and selected its present day properties.


When the wise man finished, officials answered that they did not ignore the cultural value of coca and other plants that induce ecstatic experiences, and expressed their respect for their “restricted cultivation and use” in the context of certain native groups. One of the more articulate officials even suggested that the object of their mission would be more properly referred to with the phrase “crops of illegal use”.


Unfortunately this more proper phrase –which qualifies our intentions and not a crop as such– has not become widespread. It would help to keep in mind that an important part of the world we live in today is the product of a long process of intentional human manipulation and selection of life forms and their life supporting systems. And it would keep us aware that the crops we cultivate, the landscapes we live in and even the diseases that make us ill, express the values, needs and aspirations with which we have shaped our world.


As the shaman’s irony made it clear, sustainability has to do with values which cannot be dealt with as scientific or legalistic “truths”. Dealing with nature and human development is a matter of learning how to manage needs and aspirations: our nature as political animals –subjects of both needs and intentions–, faces us at each moment with the unavoidable condition of choosing how to transform the world in order to satisfy those needs and aspirations. So neither the presence nor absence of any given plant or environment will by itself make the world safer, healthier or more sustainable.


What to do with nature is therefore something to be contested in the public’s mind. At present technology has a strong lead in the contest. The public’s imagination is permanently captivated by its charms. Particularly in the face of major or cumulative shocks such as climatic change, war, pestilence, erosion, or generalised economic failure, technology is essential to satisfy present and many future needs and aspirations because it continually increases the size and diversity of the assets from which the goods and services at our disposal flow. And technology is the main pillar of our limitless capacity to gain new knowledge. Soon hydrogen powered engines —that will only emit clean water vapour— will economically replace the dirty gas guzzling internal combustion engines.


Yet the blessings which come along with technology are mixed. A world of unlimited possibilities is a tricky appeal. It may lead to reduce —not increase— the asset base that future generations will inherit. The trap lies in the idea of “optimal substitutability”.


Technology implicitly supports the belief that by increasing the intensity and efficiency with which we use energy and information in our daily lives, we have found an optimal path to satisfy safely and sustainably our needs and aspirations. Even in the face of depletion of some goods and services that flow from the present stock of natural assets, as is the case for example with fossil fuels. Since oil and gas may be perfectly substituted by an optimal combination of inputs that will allow us to use hydrogen instead  —one of the most abundant elements in nature—, then trading off the depletion of today’s stock of fossil fuels while we fine-tune the hydrogen powered engine, may be perfectly acceptable in the public’s mind.


It might even be considered as desirable. Think for example of the “dematerialisation” of inputs for industry. Rapeseed, a high yielding crop with an excellent response to fertilisers, can be modified to produce vegetal oil with the properties of coconut oil, more valuable and profitable than rapeseed oil. This not only increases efficiency, which is good for consumers, but will also generate patent income to finance further research. This is good for economic growth. Natural strains of coconut palm —that flow naturally from the earth’s stock of assets— offer no comparable economic opportunities. No one will deny that it is desirable to conserve natural strains of coconut, but that does not contest technology’s superior capacity to generate income by means of more perfected goods and services. Optimal substitution increases the value of the capital stock available for income generation. Take this argument a step further and it is sound to think that technology represents not only an optimal path for accumulating assets in the present, but also for generations in the future.  


This conclusion holds true only as long as future generations continue to consider that human potential is to be developed by increasing access to more abundant and perfected goods, such as the modified rapeseed oil described above. Yet it is possible that in the future people may find other human potentials to be developed and decide to take up a different set of parameters to define their needs and aspirations. Say they choose to develop “immaterial goods”, such as the satisfaction with the global quality and diversity of the social, cultural and biophysical environment in which they live. Maybe technology in the future will allow them to reverse depletion. But it would be at a cost to those generations upon whom today’s values and parameters are being imposed.


So “optimal substitutability” affects development opportunities for future generations. Fortunately the consequences and risks that come along with new technologies do not go by unchecked by public scrutiny. Critics are ready to recognise that optimality is an important criterion because it supports efficiency and so it is valuable to shape our needs and aspirations. But finding optimums brings with it the narrow scope of the specialised knowledge used in optimisation. Multiple dimensions of the needs and aspirations that optimisation intends to serve are usually viewed through excessively narrow frames: the supposition that innovations are only what innovators expect them to be leads the parties directly involved with their development to underrate the inherent risks and social implications of new technologies. As critics rightly argue, this is why it can be dangerous to use optimality as the main criterion to shape our present and future lives and environment. And why they stress that it is not reasonable to expect that technology developers will discover the risks and implication of their own inventions. 


A cause for worry is the fact that the public in general is shrugging away from forming balanced views on issues about what should or should not be done with technology and nature. Conveniently the man on the street is labelling the issue as “too complex” and leaving the matter for lawmakers or government officials to decide. What is at stake is how we judge society’s present path of accumulation: does it generate negative externalities that will affect people living elsewhere on the globe as well as future generations? Is it acceptable to suppose that what we consider as “positive” externalities in the present, will be valued in the same way everywhere and at all times? These questions are not new. Native American Indians had them in mind when they replied to a U.S government offer to buy their land in the 19th century. Their reply: the world we have at hand is merely on loan to us, and we must make sure we hand it down to coming generations with no irreversible choices already taken for them.


Yet today it is more difficult for us to make judgments based on the reversibility criterion, because technological advancement is permanently modifying what was previously thought irreversible. This is the reason why it is not accurate to measure sustainability by measuring resource availability and depletion in physical terms. In principle, however it is desirable to have some measure to allow each generation to judge if it is passing on to the next its natural and man made resource base without impairment. Having such parameters would give future generations a chance to have an equal vote in the selection of their own goals for human development and path for resource allocation. A number of management options have been proposed for this, among them, ideas such as orienting technological progress towards understanding and management of renewable resources more efficiently, exploitation of non-renewable resources at a rate equal to the creation of renewable substitutes, and fostering diversity of belief systems, environmental systems, organisational systems and knowledge systems, in order to increase our overall capacity to adapt to the many possible future scenarios for our world.


All of which brings us to a final reflection derived form our shaman’s thoughts about nature and human purpose: values and intentions that may be sustainable in certain cultural and environmental contexts are not universally sustainable. Plants such as coca and other plants that induce ecstatic experiences have been a central element of order, identity and cohesion in the context of native people all over the world. Yet their products have become poisonous venom in other cultural contexts. Naturally, the opposite can be expected to have similar effects: central elements of order, identity and cohesion in “normal” Western countries, may have perverse effects when imposed upon other societies. Ò



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