What Development Means Now
In the world we want, everybody fits. The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit. — Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional
When the missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas traveled to the Americas in the 1500s, he wrote directly to the Spanish crown, debunking the narrative of indigenous peoples as uncultured aboriginals. Las Casas defended their right to self-governance against conquest and colonization, arguing their communities’ governance was fair and equitable, following rules that often surpassed the European legal standards.
Despite Las Casas’ challenge, the historical narrative that prevailed for ages was Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, placing Europeans as masters of the New World sent by God to bring Christianity and advancement to the “savages.” The disregard for the ancient civilizations and their knowledge rooted to the land is part of what Boaventura de Sousa Santos described as the abyssal thinking that excludes everything that lies outside the dominant socio-political paradigm.
To this day, abyssal thinking continues to guide our perception of the world.
There is a false divide between the developed and the underdeveloped. When we think about progress, technology, and western medicine, the first picture that often comes to mind is the kind of development fostered by the oil industry in the global north. One man, John D. Rockefeller, galvanized a vision of technological advancement based on the petrochemicals he produced, especially those which created new compounds from oil. Plastic quickly replaced other materials and became the base layer of everything perceived as modern and advanced. This new industrial paradigm soon enveloped and controlled the medical industry, marginalizing natural and herbal medicines from indigenous traditions.
Overall, progress became everything that distances us from the state of nature, detaching humanity from its animal essence — reminiscent of the earlier Christian campaigns against any sort of savage and barbarian existence outside its divine rhetoric. “Progress,” in this view, happens outside of nature.
We could recall that glass manufacturing in Mesopotamia and Egypt was a revolutionary discovery that flourished in the Roman Empire and soon spread across the globe. Over five thousand years later, glass continues to be one of the most used materials, completely recyclable.
However, when the plastic boom happened, it came accompanied by a “throwaway lifestyle,” creating an ingrained culture of disposable items, cheaper to produce and harder to recycle. Both artificial glass and plastic were disruptive innovations, but each carried its distinct footprint over history. New products and materials are constantly invented to optimize production and drive down costs. As long as they keep the shelves full and the market machine running, they often lack more profound reflections on their long-term impact on people and the planet. Not every innovation should be praised, not every novelty should be a sign of development.
Similarly, old does not mean underdeveloped. Ancient civilizations and indigenous communities are still primarily perceived as rudimentary and non-technological. However, the cliff dwellings built by the ancestral Pueblo people in Mesa Verde, Colorado over a thousand years ago show otherwise.
Yet it is true that indigenous communities are historically plagued by data inequities with a lack of written registers about their social practices; there is evidence of a robust socio-economic system, including long-distance trade. The Pueblo people lived on high-elevational cliffs protected from harsh weather, using stone bricks and the resources harvested in the region to engineer constructions that are perfectly blended with the landscape. Ancient civilizations like the Pueblos developed within the bounds of nature. In tune with the environment, their mode of living shows how they prospered, wisely working with the elements around them.
Social changes can happen organically through shifts in collective thinking over generations or led by intentional campaigns. Change can also occur by the convergence of multiple deliberate and even unintentional efforts. In either case, these processes demonstrate the dynamic nature of our human perception of the world and its meanings.
In recent years, an integral human development attuned to people and planet has emerged from multiple sources and belief systems as we face the current socio-economic and environmental crises. In economics, law, and grassroots movements, we witness a confluence of actions centered around the awareness that our dominant development model can no longer drive society into the future.
The Catholic church that once attempted to displace indigenous worldviews and frameworks has gradually pivoted its approach under the guidance of Pope Francis. Not only has the pope offered overdue recognition of and an apology for the church’s abuses of indigenous peoples, he has also urged Christian congregations around the world to “listen ever more attentively to the cry of the earth, which spurs us to act together in caring for the common home.”
In 2015, Pope Francis released the encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, calling Catholics (and other people of good will) across the globe to come together in action to tackle the global environmental crisis and its underlying causes. The document covers pollution, loss of biodiversity, global inequality, the decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, clearly challenging the global technocratic paradigm:
The way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm (which) tends to dominate economic and political life. . . . Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral.
Recognizing and challenging this one-dimensional style of development is fundamental to shifting the current socio-economic system toward the common good. This process starts by recovering and acknowledging what was built by many communities over history, overcoming old narratives regarding the developed and the underdeveloped.
Remarkably, the church that was once a primary influence on our separation from indigenous frameworks and knowledge, has now encouraged prioritizing such elements in a new vision of our “common home,” which includes revisiting the meaning and direction of development. When we witness an ancient and powerful institution like the Catholic church reassessing its historical positions and reframing its guidance towards our common destiny, it demonstrates the scale of the shift in thinking we require in order to talk about authentic human development.