Reweaving the Ecological Mat
Report of a webinar on 4 February 2021
by Arthur Dahl
How might a whole region resist the imposition of a materialistic consumer society, assess the full costs of development beyond what is measured by GDP, and rethink what is really important to its peoples? The Pacific Islands are attempting to do just this, with the churches combining theology with indigenous values to confront the present dominant economic paradigm. Vanuatu has already experimented with alternative indicators of well-being in 2012. The following report is an attempt to capture the highlights of this important creative process rooted in values and spirituality.
Under the leadership of the Pacific Conference of Churches, in collaboration with the World Council of Churches, the project Reweaving the Ecological Mat: Toward an Ecological Framework for Development has taken form, and was presented at a webinar on 4 February 2021. Mats, of course, are a fundamental furnishing of any Pacific Islander household, so reweaving a mat means starting over at the most basic level. The Reweaving the Ecological Mat initiative concerns itself with the oikonomical aspects of development – economical, ecological and ecumenical – as integral and interconnected aspects of the Households of Pacific Peoples. Four perspectives were provided in the webinar: theological, cultural spiritual, ecological accounting, and youth, followed by brief commentaries from the Caribbean, Africa and South-East Asia.
The first speaker was Rev. Cliff Bird from the Solomon Islands giving a theological framework with four pillars, since faith is integral to living. The first pillar is that all life is interconnected. Whether in the biblical Eden or in traditional cultures, life is seen as a web. The second pillar is the importance of home, known as vanua, fanua in island languages, oikos in Greek, giving rise to ecology, economy, and ecumenical in human relations. The Earth is home to God, humanity and all creatures. The third pillar is the Reign of God or Kingdom of God on Earth, described in many biblical parables. If we shift this narrative to the present, we should pray for it every day. The fourth pillar is the Fullness of Life, going beyond the spiritual to the material aspects of life. This is grounded in peoples’ daily life, including food, water, shelter, meaningful work, health, safety, and protection. It connects with the environment, where we live, and is symbolic of the grace of God.
Elise Huffer, formerly the Pacific Community officer for cultural policy and heritage, at the University of the South Pacific, and on the IUCN Commission on Environment and Social Policy, summarized the cultural/spiritual framework, asking what is important to Pacific peoples? What sort of development do they want? GDP is supposed to measure growth, associated with well-being, but this leads to rising inequality, less care for the environment, materialistic economic models, and other issues. Pastors have seen development accompanying a growing disconnection within communities, with rising violence. This past year, with cyclones and COVID-19, people have been sustained by relying on the land. Peoples’ relationships to each other and the environment have been brought back together. Healthy lives and environment are what is really important to Pacific communities.
Arnie Saiki presented the economic framework, describing his work on ecological accounting, or what he calls intemerate accounts (after the virgin birth as something that cannot be quantified). Existence is not a commodity. The neoliberal economic system was already in turmoil from 2008, with a debt-driven recovery now burdened by the pandemic and the climate crisis. The solution is to fix the interaction between the economy and ecology. They cannot be divorced as they have mutual interactions. But the ecological processes and laws of nature should predominate over economic models. Climate change requires a longer term perspective. While we cannot determine absolute values for the environment, we can establish ecological baselines including regional assets and ecological assets, and measure the offsets and how to restore them. The transformation should focus on systems well-being, and ecological and biological diversity while retaining human contacts and benefits. He referred to the recent Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity. Indigenous values see the whole integrated system, so the idea of privatizing something like water is contradictory. We need good global governance and strong regulation to fight against neoliberal privatization. Local communities can be united in a global programme. The system should do something that is just for people and the planet.
Daphney Kiki, a youth from the University of the South Pacific, noted that youth in the Pacific are not immune to globalization. They can be highly politicized and speak up for the environment, climate change and democracy. They are in search of an identity and positive resilience, and need principles and values, drawing on their cultures and traditions, both indigenous and religious, local and introduced over time. This means reframing, with a societal dimension drawing on cultures and traditions, a spiritual dimension, both indigenous and religious, and an economic development dimension that is sustainable and works well for the Pacific. A change in mindsets is needed, reweaving, rethinking, revisioning how Pacific people want to see their development.
How to give this to the world? We need measures of well-being and research methodologies, talking, evaluating and constructing. Who are we as a region? We are large ocean states. The region is presenting itself in a new way, rethinking how we want development. Our cultural and theological values and concord have been pushed aside by individualism and economic models. We need to come back together in social cohesion, more resilient, with the least global influence. We can do it, and show it to other regions, offering the gift of rethinking development and what it should look like.
Representatives from other regions then commented on the implications of this work from their regional perspectives. For the Caribbean, the region had suffered a history of exploitation, with monocultures replacing the native flora and fauna, worked by imported slaves in a racial hierarchy and economics of exploitation. The countries have tried to qualify as nation states with a focus on GDP, while emphasizing their small size and dependence. This project inspires an ambition to achieve a just economy that values the people and their environment and overcomes the history of exploitation.
A representative from the All-African Council of Churches in Zimbabwe described a similar situation where the neoliberal economy exploited the land and people with extractive uses of the natural resources and minerals, not being replenished and not benefiting the people, only large corporations. Neoliberal policies ensure that the poor remain poor and benefits go to the rich. Who owns the land? From colonial times, minority groups have taken control. African society is disconnected from the environment because bread-and-butter issues come first. There is a need for a radical replacement, changing mindsets, with the people taking charge and replenishing the environment, recognizing that everything is interconnected and turning away from consumerism. There is presently disunity among African states about the environment and its exploitation. What are we to say?
The third regional comment came from a representative of the Protestant Church in Mollucas, Indonesia. The views of Western culture have been imposed over the ecological perspective of indigenous peoples, who feel helpless. The pandemic has hit the indigenous peoples in the jungle very hard, with a stigma so that modern people look down on them. How is it possible to create a framework a hundred percent from the indigenous people, with their cosmology that sees the world as a whole, with people not different from nature? The ocean connects us, the wind connects us.
The discussion explored how to push the new narrative, with indigenous peoples developing their own methodologies. How should they see themselves in their own system, while also placing themselves in the global economy? How can this important discussion reach beyond the churches to a wider audience? There is a strong architecture of regional organizations, and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat has made a presentation on this to the Forum. The youth are engaging with the universities. There is a need to link to other efforts such as the nature conservation movement.
The recording of the webinar is available at: https://youtu.be/c35VtMpqQSI
Reweaving the Ecological Mat Framework TOWARD AN ECOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK FOR DEVELOPMENT
Ecological-Economic Accounts: TOWARDS INTEMERATE VALUES
Alternative Indicators of Well-being for Melanesia – Vanuatu Pilot Study Report 2012
Dasgupta Review - Economics of Biodiversity
Last updated 7 February 2021