Degrow Design

Sumak Kawsy: A Shift from Anthropocentric to Biocentric

Pia Callis

Buen vivir or Sumak Kawsy is an ancestral cosmovision of the indigenous people in South America that defends living in balance and harmony with nature and recognizes everything is connected. It is a social, economic and cultural organization that flees from the ideas of development and economic growth. Its essential elements include living life to its fullest, respecting nature, maintaining a balance between all things and decolonizing societies. Within Sumak Kawsy there are different currents: indigenist, socialist and ecologist. Yet all of them are against the idea of development as a way to save “third world countries.” Development is seen as a pathology of modernity; it is anti-ecological, and it creates inequality of power. The idea of development has been rooted in European culture since the Enlightenment as a solution to scarcity and after that neoliberalism goes on to punish and hide any other alternative knowledges.
For this reason, it was extremely innovative when, circa 2008, the concept of Buen Vivir was included in Ecuador’s and Bolivia’s constitutions. However, Ecuador has gone a step further; Ecuador includes laws that protect nature’s rights. Nature has a right to exist, to maintain its natural cycles and to be restored. Changing the focus from the anthropocentric idea that nature is part of “human duties” to the idea that nature is an entity with its own rights: “nature’s rights.” Thus, making Ecuador the first country with a biocentric constitution as opposed to an anthropocentric one. Ecuador having chosen to give nature rights points to the fact that nature has intrinsic values that don’t depend on its utility to humans or on human appropriation. For Sumak Kawsy it is vital to live in harmony with nature and step away from Western environmental views.
It is not the first time colonialism is linked to the destruction of the environment. In fact, Alexander von Humboldt, an early explorer/naturalist, and one of the last multifaceted scientists, warned about destroying massive areas of natural environment to meet Europe’s needs. Nevertheless, huge tropical forests were cut down in order to plant single crops like sugar and tobacco, which were luxury items in Europe. He goes on to give examples such as the sugar plantations of Cuba, the destruction of the forest of the Apure river and the subsequent attempt to build a dam. Another example is the high plateau Mexico City. Humboldt saw how a lake which had fed a complex system of irrigation became a superficial puddle rendering useless the valleys that depended on the lake as a source of water.
This environmental destruction on a massive scale is a direct result of colonialism. The colonization of the Americas forever changed the scope of the planet. It changed the European mindset. The known world had boundaries and a finite amount of resources had now become seemingly infinite. The level of technological development and geological position of the Europeans provided western culture with a military advantage making the resources of the new world theirs for the taking. We have not come to terms with the size of our planet and of our population; economically and industrially we still function as if our resources were infinite and as if the waste we produce is not what affects the environment and drives climate change. Another common mistake made by what can be called Western culture is the separation of nature and society. Environmental issues are not isolated from social issues. Sumac Kawsy or Buen vivir does not pose society against the environment. It is not a battle that one side must lose for the other to win: Both can work together towards harmonic cohabitation. This view is completely opposed to how the Global North has treated nature for centuries. Y.N. Harari, in his book Sapiens, follows the development of human history. There are several moments in history in which humans have increased their separation from nature. It begins with the cognitive revolution from around seventy thousand years ago. When, Harari explains, humans conquer the ability to think in fiction. To plan ahead. Agriculture and the concept of property further divides humans from nature. We can now manipulate it, own it, profit from it; it is a completely utilitarian vision of the natural world. Nature exists to serve us, nature is our property, nature’s value is strictly tied to its usefulness to us, and essentially, we are not a part of nature, we are above it.
We need to rid ourselves from an idealized view of nature. In his book “The Ecological Thought”, Timothy Morton explains how the concept of nature is not necessarily good for ecology; the way we think about nature as something “over there,” an ideal picture of untouched wildlife in the past separates us further from it. The idea that nature is “away” has allowed us to think we can actually “throw things away,” but the fact is there is no “away.” We are a part of nature, just like everything else. Even though the concept of the Garden of Eden ties humans to a natural world, these mythical gardens are man-made. They are there to give humans, sometimes only men, pleasure. Food is plentiful, life is effortless due to a lack of fauna in heaven. There are no dangers, nature responds to every whim and need humans lacked on earth.
Buen Vivir implies a fundamental break from European knowledge; it is a step toward the rejection of Europe’s pretension of exclusive validity. This changes our present paradigm of duality, it forces us to break from the dualism imposed by modernity between society and nature, that is what ultimately has allowed us to exploit it to this point. If we don’t see ourselves as part of nature, it is easier to destroy.
For years designers have been those who facilitate accessibility. As Gui Bonsiepe said, a designer’s job is to “make the instrumental aspect of the object accessible.” This hides a will to conquer, to use, to put everything at our service, including nature. Design needs to make a non-human turn in order to overcome anthropocentrism and be able to design from non-human perspectives so as to not be a cause of climate change but part of the solution. Art and design need to be in center of the degrowth movement. Design has to take a different path towards actual solutions from a different perspective; actual improvements instead of small adjustments that seek to make a poor solution less bad. This path may be seen as the difference between eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness. Taking an eco-effective approach to the design might result in an innovation so extreme that it resembles nothing we know, or it might merely show us how to optimize a system already in place. It is not the solution itself that is necessarily radical but the shift in perspective with which we begin, from the old view of nature as something to be controlled to a stance of engagement.
A good example of how western designers can begin to include Sumak Kawsy principle in their work, and thus become more biocentric, is the project by Foundawtion. Foundawtion is an NGO in Barcelona that makes architectural projects in disadvantaged areas. The architects at Foundawtion, due to other projects in Senegal, realized that rural areas in Thionck Essyl had difficult access to education due to a lack of infrastructure, forcing kids to either stop studying or move to cities. By negotiating with the community and politicians, Foundawtion was assigned a piece of land by the government where they began a program to build a new school. The whole process of building has been one of collective learning and participation. The local population took part, not only in the building of the school, but also created a space for communication and socialization for the whole community. The project itself is completely sustainable, it adapts to the economic situation of Senegal and the local climate conditions. The materials used are all traditional and sourced in Senegal; this restores trust in natural materials and impulses as well as improving their production process. Maintenance and upkeep of infrastructure and facilities are important. There have been countless humanitarian projects that fail for this reason. Some in first world countries. The classrooms are built to take advantage of natural daylight and cross ventilation. The project is on a modular grid that can grow or change depending on the needs of the school and community center. Trees are a major part of the project, building classrooms and gathering spaces around them. The project is culturally integrated into and important for the community. The whole project responds perfectly to Sumak Kawsy principles. It creates a harmonious area for socializing and cultural events, it is not intended to make a profit and nothing is imported from Europe. It is a perfect example of how these principles can be applied in other places and cultures.


Morton, T. (2010). The Ecological Thought. Presidents and Fellows of Harvard Collage.

Yuval Harari, N. (2011) Sapiens. Penguin Random House.

Wulf, A. (2015) The Invention of Nature. Penguin Random House.

McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2002) Cradle to Cradle. North Print Press.