Solutions to the problems laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic are hiding in plain sight, if only we could remove our prejudices about who should be considered an “innovator” or “thought leader” in today’s society. Normally, in times of crisis, we look to the technocrats: highly trained doctors, technologists, and bureaucrats who surely know the answer because they’re perceived to be smarter, better educated, and more savvy to processes that the general public is not privy to. As we’re seeing now, the systems that have put these once-trusted individuals in power are failing across the globe, especially in some of the richest and most powerful countries.
The system put in place by those currently in power is collapsing spectacularly at this moment, and we can’t rely on those who built the system to fix the problems that it’s causing. We need whole systems change. So, where do we look? Do we start from scratch? To imagine a new future, do we call on the best and brightest (who are trained by the same system that trained those currently in power). Or do we look beyond the seams of the map?
That takes me to my little village in the rural countryside of Uruguay. Beyond the Argentineans who routinely speed past us to get from Buenos Aires to the holiday spot of Punte del Este, it’s a corner of the world unknown by those generally considered “global thought leaders.” Yet where I live, there’s a social system in place that has not only fared well in the face of the pandemic, but that sets an example of sustainable livelihood that the whole world might take note of—if only we upended our ideas of who’s worthy of emulation and where to look for solutions.
"Where I live, there’s a social system in place that has not only fared well in the face of the pandemic, but that sets an example of sustainable livelihood that the whole world might take note of."
For centuries, people from “developed” countries have been traveling the globe and imposing their “better” ideas or ways of life on “less developed,” less educated, more “primitive” cultures and societies. This once took the form of colonialism and now manifests through grants from big donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sharing the gospel of industrial agriculture to “less sophisticated or efficient” subsistence food producers (who, by many analyses, are shown to be both more sophisticated and efficient), under the guise of green or sustainable development.
If my critique of billionaire philanthropy is difficult for you to read, you are precisely the person who ought to be reading it, and I ask you to keep an open mind. You are used to looking to billionaires and technocrats for solutions to these problems, because that’s who you’ve been told is smarter and knows the answers. However, many of these "experts" cannot imagine a world that provides solutions to this epidemic with anywhere near the sustainability, creativity, innovation, and resilience of my rural neighbors, many of whom are family farmers. To a large extent, many of these large foundations are promoting exactly the same system of rationality and efficiency and capitalist exploitation that has led to the spectacular failure we’re now all living through.
"Bill Gates cannot imagine a world that provides solutions to this epidemic with anywhere near the sustainability, creativity, innovation, and resilience of my rural neighbors, many of whom are family farmers."
How is Uruguay different? It’s among the most progressive countries in Latin America and has impressive policies in place, including a nearly 100% renewable energy grid and a former president, Pepe Mujica, who made headlines for being "the world’s poorest president,” eschewing consumerism. Quarantine in Uruguay has yielded a low number of COVID-19 cases despite being voluntary, suggesting that we may not need to use authoritarian measures to limit the spread of the virus if we can foster solidarity and civic responsibility. Universal access to health care and a “laptop for every child" initiative makes coping with the crisis in this social context easier than in other places in the world. Uruguay is a small country that’s used to being self-reliant; it has built its own respirators, developed testing capacity that rivals the wealthiest nations in the world, and even mapped the genome of COVID-19 in the country.
Uruguay is not a wealthy nation, and people here are used to getting by with less. I’ve seen an incredible adaptability, which leads to a community built for resilience. Since the pandemic started, our neighbors and friends immediately began adapting. Our WhatsApp texting groups were filled with new ways of exchanging ideas, goods, and services, reaching out to the least fortunate to help, all while maintaining social distancing guidelines. Local family farms worked together to build a website where people can find them, learn what kinds of products they produce, and get in touch. To sell goods, groups organized a central pick-up site and an on-your-honor payment system. Women’s groups set up anonymous calling and texting hotlines for women experiencing domestic abuse. Individuals started offering online seminars sharing strategies for using agroecology principles on their farms during times of crisis. A local center for organic agriculture crowdsourced seeds and seedlings from the community to build gardens for low-income families that would otherwise be without fresh food during this period.
My sociological analysis is that it’s precisely because people are used to living with less that they’ve learned how to adapt to crisis. This adaptation involves social solidarity (relying on one other), localized systems of production, and lower overall material needs and consumption. In many ways, society here mirrors some aspects of pre-industrial life: people work out of their homes (and therefore spend more hours with family and friends), are engaged in backyard/home food production, and cobble together livelihoods through multiple strategies. Supply chains and solutions are low-tech and local. This isn’t the high-tech, high-consumption, high-efficiency future we’re told is coming. It’s slow, small-scale, local, low-tech, and community-centric.
"This isn’t the high-tech, high-consumption, high-efficiency future we’re told is coming. It’s slow, small-scale, local, low-tech, and community-centric. "
Luckily, many of the solutions arising out of the pandemic in more highly developed nations mirror this second future. People are rapidly building and participating in community and backyard gardening. Meat production and processing are decentralizing, and direct sales to small-scale farmers are increasing. Individuals are finding creative ways to help and rely on each other.
I implore you, reader: the solutions we’re looking for do not need to be imagined from scratch, and they should not come from those who built the system that got us here. The people of the Global South, and less privileged communities in the Global North, have developed this livelihood (in many cases) for centuries, and have worked through iterations of success and failure. If we can stop seeing them as people to be taught, and instead as people who have something to teach us, we may just find the future we’ve been looking for.
Ashley Colby, PhD, is interested in the myriad creative ways in which people are innovating in face of the failures of late capitalism and ecological disaster. She is based in Uruguay, where she recently founded the Rizoma Field School for experiential learning in sustainability.