Tagged: environmental vulnerability

Consciousness and the Development Paradigm

Leftover Illustration

Illustration by Ahmed Fauzan

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created It. ” - Albert Einstein 

by Salma Fikry

Here I am traveling in Denmark, in a rickety van, cramped together with people from all around the world trying to learn about sustainable development. From the Freetown of Christiania in Copenhagen to the remote island of Samsoe to the appropriately entitled Friland (Freeland) near Arhus, I found people trying to return to the very roots that they came from.

I try to understand why Pia and Johan have chosen to live in a caravan with their two children for the past three years while their ‘home’ is being built on “The Self-Sufficient Village”, using second-hand material. I try to understand the purposefulness in Mai, the gentle but strong woman with whom I cooked a meal for 70 people for the dinner they have as a community four days a week. She chose to build her own house with her bare hands when she could have got hired help or a construction company to do it. I try to understand why Christiania (Freetown) functions with its community rules and community spirit, even while not having any elected body to oversee those rules or foster that community spirit. I try to comprehend why Soren and Anna, the sophisticated and obviously wealthy couple, chose to built their own home, with recycled material and live in the remoteness of Halingelille. I am amazed at the leadership of Soren Hermanson, an Environment Teacher who mobilized the Samsingers to turn the island of Samso into a model of Renewable Energy, no longer dependant on fuel from the mainland.

Sadly, they are just a few. They are just a handful of people in the Global North, seeking to reverse the harm done. The majority is still driven by ideologies of capitalism and democracy, propagated by institutions and powerful nations that brought ruin to many of our life-systems in the Global South.

In the search for superiority and certainty, the Global North taught us to split subject from object – res cogitans – thinking substance, consciousness was separated from res extensa – matter, the physical universe. Monotheistic religions taught us that Man was superior to all else in the world and everything in the universe was there to satisfy Man. Devoid of soul, the material world was investigated like a machine, vivisected and exploited through colonialism, Newtonian physics, the industrial revolution and more recently through vehicles of globalization. Thus developed our contemporary development paradigm.

We were given engineering and mechanization plans and money for capital-intensive infrastructure development as the key to alleviating poverty. In doing so, we pushed ourselves into the concrete jungles of cities, where clean air and water became a commodity to be bought and sold. We were forced to give up traditional livelihoods and millions were made jobless. In doing so our self-sufficiency was converted to the laws of demand and supply, driven by market forces. We were told that norms should be prescribed into Constitutions and Laws in order to ensure participation of people. In doing so, millions of years of traditions, social norms and social contracts that were sacred and unwritten in the Global South, were eroded.

And here we are now. We now regard the environment and our communities as a problem to be solved. We look for technological and institutional innovations. Few of us stop to ponder that it is neither the environment nor the lack of institutions that is the problem. The problem was and is Us. It is our individual mindsets and habits that have contributed to Collective Ruin. Our level of consciousness is such that we have moved from exploiting resources for human comfort, to trying to develop systems where technology and democracy can revert the degradation that we ourselves have brought to our environment and our once thriving participatory communities. We fail to realize that the environment has its secrets and it will outlast us; it is the fittest in the great scheme of things where we are the weakest link, especially when we are not united by the bonds that make us a community.

As I sit in the community dinners with old and young alike, who come from varied backgrounds, talking about their vision and plans for the community, talking about the chores for the next day, I become nostalgic. I remember how I used to belong to and live under one roof with an extended family. I remember how the neighborhood got together to mark festivals, clean the road, celebrate a birth or mourn a death. It was not so long ago. Life has changed now, although there are a few remnants of what it was like before. I remember how inspired I was working in small communities when people came whole-heartedly to participate in community projects to renovate their school, to build their sea-wall, to clean their roads, to build their water tanks, to do a lot of things that were deemed as ‘collective’– for the service and enjoyment of everyone and not a few. There were no laws subscribed, they did it voluntarily. Ironical that I, who found it so beautiful had wanted to and worked to ‘institutionalize’ this aspect of social capital not knowing that I would be contributing to consolidating ‘power and politics’ into the hands of a few.

I realize painfully, that our mindsets, mine included, and our development paradigm remains at the same level of consciousness as those that crafted this vicious cycle of rootless growth, a few thousand years ago.

It is the level of consciousness that we have made many mistakes, that we need to rectify the harm done and rise above our individual mindsets to develop a new paradigm, a new life system for our world that strikes me in the eco-villages. Perhaps, Pia , Johan, Mai, Soren, Anna and Hermanson reached a new level of consciousness in order to do what they are doing now. Sadly, I have not reached that level of consciousness yet. My mindset is changing but it is not totally there yet…


Salma Fikry advocates decentralised governance and sustainable development through community empowerment. She wrote the above in November 2010, while on a study trip to Denmark. She has a Master’s in Development Management. She is a recipient of the National Award of Recognition for her services towards improving good governance in the Maldives.

If you are worried about the government’s plans to concentrate all development in the ‘Greater Male’ Area’ while ignoring all other parts of the country, sign the Avaaz petition and lobby the government for more sustainable ways that would decrease rather than increase the inequalities that currently exist among the Maldivian population.