Sustainability: insights from indigenous concepts

Watene, Krushil (2018). 'Sustainability: Insights from Indigenous Concepts' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


The Sustainable Development Goals chart a renewed course for mainstream development, highlighting (among other things) the centrality of environmental concerns for tackling poverty, the value of diverse knowledges, and the need for local and global solutions. At the heart of the sustainable development agenda is a concern for future generations. Development is framed as that which ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ and which works towards ‘building an inclusive, sustainable and resilient future for people and planet’. The capability approach reframes this grounding, by adding that we should focus on preserving and expanding the ‘substantive freedoms of people today ‘without compromising the ability of future generations’ to have similar, or more, freedoms’.

This paper concerns itself with the extent to which indigenous communities provide alternative and potentially more useful ways of grounding sustainability. To do so, this paper focuses on the Māori socio-environmental concept of Kaitiakitanga, and the notion of Collective Continuance articulated by (Indigenous North American) Potawotomi scholar/activist Kyle Whyte.

Kaitiakitanga is often thought about in terms of environmental management and guardianship. Māori tribal groups frame development initiatives in Kaitiakitanga terms, aiming to protect the ‘environment’ (lands, waterways, flora and fauna, and people) both for its own sake and for future people. Kaitaki have obligations to pursue goals that they will not live to see themselves in ways that protect and enhance the lives of their communities into the future.

Similarly, Kyle Whyte contends that:

 […] all of a society’s collective capacities contribute to what I seek to call a society’s collective continuance. […] Collective continuance is a community’s capacity to be adaptive in ways sufficient for the livelihoods of its members to flourish into the future.

Here, Whyte is referring to the systems of knowledges, institutions, laws, and relationships that frame a communities’ ability to persist over time. At the heart of these (indigenous) capabilities, are practises and relationships that promote and are in themselves oriented toward a communities’ continued flourishing.

This paper first explores the various ways in which Kaitiakitanga and collective continuance can work to ground our ideas about sustainability.  Here, I explore the ways in which both notions operate in reinforcing ways and can work to enhance ideas about sustainability. In so doing, I sketch an account of sustainability framed by these concepts. I then move on to explore a range of ways in which the capability approach might benefit from such an account. In particular, I highlight the ways in which this account of sustainability: 1) furthers discussions of collective capabilities, and 2) provides another way of articulating capability obligations.

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