Generational differences in how we view sustainability?


The 2009 Bolivian constitution created a sustainable development world model based on the principles of Suma Qamana. Translated from the indigenous language of Quechua, Suma Qamana means "good living" and is realized by sharing resources, thinking of one's neighbors first, engaging in sufficient economy by working less, earning less, buying less and making and growing more, and individuals, including teens, being valued and empowered as democratic decision makers. Suma Qamana values local production, local consumption and lightens the human footprint by favoring free time and community over work and earnings. Emphasis is on one's relationship with the earth and each other, sharing wisdom, health and healing for generations to come.

However, this is a world model coming from the Bolivian Andes, a place very different from the fast-paced, growth-driven United States. So I tested the Suma Qamana model here in New England, presenting it at the 2013 Slow Living Summit, a Keene, N.H., State College Symposium, and as a course with the Cheshire Academy for Lifelong Learning. After of year of working with more than 120 people, the outcome was surprising. People of all ages and backgrounds easily identified with Suma Qamana's principle that people are unified as "runa" a single race on earth with no geographical divides. hey readily embraced Suma Qamana's four areas of wisdom represented by the Southern Cross constellation. These are ushay (ancient abilities), yachay (knowledge), ruray (action) and munay (love). When all four elements were present, we found that projects were robust. The element of munay was the most challenging with many projects focused on applied knowledge and skills but without a place to truly celebrate, share, and love (munay).

An exception was found at the 2013 Slow Living Summit where the Association for the Planting of edible Public Landscapes for Everyone from Montpelier had munay in a town garden-share project. Gardens were planted on and private and public land, including the statehouse lawn, with the public picking what they wanted and giving back (munay) by weeding, watering, planting and leaving behind gifts. Now when I create new projects, I always look for munay, finding the places where participants can give back, celebrate and share.

Though the principles of Suma Qamana were embraced by both college aged students and elders, they way they were realized differed. This was demonstrated in workshops I presented to both college aged students and retirees.

-- The college aged students saw sharing in housing and community while retirees understood sharing to be more about personal items and skills than housing.

-- The college aged students understood "local" as consuming locally produced or grown goods while retires saw it as making their own things, re-cycling and being frugal.

-- Both young students and elders saw an importance of reconnecting to the land and the natural world though walks and volunteer activities. Overwhelmingly the younger students wanted to leave a cleaner environment for their grandchildren including cleaner water, air, forests and bio-diversity.

Though Suma Qamana, comes from a place far away, I learned that our commonality as runa (people) makes it less foreign than it sounds. It even has similar elements to the Transition Movement, Gross National Happiness, and Vermont's Genuine Progress Indicator, which focus on defining a simpler more sustainable lifestyle. More information on Suma Qamana can be found at:

Dr. Tamara Stenn is an adjunct professor in the Sustainable Development Program at the SIT Graduate Institute and author of The Cultural and Political Intersection of Fair Trade and Justice (2013). She can be contacted at


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