Learning from the values of indigenous culture

“How we see the world determines how we act” says this video from the charity First Peoples International, which contrasts the Western mindset and the free market economy with the values and economy of indigenous cultures.

In many ways, what the video describes is the shift that humanity has to make in the coming decades – away from competitive individualism, and towards a perspective that sees us as part of a whole, within the natural environment.

On the other hand, the imagery of the video portrays industrialisation on the one side, and a simpler, tribal way of life on the other. That’s fine for animations on Youtube, but it doesn’t present us with a viable choice for the future. Even if we wanted to, it would not be possible for all the world’s population to revert to shared whale hunting and forest gardening.

The challenge then, is to take the most useful values of indigenous cultures and translate them into a modern context. This is something that Katherine Trebeck and I do in our book The Economics of Arrival, with a chapter on alternative visions of the good life. Here are three examples:

  • Ubuntu is a South African concept of mutual inter-dependence and identity in the whole. “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others,” Desmond Tutu wrote, “affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished.” Rooted in traditional culture, it is found in the constitution of South Africa, and will be familiar to advocates of open source software.
  • Nuka is a native Alaskan expression that refers to giant interconnected living structures. It has been used to inspire the ‘Nuka system of care‘, a healthcare philosophy that sees professionals and patients as co-creators of health, rather than passive service users.
  • Buen Vivir is a South American vision of good living. Rather than doing better than others, Buen Vivir implies reciprocal thriving and harmony with nature, a vision of wellbeing as fundamentally collective. It forms the guiding principles of Ecuador’s constitution and national plan, and Bolivia even has a ‘secretary of state for Buen Vivir’.

These, and there are others, are all philosophies based in indigenous values that have made the leap into a modern context. There are many others, and I suspect that most cultures have traditional understandings that could be rediscovered.


  1. Now how does one go about convincing someone like Donald J. Trump of that. The man thinks he is the highest of the high. He is not connected to anyone. He would not allow himself to be…

    1. Billions of people are asking that question, and I wish I knew! I’m not sure it is possible to change his mind by rational means, since he is not a rational person. Facts are pointless with someone who doesn’t recognise the concept of truth.

      But you could get to him through non-violent direct action. If his hotels, golf courses and resorts were blockaded and it started to cost him money – well, that’s one thing we know he cares about!

      1. But would he react rationally. Not as long as he is Supreme Commander of America’s armed forces. We have aleady seen what he is willing to do.

          1. Non-violence is never easy, and is always potentially dangerous. But that is what gives it strength. My sword is made with words. Words do not kill when they penetrate.

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