3 Societies That Get It Right
Bhutan, Cuba, Rojava show how modern humans and Nature can coexist
Can you name a society where people have good lives without destroying the natural world? Living in an industrial capitalist or socialist society, you’ve probably never seen a place like that, but they exist.
It’s hard to imagine three places more physically or socially distinct than Bhutan, Cuba, and Rojava (now called the Autonomous Area of Northeast Syria or AANES.) But all three are living as sustainably as they can, creating new forms of social relations, and surviving in extremely difficult circumstances. They are protecting their environments from climate change and showing the world how it can be done.
These societies each face different challenges. Geographically, Cuba is a low-lying tropical island. Climate change menaces it with powerful hurricanes and rising sea levels. Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayas, is the highest country in the world, where floods from melting ice packs and torrential rains kill people in every monsoon. AANES is the mountainous, largely Kurdish area of Syria, dealing with spreading deserts, water and food shortages, and terrorism.
Politically, Cuba is communist, Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy, and AANES is a federation of communities with control by local leaders. While the capitalist Empire led by the United States has blockaded and tried to overthrow the Cuban government for over 60 years, Bhutan has no powerful international enemies, despite a tense relationship with neighboring Nepal.
AANES, on the other hand, is threatened and occasionally attacked by Turkey, Syria, Iraq, well-funded terrorist groups such as Islamic State (ISIL or Daesh,) and sometimes by the United States. They defend themselves with armed militias, including women’s militias, to keep invaders away and protect their societies and lands from destruction.
What they have in common
Despite their differences, AANES, Bhutan, and Cuba share important qualities. They are not capitalist. Private citizens can run businesses there, but the rich do not make important social decisions as they do in the West. They do not have representative democracies in which offices go to candidates with the biggest budgets. AANES has direct democracy at the local level, Cuba has an authoritarian socialist government with representatives from local districts but no political parties.
All three are relatively small. Each of the three has adopted goals for their society and for individuals other than material wealth. Cuba aspires to “improved quality of life for all people” as former President Fidel Castro put it. Bhutan has replaced measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with a National Happiness Index (NHI), “balancing the physical with mental, the material with spiritual, within a safe and stable environment, with cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality, and psychological well-being, with the purpose of realizing happiness,” according to the sustainable earth web site.
AANES’ ideology is called “democratic confederalism,” which the web site defend Rojava says “combines various forms of socialism and anarchism and explicitly rejects the top-down, vanguardist government model of communism in favor of decentralized communes/councils to organize society. Democratic Confederalism further emphasizes the importance of empowering women (which they call Jineology) and includes armed women’s militias, and ‘radical ecology’ as guiding principles of the movement.
Where early communist states like the USSR and China were top-down, regimented societies, the societies I’m describing, and others such as Kerala state in India, are all about organizing on the local level, down to each village and neighborhood.
How they protect Nature
Bhutan, Cuba and AANES have all seen what neoliberal capitalism, the power of foreign money, can do: making some people rich while impoverishing others and degrading the land. Now, they sharply limit the kind of dams, highways, mines and industrial farms that have polluted much of the modern world and led to devastating climate change.
Bhutan prevents cutting of trees: it is 70% forested and intends to remain that way, although the World Bank keeps pressuring them to make more money by foresting “sustainably.” They also strictly limit tourism, not wanting capitalist lifestyles to deform their traditional ways. The United Nations says they are one of the world’s two carbon-negative countries. (The other is Suriname.) “Carbon-negative” means absorbing more carbon than they emit.
Cuba grows more than half its food on organic, mostly urban farms. They prioritize public transportation and allow for few private automobiles. AANES supports farm collectives and focuses development on clean water and sewage systems that have improved poor people’s lives.
The long-imprisoned Kurdish AANES leader Abdullah Ocalan wrote, “The alienation of people comes from the disconnection of people from nature. This [disconnection] has strong effects on people’s minds and the relation of people to each other. Destruction of nature comes with destruction of social structures, a rise of hierarchies and a reinforcement of patriarchy.”
How they got here — where they are going
To me, the most inspiring thing in the political world is how the Cuban government and the Kurdish Left moved from a revolutionary socialist industrialism divorced from Nature to eco-socialist approaches based on community, while under constant attack by surrounding capitalist empires. How did they do that?
When Fidel Castro’s guerilla army overthrew the Batista dictatorship and took power in Havana in 1959, the Soviet Union (USSR) was practically their only friend. During decades of blockades and attempted coups by the USA, they embraced the Soviet model of industrial socialism. They devoted some of their best land to sugar cane, which they traded to the Soviet bloc for oil. From the Earth’s point of view, it wasn’t much different than the old plantation system.
Then, in 1991, the USSR dissolved. The shipments of oil and petrochemical fertilizers stopped; the markets for their sugar shrank dramatically, while the US embargoes continued. Cubans call this time the Special Period, and it was a time of widespread hunger.
But the Cubans, under the leadership of the Communist Party, made radical changes. They began practicing organic, regenerative agriculture before there was such a term, involving thousands of urban people and animals in growing food. Now, they adopt Green technologies wherever they can and are always looking for ways to reduce dependence on oil.
In Cuba, every town is organized; in cities it’s more like every neighborhood or every block. Times are very tough, but people have food to eat and some place to go when they need help. This is what the new generation of socialism looks like.
The AANES transformation is just as impressive. Their leadership came out of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK,) a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary organization of armed struggle seeking an independent Kurdish state. In 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, was captured by the Turks with US help and has been imprisoned in Turkey ever since. He has used the time to develop a new politics based on feminism and ecology, which has turned out more effective than his old beliefs.
Demands for independence have been dropped in favor of autonomous areas (like AANES,) within the states where Kurds live. The result has been less open warfare with the area’s regimes and more cooperation with Syria, although the Turkish government remains extremely hostile. Regions and localities have their own self-defense corps and their own court systems of Peace and Consensus Committees that practice restorative justice.
AANES’ “democratic confederalism’ is actually too radical and deeply thought out for me to do justice to here. I encourage you to read a couple of surprisingly good Wikipedia pages or primary sources. The ecological history is well summarized here.
Empowering women, embracing Nature, and decentralizing power seems to be working. British diplomat Carne Ross wrote in 2015, “As a former diplomat, I found it confusing: I kept looking for a hierarchy, the singular leader, or signs of a government line, when, in fact, there was none; there were just groups. There was none of that stifling obedience to the party, or the obsequious deference to the “big man” — a form of government all too evident just across the borders, in Turkey to the north, and the Kurdish regional government of Iraq to the south. The confident assertiveness of young people was striking.”
AANES also tries for inclusion of Arabs and all ethnic groups in the region, some of which practice their own religion and culture. That is why the leadership dropped the name Rojava, a Kurdish word, for AANES, a name that doesn’t identify any one ethnicity.
None of these societies is perfect. In the 1980s, before they started the happiness focus, Bhutan expelled a large Nepalese population who had been imported for their labor, and some of them still live in refugee camps. Cuba still represses lesbians and gays, though much less than in former days. AANES is still trapped in a regional war involving Saudi-backed Islamists, imperialist Turkey, the United States and Russia, that makes life far more difficult and has driven large numbers of residents to become refugees seeking new lives in Europe. All of them face ongoing threats from climate change, problems that may prove insoluble in many cases.
But they are showing better ways to do things. They have replaced “free markets” dominated by large corporations with controlled markets that focus on meeting people’s needs. They focus on empowering women and establishing equality between genders. They put Earth first. They replace consumption with community and prioritize social well-being (happiness) instead of production and profit.
Cuba and AANES are making these changes in the face of violent outside opposition trying to overthrow them or pull them back into the global neoliberal empire. Turkey has increased their bombing of villages in North and East Syria. In response, AANES has formed shifting alliances with other regional powers, including the United States, which has caused some Leftists to turn against them.
But surrounded as they are by enemies, they have to bob and weave to keep afloat. They also negotiate with all the other powers to try for peaceful solutions. They have succeeded in defusing some conflicts, especially with Syria.
Could we do something like this where we live? Each country or region will have to work out their own solutions. In most places that would require empowering indigenous people and learning to do things their way, a process sometimes called “Land Back” by indigenous activists.
We will all need to get more involved in day-to-day running of our communities instead of leaving them to governments that serve capitalists. We would need to devolve political power from national to local levels where all groups can be represented.
Cuba, AANES and Bhutan prove that sustainability is possible. We can start by supporting them. Cuba was devastated by Hurricane Ian, and the American blockade has made recovery extremely difficult. Donate to Ian relief here. Contact your representatives to lift the blockade. Go visit and see for yourself.
Support AANES. Check out the Rojava Information Center to learn how.
Bhutan might not need our help, but indigenous people around the world do. They are fighting for the land, which means their fight is our fight.
Some resources — Land Back powered by the NDN Collective of young North American activists. Honor the Earth, in North Central USA, fights against pipelines and for restoring indigenous land. Cultural Survival supports indigenous people and protects land around the world.
My point is that there are models that give us a chance to recover from industrial civilization’s destruction of our Earth. We should follow them, help them, and take inspiration from them.
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