Touchstones for Sustainable Development: Indigenous Peoples and the Anthropology of Sustainability in Our Common Future

  • John Ødemark UiO
Keywords: Ailton Krenak, Chakrabarty, Our Common Future, Indigenous Culture, Sustainability, Anthropocene, Cultural Theory


The Anthropocene is regularly invoked as an occasion for the rethinking of the Anthropos, for instance through a reexamination of human origin stories. This article examines one such anthropological origin story; the construction of an exemplary and sustainable humanity based upon notions of “indigenous cultures” in Our Common Future in the context of D. Chakrabarty’s call for a history of the human that merges the biological and cultural archives of humanity. The UN report, Our Common Future, first formulated “sustainable development” as a global policy. Through a close reading of the report, the article demonstrates that a combined ecological and anthropological exemplarity is associated with “indigenous and tribal peoples”, who are also construed as living examples of sustainable living for the global society, and links to humanity’s past. Furthermore, the article aims to show that particular conceptions of “culture” and “ecological” wholes enables a translation between different scales, between local and “bounded” indigenous cultures and earth as the bounded habitat of humanity. The fusion of the concepts of “development” and “sustainability” in Our Common Future lies behind present UN concerns with sustainable development goals in current international policy. Hence, an inquiry into the anthropological and cultural historical assumptions of the report is vital. Questions of natural and cultural time have come to dominate discussions of the Anthropocene. The article also reconnects the global scale with a very literal struggle over space inside the Brazilian nation state, through reading the comment on the report from Ailton Krenak. Applying what we could call a language of survival, Krenak relates the global eco-political scale of OCF with a very concrete struggle over territory inside the political space of the Brazilian nation state.


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