Recently my partner Doug and I were walking along a narrow road in the bucolic mountain village of Sideman, Bali, enjoying exchanging friendly greetings and waves with the villagers and taking in the spectacular scenery.
On daily walks we observed a farmer plowing his rice fields with two oxen. Nearby a young girl playfully ran around another rice paddy all day, calling out and waving her arms to keep the birds from eating the ripened grains. Both very naturally paused momentarily from their work to acknowledge us as we walked by.
Our encounters prompted us to reflect on our culture-bound perceptions of time and work – they looked like they were enjoying themselves! They also brought to life many expressions that harken back to these land- and community-based experiences that were once central to all our lives (“strong as an ox,” “pulling as a team,” “it takes a village,” etc.).
In contrast, international tourists we passed on the road typically looked away without greeting us, even when we said hello. This, too, provided a service, highlighting different value systems at play, allowing us to compare and contrast them and their effects. Simply put, saying hello to someone who turns away doesn’t feel good. Probably for them either.
I was struck by how much my positive experiences of Sidemen were shaped by the gentle hospitality of its residents, the abundant rainforest and bird life, and the centuries of community effort evidenced by innumerable tidy rice terraces. Daily offerings to nature spirits and Hindu deities illustrated a rich spiritual life linked to the environment, and provided a service of beauty to everyone in sight.
As days went by I felt more impressed by the tremendous value of the Sidemen villagers’ social capital(1) and natural capital.(2) I’d read about and reflected on these terms and concepts, but – I realized then – it was the first time I’d really experienced their worth in the cells of my body. What’s more, it dawned on me that these “other” kinds of capital formed the core of many of my most treasured memories from around the world, including in my own backyard.
Our retreat center in Sidemen was built and operated by an Englishman and his Balinese wife, one of numerous and relatively luxurious temporaryaccommodations taking advantage of the many things Sidemen has to offer: social capital also made for very courteous staff, natural capital includes building materials such as tropical woods and carvable stone, human capital(3) encompasses assets like creative and skilled builders and artisans whose craftsmanship features high value and low cost compared to equivalents in more developed countries. And at least one remarkably good masseur.
Naturally we also observed a breathtaking rate of dramatic and often polarized change. As villagers cooperated to plant rice seedlings, international tourists relaxed poolside at resorts dotting the rice paddied landscape. Beautiful forest walks were strewn with plastic candy wrappers and other packaging. Women cheerfully washed their laundry in local brooks, the detergents’ milky chemical residues visible well downstream.
While our accommodation was provided in exchange for financial capital – what had been tacitly agreed upon as a fair exchange – the villagers’ hospitality, the beautiful scenery, the rich spiritual traditions all came as “bonuses.” Could our room rates possibly include enough funds to support the natural, social and human capitals’ perpetuation for future generations? It seems a major challenge to offer an affordable room rate that also supports such complex systems with such high value. And what a necessary and rewarding undertaking for our times, to craft how we may enjoy these abundant resources without “drawing down” from their accumulated balances: the fertile soil, the generations of relationships, the accumulated knowledge, skills and technologies.
When possible my partner and I patron accommodation and other businesses with strong sustainability policies, such as organics, fair trade, member co-ops, upcycling and the like. These enterprises are growing in number (happy dance!) and still in the minority; like many people I know we’re also undertaking to build their numbers by introducing and developing sustainability policies and projects where we live and work.
And there’s a fair bit more to be done to keep up with our growing global population and our planetary sustainability challenges. What else could each of us do, in our busy daily lives? I’d love to learn from your perspective in the comments below.
It can feel daunting at times. And perhaps it begins as easily as a moment’s acknowledgement of a stranger walking by, or a simple offering of beauty.
1 “In sociology, social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups. Although different social sciences emphasize different aspects of social capital, they tend to share the core idea “that social networks have value.” – Wikipedia
2 “Natural capital is one approach to ecosystem valuation (which is a type of natural capital accounting), an alternative to the traditional view of all non-human life as passive natural resources, and to the idea of ecological health. In Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution the world economy is presented as being within the larger economy of natural resources and ecosystem services that sustain us. It is only through recognizing this essential relationship with the Earth’s valuable resources can businesses, and the people they support, continue to exist.” – Wikipedia
3 “Human capital is the stock of competencies, knowledge, habits, social and personality attributes, including creativity, cognitive abilities, embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value. It is an aggregate economic view of the human being acting within economies, which is an attempt to capture the social, biological, cultural and psychological complexity as they interact in explicit and/or economic transactions. Many theories explicitly connect investment in human capital development to education, and the role of human capital in economic development, productivity growth, and innovation has frequently been cited as a justification for government subsidies for education and job skills training.” – Wikipedia