The downshifting president

The world is struggling to find true sustainability leaders to lead a charge towards a secure future for the planet. However, one Latin American president is leading his country in a rather novel way. Meet Jose Mujica: the downshifting president of Uruguay.

He leads a country of 3.4 million people but there’s no 10 Downing Street or Elysée Palace for Señor Mujica. Since his election in 2009, the President, a former left wing guerilla who spent fourteen years in jail during military rule, has chosen to live in his wife’s worn down farmhouse. He donates 90% of his monthly salary to charity, draws water from a weed-ridden well, and still farms his land himself.

The BBC magazine feature that has drawn the world’s edition to President Mujica in recent days estimates that his salary, after charitable donations, is very close to the average Uruguayan income of $775 a month.

Although he might be a quirky figure of fun to many of us, Mujica’s leadership has not been universally popular in his country. His popularity has fallen below 50% for the first time since his selection and, if you watch the BBC report above, his detractors claim he has not capitalised on positive economic conditions. But is his radical lifestyle something that grates the people of his country as well?

The downshifting phenomenon, which Clive Hamilton (2003) defines a voluntary, long-term change to your lifestyle, other than planned retirement, which as resulted in earning less money, can easily be seen as the preserve of Western yuppies who can afford to step back from the rat race. Cynically, you might view Mujica in the same light.

Yet, it seems from various biographies – and we obviously cannot be entirely certain of their reliability – that  the Uruguayan president has always embraced a simpler lifestyle, even before he entered office. So, he’s not made a downshift – he didn’t need to –  but he just appears to choose a slower, less materialistic life than most.

President Mujica speaks powerfully about breaking away from materialism, with a purity that most of us, in a mass consumption driven world, simply cannot: “I’m called ‘the poorest president’, but I don’t feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more.”

“This is a matter of freedom. If you don’t have many possessions then you don’t need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself.”

Of course there is an argument that the leader of a rapidly emerging economy should be switched onto the aspirational lifestyle driven by Western style capitalism. This could be one reason behind his declining popularity.

Mujica had some strong words to say at Rio+20 about sustainable development: “But what are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you now: what would happen to this planet if Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household than Germans? How much oxygen would we have left?”

Scarily, he’s exactly right. What is most important about Mujica is that, as a leader of a fast growing economy, he is thinking about the type of growth at the same time.

When he departs front line politics in 2014 (he cannot seek re-election) I sincerely hope is unique and powerful perspective on living a less cluttered, purer life is passed on to other global leaders.

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One response to “The downshifting president

  1. I love this, thanks for posting. I saw this video the other day, but hadn’t had time to watch it. He is absolutely right about both poverty and sustainable development.

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