“I don’t trust that there is some unilateral, final way to plant our feet in the earth without displacing something. It means that we should be humble.”
—poet and clinical psychologist Dr. Bayo Akomolafe
Commodity and consumption. Use. Life. Death. Exploitation. There is nothing about being alive either now or in our collective hunter-gatherer past that can save us from causing damage or death simply by existing. This does not absolve us from our responsibility to the world that gives us life. Any action attempting sustainability has to begin with caring for the ecosystems that sustain us; but we will, somehow, still cause damage.
In the West’s predominant culture, it’s hard to find examples of the humility that Dr. Akomolafe speaks of. Michael Gibb, a journalist who previously investigated conflict finance for Global Witness, recently published a wide-ranging piece about the injustices of global supply chains, covering everything from the insidiousness of metaphors (with a nod to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s classic Metaphors We Live By) to philosophy, including my favorite philosopher John Rawls, and the links between bars of gold and violent warlords. Speaking of the products we buy in terms of a “supply chain,” he writes,
“steers us away from a deeper reflection on the systemic pressures and incentives that created the problems in the first place – not least the pressures to increase profits through larger production volumes at ever-lower prices. These pressures regularly combine with wider problems, such as weak labour protections, poor environmental regulation and outsized corporate influence, to pass on the resulting hardships to those least able to resist them, such as miners and textile workers.”
It reminded me of part of an interview I heard with filmmaker and educator (and daughter of anthropologist Gregory Bateson) Nora Bateson last year about walking into a cell phone store and, on being asked what kind of phone she was looking for, said that she wanted one “without slavery.” Such a thing, it turns out, is almost impossible to find, and no amount of conscious consumerism on our part is likely to change that. You run into the same issues with electric cars. Elon Musk talks a good marketing line, but a Tesla’s battery still requires cobalt, the same rare earth metal linked to slavery in cell phones.
The Canadian documentary Angry Inuk provides a different, more delicate model for sustainable commodity, one driven by a local population with an interest in maintaining the health of their ecological system. The point that the people in this documentary repeatedly make as they advocate for the right to sell their handmade sealskin products to the world is that subsistence will not give them a future. They cannot hunt solely for their own subsistence and at the same time resist the offshore oil wells that would provide jobs but devastate the entire ecology of their home. They need to participate in the global economy, but on their terms, without themselves or their ecosystem being exploited. Angry Inuk points to the question at the heart of our modern battle between private property rights and the health of the global commons: Can a community and ecosystem participate in the global economy at a level that’s locally sustainable?
People of a Feather is another documentary about a community struggling to maintain not just its way of life, but its life and all the lives around it in the face of upheaval caused by upstream hydroelectric dams. The residents of the community at the center of the film have lived in balance with ice, seal, eider ducks, and the sea for countless years. But as massive Canadian hydropower projects pump fresh water into the ocean at the wrong times of year, responding to southern neighbors’ needs to heat their homes, the resulting imbalance in ocean salinity puts the entire ecosystem at risk. That’s the other side of the private property/commons coin—the pillager, the absentee landowner, the mandate of corporations to place shareholder return and personal profit above all other values.
Stories like these, and plenty of ongoing situations I follow here in Montana, expose as a fantasy the libertarian dream that we can all get along without laws, government, and regulation as long as we “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.” In order for that precept to work, we first have to agree on the definitions of “hurt” and “take,” whether you’re facing a belligerent neighbor or a multinational mining corporation. This agreement is the fluid result of continual compromises with no settled answers. There will always be someone who wants to take more, and always people who do not have the power, or even the proximity, to stop them.
Acknowledging this reality gives us the knowledge we need to begin creating a different kind of society, one that puts the health of people and ecosystems first, including those at a distance that might be affected by our activities. Models like that proposed in Angry Inuk don’t mean we can never do anything, only that we must do it more slowly and consciously, driven by the needs of the local ecosystem, including people, and without mass commodification and exploitation.
life > profit
Some related stuff:
“Sand grab,” a 16-minute video detailing Cambodian islands’ loss of habitat and livelihood to Singapore’s industrial sand mining.
A fascinating conversation with industrialist and conservationist Rudi Roeslein on Backcountry Hunters & Anglers Podcast and Blast. Roeslein understands that a growing worldwide population will drastically change our North American landscapes, and we have to start planning accordingly, with a humane, ecosystem-first development ethos. Not that I agree with everything Roeslein says—he’s doing some groundbreaking work with industrial farm waste, but concentrated agricultural feeding operations (CAFOs) are still inhumane and breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant superbugs. But in general I found his vision compelling.
There are many episodes of Ed Roberson’s Mountain & Prairie podcast that touch on these themes. I love how Ed constantly looks for people who are just doing the damn work, like bison rancher Matt Skoglund or engineer, professor, rock climber, and CEO of Natives Outdoors apparel company Len Necefer.
The At a Distance podcast also covers many of these issues, like this one about fashion’s environmental and human damage with author of Fashionopolis Dana Thomas, or anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva on wild food, commodification, and building resilient agricultural systems.
Speaking of wild food, Sara Bir’s The Fruit Forager’s Companion is probably a wonderful thing to get you through rough pandemic spots. Plenty of information (I had no idea ripe mayapples were toxic) and recipes with funny smatterings of memoir.
Edward Posnett’s book Strange Harvest, which I mentioned in a previous post on commodification, was engaging enough that I read it at bedtime. (In general, I only read fiction in the evenings. I read mountains of nonfiction for research, much of it brain-crushingly dull, so I tend to avoid it at night.)
FUN! Did the idea of Santa evolve from a psychedelic trip?