Natural sciences regularly provide new data showing that the world exists as an interconnected system. This lays the ground for a post-capitalist ethic, reflected in the long-ignored wisdom of indigenous people.
|This post belongs to a reading series of Less is More by Jason Hickel. For quick access to all chapters, please click here. On smartphones, share links are at the bottom of the screen.|
Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.
On being ecological
Capitalism is culturally based upon the assumption that mankind is distinct and superior to nature and thus entitled to use the latter at its immediate and exclusive convenience. A cultural shift must therefore happen to decolonize lands, forests, and people from this predatory mentality.
To the Achuar, an indigenous community living in nature along the border between Ecuador and Peru, “nature” does not exist. It does not need to. They see no distance between them and the jungle they are a part of by their way of living. To them, most plants and animals are other beings with the same agency, intentionality, and even self-consciousness as people. Hunting and gathering are, for the Achuar, governed by a sense of care and respect owed to relatives.
Cut off from nature’s gift of life, our modern world tends to dismiss such animist views as quaint metaphors. In reality, we are simply forgetful of the fact that a good relationship is first and foremost lived from within, and that our innate interdependence with nature should prompt each of us with a deep sense of reverence and gratitude. The Achuar know that their fate is bound with that of the jungle and that the day they decide they are not like other beings there, both of their worlds might eventually disappear. This is way more than about sustainably exploiting natural resources; this is about wholeheartedly recognizing our interconnectedness with the overall realm of life.
This intimate connection and kinship with plants, animals, and even inanimate beings like rivers and mountains is shared worldwide among indigenous populations. There is, obviously, an immediate environmental benefit to living in a world where nothing is less than human and where, as a consequence, it is morally unfathomable to exploit and destroy at will.
Capitalism’s culture has promoted the exact opposite values for the last 500 years, implicitly holding that seeing nature and man’s life as one and the same is diminishing humanity. As the history of colonization reminds us, the “civilized” world thus became the world of sick, greedy, and light-headed people. Today, the reward for our disconnect from nature and “savages” is the impending sixth mass extinction of all life forms on the planet. By contrast, the “primitive” moral code to never take more than the other is willing or able to give—in other words, never more than the ecosystem can regenerate—has made it so that 80% of the planet’s biodiversity is on territories stewarded by indigenous peoples.1
A second scientific revolution
Which scientific proof do we have that man and nature are one? First, let’s look at the evidence we do not have; let’s look at the narrative adopted by the “civilized” world.
René Descartes’ assumptions that mind is separate from matter, that only men have a mind, and that nature is merely a large mechanic “became popular among European elites in the 1600s because they bolstered the power of the Church, justified the capitalist exploitation of labour and nature, and gave moral license to colonization.” The last point being that even though “savages” have minds, they do not clearly know it yet and can only be grateful toward white people who take the pain to “civilize” them. This narrative and its dualistic philosophical assumption worked beautifully in Western minds until the mid-twentieth century.
During these last decades, by contrast, science has been increasingly able to measure the effects of the actual interdependence between all things, its findings confirming what “primitive” civilizations have empirically known all along. For a long time since their discovery, for example, bacteria were thought to be the enemies of a clean, well-functioning body. We now know that the latter could not exist without them and that even our nervous system is impaired when they are missing.2 When we look at a tree, we usually consider it a single unit, but trees communicate, cooperate, and share. Not only between individuals of the same species but across species as well.3 Plants, moreover, sense: they see, hear, feel, and smell. In her groundbreaking research, the ecologist Monica Gagliano showed that plants even remember; they learn, in other words, how to better adapt to their surroundings.4 All this is applied science, above and beyond Descartes’ methodological postulate that nothing can amount to be more than the sum of its parts, which consequently implies that physical life is the manifestation of mere automatons.
Since interdependence is what makes life possible and there are no separated beings, our behavior should be one of reciprocity with all of them. We should treat what we receive from nature not as a right but as a gift. When you receive a gift from someone, you won’t accept another one until you’ve had a chance to give something back. Once we understand that we are nature and nature is us, therefore, transferring this deeply ingrained sense of honoring the gift made by a fellow human to nature itself is in no way quaint or artificial. Moreover, as it directly reflects the principle of equilibrium and balance at the core of nature’s sustainability, it is deeply ecological.
On the other hand, the imperative of capitalistic growth embedded in our culture implies systematically taking more than you give back. If profits are sought for themselves and must be made indefinitely, there is no point in sharing or giving. In the overall economic scheme, the exact opposite course is supposed to be taken: extracting value in the cheapest way possible, be it from nature or people. This is why the different forms of damages caused in the process are considered “externalities” in conventional economics; they are external to the money flow itself.
Culturally predicated on the mechanistic assumption that, like the different parts of an engine, everything exists separately from everything else, capitalism ignores the interdependence at the core of health and resilience for people and the planet. By contrast, what has been called “steady-state economics” focuses on how things function as a whole. It seeks to regenerate the overall system in its deeply interconnected social, environmental, and economic aspects. Close to natural cycles, regenerative farming best illustrates that steady-state logic in action. Simply put, contrary to conventional monocultural farming the main driver is not money but nature itself. This does not mean that the regenerative farmer’s bank account has to suffer but that she will fully take into account her silent partner, upon whom everything depends. The only ones at risk of losing are agroindustry giants and Wall Street goons, always prepared to brandish the threat of the collapse of what they call the “economy.”
Money has no intrinsic value. People do, and so does nature. As people have rights; consequently, so does nature. This notion may seem a little far-fetched at first, but it makes total sense in light of the perpetual encroachment nature is submitted to. In the spirit of reciprocity for her constant gift of life to humanity, we can only see ourselves as her stewards and legal protectors. In his book titled Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice,5 Cormac Cullinan—a South African attorney and author who has dedicated his career to the topic of nature’s rights—says that “The day will come when the failure of our laws to recognize the right of a river to flow, to prohibit acts that destabilize Earth’s climate, or to impose a duty to respect the intrinsic value and right to exist of all life will be as reprehensible as allowing people to be bought and sold.” The Achuar are right; we are in a deep relationship with nature and should honor our responsibility in that regard. In practical terms, the same way that guardians are appointed to represent the rights of infants, the legal standing of nature can indeed be granted to individuals or associations dedicated to its protection.
Less is more
The real question about our material relationship with each other and the rest of the world is simple: do we want this relationship to be about domination and extraction, or do we want it to be about reciprocity and care? The issue is that we do not know what the alternative to capitalism looks like and thus have a hard time imagining it. What we do know, on the other hand, is that “The ecological crisis requires a radical policy response. We need high-income countries to scale down excess energy and material use; we need a rapid transition to renewables; and we need to shift to a post-capitalist economy that’s focused on human well-being and ecological stability rather than on perpetual growth. But we also need more than this – we need a new way of thinking about our relationship with the living world.” It is crucial that all of this be brought together to have some chance of success.
“Sit, be still, and listen, for you are drunk, and we are at the roof’s edge,” said Rumi (1207-1273) in one of his poems. The roof’s edge is the various environmental tipping points we have crossed. Sitting still and listening equates, in this context, to paying attention to the concept of degrowth as the means to not fall over into a definite global catastrophe. Sure enough, for conventional wisdom “degrowth” sounds like the suggestion of living a life of voluntary misery; however, the exact opposite is true. “Degrowth begins as a process of taking less. But in the end it opens up whole vistas of possibility. It moves us from scarcity to abundance, from extraction to regeneration, from dominion to reciprocity, and from loneliness and separation to connection with a world that’s fizzing with life.”
We are used to slogging mindlessly under the diktats of growthism, the aim of making money taking most of our personal and collective living space. Degrowth is the invitation to make sense, to know what we want as citizens and human beings and to stand firm on our goals. Degrowth, therefore, is not about enjoying fewer things but radically more. It is to satisfy all our material needs while freeing our human potential to achieve meaningful endeavors. It is, incidentally, to provide generations to come the right to their own future.
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- Hannah Rundle, ‘Indigenous knowledge can help solve the biodiversity crisis.’ Scientific American, 2019.
- Carl Zimmer, ‘Germs in your gut are talking to your brain. Scientists want to know what they’re saying.’ New York Times, 2019; Jane Foster and Karen-Anne Mc Vey Neufeld, ‘Gut-brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression.’ Trends in Neurosciences 36950, 2013, pp. 305-312.
- Robert Mcfarlane, ‘Secrets of the wood wide web,’ New Yorker, 2016; Brandon Keim, ‘Never underestimate the intelligence of trees,’ Nautilus, 2019.
- Sarah Lasko, ‘The hidden memory of plants,’ Atlas Obscura, 2017; Andrea Morris, ‘A mind without a brain. The science of plant intelligence takes root.’ Forbes, 2018.
- Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, Chelsea Green Publishing.
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Natural sciences regularly provide new data showing that the world exists as an interconnected system. This lays the ground for a post-capitalist ethi
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