As a child of ten Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan, learned – perhaps not for the first time – what her elders thought of the “newcomers”, the people of the dominant culture. Armstrong was sitting on a hillside on the reservation with her father and grandmother and they were all looking down at the town in the valley below. A breeze cooled the hill, but the valley was hot and dry with a smoky haze hovering over the town. The trio could hear the grind of the sawmill at the edge of town and cars honking as they crept along the highway below.
Armstrong’s grandmother said (in Okanagan):
“The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane.”
Her father seconded his mother, saying (also in Okanagan):
“It’s because they are wild and scatter anywhere.”
Armstrong tells this story in her essay, “Keepers of the Earth” published in the anthology Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. She goes on to explain what her grandmother and father meant about the dominant society by their comments, describing the Okanagan view of the self and its integral relationship to community, land and spirit. You’ll want to read Armstrong’s essay to get her full translation and explanation of her grandmother’s and father’s comments.
As one of the “newcomers”, a probably all too “insane” descendent of the European invaders, my comprehension of the Okanagan perspective is certainly limited. But, I’d still like to talk about my understanding of Armstrong’s father’s explanation that the people of the dominant culture are “dangerous” and “insane” because they are “wild and scatter anywhere.” I do so because the Okanagan worldview can be so helpful in giving direction to those of us working to resist, transform, or replace the dominant culture.
As Armstrong explains, Okanagans are a deeply connected people – to family, community, land and spirit. The individual self is not considered primary and people make choices based on the wellbeing of community and family over self. Belonging to community and family is a given for every Okanagan and to not have community is to be “scattered or falling apart”, incapacitated, not fully human.
Community extends to the land which is not considered to be separate from humans. The human body is the Earth itself:
“…the flesh which is our body is pieces of the land come to us through the things which the land is. The soil, the water, the air, and all other life-forms contributed parts to be our flesh. We are our land/place..” (p. 323)
Even the Okanagan language is intimately related to the land, believed to be the “language of the land”, taught to the people by the land. The great knowledge of the people about the land – the plants, animals, seasons, geography – called forth the construction of the Okanagan language.
Armstrong translates her father’s explanation that people from the dominant culture are “dangerous” and “insane” because they are “wild and scatter anywhere” to mean:
“Their actions have a source, they have displacement panic, they have been pulled apart from themselves as family [generational sense] and place [as land/us/survival].” (p. 319)
Connection to the land is considered essential for survival by the Okanagans and anyone without this embeddedness in place is considered “wild”, “a thing that cannot survive without special protective measures”, compelling “all other life forms to displacement and then ruin.” Without the bonding of individual selves and communal selves to the land, Armstong says:
“…we are not human: we yearn; we are incomplete; we are wild, needing to learn our place as land pieces. We cannot find joy because we need place in this sense to nurture and protect our family/community/self. The thing Okanagans fear worst of all is to be removed from the land that is their life and their spirit.” (p. 323-324)
What does the Okanagan perspective mean for those of us resisting and working to transform or replace the dominant culture? It’s clear that the many band aids we attempt to apply are inadequate. A switchover to renewable energy, for example, will not address the extreme disconnection of most people from long-term community and from the land they live on. Alienation runs deep for those of us whose primary or only culture is the dominant culture. Despite my own deep desires to connect to the earth, I’m not sure I can, even now, fully conceive of my body as the Earth, “pieces of the land.”
No Question, But It’s Displacement and Ruin
I’d have to agree with Jeanette Armstrong that the people of the dominant culture are badly displaced from both land and community. Urbanization, including the movements of vast numbers of people in the global South into urban slums, makes it very difficult for many people to bond with a specific area of land or even connect to nature at all. Alienation from the land is common even in rural communities. For example, in one community in the Sonoran desert (near the U.S. Mexico border) the majority of children had never spent more than a half hour alone in a wild place (58% of O’odham children, 100% Yaqui, 53% Anglo, 61% Hispanic; Survey by Gary Paul Nabhan). When the O’odham and Yaqui children were asked to name 17 local plants and animals in their native language they could name fewer than five, on average. These are children from Native American tribes who many would assume to be closer to nature than many other Americans. These children were far less knowledgeable than their grandparents who named over 15 of the 17 plants and animals correctly, on average. Even the most elementary knowledge about nature is deteriorating from generation to generation.
Community has been lost among people in the industrialized world where the extended family is long gone for many families, and large numbers of children grow up in a home with a single adult. Frequent moves over large distances are considered normal for middle class people, while upper class people commonly have more than one “home.” When you don’t even live in one place your whole life, how can you see yourself as made up of the land and a part of a land-based community? Technological and social changes are occurring so rapidly that new generations of adults often have little in common with their predecessors other than (weakened) family bonds.
People in industrialized societies certainly need “special protective measures” to survive. Where would we be without the corporations, retail stores and utilities that provide us with food, water, electricity, heat, clothing, tools, medicine and all the many luxury items of modern lives. As the “service economy” expands people buy more and more from the capitalist economy and lose ever more survival skills. It’s not uncommon for people in the dominant culture to be completely unable to cook, garden, sew, or even navigate from place to place (without GPS).
I’d also have to agree with the Okanagans that the dominant culture is compelling all forms of life to “ruin”. Climate breakdown, war, industrial agriculture, continued globalization and so-called development are forcing more and more peasants and indigenous peoples off their lands and into fractured lives in refugee camps, factories and urban slums. These same forces destroy the habitats of many plants and animals and are now driving the earth into the sixth major extinction of her long history. Climate change has the potential – eventually – to bring the dominant culture to its knees, a likelihood increasing each year that passes without a significant planetary drop in fossil fuel use.
Jeannette Armstrong’s perspective, as an indigenous woman, on what ails the dominant culture and the people embedded in that culture takes the discussion on sustainability to important ground. In the industrialized world most of the discussion on climate change assumes that it is desirable for the dominant culture – an industrialized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal civilization – to continue more or less in its current form, but with fossil fuels replaced with renewables. But, when you gaze at this dominant culture through an Okanagan worldview you have to wonder. Why in the world would anyone want to continue this civilization that takes from people everything of importance: connection to (extended) family, community, the land, spirit? Most of the people of the dominant culture are – understandably – stuck in their own perspective, a perspective created by a civilization that is doing its best to kill much of life on earth, including perhaps human life. We desperately need to hear the voices of people, like Jeannette Armstrong, who are far enough outside the dominant culture to see that the problems created by that culture are not going to be solved by a quick fix of massive amounts of renewable energy.
Subsistence Economy: The Cure for Displacement
How do we end the “wildness” and ongoing displacements that Armstrong talks about and regain connections to land and community for both people in the dominant culture and indigenous peoples more recently forced from their lands? The answer obviously includes restoration of productive land to people who have been driven or enticed from their lands (or whose ancestors were, as is the case for most of the people of the dominant culture). But, being on the land is not enough. Farming to grow cash crops does not create connection. Only a subsistence-based relationship to the land can regenerate community and an intimate relationship to nature and the land, as we will see.
What is a subsistence economy anyway? Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen explain that:
“Subsistence production or production of life includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation, and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose.” (p. 20, The Subsistence Perspective)
Subsistence economies are based in human communities directly interacting with nature and each other to provide for human needs. No profit is involved. In The Subsistence Perspective, Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen agree with Ivan Ilich that:
“[T]he war against subsistence is the real war of capital, not the struggle against unions and their wage demands. Only after people’s capacity to subsist is destroyed, are they totally and unconditionally in the power of capital.” (P. 19, The Subsistence Perspective)
In the industrialized world capital has pretty well won the war against subsistence and almost everyone is dependent on the capitalist economy for survival. In addition, most fully believe the propaganda that tells them that a subsistence economy provides a wretched way of life, filled with deprivation and misery. As Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen tell us:
“For the men and women who profit from the war against subsistence, ‘subsistence’ spells backwardness, poverty, and drudgery. For the victims of this war it means security, ‘the good life’, freedom, autonomy, self-determination, preservation of the economic and ecological base and cultural and biological diversity,” (The Subsistence Perspective, p. 30)
Although people in the developed world resist capitalist patriarchies, most do not want a subsistence economy instead, but rather a nicer, more egalitarian capitalist democracy powered by renewables or maybe even a fully industrialized socialism. The primary exception is in the indigenous peoples of the industrialized world who often have a mixed economic base – part subsistence economy, part capitalism – and have been able to preserve parts of their traditional cultures, developed when their economies were fully based in subsistence.
The war against subsistence has not (yet) been won in the global South where in some places subsistence economies provide many of the necessities of life. Often the men of a community are purposefully lured by the forces of capitalist patriarchy into growing cash crops or in some other way participating in the capitalist economy, while the women continue growing food to feed their families and carrying out other subsistence work. In many places, women lead the resistance against the invading economy because their work is still primarily done in the subsistence economy and the incursion of capitalism makes that work more difficult. For example, a factory may pollute or use up the water, making the women’s work to collect water much more difficult. The factory is an unmistakable threat and makes resistance imperative. The women are able to resist because their subsistence way of life gives them considerable autonomy and economic self-sufficiency. Their independence from the capitalist, patriarchal economy leaves them free to see what it brings to them – loss of their land, environmental disasters, and “patriarchal, colonial control over women, means of production and the land.” (The quote is from Rauna Kuokkanen, see below.).
In order to regain our connections to the natural world and to human communities and to regain sanity, we must rebuild subsistence economies and cultures in both the global South and the industrialized North. As we build subsistence economies that produce life instead of death, we will gain independence from the dominant economy. This independence will put us in a much better position to accurately see and resist the globalized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy without feeling that we cannot live without it. As Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen have pointed out, there is an alternative to capitalism: “Subsistence Is the Alternative.”
Subsistence: Far More Than an Economy
Subsistence economies connect people to the land and to each other because the survival of the community and well-being of the people depends on these connections. But, as Rauna Kuokkanen, Associate Professor of Political Science and Aboriginal Studies at the University of Toronto, explains, subsistence is far more than just an economy. In traditional societies subsistence involves a highly integrated economic and social system. For example, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference explains that subsistence is:
“… a highly complex notion that includes vital economic, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions… Subsistence means much more than mere survival or minimum living standards. It enriches and sustains Inuit communities in a manner that promotes cohesiveness, pride and sharing. It also provides an essential link to, and communication with, the natural world of which Inuit are an integral part.”
(Quoted by Kuokkanen “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 219)
Kuokkanen further explains the centrality of the subsistence economy to indigenous identities and indigenous cultures:
“If indigenous economies are not taken into account, there is a serious danger of losing the very identities that constitute indigenous peoples. Indigenous economies such as household production and subsistence activities extend far beyond the economic sphere: they are at the heart of who people are culturally and socially. These economies, including the practices of sharing, manifest indigenous worldviews characterized by interdependence and reciprocity that extend to all living beings and to the land. In short besides an economic occupation, subsistence activities are an expression of one’s identity, culture, and values.”
(Quoted by Kuokkanen “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 217-218)
In other words, when a community provides for its physical needs via subsistence activities and a subsistence economy, that economy has far reaching effects on the peoples’ relationships with one another, their cultural practices, identities, and relationship to the land that provides sustenance. These relationships are in no way surprising. Think of the many ways that capitalism impacts the societies that embrace it – mobility, fragmentation of communities, urbanization, exacerbated inequality, destruction of nature and so on. The idea that material conditions and mode of production shape culture is a well established perspective in anthropology and sociology.
Subsistence: The Key to Nature Knowledge and Connection
Indigenous knowledge, including particularly nature knowledge, is acquired and preserved through subsistence activities. As Kuokkanen explains:
“Indigenous economies are thus contingent upon a stable and continuous relationship between the human and natural worlds. Knowledge of taking care of that relationship has traditionally been an integral part of social, economic, as well as spiritual structures and practices. In other words, there is a crucial link between subsistence and indigenous knowledge. Eugene Hunn notes that indigenous or traditional ecological knowledge ‘is a consequence of subsistence-based production’ and that ‘we cannot preserve the one without preserving the other’. Individuals and communities acquired special knowledge, skills, and a complex understanding of the local environment through their various subsistence activities. It is this knowledge that ‘enables the people to live directly from the land.’”
(Quoted by Kuokkanen “Indigenous Economies, Theories of Subsistence and Women: Exploring the Social Economy Model for Indigenous Governance”, p. 219-220)
Let’s look at a concrete example of how knowledge of the land is essential to the subsistence and survival of one indigenous group. The Zhun/twasi (Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa lived a gatherer/hunter subsistence lifestyle exclusively well into the 20th century. Deep knowledge of their desert lands was essential for daily survival. In the Dobe area to the north, people knew 85 plant species suitable for food and 54 animal species. In the central Kalahari, pools of rainwater were available for at most two months of the year. Plants were not just needed for food, but as a main source of fluids for much of the year. It was a matter of life or death to know that a particular type of plant could provide water, and even to know and remember the location of individual water-storing plants. There was no guarantee that there would be enough water, enough of the necessary plants; the Zhun/twasi did sometimes die of dehydration. Imagine what skills and knowledge you would need to learn to find and prepare for eating 85 species of native edible plants where you live. The Zhun/twasi knowledge of animal tracking is similarly legendary. Trackers from the U.S. now travel to the Kalahari on ecotours to learn tracking skills from people who track to eat, not as a hobby.
The desert homeland of the Zhun/twasi is a more challenging environment than many places, but when people live by subsistence all of their needs are met by their ability to work with nature and with each other. Just as people in the dominant culture are attuned to their bosses moods, trash pickup times, or due dates for the utility bills in order to obtain their necessities, with subsistence people must connect to natural and human communities. These connections provide the means of survival, but also provide an authenticity and quality of life that eludes people in industrialized societies.
Imagine a life where the people around you are not continually putting themselves first, where community is valued more than the self, and you know that you will always belong to this community, that you will be taken care of if you need help, and that your contributions will be recognized and valued. Imagine slowing down to the speed of nature at “baseline”, noticing every change in the wind, knowing the meaning of the bird calls surrounding you, being so peaceful and quiet in your own mind and body that the animals around you barely notice your presence. (See Part 2 and Part 3 of my blog Power With Nature:Low Energy, Low Consumption, The Good Life.) Imagine knowing the land you live on so well that your community can provide for all of its needs from that land and live well for generations to come.
The Path to Subsistence
Subsistence living is feared by most people in the dominant culture who are dependent on and attached to the way of life they are used to. Meanwhile these same people are missing out on the best life can offer due to their severed connections to Earth and each other. And the dominant culture is threatening the survival of that culture and of life on this earth. “Subsistence is the alternative”, but most people won’t even consider it. What a mess! Is there a way for people to regain knowledge of the earth and connection to her without a return to subsistence and the everyday interdependence with the earth that subsistence living requires? Is there a way to treat the earth carefully and respectfully without that everyday interdependence?
Most of us are not going to be able to grow close to nature and to each other while living in a society that pulls us apart from one another while grinding up the earth and spitting out dead wildlife, dying ecosystems and embattled indigenous cultures. This is too painful and too difficult. Perhaps certain determined individuals can find a way to truly know and connect to the earth while living in the midst of an earth destroying culture. I do know of people in industrialized societies who have been able to increase their awareness of and love for nature through learning the awareness skills of gatherer/hunters (as taught by schools such as The Tracker and Wilderness Awareness School). And certainly there are an ever-increasing number of dedicated environmental activists emerging as the planet overheats and the theft of lands from indigenous peoples and wildlife escalates. But, the level of change we need cannot be made by individuals alone. Most people are not mavericks and never go very far in testing the bounds of their society. And, anyway, what we need is mass movement and thriving communities.
To move to the kind of deep embeddedness in land and human community that Jeannette Armstrong talks about we need a far different economic and social structure, a very different society than this globalized, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy – and actually many societies to fit into the many bioregions of this Earth. Subsistence is the social/economic arrangement that creates deeply connected human communities that are embedded in nature, and it has done so throughout our time on Earth. Subsistence is not the sole answer we need – subsistence societies can be patriarchal and hierarchical – but we had best figure out how to see past the propaganda against subsistence and instead value its millenia long track record. Short of a complete collapse (certainly a possibility), the dominant culture is not going to suddenly give way to subsistence. But, a turn toward a subsistence economy and culture does not have to be an all or nothing solution, as we will see in the discussion of “mixed economies” in an upcoming blog. There is a path, perhaps even a gentle path, from the devastation of this society to a subsistence way of life where no one will have to say of us, “The people down there are dangerous, they are all insane.”