Ed.note: This is Chapter 16 from Brian’s book Credo. The books has its own website which can be found here.
Mainstream economics regards environmental protection as a matter of finding the “right price” for environmental preferences. This is not how indigenous people think about environmental issues. The chapter contrasts the mentalities of people that belong to places vs the mind-set of the population when places belong to people. There are differing epistemes in different societies and “traditional environmental knowledge” is a totally different way of knowing to that taken for granted by economists.
This section of this book is devoted to several chapters on a set of themes almost entirely neglected by contemporary economists – land. For decades economists have been uninterested in the topic. Their heads are in the clouds – spinning theories about the worlds of high finance – without their feet being on the ground. Yet a very large part of the financial securities that the economists theorise are ultimately based on income streams that derive from land and locations. The financial economy must derive its income from real sources. Financial assets are titles to income streams but where does this income come from? To a very large extent the answer is from mortgages, loans to property companies and capitalised rental streams – payments for places. Economist Michael Hudson has a name for the dominant part of the modern economy – the FIRE sector. FIRE stands for Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. They are very closely integrated which will be explored later in this book.
The point here is simply to indicate that if land appears to have disappeared from economics, it is because “finance” is obscuring the view.
This is a critical situation because the most serious problem facing humanity is the damaging relationship between the economic system and the ecological system. As regards this most serious crisis mainstream economists have no explanatory framework worthy of intellectual respect.
Finding the “right price” for the environmental preferences
If we follow standard economic approaches to the environment then the appropriate way to protect it is to elicit the strength of people’s preferences for nature (or its different attributes). This is done by finding out how much people are prepared to pay to maintain it. In other words, how much money they are prepared to accept in compensation for its destruction for economic purposes. It is all a matter of finding the right price. (See chapter 26). However, this implies that people have already formed preferences and that, in turn, implies that they actually know about the environment, or aspects of the environment that are being threatened. In practice:
Most people have limited experience in assigning monetary values to environmental goods, because this requirement does not occur in everyday life. One may also question whether people have preferences for all environmental goods. For example, can we have preferences for a species threatened by extinction, if we never knew it existed? If we have preferences for the species, they must have been created rather quickly and are likely to be far from stable over time. Therefore it is important to take the process of preference formation seriously. (Johnsson-Stenman, 2002, pp. 112-113)
In this chapter it is my intention to explore what ought to be blindingly obvious. That is, that the everyday life of many people precludes them getting much information about ecological systems and nature, or forming deep “preferences” that would result in their having the will to protect it. For billions of people, nature and the eco-system have become “out of sight and out of mind”. The evolution of market society has progressively cut off whole populations from the possibility of knowledge about the environment. In fact, society has evolved institutions and practices that actively try to prevent them being adequately informed about the perilous state of the ecological system; actively try to mislead them about how dangerous things are and actively encourages participation in a system of consumption that uses resources without considering ecological consequences. This is a system intent on shaping peoples values in an anti-ecological way.
While the economists tell us that what makes a market society so wonderful is that it caters to people’s preferences, allocating resources according to the signals in market valuations, the deeper reality is that the most powerful players in the economy seek to shape what value we place on things like ecological system reality. They do so in their own interests and in ways that foster ignorance or indifference to ecological destruction.
To consider the full range of issues relevant here is to delve into the realms of religion, society, culture, psychology and human personality. Neoclassical economic theory wants to say that humans can be conceptualised as calculating machines, taking decisions based on “rational expectations” in market dealings and using available information which will usually be sufficient for their purposes. The problem with this view is patently obvious once one begins to look at the ecological crisis. Huge numbers of people are ignorant and utterly unconcerned about the health of the ecological system and that is a large part of the problem.
Indigenous peoples and the environmental crisis
If we then ask which sections of society are concerned about the environment, the answer is largely people in the least developed societies; the indigenous populations – or the remnants of them; tribal societies and first nations in Canada. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, these are the societies trying to do something about the environmental crisis:
In fact, all over the world – Australia, India, and South America – there are battles going on, sometimes wars. In India, it’s a major war over direct environmental destruction, with tribal societies trying to resist resource extraction operations that are extremely harmful locally, but also in their general consequences. In societies where indigenous populations have an influence, many are taking a strong stand. The strongest of any country with regard to global warming is in Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority and constitutional requirements that protect the “rights of nature”. (Chomsky, 2013)
Why is this the case? To give an answer is to describe what disappeared, what was forgotten, when economics developed. It is to describe the culture and belief systems that economics has claimed to replace. To think about people’s relationship to the ecological system, as economists do, primarily as being about “preferences” about how “clean” these people want the environment to be, will not help us resolve environmental problems. On the contrary, this mentality is a sure indicator of why we have an ecological crisis in the first place. It is a symptom of a dislocated and displaced culture. In a quite literal sense it is the pathological world view of a non-indigenous society whose members are not rooted in a place, who are almost entirely blind to nature and quite unaware of their own ignorance of it, as well as their dependence on it.
In arguing that many indigenous peoples have, by definition, a closer relationship to, and understanding of, their sustaining ecological systems, I do not mean to imply that indigenous societies always got it right and never damaged their own eco-systems. Clearly some indigenous peoples prior to European colonialism did make catastrophic ecological errors.
Easter Island is a famous example where a community made disastrous mistakes in the management
of their ecological system. When settled in 800 AD, Easter Island was covered by tropical forests and at its peak the population rose to an estimated 10,000. However, the rate of forest clearance was greater than that of its regeneration and the system passed a threshold, a tipping point, in which soil erosion was high and the forests could not regenerate. By 1600, their famous statues could no longer be built and (more significantly) canoes for catching large fish and marine mammals could no longer be constructed either. The population collapsed to an estimated 2,000 people. (Brian Walker and David Salt Resilience Thanking, Island Press 2006, p.60)
Nevertheless, it is clear that communities that inhabit a place for a long time and live off the surpluses of a fluctuating eco-system are likely, over many generations, to have a better understanding of what is sustainable and what is not. In most “developed countries” the very nature of development has led to society losing that ecological knowledge.
To undo our cultural ignorance of these issues is a massive task. It involves questioning and rejecting foundational ideas in our culture and beliefs. It involves going back a long way in history and then rethinking what has happened. In fact, we must go back to so called “hunter gatherer” societies and try to understand them on their own terms, rather than seeing them as “primitive”.
In the last few decades, anthropological research has challenged the assumption that remaining hunter gatherer societies, which had not embraced settled “agriculture”, were somehow “backward”. On the contrary, they were managed on a very sophisticated basis and anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins have gone so far as to claim that they were the “original Affluent Societies”. He argues that such annot be understood using economic principles which reflect western values. Going further, Sahlins poses the radical idea that the agricultural (Neolithic) revolution cannot be said to have brought unquestioned progress. (Sahlins, 1972)
Stone age Economics
The existence of these “original affluent societies” challenge the foundational assumptions of economics. To quote Sahlins:
There are two possible courses to affluence – either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception… makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable… But there is also a Zen way to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. (Sahlins, 1972, p. 2)
If you live a nomadic existence then possessions are weight that hold you down, they are a burden. Imagine packing your possessions in a big suitcase and having to take it with you wherever you go.
The hunter, one is tempted to say, is an “uneconomic man”. At least as concerns non subsistence goods, he is the reverse of that standard caricature immortalised in any “General Principles of Economics”, page one. His wants are scarce and his means (in relation) plentiful. Consequently he is “comparatively free of material pressures”, has “no sense of possession”, shows “an undeveloped sense of property”, is “completely indifferent to material pressures”, and manifests “a lack of interest” in developing his technological equipment. (Sahlins, 1972, p. 13)
The “principles of economics” were not lived by hunter-gatherer societies. As a result, many of these societies were sustainable, in contrast to our own, which very clearly is not.
This sustainability was rooted in a very deep understanding of the ecological system and respect for it. If we take as an example the way of life the Australian aboriginal people before the white colonists arrived, it was one in which land care was the main purpose of life. Gammage quotes Bill Stanner:
No English words are good enough to give a sense of the links between an aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word “home” does not match the aboriginal word that may mean “camp”, “hearth”, “country” “everlasting home” “totem place” “life source” “spirit centre” and much else all in one. Our word “land” is too spare and meagre. (Gammage, 2011, p. 145)
Aboriginal society was permeated by ecology, just as our society is chiefly characterised by its absence. In his book about aboriginal land care in 1788, historian Bill Gammage explains how aboriginal people in Arnhem Land in Australia classified the countryside with a deep awareness of the ecological associations between animals and plants – what that meant for their food supply; the woods needed for spears and for resins and fibres, at any season of the year. (Gammage, 2011, p. 145)
This kind of relationship to “land” (in an expanded sense) for the indigenous person can be understood as “belonging” to a homeland. The concept of home is not fixed at an exact location but covers an area of landscape. Gammage quotes Edward Eyre:
Another very great advantage on the part of the natives is, the intimate knowledge they have of every nook and corner of the country they inhabit; does a shower of rain fall, they know the very rock where a little water is most likely to be collected, the very hole where it is longest retained… Are there heavy dews at night, they know where the longest grass grows, from which they may collect the spangles, and water is sometimes procured thus, in great abundance… (Gammage, 2011, p. 146)
Note again the remark that English words are not good enough to express the relationship between aboriginal people and homeland. There is a “lexical void” – a lack of words to express an idea – because the largely European cultures, both in Europe and in those continents to which the Europeans migrated, produced “economics” with missing cultural components. That is, all those features of thought which occur when a people belong to a place but which are missing in the thought of a dis-located culture.
The different relationship: people that belong to places vs places that belong to people
The crucial distinction here, and it cannot be found in economic textbooks, is between places belonging to people (and corporations) and people belonging to places. Indigenous people belong to places have lives bound into traditions connected to deep knowledge of those places; their landscape and ecological features; the species that live there and a sense of inter-generational responsibility for place and people. is is a spiritual commitment and is what went missing when the “economic religion” of the mercantile conquerors became the criteria by which the use of people and places were judged.
Indigenous people do NOT see the earth as a resource store that belongs to them. Instead, they often see themselves as part of the earth, as walking and living pieces of the earth. They do not have an anthropocentric world view with humans as the peak of creation and its owner. Conversely, their view tends to be nature-centric with humans merely participants and parts in this world.
This is not homo-economicus-style thinking. It bears no comparison to preference utilitarianism. The difference in mentalities between people belonging to the land and the land belonging to people is much deeper. When people belong to the land, then the land has a spiritual dimension for them. They carry responsibilities in a way that private property owners do not. This different way of being includes the other living species as non-human persons. It involves deep practical knowledge and acts as a guide.
In contrast, economics describes a world in which private property owners take “decisions” about the use or “management” of their “resources” which are “inputs” used to produce “outputs”. The language
reflects a particular mentality that matches a way of doing things within a particular kind of society. Economics is not some kind of universal truth applicable for all time – it is the product of dislocation and displacement. It is a religion for non-indigenous people, people whose ancestors were displaced and dislocated who now, in the modern world, move regularly, who have little attachment to place and little sense of inter-generational responsibility for their descendants in a place.
By contrast, for most of the history of humanity, communities of people lived with each other in a community of species (an eco-system in a landscape and/or a waterscape). The diversity of the landscape and the diversity in the community needed to be maintained in balance, in harmony. In communities, driving the private interests of particular people at the expense of others in that community leads to tensions and conflict. Furthermore, to use the eco-system in one way only is to undermine a variety of species and uses of the landscape. Tension and conflict lies that way.
The difference can be illustrated by the following quotes:
I fought nine years to obtain property titles for my community. Bureaucrats and ranchers showed me papers and more papers to demonstrate that our lands were privately owned. I did not care because in that land our grandparents are buried. They showed me papers. I showed them bones. When I received the titles to our lands, the bureaucrats and the ranchers who had laughed at me asked, “How did you obtain the land?” “With the bones of my ancestors”, I replied. (Barras, 2004, p. 50)
“When Canadian government surveyors first ran across Gitskan people in their traditional territory, the Gitskan asked, “What are you doing here?” “Surveying our land,” answered the surveyors. Incredulous, the Gitksan responded: “If this is your land, where are your stories?”” (Rasmussen, 2013)
De-territorialisation in non-indigenous societies
Economics, by contrast, is the product of a non-indigenous culture. Belonging to places did not always mean belonging to an egalitarian society. In the European Middle Ages, belonging to a place came to involve a set of obligations to a feudal lord who imposed duties on the serfs outside his castle walls. Many people had good reason to run away and the medieval period ended partly because, in this process of moving and running away, multiple geographical and mental boundaries dissolved. A process of “de-territorialisation” took place in which people found a relative freedom from feudal exactions by living in towns, or by travelling to faraway places as the trade routes opened up.
However, the process of change was one in which places came to belong to people instead of the other way round – particularly via the enclosure of the commons. Land-grabbing took place by people who wanted to profit from the new mercantile connections; people who mostly lived in the towns and who were well connected politically. is took place over several centuries and completed and transformed European society whose adventurers then went on to transform global society. Many of the people expelled from the land ended up as vagabonds and were either herded into the new factories, or into punitive workhouses. They either migrated voluntarily or through transportation. A European diaspora began and took a colonial form.
Now, several centuries after enclosure, people in towns and cities get their water through a tap and food from a supermarket, while the supermarkets jointly manage the countryside in many countries working together with global agri-business corporations and the financial markets. Meanwhile, many people in the cities change their location every few years in order to keep themselves in paid work.
Economics is a theory developed by and for people who feel themselves as belonging nowhere in particular… although they may, opportunistically, pretend to belong in tax havens.
Economists claim that, in order to protect “land” or eco-systems (the living network of beings in a place and the community that lives there) it has to be owned as private property. The United Nations Environment Programme tells us that, in order to protect nature, we must give it a price and “hardwire it into financial markets” – whose actors are global and who buy and sell assets often in minutes.
The truth of the matter is the other way round. To protect a natural environment a community must belong there, be rooted there, have understood and know all the details of that place for generations and intend to pass that place, with all their knowledge, down to their descendants.
Many indigenous communities have a variation of the axiom that one must consider one’s actions up to the seventh generation – that is the generation after one’s grandchildren’s grandchildren. That is what it means to belong to a community that belongs to a place. It is not an idea compatible with the economist’s assumption that all people take long term decisions using an interest rate with which they discount the future in favour of the present.
… those who are embedded tend to look after a place; those who are disembedded do not. A non- indigenous civilization is a complete rupture with the entire arc of human history. By the way, that doesn’t mean all indigenous civilizations were saintly or nice. It just means they were rooted. They may have uprooted others, enslaved peoples, created empires, but every human civilization— Inuit, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan, Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabeg, and so on—has had a homeland somewhere. Every civilization has had a particular place on earth that generation upon generation felt beholden to…… Until now. (Rasmussen, 2013)
We are now in a much better position to answer the question: “How does it come about that it is indigenous and tribal peoples who are the ones who are fighting to save the environment?” In theory, much scientific and ecological information is available to the people in “developed societies” but these are societies made up of non-indigenous people. We non-indigenous people live a life which we take for granted and do not see it as at all peculiar. But we are dis-placed and “belong no-where”. Aboriginal culture and land care in Australia lasted at least 8,000 years and possibly as much as 50,000 years. In that time the possibilities for getting to know the ecological system were infinitely greater than anything that was possible after the agriculture developed to feed the towns where the intellectuals developed the knowledge system and theorised for the merchants in the emerging age of commerce.
Differing “epistemes” for different societies and “traditional environmental knowledge”
What we are describing here in the contrast between indigenous and non-indigenous world views is something that is a lot deeper than different “paradigms” of the world. What we are describing are different conditions of possibility for knowledge, different “epistemes”. “Epistemes” is a term suggested by Foucault, in his 1970 book The Order of Things to describe the different foundations for the way different societies think, that creates the “conditions of possibility” for knowledge. An episteme is “that which makes knowledge possible”. (Birkin & Polesie, 2013)
In recent years, there has been a recognition by some economists and academics (who are mostly from dominant non-indigenous communities) of what is called “traditional environmental knowledge” or TEK for short. There has been a dawning realisation that indigenous cultures which were previously barely given any attention by economists, actually possess valuable information relating to local eco-systems. An example of this occurred when economists and policy makers realised that it would be valuable to construct “vulnerability indices” for so called “less developed” societies, like “New Caledonia”. This was in order to gain a better understanding of the reasons for the increased rate of natural disasters occurring in those societies. Such vulnerability indices are an innovation in economics because they admit the existence of natural limits on economic activity and represent a movement away from a concern for growth, and development, to a concern for resilience and sustainability. Significantly, when this occurred researchers suddenly discovered that indigenous people were a rich source of knowledge and information.
The context and importance [of the practical activities of] villagers had not been understood”. Whole areas of knowledge had previously been unknown to the colonising outsiders – traditional medicines, control of pests and diseases, and the agricultural calendar where decisions about timing “was one of the most important aspects of Melanesian life. “the research survey concluded that while New Caledonian’s (Kanak) knowledge of nature and the environment was very large indeed little of that rich heritage had been recorded… (Harries-Jones, 2004, pp. 290-291)
A convergence of concerns and purposes produced the discovery of knowledge by people whose experience had not been recognised or been found interesting to researchers. This knowledge in turn led to researchers recognising that “they had to reform the standard terminology of GDP in order to accommodate their focus on risk, vulnerability and its alternatives” (Harries-Jones, 2004, p. 291)
It is important to make clear, however, that “Traditional Environmental Knowledge” is the way that non-indigenous thinkers (like economists) conceptualise the knowledge of indigenous people. For indigenous people the knowledge is not understood in the same way. It is framed differently and arises from a different “episteme”.
The spiritual significance of land and places
The term “Land”… is not restricted to the physical environment only. It has a much broader meaning, used by indigenous people to refer to the physical, biological and spiritual environments fused together. The closest scientific equivalent of the “Land”, taken without its spiritual component, is “ecosystem”. Traditional knowledge is practical common sense, good reasoning, and logic based on experience. It is an authority system (a standard of conduct), setting out rules governing the use and respect of resources, and an obligation to share. For example, it tells people that they do not have the right to hunt all animals of a species, as in wolf kill programmes. The wisdom comes in using the knowledge and ensuring that it is used in a good way. It involves using the head and the heart together. Traditional knowledge is dynamic, yet stable and is usually shared in stories, songs, dances and myths. (McGregor, 2004, pp. 78-79)
Traditional environmental knowledge comes, therefore, out of a different episteme. The economist lives in a world where, if s/he recognises nature at all, this recognition consists of thinly understood species that are either crops or weeds, livestock or pests and general wildlife. In other words, species already classified as to their market significance, as resources, or even as “eco-system services”, assessed in relation to their use for humans. “Information” is framed in economics speak – which is absent of any sense of responsibility, any spiritual content, any loyalty, any feeling for other species.
By contrast, a large proportion of the poorest people on the planet, are struggling to keep it alive because they experience and know it as being alive. They know and experience the eco-system as communities of human and non-human beings, each of which is actively interpreting their environment where this largely means interpreting each other and acting on their interpretations.
In his writings about the Nunavut and Greenland Inuit Peter Harries-Jones compares the perspectives of scientifically trained ecologists and hunters. The Inuit regard animals as “non-human persons” who are able to build up knowledge about their environment so that skilled hunters can rely not only on their own interpretations of the environment but that of animals interpreting other animals in interaction with the environment.
The behaviour of fish and seals not only gives signs about the location of fish and seals to Inuit hunters in Greenland but indicates the behaviour of whales, glaciers, winds, water temperatures and other physical aspects of the environment… Greenland Inuit are able to observe and account for animal movements and other aspects of behaviour in a systematic way because they believe that animals have their own semiotic interpretation of their environment. (Harries-Jones, 2004, p. 291)
This sense of nature as being animated, as being alive, of being a place of “inter-being” by “selves” of different species is not compatible with the neo-Darwinistic/neo-liberal bio-economic vision of selfish genes, or of biology as competing survival machines that underpins much of non-indigenous economic thinking.
The Inuit view is, however, compatible with the emerging thinking in biology which envisages the biological world as organisms which, as feeling, interpreting and intentional selves, are involved in a process of self-creation or autopoiesis.
According to biologist Andreas Weber:
Natural history should no longer be viewed as the unfolding of an organic machine, but rather as the natural history of freedom, autonomy and agency. Reality is alive: It is full of subjective experience and feeling; subjective experience and feeling are the prerequisites of any rationality. The biosphere consists of a material and meaningful interrelation of selves. (Weber, Enlivenment. Towards a fundamental shi in the concepts of nature, culture and politics, 2013)
If the biosphere – and the economy too – are made up of an “interrelation of selves” that have a degree of autonomy, freedom and agency it makes sense to grasp and understand this kind of world through stories. There is, to be sure, a place to understand things through science based on measurement and mathematics but stories and narrative give a different kind of understanding (which is why telling the story of economics, the people who thought it up and the conditions in which they did so, gives us a different perspective about it from reading a textbook written as if economics was a finished product).
There are some mysteries we cannot ever understand. The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The Great Spirit is the Great Mystery. Deborah McGregor quotes Elder Annie Catholique:
When the government people talk about land, I find it very funny, talking about all the things we use, all the things we survive on like animals and caribou and those things. When I think about land, I think about the Great Spirit. (McGregor, 2004, p. 79)
It should be remembered that stories as explanations and as guides for living are often the creation of peoples whose cultures are non-literate – and there is a danger for literate people to assume that the non-literate must be ignorant as it is assumed that knowledge must be stored somewhere external, on paper, or in digital form, “to count” and to be taken into account. However, an oral tradition has its own features and possibilities of knowing and of passing on knowledge. It has other ways of people remembering together while, at the same time, bestowing significance to what is important, anchored into the rhythms of life.
Rituals, ceremonies and totems
A practice repeated, perhaps on a seasonal basis by a community, becomes a ritual. Other ways in which people can synchronise their feelings and thoughts are through ceremonies. These help ideas and practices to be remembered.
The point about such rituals and ceremonies is that they create continuity and stability – they fix things. In this context it is understandable that a community can come to believe that the failure to perform a ritual, or the failure to perform it correctly, will throw the world into chaos. It will become formless and void again. To the Australian Aborigines, it was when the creator ancestors did these things for the first time that the world was created out of the void.
To remember how to cross a landscape safely without maps and service stations a community evolves songlines. I express this in non-indigenous thought. To the Aboriginal people the landscape was created by the creator ancestors who sang the landscape into existence. These “songlines” were based on the landscape and the creatures in that landscape with their ecological associations. Thus, for example, sites along a “red kangaroo songline” matched the best habitat for the red kangaroo – a description of the landscape from a red kangaroo perspective, including a hunting ban at the major sites. Thus, the creator ancestors had decreed a conservation imperative when they sang the landscape into existence which meant that kangaroos had refuges. In bad seasons they had somewhere to breed and recover. Only when their numbers built up again, and they moved off the refuges, could they be hunted. (Gammage, 2011, p. 135)
Proximity to animals and species that one has a need to understand creates more than conceptual involvement – it engages emotions. It creates identification and involvement which are inconceivable to people who connect to animals as packaged meats or to plants trimmed, cooked, tinned and on a shelf.
Totems are, thus, more than badges and labels – they are allegiances. Once again we must grasp the right direction meant when the word “belonging” is used. Gammage comments that, in English, a totem can simply be a badge; however, for aboriginal people a totem is a life force stemming from and part of a creator ancestor. Thus, an emu man is of the same soul and flesh as an emu and must look after it and its habitat, just as it must care for him. It is not his totem, he is of its totem.
This is nature and its species as kin. With this mind set and with spiritual relationship to land, it was a requirement of all people to care for the land and its creatures, regenerating the land through ceremonies, protecting totems (species) and their habitats. This in turn made land care purposeful, universal and predictable – even in what seemed to European settlers to be untouched wilderness.(Gammage p 117)
This is nothing like an “environmental preference” in a utilitarian sense, symbolised with a badge. With different members of the community having different totems, and those community members knowing everything about their totem species in great detail, the community has biodiversity protection built into the belief system and into the social structure.
Teaser photo credit: By Mark Roy from Jabiru, Australia – Glen Namundja, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38802769