Hierarchy, climate change and the state of nature

The Sumerian Standard of Ur is 4,600 years old, showing the king in the top middle, standing taller than any other figure. Image: Wikipedia

 

We briefly mentioned the problem of hierarchy as the shared root of many systems of oppression in our first column two weeks ago.  In this article, we want to expand on the meaning of hierarchy—a system of obedience and command backed by the threat of force—and ground it in history. If we are to understand what we face and avoid reproducing it in building a new society, the social roots of hierarchy deserve a more thorough exploration.

In Western society, there are two prominent ‘origin stories.’ One is that of the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all,’ in which humans are innately vicious and violent, and only the introduction of strong authority could keep people’s natural state in check.

The other story is that prior to the existence of civilizations, humans lived in egalitarian and mostly peaceful bands enjoying the natural abundance of nature. In this version, it was only with the development of agriculture and centralized societies that we fell from grace and became the violent and hierarchical creatures we are today.

The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

Both stories share an assumption that pre-civilization humans can be painted with a broad brush, and that hierarchy – whether good or bad – can be traced to a natural evolution point in human history.

Thinkers like Rousseau, Spinoza, and Hegel weren’t satisfied with the idea that hierarchy is natural. They asserted that humans have the capacity to be either hierarchical or egalitarian, depending on history and existing social structures, and that human beings are dynamic and not static: there is no single human nature.

The anthropological record

Recent anthropological work appears to prove the truth of this more nuanced perspective on the history of hierarchy in human society.

David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that the story isn’t so simple as anthropology’s old tale of roving communal egalitarian bands, followed by hierarchical agricultural societies.

In fact, they explain, extraordinarily diverse social orders often shifted between very hierarchical and more communal social structures over time, even within a single year.

Throughout human history – this newer evidence suggests – we were neither ‘noble savages’ nor victims of a violent chaos. Even the notion that there is a traceable origin point of hierarchy has been challenged, because this variance in social structure appears to have lasted beyond the development of agriculture and cities; many early cities with advanced infrastructure were composed of apparently classless societies.

So how do we explain the near ubiquitous existence of hierarchical political forms today? Graeber and Wengrow state that despite the early diversity of societal structures – with the formation of the first states around 5,000 years ago – hierarchy became the reigning social order and remains so to this day.

The emergence of the state was characterized by a monopoly on violence, which also allowed surplus to be forcibly concentrated in the hands of a small elite. With this concentration of wealth came tools of violence and control: kings, priesthoods, armies.

With their control over surplus came private property and the need to protect it; from private property came inheritance, and patriarchy as a mechanism to assert ownership of property across generations, through women’s servitude and control over their reproduction.

Understanding the history of domination

The Marxist and anarchist traditions have long worked to explain how these historical transformations calcified inequality and domination, how such class societies have developed over time, and how we can transcend these dynamics into a new society of freedom.

Marxists theorised that the first class societies emerged out of “primitive communism” through a new division of labour and an agricultural surplus that could sustain an idle ruling class. In Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels developed the theory of patriarchy’s origin in private property.

Marx himself focused on the shift from feudalism to the new class structure of capitalism: an unequal relationship between the owning class and the working class. The bourgeoisie owned the factories, and the proletariat provided their labour.

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home.

None of this was a natural phenomenon: it was through a specific historical development that modern tools of control emerged, and it was only by understanding the nature of this hierarchical relationship between two classes that we could collectively undo hierarchy and build an egalitarian world.

For the first century of Marxist thought on class society, however, the connections between human exploitation and environmental exploitation remained largely unexplored.

In the mid-20th century, Murray Bookchin, an anarchist theorist and former Marxist, began to develop a framework called social ecology as a way to understand how environmental disaster has its origins in hierarchy as well.

Social ecology recognizes that ecological problems are at root social problems. The destruction of our environment is not some natural, vicious drive of humanity, but something that emerges from the very inequalities created by hierarchy.

We have always adapted nature to our needs, but the destruction of our common home is always against our common interests, and people who survive by their knowledge of their ecosystem are rarely inclined to destabilise it.

Hierarchy creates a class at the top with particular interests of its own, distinct from those of the rest of human society and the environment from which they emerge, and with the power to pursue those interests against the will of those below.

Hierarchy thus facilitates environmental destruction by allowing a small group of elites to pursue their own wealth through exploiting both lower human classes and the rest of nature without accountability or consequences (at least not for them). Bookchin also argued that it was through the domination of one another that we could even conceive of striving to dominate nature.

Since the dawn of early states and classes, elites have marshalled common resources for interstate conflict and enrichment, proliferating slavery, warring armies, and monuments to their conquests. It is no coincidence that Gilgamesh, recorded history’s first mythic hero, was both the king of one of the world’s first states and the destroyer of great cedar forests.

From the city-states of Sumer and the independent emergence of permanently unequal societies in other parts of the world, conquest spread new orders of domination globally, to the detriment of the entire web of life.

Capitalism is simply the most recent form of this basic dynamic. Capitalism and its structural imperative for growth are fundamentally incompatible with ecological sustainability.

And without economic democracy, the vast majority of people who do not own capital have no power to change this course within the present system. Many ecosocialists recognise this, but what social ecology brings to the table is the understanding that hierarchy itself is the enemy of our relationship with nature and the rest of the living world.

Social ecology and our present crisis

Unequal social conditions created by hierarchy are not the only conditions under which ecological destruction can take place, but they make it assured.

Take climate change as a contemporary example—in the face of clear evidence that the fossil fuel economy is strangling our collective future, a tiny, powerful elite is nonetheless able to decide again and again to extract and burn for private profit.

The poorest people on earth have played little to no role in causing climate change, but they will bear the worst of desertification, rising seas, and ever more powerful storms.

The power of the rich over the poor is the only way this is possible. Social ecology insists that we cannot understand the climate crisis through reference to what ‘humanity’ is doing to the earth, for humanity is not a united or uniform actor. The particular social order which gives some of us power over the rest drives our unfolding catastrophe.

If the 7.6 billion people on the planet had equal power to democratically determine our common future and hold one another accountable for the impacts of our actions, we would not be pursuing more oil in the face of certain destruction and mass death. Only true democracy can get to the root of the environmental crisis, and put a stop to it.

Social ecology is useful not only as a perspective on the origins of our present crises, but for charting a path towards real solutions.

If the problem is hierarchy, rather than a few bad actors or industries, then band-aid policies like carbon trading, individual consumer purity, and green technology are revealed for what they are—surface-level tinkering that will not alter the basic structures of our society that are eroding the biosphere.

Even if technological advances were somehow able to profitably transition us to a post-carbon economy, rapacious capitalist growth would still outstrip the earth’s carrying capacity and precipitate global ecological collapse. Nothing short of a radical restructuring of our economic and political systems will suffice.

What might this restructuring look like? How, as organisers, thinkers, and revolutionaries, can we begin to move toward such a transition?

We know that we must address hierarchy in all its forms—not just capitalism and the state, but also racism, patriarchy, and other systems created by unequal divides among humans, and between humans and the many others with whom we share our common home. Guided by hierarchy as the central problem, we can start building new tools for a democratic and ecological society.

Throughout this series, we will be digging deeper into that democracy toolbox. We will examine new institutional forms of economy and politics that we can begin to nurture in civil society, and explore their histories and possibilities.

Above all, we will be sketching the outlines of a new political framework for transforming all of society, building from below on the cooperative and democratic community projects of ordinary people. Imagining utopian alternatives is important, but what our movements need is a path to get there.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev

This article was written by Katie Horvath (@katesville7), Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

Decolonizing nature, the academy, and Europe

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by Aaron Vansintjan

In one article, Zoe Todd tells a story of how she, as a small child, used to go fishing. Whenever her line got caught on a weed, she would shout out to her parents in the cabin, exclaiming that she had caught a fish. An adult would then come down and untangle her line. But one day, she had actually caught one—and no one came to help her reel it in. Finally, when the adults looked out at the lake and saw the little girl trying to wrestle with the fishing rod, they ran down and her father helped her reel in a giant northern pike. Her father calls this story “Zoe and the Big Fish”, and after telling it, Todd remarks “Ever since I caught that fish I have been obsessed with prairie fish and their hidden lives in the rivers and lakes of my homeland. The way that their bodies narrate stories we, collectively, have forgotten to listen to.”

This summer, I found myself on a canoe on the Georgian Bay, Canada—Go Home Bay to be precise—with a fishing rod. I’ve heard a story that “Go Home Bay” is so-called because when European settlers arrived, the Anishinaabe people there told them to “go home.”

Go to Go Home Bay and you’ll see the raw, exposed rocks, the crooked pines bent by the hard winds and the heavy snow, clamoring for space on the rocks. You can’t help but imagine what this landscape might have looked like in its pristine form, unsullied by humans. The untouched trees, the clear water heavy with life, the rocks shot through with veins of marble and granite—they seem to carry stories that have little to do with the cumbersome wooden chalets that line the water.

Another story telling the origin of Go Home Bay is that loggers, after floating freshly-cut timber down the Musquash River, would deliver them to steamers who would then chug their way to the timber mills around the Great Lakes. After this, the loggers could finally “go home.”

These two stories might be conflicting—but they both indicate that this landscape is far from pristine. The primary forest has long been cut down—the timber industry left barely any trees standing. The fish stocks have long been depleted by colonial fishers, robbing the Indigenous people from a major source of subsistence. And there were people living here before the picturesque chalets were erected: the Anishinaabeg. This land carries their stories, stories that are still being told. There is no “pristine” nature without humans, not even here.

I have little experience fishing. But on my second cast—the first cast I caught nothing but weeds—I caught an enormous pike. I was obviously elated—it’s rare to be that lucky. But I couldn’t help thinking back to Todd’s article about her own relationship with fish and their importance to Indigenous people. In it, she describes how a history of colonialism in Canada is literally inscribed on the bodies of fish—the depletion of their populations and the toxins in their bones. As she tells it, “Fish bodies betray the damage to their habitats. Their bodies tell stories of our negligence and silence.”

Todd’s writing led me to wonder what stories that pike had carried, and what stories the Anishinaabeg had for it. I felt like an intruder—this catch wasn’t really a victory; it was more like a symbol of loss.

For Indigenous people in North America, colonialism is not a force of the past. It violently affects them on a daily basis. And they are constantly resisting and developing new ways of asserting their culture and governance systems.

I have often wondered how to carry home what I’ve learned from the struggles of indigenous people in North America. How can Europeans, who have learned to remove themselves in time and place from the horrors of colonization, learn to take responsibility and start a process of decolonization? These questions inevitably leaked in to my own research—how can I do field research, keeping in mind that colonization continues today, both in my “field” (neighborhoods facing gentrification) and within the academy?

Todd’s work offers crucial contributions to these questions. Todd is a Métis scholar who has just become a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and is also completing her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. Her main research revolves around human-fish relations, colonialism, and Indigenous governance and legal orders in Canada. Some of her other interests include decolonizing anthropology as a discipline, urban planning, and non-academic writing.

What first drew me to Todd’s evocative writing was her article on the Scottish independence movement. In it, she suggests that since the Scots and Irish were colonized, their struggles for self-determination should be seen from a decolonial perspective. In her own research on human-fish relationships and the legal orders that Indigenous people put in place to maintain those relationships, she helps inform the nature-culture debate. And in several other articles she suggests ways that anthropology, as an academic discipline can engage in a process of decolonization. One such article—a critique of the “ontological turn”—went viral in anthropology circles last year.

Through all this, Todd remains giving and forgiving in her writing. She writes lucidly and poetically, noting injustice while stressing accountability. And she is not content with just telling stories of oppression: she consistently offers stories of resistance and paths for transformation.

I was grateful to be able to interview Zoe Todd to further explore these topics. After a discussion that was cut short by poor Internet service on my end, we continued the conversation via email. I’ve put together these two conversations in a shortened, more legible, format.

 

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Colonialism, past and present

Could you explain a bit how your work challenges this idea that colonization is “a thing of the past”? 

Colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada. In recent years, I have worked with people who experienced the horrific impacts of Canada’s Indian Residential School System. The Residential School that many of the people I worked with attended didn’t close until 1996. There are residential school survivors in Canada who are only a bit older than me. In my own family, the impacts of colonialism are also visceral. I am two generations removed from my grandfather’s lifetime, when he and his parents were kicked off their land in northern Alberta at the St Paul des Métis settlement. But the stories, the trauma of that? Real and present. Not as direct as they were for my grandfather’s generation, but still present. In May, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an executive summary of its forthcoming six-volume report on its inquiry into the experiences of Residential School survivors. Reading that summary, which lays out the awfulness and violence of the Residential School System, and hearing Justice Murray Sinclair declare that Canada is guilty of perpetuating cultural genocide? That really makes it clear that colonialism is an ongoing reality in Canada.  (It’s also why my colleagues Joseph Paul Murdoch-Flowers and Erica Violet Lee and I started a video project called #ReadTheTRCReport in which people have uploaded videos of themselves reading sections of the report—there is a visceral, embodied experience in reading it aloud that makes it impossible to ignore the stories and findings within the report).

 

How does your own research go beyond depicting Indigenous people as victims, but rather as actively struggling against colonization?

I work in the Canadian Arctic, in a small village or hamlet in an Inuvialuit community named Paulatuuq. I’m looking at how Inuvialuit people in this community have negotiated their reciprocal and ongoing duties to the land and to fish while contending with state-imposed ideas about the appropriate ways to define animals, define the land, define how to engage with exploitative industry. People in Paulatuuq are asserting their laws, but doing it in a way that negotiates a simultaneous but contradictory sameness and difference between their legal orders and their relationship to place (and to the State). Engaging with those aspects of state law that they absolutely have to. So the word I used to describe it is they’re “refracting” colonial forces by asserting their laws in the ways that they can. It may appear that people are being co-opted into co-management but when you’re sitting in those meetings and you’re talking to people it is apparent that they are engaging actively with the scientists and the bureaucrats in a really creative way.

What’s so amazing about Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination is that people are finding these really creative ways to continue to assert their cosmologies or world-views or laws in the face of all of these competing left-leaning, right-leaning, neoliberal, socialist definitions of how people should behave.

 

Could the formalization of Indigenous law by a settler state contribute to the continued colonization of Indigenous people? Some people have argued that this was the case in Bolivia, where sumak kawsay (Buen Vivir), an Indigenous concept, was put into law.

My work is really so small and nascent compared to the incredibly nuanced and ongoing work on Indigenous legal orders and legal pluralities that Indigenous scholars John Borrows, Val Napoleon and Tracey Lindberg (among others) are doing here in Canada. I think their work really demonstrates why it’s important for States like Canada to acknowledge their duties to the legal orders of the people whose ancestry and knowledge and stories of this place stretch to Time Immemorial. I think that the legal pluralistic approach that Borrows advocates for is really important. It demonstrates that Indigenous legal orders that incorporate reciprocal relationships between people, the land, the non-human constituents of the land, water and sky are incredibly important for this country as it contends with increasing pressures to extract oil and gas, mine ore, and dam more waterways.

 

On cities

Why would an anthropologist have a blog called “Zoe and the City?”

I started my blog in 2010 when I was wrapping up my MSc at the University of Alberta. My passion is Indigenous issues and decolonization in urban prairie contexts. (Having grown up as a Métis woman in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I had done a pecha kucha talk on ‘Edmonton as an Aboriginal City’ at a city sponsored event in June 2010 that garnered quite a bit of positive response, so I started the blog to keep writing about my observations and thoughts about how Edmonton had so thoroughly erased evidence of Indigenous peoples and history in its built form. Though my interests have expanded to other issues, I keep the name of the blog because everything for me still comes back to the land I grew up in: urban Edmonton—amiskwaciwâskahikan, pêhonan, home.

Whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen Coulthard argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’.

Many people might be surprised that Indigenous issues and urban issues are so linked. But having lived in Canada I’ve seen this play out quite directly—even just the fact that there’s such large Indigenous populations living in Canadian cities. In fact often urban spaces were designed specifically to keep out ‘loitering’ and ‘homeless’ First Nations or Northern Indigenous people. Do you think it is possible for cities to be spaces for Indigenous people, and what practical urban planning strategies could make that a reality? 

Well, every city in Canada is on Indigenous land! So, by necessity, we have to address this fundamental relationship between land, Indigenous nations and urbanism in Canada. My mentor, Dr. Frank Tough, was the first to really point that out to me. He pointed out that many non-Indigenous folks were framing urban Indigeneity as a ‘recent phenomenon’, but in fact, every city in the country is built on Indigenous land. And cities like Edmonton are built in a very very old gathering place, known in nehiyawewin (Plains Cree) as pêhonan. My friend and colleague Sara Breitkreutz, an anthropology PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, wrote her master’s dissertation on the ‘revitalization’ of Cabot Square in Montreal, wherein I understand that a lot of anxieties about race and Indigeneity came to the fore in discussions about re-designing the space. In Edmonton, there are a lot of tensions around the presence of urban Indigenous people in spaces that urban planners, architects, developers, politicians want to ‘revitalise’. Yellowknives Dene scholar Glen Coulthard argues that one of the fundamental issues at play in urban gentrification in Canada is that it is an extension of settler colonialism. So, whereas before the colonisation of Canada was framed as an issue of terra nullius, Glen argues that urban spaces that Indigenous peoples occupy are conceived as space that belongs to nobody or ‘urbs nullius’. So, I totally agree with you that urban planning continues to marginalize Indigenous people. I think that in order to change that we have to re-frame cities in Canada as what they are: urban communities built on Indigenous land. And in that, we must centre the reciprocal relationships between non-Indigenous people to Indigenous peoples, Indigenous lands, Indigenous legal orders, language, and community.

 

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Decolonizing academia

Currently there is a lot of work being done, partly inspired by Bruno Latour, challenging this idea that there is a nature-culture divide, which anthropologists now call the ‘ontological turn.’ How do you criticize this from an Indigenous perspective? 

The real crux of my critique of the ontological turn is not that it is wrong. They’re on the right track by acknowledging the nature-culture divide. They are absolutely correct, as an Indigenous feminist I read that as a hopeful moment. But we have to acknowledge that any movement is embedded in institutions and structures and the ontological turn itself has been developed by really wonderful Indigenous thinkers as well as non-Indigenous thinkers. However, as Sara Ahmed points out, it seems that white male scholars are often those that are cited within philosophy and the broader academy, and other people are ignored.

I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not.

My real critique is that Indigenous thinkers all over the world have been making exactly this point for decades, if not centuries (if you read or listen to the accounts of how the Historic Numbered Treaties in Canada were settled, Indigenous thinkers were asserting a view of the world that inherently disputes the Euro-Western nature-culture divide). But they aren’t often credited—for example, Val Napoleon and her colleague Hadley Friedland argue that Indigenous legal orders are not fragile, but in fact very robust. I think that if we’re going to talk about the nature-culture divide we need to be explicit about scholarly work as a colonial tool, and Indigenous legal structures as credible, robust, and dynamic ways of thinking. And also ways of asserting and thinking through relationships between people, whether they’re human or not. So for me, I think that the danger with the ontological turn is that it’s still coming from a Eurocentric perspective and doesn’t acknowledge, not just ideas but the laws that Indigenous people form that hold people accountable and that place the environment as a sentient thing. And so, I think we need to re-examine how we as scholars are also enacting legal governance and ethical duties toward our work.

 

Do you see that conversation happening in anthropology?

In Canada, with the work of Indigenous scholars, there is a direct acknowledgement that when Indigenous people are talking about their works, they’re not just talking about ontologies, they’re talking about concrete laws and ways of resolving conflict and engaging with the world. To be brutally honest, my experience in the UK really didn’t give me hope that scholars can be held directly accountable to the people that they’re speaking for.

People make claims about how they’re speaking with people, and I want to see us actually ask: how do you assess that? Why are there no Indigenous people on the panels? There were very few Indigenous anthropology students in the UK that I’ve met. For me, the proof will be in how the diversity of a department actually reflects the diversity of the people that we say we work with. The academy itself has to make a change. There are concrete ways that can happen and there are people that are already talking about how that can happen.

 

A new breed of environmentalists, calling themselves eco-modernists, seem to have run with ‘the ontological turn’, arguing that since ‘there is no nature’, conservationism actually won’t help, it is totally up to us to manage, maintain, and design the Earth. What would you say about these “ecomodernists” who take Latour’s argument to another level, using it to justify apolitical, technological solutions? 

Frankly, that whole idea of technology saving us from our own capitalist exploitation of the environment is just wishful thinking. What Indigenous legal orders (ontologies if you must) bring to the table is an acknowledgement that we have reciprocal duties to the land, to the other-than-human. And in those duties, there are responsibilities not to destroy entire watersheds, pollute whole lakes, raze mountains for ore. Because there are real legal-governance, social, cultural, living consequences to those actions. I’m hopeful that maybe some technological solutions can help us with the immediate crises we find ourselves in. But we cannot continue to relate to one another, to the land, to the fish, the birds, the bears, the plants in the way that we have been doing since the beginning of the Industrial revolution. Indigenous legal orders, the little bit that I can claim to understand of them, orient us to a much more accountable legal-governance relationship between all things/people/beings.

 

 

On Scottish independence

How do you see Scottish independence from an Indigenous and decolonial perspective?

I was studying at Aberdeen in the Department of Anthropology. Since October 2010, I’ve been splitting my time between Canada and Scotland. I had a front seat to the independence debate and the referendum. For me as a Métis woman with Scotch-Irish roots on my Métis side of the family, it was really really fascinating and kind of amazing to be there to witness that. Particularly because of the entanglement of histories between Scottish people and Indigenous people in Canada.

As an Indigenous person from North America I think that we need to have robust conversations about how, in the case of Scotland, at least, as a group of people that were internally colonized, or who had their self-determination violated by the Enlgish, they also, in turn, came in very large numbers to what is now Canada and participated actively in the dispossession and colonization of Indigenous peoples here. So I’m a bit weary of making direct comparisons between Scottish independence and Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty in North America, just because I think we also need to deconstruct that relationship between people re-visiting or re-creating their colonization or oppression upon another group. I call it the circulation of colonial violence. But I do think there’s a lot to be learned from these movements where people are pushing back against capitalist nation-state violation of people’s relationships to their own legal order and self-determination. Speaking as an Indigenous person from Canada, I do think there’s a lot that we can learn from Indigenous thinkers, activists, and philosophers.

 

Did you see those conversations happening in Scotland, where they link their own movements for autonomy in solidarity with Indigenous autonomy movements?

I have a complicated answer to that question. There was a lot of discourse in the Canadian media and the British media making a comparison between Quebec and Scotland, saying that Quebec independence and Scottish independence are the same thing. Or, sort of, learning from one another. But the thing with the Quebec independence movement is that it often involves a denial of Indigenous sovereignty in the province. And so I actually didn’t think the comparison in Scotland is really analogous (or helpful—because it erases or glosses over this egregious problem with the way Quebec sovereignty discourses can deny that Quebec exists because the French occupied sovereign Indigenous lands. That’s a conversation for another day, though).

The analogue, I think, for me, is that the Scots did manage to assert their own nationhood in a way by legislating and administering Canada into existence. Our first Prime Minister was a Scottish person, John A. MacDonald. This discourse of the English saying that the Scots don’t have what it takes to run a country I find really amusing. If we’re going to make really simple analogies, I think that an under-recognized discourse is how the Scots played such a heavy role in administering Canada into existence. So, in that sense, the Scots have already proven they can govern—they helped bring a whole nation state into existence! However, it’s very difficult to talk about the Scottish role or complicity in British colonialism within Scotland. I got the sense that it is a very taboo topic—it disrupts the framing of Scots as victims of the English.

I acknowledge that it’s a big ask for me as an Indigenous person to demand that 5 million Scottish people admit their complicity in the ongoing colonial realities of British Empire. But there were moments where I did have conversations with people. And people were amenable to, kind of, discussing those complicated relationships. And I found that really hopeful because colonialism is so paradoxical and complicated.

One thing I’m very weary of is when Scottish people talk about themselves as an ‘Indigenous’ people. The problem, as I learned through my time living there, is that this is a co-optation of the meaning of the word “Indigenous”, as it is defined by the United Nations. I was speaking to someone who said that some of the politicians promoting a pro-independence discourse deliberately strayed away from acknowledging Indigenous peoples (like me and other people from around the globe) who live in Scotland. This was deliberate because in Europe, Indigeneity has been co-opted by white supremacists, who talk about indigeneity as, you know, ‘Indigenous white people’ being impacted by non-white people moving in to their country. My understanding is that Pro-independence politicians didn’t want to invoke that scary xenophobic discourse, and I appreciate that. It’s so dangerous to conflate that white supremacist narrative so dominant in Europe at the moment with indigeneity of people who were moved out of the way and whose lands were taken and who were brutally oppressed to enable Europeans to colonize their nation. However, I hope we can some day talk about how Scots do have a reciprocal relationship to the peoples that were colonized by them—including Indigenous peoples around the globe.

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Decolonization in Europe

As a Métis scholar who has lived in Europe, what was your experience of attitudes toward Indigenous people? How would you like to see those conversations going forward?

I think that some people really truly do care about the impacts that European colonialism has had on the world. I think that there are care-full and accountable people everywhere, and I don’t want to paint with too-broad brush strokes. However, in my time in Europe I had a keen experience of the disconnect between the visceral issues I see and experience and bear witness to at home—such as the direct and painful impacts of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Two Spirit People and Girls on Indigenous communities in Canada— and the way these issues are abstract, intellectual, distant in Europe. In Europe, I feel that the direct and visceral [ongoing!] colonial experiences of Indigenous peoples are attenuated by space and time. It’s so hard to convey what these violent, painful issues lived and experienced by Indigenous peoples mean, in an embodied and lived sense, to Europeans when people in Europe are not physically present in our diverse and dynamic Indigenous territories in North America to see the impacts for themselves. In that sense, I think it becomes easy to romanticize and distort the ongoing colonial experience of Indigenous peoples, to not see the harm in appropriating Indigenous material culture or legal orders or stories. Whereas in Canada there is an ongoing legal-governance conversation about Indigenous nationhood and peoplehood, about the ‘nation to nation’ relationship that was acknowledged in the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples—in Europe there is none of this understanding of direct legal-governance accountability, reciprocity or indeed a very robust conversation about reconciliation (in all its nuances and complexities and problematics). So, I think that at the very least, the conversation needs to start with: colonialism is an ongoing imperative. We have ties that bind us across the ocean. Indigenous peoples are very much alive, to reference Thomas King’s (2013) work in his book The Inconvenient Indian. I get the sense that many Europeans simply assume Indigenous peoples are what King calls ‘dead Indians’ (King 2013:53) and I think that many Europeans only want to deal with the idea of Indigeneity. But, the reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.

The reality is that Indigenous peoples are very insistently ALIVE. And so the conversation needs to start from a) acknowledging how contemporary Europe still benefits from its colonial imperatives and b) understanding that any kind of contemporary conversation requires addressing Indigenous peoples as living and present.

 

What could ‘decolonizing’ European activism look like? 

I think it starts with dealing with the deeply rooted ideologies that Europe exported in its colonial work. In the UK, I see the suffering and class hierarchies and exploitation of the downtrodden as a harmful series of ideologies forced onto other peoples/nations/societies around the globe. I see the logics that Canada’s First Prime Minister, Glasgow-born John A. MacDonald, employed to send Indigenous children to residential school echoed in the ‘welfare’ (and that is really too generous a word for what the UK government is doing to the poor) policies of the UK government. So, for me, a ‘decolonizing’ European activism tackles the very intellectual and political and social theories and beliefs that were used to justify violence and dispossession around the world. It requires a conversation about what a generous, kind, caring governance and societal model would look like. It means stopping the needless suffering I saw in Europe—tackling the vicious anti-immigration rhetoric that pervades many European jurisdictions, tackling the angry anti-poor rhetoric used by the government. And dealing with ongoing racism in European institutions. Stuff like that. Loving accountability, if you will.

 

On writing

You are a prolific writer as well as an academic. How does your writing fit in with your academic pursuits? How do they compliment each other?  

Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life. I also use my blog to write about things that do not directly relate to my research, so that I have a place to hold those thoughts while I work on other academic projects.

Writing is how I stay alive. It is a way of being and a way of rooting myself in place when I don’t have a permanent home or place to attach myself to. I would say in that sense my writing is very much part of my Métis diasporic identity. It gives me a way to create home when that is something uncertain or unstable in my life.

How do ideas form that you want to write about? How do you start writing a piece, and what drives you when you write?

One of my friends noted in awe when something I wrote went viral—’you wrote that darn thing in an hour, didn’t you?’. And it’s true. I usually formulate ideas over an extended period of time, usually while I’m walking around. Walking is really important to me—it is when I sort out ideas and narratives. When I sit down to write something it’s usually already roughly planned out in my head and then I just put it to paper (or blog). I write because I want to contribute to conversations about issues that matter. I write because I want there to be a place for divergent voices. I know that quite often what I am writing wouldn’t make it through the regular channels. I love that blogs and social media are such a powerful medium for those not broadly represented in the physical make-up of the academy.

 

Looking to the future, what projects are you working on? Is there anything you’ve recently read that has inspired you?

I just started a tenure-track position so my current focus is on wrapping on the PhD and really digging my feet into my new role. I’m incredibly excited to start teaching. As for my work—I’m starting to plan out a new research project. I will be returning back to Alberta, to my home territory, to examine human-fish relationships there. To apply what I’ve learned to experiences and stories in my own homeland. So I am incredibly excited.

And the most recent thing I read that inspired me is Dr. Tracey Lindberg’s debut novel Birdie. It is about Indigenous women’s strength, power and resurgence. It left me awestruck.

 

Zoe Todd (@ZoeSTodd) (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. She is a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

All photos in this article are by Aaron Vansintjan, photographed in Go Home Bay on Anishinaabe territory. 

The binge economy past and present

Images taken from Richard Wilk's chapter in Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change
Images taken from Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change

by Aaron Vansintjan 

Recently Richard Wilk, an anthropologist at Indiana University and director of their Food Studies program, was studying 19th century newspaper advertisements and cargo records of sailing ships in Belize—a major source of mahogany at the time. Wilk noticed that advertisements of luxury products—liqueurs, expensive fabrics, pickled oysters, and champagne—weren’t just targeted to the rich.

Those employed to cut down the lumber in the bush would often, when they received their pay and came back to port, blow all of their money on festivities and  luxury products. Wilk calls this the ‘binge economy’: men who work in extractive industries, surviving on cheap rations designed to last long voyages, go on binges with their ‘mates’ whenever they get paid off.

The development of the binge economy, according to Wilk, is an extreme example of how colonialism brought about a change in both the food system and inter-personal relationships. On the one hand, a system based on preservatives, industrialized food processing, and rationing could support a large standing army without relying on pillaging. This system of rations was then extended to support a navy, and eventually a proletariat class sent to the New World, Africa and Asia to extract resources.

On the other hand, this change in how people eat food was also extremely gendered. Food systems in Western Europe were initially based on complex relationships of reciprocity and redistribution, where every member of the rural household contributed in some way to ensure an adequate diet through hunting, farming, or foraging.

But the privatization of common lands through measures like the enclosure movement that saw its greatest increase in the 18th century also caused the erosion of the availability of subsistence-based food. When land no longer became accessible to hunt or farm, masses of pauperized peasants filled the cities, uprooted from the social structuxre that previously sustained them. This led to a large surplus of labor, leading countless indebted European men to board ships, cross the ocean, and eventually work in extractive labor projects or on ships.

With the erosion of household structures and the advent of an increasingly industrialized and processed food system, these men were forced to take care of their own needs and rely on cheap and easy-to-prepare food.

Wilk’s work challenges two common arguments in today’s environmental and food movements. First, we often hear that our traditional food systems are increasingly becoming eroded. While this may be true, Wilk’s research, along with a growing field exploring the history of today’s food system, illustrates how the industrial-military food system has been a cornerstone of many traditional food systems.

Second, the idea that globalization has recently caused an unprecedented proliferation of luxury and exotic food products, allowing even lower-class Westerners to access foods originally reserved for the rich. In fact, Wilk’s research suggests that the proletariat has had access to rare luxury products from around the world for a much longer time than we often imagine. As a result we need to consider, not just the distance our food travels, but how a kind of ‘binge economy’ has been institutionalized.

In this interview, Wilk gives us a glimpse of how ‘binge economies’ can still define our lives today, and the kind of social delinking that continues to make this possible.

 

I read your article about the food system in extractive economies. You start the article putting it in context, saying that for people who are now working on food issues, we often hear this idea that we are erasing traditional food cultures, seasonal food cultures, but that actually if you look at the history of the food system, that argument  goes way, way back.

Here’s one example. Native Americans have frybread [bannock]. No Indian festivity is complete if you don’t have frybread. It is traditional. That’s just basically taking a pork ration and rendering the fat and then taking your flour ration making dough with it and frying it. If you look into it, it’s the same food that was used to feed Native Americans when they were driven off their lands and could no longer get their own subsistence.

belize 3
“The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations.”

I think in some ways the global division of labor would not have been possible if we didn’t have cheap food. Because cheap food, as we know, enables a lot of other things. For one thing, it frees up money for people to spend on other things, but also it makes it possible to squeeze wage labor much harder than they ever had before. This idea of ‘ration’ became a substitute for a whole food system, a large complex network of different kinds of food where all kinds of collaboration and cooperation was involved. And instead they take the unit of collaboration, the household–often formed around a marriage–and they split it.

The only thing that makes it possible to send a man out to the new world, or to go whaling, is cheap rations. And at the same time women are flooding into the labor market and everybody is hiring them as maids… it becomes the great age of servitude. By commercializing the things that people have traditionally gotten from households and families and making them into commodities, it was possible to turn the proletariat into a new kind of market.

Now, rations make standing armies and large navies possible. It turns an army from a horde of people looting and raping through the countryside, stripping everything of food into a more disciplined group of people who are being fed by the military.

Once you’ve got cheap protein and cheap calories down, it’s possible to send men on board of ships for much longer periods of time.

 

Luxury goods like reindeer tongue and beaver hats were often targeted at impoverished extractive workers such as those in the mahogany industry in Belize. Wilk argues that such behavior still defines our food system today

What was life like for these early extractive workers?

If you’re on a work gang, or engaged in any kind of extractive industry–logging, mining, whaling, and things that are kind of like extractive industries like herding sheep and cattle on large open parts of the countryside–all of those things are men being self-sufficient, subsisting on a ration of food that doesn’t really require any elaborate cooking. And the work is inherently dangerous, and always badly paid, usually at the end of a season or a voyage.

This new food system also made people sick, which led to a huge industry making patent medicines. You know, if you think of any service that is provided by the household system, by the collaboration of men, women, children, and all the members of the household, you can see in this era, single men learning to do those sorts of things. Sailors and loggers are all learning to sew; some of them are even knitting. They washed their own clothes. They sometimes made their own clothes.

What else do you get from being in a family? You get companionship, you get sex. There’s a lot of disagreement of how much these men were having sex with each other, and amongst historians it’s kind of a volatile issue, because the absence of evidence can never give you evidence for abstinence. They get their companionship from their buddies on board the ship, and they form a very tight male grouping.

Today if you look at gangs, if you look at drinking cultures, there’s still a lot of extractive industries out there, a  lot of mining and fishing. What you see is that the qualities and characteristics of masculine binge culture are still there. I think what we’ve done is kind of made it into a stage of life. In your late teens and early twenties, nobody’s expecting you to be particularly hard-working, and if you go out and binge on the weekends, you’re kind of excused. But then you’re supposed to grow up and become responsible.

 

Could you talk a bit about how these binge economies informed relationships between genders?

I think there’s a degree to which these binge economies nurture a kind of combative and competitive relationship between men and women. I saw this really clearly in urban Belize, where women are always trying to get men to support them, and men are always trying to get more sex while shirking their responsibility for children. So you’ve got this kind of game that goes on, which you also saw amongst loggers and miners when they were in town. When I was younger I hung around with a lot of Belizean men who talk about women in a hostile way. They have something we want, but they’re going to make me pay for it. And women say horrible things about men as well. That is not to say there are no functioning marriages and households in Belize, but infidelity is common too.

 

How do you think an extractive culture causes that kind of relationship to happen?

It tears people apart and makes them compete. I’m not so sure it’s just the extractive industries that cause that to happen. You see it in a very exaggerated way in extractive industries, but I think you see something similar amongst young people who are single. In the sense that they don’t belong to a household and there’s no obligatory relationship, there’s no contract. These are called “implicit contracts” … it’s an unspoken agreement that if you’re living with somebody, you’re going to be collaborating. It turns out that much of our life is guided by these implicit contracts. You raise kids, you send them through college, and then if you become destitute you expect them to help take care of you. And if you’re living without those kinds of contracts, itmakes you to do things in a very different way.

You don’t have to save money, why would you save money? The thing about extractive workers is that they did have relationships but mostly  with other men, and they did not put their money together. You’d call that person your ‘mate.’ Which is interesting. And ‘mates’ would often stick together for their whole lives. Because they needed somebody they could count on and somebody they could trust. The lack of obligation helps people form binge cultures.

 

We were discussing the gendered nature of binge economies. How is our current food system gendered and how does that have reflections from the past food system?

At one level you have men and women often eating completely different diets. At a more global level, fast food and convenience foods mean you really don’t need a family in order to have a comfortable life.  Personal independence shortens your time horizon so you’re not thinking so much about keeping your family going into the future.

If you have no reason to invest, why not spend it freely or run up debts on your credit card? If you think about how many Americans have no personal savings, it’s astounding 76% of the adults in the country don’t have anything in the bank for retirement. That’s really weird. It’s what I call a grasshopper logic rather than an ant logic. The ants are industrious and denying their immediate pleasures for the sake of the future.

 

Something I found interesting in your article was that you said that, on the one hand, people were reliant on these basic goods, like staples, that you can easily transport, at the same time you have these luxury food goods that also were developed and sold to the very same class that was extracting them across the world.

It’s kind of ironic.

 

So you have these luxury goods that are also made to be able to transport all across the world. It seems incredibly similar to what we have now. There’s this term, ‘food miles’, that people are using now to signify how the food we eat is more and more reliant on a global transportation system. But it seems at the same time that carrying exotic products on ships has always been a product of the extractive industry, except now we have even better technology to preserve those luxury products. It also seems to go against this idea that with the increase of globalization ‘everyone’ can now have these luxury goods… your work suggest that the proletarian class, especially the extractivist workers, has always been consuming these rare luxury products.

That’s such an interesting connection I had not made. The production of luxury goods was often done by those same extractive workers and slaves. The old money spent their money on giant houses; they were amassing durable things that were going to gain value over time. Whereas people with limited money often spend it on luxuries that have a short lifetime – what some call “populuxe” goods. They’re left with no value after they consume things.

When you look at the bills of lading for sailing ships, they’re carrying these rough fabrics, generic rums, barrels of flour and salted meat. They’re also carrying delicacies in little jars, liqueurs from all over Europe, and fortified wines, like Port. All over Europe there’s the beginnings of a popular luxury trade. They were bringing in processed foods like olives, salted tongue, cornichons. It wasn’t just the local elite that was consuming this. In Belize, when the mahogany workers who just came in from working in the bush got paid, luxuries meant a great deal to them. This is a point that I’m constantly having to make to people. People think that poor people don’t, or shouldn’t, buy expensive things. And the thing is that if you’re poor, luxury is much more meaningful than if you’re rich. If you’re rich, you have luxury all the time. It’s poor people who have to work and scrimp and save to have a big steak dinner. For those people it really means something to have a fancy meal.

During the gold rush merchants would haul these wagons full of ice imported from Alaska, oysters from the Pacific Northwest, champagne from France, and they’d carry it up the Sierra because if you struck gold you were going to take all your buddies and have champagne and oysters, and food cooked by a real French chef.

 We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you.

How do you see the food system that was developed in colonialism reflected today? And how has it changed since then?

Something that I’ve been looking at in the last couple of years is that extractive industries had a tendency to destroy  resources. They killed almost all the whales. Sometimes a whole industry would grow based on something like herring, but then the herring would disappear or move somewhere else. At the other end, because of fashion tastes are changing all the time. People who were hunting for alligators to make alligator-skin bags might be out of work 10 years later because tastes changed in Paris.

It’s similar now, but it’s just become more spatially dispersed and complicated. We’re still working for luxuries, everybody’s still in debt of one kind or another. It’s not so much that you have a single employer who is exploiting you. It’s much more diffuse than that. And that means that it’s hard to figure out who’s screwing you. If you seek to go behind the brand and find out where things are really made, it’s really hard to find information.

 

Richard Wilk is the director of the Food Studies Program in the Indiana University Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on consumer culture, past and present; gender; households; and the food culture in Belize. He has written over 140 papers and book chapters, demonstrating his ability to deftly weave together varying and complex issues—such as energy use, mass media, and local food movements—in a lucid, careful, and engaging manner.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change in Barcelona, Spain. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization and degrowth, and long bicycle rides.