Sand talking: can indigenous wisdom save the world?

I’ve only recently come across Tyson Yunkaporta’s book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World but I thought I’d take a breather from my present blog cycle by taking a brief look at it. Actually, it’s not really a breather, as many of its themes run close to those I examine in my own book. Yunkaporta offers far more food for thought than I can cover in a blog post, so here I’m just going to pick out a few themes that interest me by way of ten discussion points. Then, in the next two or three posts it’ll be time to wrap up this sub-section of the blog cycle concerning property issues in a small farm future. But they may be a couple of weeks coming because this is a busy time of year for me in the woods.

It’s not the job of indigenous people or indigenous thinking to save your ass.

I’ve seen a few online reviews of Yunkaporta’s book that, referencing its subtitle, complain because its author doesn’t lay out a clear, implementable plan for how indigenous thinking can, in fact, save the world.

As I see it, this objection is precisely the problem that the book tries to combat. Our contemporary global civilization is very attached to complete, debugged, plugin fixes, whether they derive from engineering (“High carbon energy? No problem – here, have this nuclear power station”) or social organization (“Isolated, consumerist anomie? No problem – here, have this indigenous thinking”).

Nope, if indigenous thinking is truly going to save the world it’ll be a long-haul thing in which people learn or relearn how to become indigenous to their local place in locally specific ways. There is no clear, implementable plan. There is just long-term cultural practice.

Indigeneity is a practice and a relation, not a thing

What or who counts as indigenous is a bottomless rabbit hole, and it depends very much on the context. I think Yunkaporta captures these complexities well with light brushstrokes and sparkling examples, like the boy who recites the digits of pi as part of his indigenous practice, the elder who has a new understanding of cane toads that has changed them on his Country, or the notion that chicken wings and curry powder sometimes fit the definition of aboriginal food more plausibly than kangaroo meat.

For the purposes of his book, Yunkaporta says, “an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base. Indigenous Knowledge is any application of those memories as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances” (pp.41-2)

Of course, in some circumstances it would be appropriate to define Indigenous people much more narrowly. In others, perhaps yet more broadly. But I think Yunkaporta’s definition is about the right optic for invoking Indigeneity as a general response to present global problems. There’s a more essentializing politics around who can or can’t claim to be indigenous which can be appropriate in specific political and historical circumstances. But to claim that ‘indigenous thinking can save the world’ surely implies that everybody can access indigenous thought, and can therefore be or learn to be indigenous. Yunkaporta stakes a claim on this ground and in my view rises impressively to the challenge of making it meaningful. In his words, “The assistance people need is not in learning about Aboriginal Knowledge but in remembering their own” (p.163).

I should note in passing that when the term ‘indigenous people’ is used here in England it’s usually a codeword for ‘white people’. Deliberately or otherwise, it’s invested with a sense of ‘here first’ historical priority that excludes black and minority ethnic people. In settler colonies like Yunkaporta’s Australia, on the other hand, historical priority of course excludes white people, with very different political implications. Which is to say that context matters. And is complex.

Cultures that can adapt and last over time are group efforts aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.

This is almost a direct quotation from page 70 of the book, and perhaps another iteration of the preceding points. It bears reflection.

Indigenous knowledge doesn’t prosper in cities or metropoles

Cities are great. They can be wonderful places to live. They can be real testaments to human skill and beauty. But they suck resources from other places, and they are not sustainable. The same applies to colonial metropoles, and the Global North lifeways that suck resources from the Global South. These modes of living are not aligned with the patterns of creation discerned from living within a specific landscape.

When European colonizers came across the remains of ancient cities in other parts of the world such as Great Zimbabwe, they often couldn’t believe that peoples they considered inferior to themselves could have built them. Thankfully, we now know better. But admission to the rollcall of city-builders, of civilizations, comes at the price of being disbarred from the rollcall of Indigenous people. As Yunkaporta puts it:

the ancient peoples of Zimbabwe who once made cities of stone lived within a civilization, until it inevitably collapsed. This was not an indigenous culture just because its inhabitants had dark skin. Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves. They can never be indigenous until they abandon their city-building culture, a lesson the Elders of Zimbabwe have handed down from bitter experience through deep time (p.70)

I can think of reasonable counter-arguments to this position. But not ones I can subscribe to as easily as to Yunkaporta’s one, unless we abandon the notion that indigeneity means anything at all. And if it does, I must note the radicalism of Yunkaporta’s assertion. People can’t really be both indigenous and ‘civilized’ (or citified). No surprise that this issue has divided indigenous communities in terms of directions for cultural development.

Individual people are self-differentiating nodes in a network.

I’ve been banging on for years about the clunky way we so often deprecate ‘individualism’ and promote ‘collectivism’ (or vice versa) in contemporary society, and I found Yunkaporta’s discussion a breath of fresh air in this respect, albeit a bit light on detail. Here’s my take home: Indigenous people are people who for the most part can competently furnish their own individual livelihood in a day-to-day way and actively seek ways to enhance their autonomy and their difference from other people, while at the same time recognizing and honouring the fact that they’re inherently a part of a wider community of other people, kin and non-kin, with whom they must interact in appropriate ways and only among whom can they realize some of life’s fundamental values.

Linking this to my present writing about property rights, I’d suggest that in a country like the UK and, I suspect, the USA, making this individual-in-community aspect work in culturally appropriate ways that address present problems would probably involve the distributist solution of making securely tenured small farms set within wider local commons widely available. Whereas among Indigenous communities in Australia and elsewhere it probably wouldn’t.

People are equals who respect each other’s points of view, but are cautious with imparting knowledge.

Yunkaporta describes what he calls the “foundational flaw, that Luciferian lie: ‘I am greater than you; you are lesser than me’” (p.35) and generally critiques what he often refers to as ‘narcissists’ or ‘narcissist flash mobs’. I suspect most of us might agree without looking too hard at ourselves and how we might ourselves be a part of those mobs, kind of in the way that most drivers think they have above average driving ability.

As per Christopher Boehm’s work that I mentioned in a recent post, it seems that many indigenous societies have carefully built institutions aimed at defusing the ‘Luciferian lie’, but even then need to work hard on a daily basis not to fall foul of it. I’ve certainly fallen foul of it often enough, in both directions. Modern political ideologies fall foul of it too, built as they often are around an opposition to hostile others who they assume won’t embrace the truth due to delusion or rank bad faith. The notion of respecting other points of view easily sounds like a feeble liberal plea for tolerance. But if you imagine actually living it with the people you interact with on a daily basis, it has different and more challenging implications.

Yunkaporta returns often in his book to the idea of what we might call situated knowledge – particular people know certain things, and are quite choosy about who they’ll share this knowledge with – a hierarchy of a sort. Often this knowledge is of a sacred or spiritual kind, and we moderns are apt to be dismissive of it, preferring to focus on the ‘real’ business of human ecology and human power relationships (shades of the idealism-materialism distinction I recently discussed). Murray Bookchin argued, for example, that such sacred knowledge was a means for elders to retain social control when their waning physical prowess prevented them from asserting their power more directly.

I think this is mistaken, and goes some way to explaining the mess we’ve got ourselves into. Real material practices – creating a livelihood from the land – are essential to human life, but they are not the only things that are essential to human life, and material skill practiced without spiritual wisdom leads us astray. In Yunkaporta’s world, people receive the gift of knowledge when they demonstrate the humility and maturity to use it wisely. An example to be followed?

Sustainable systems must be based on knowledges of a demotic origin.

Yunkaporta explains this far better than I could, so I’ll just quote him – “Sustainable systems cannot be manufactured by individuals or appointed committees, particularly during times of intense transition and upheaval. For those seeking sustainability practices from Indigenous cultures it is important to focus on both ancient and contemporary knowledge of a demotic origin, rather than individual inventions or amendments. That is not to say that all demotic innovations are benevolent. But if you listen to many voices and stories, and discern a deep and complex pattern emerging, you can usually determine what is real” (p.72)

For me, these observations have potentially profound implications that run quite counter to the way we usually implement technologies and politics in the modern world. I won’t dwell on those implications here, although I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts. I’ll just say that, for me, the passage above underlines the fact that we have a big job on our hands to make contemporary societies sustainable. And that a good starting point would be to develop self-reliant small-scale local farming societies.

Embrace storied surfaces and bumpy schedules.

At one point, Yunkaporta comments in passing on the difference between Indigenous experiences of time and that of people “immersed in flat schedules and story-less surfaces” (p.45). This spoke to me as I walked my midwinter holding. Here in wet, warm Somerset, there’s rarely any snow to make good the retreat of summer’s verdant covering, and my graffiti in the landscape – every rutted track or scoured patch of soil, every half-finished or half-decayed project, the scrap wood, the metal, the plastic, above all the plastic – seems like both an unflattering mirror to my own ugliness and a living calendar that drums its fingers impatiently at my laziness.

But for all that, the surfaces of my farm are not flat, and its impossible schedules jostle together in languages of minutes, weeks, years, lifetimes, eons, nevers and always. Everywhere I look, there are stories of what we’ve done and the things that have happened in the near twenty years we’ve been here that other people probably wouldn’t notice. So, though my farm is far from pristine, I take some comfort from Yunkaporta’s words that it’s at least alive. I remember reading somewhere about an Australian aborigine laughing at how white folks fastidiously tried to collect up and hide their rubbish, whereas the aboriginal way was to jettison things and thus inscribe themselves into the landscape – the irony being that white folks can never collect up enough of their clutter to stop it infesting the world, all the while failing to notice that aborigines had written their landscapes at all.

The lesson I take from this is to embrace storied surfaces, bumpy schedules and acts of forgiving.

Don’t search too hard for sovereignty

Yunkaporta has many interesting things to say about how people claim identity and authority, often via entertaining little gems like “African-American visitors are often offended when they drop in on Indigenous centres in our universities and hear us using the term ‘black’ to describe ourselves, when so many of us can no longer scrape together enough melanin to scare off a taxi” (p.63).

Wrangling over such claims to personal identity is often an important and necessary game, but there’s a parallel, and harder, game that might be worth giving more attention to – wrangling over the claims of states and territorial jurisdictions to define us and the limits of our agency. Yunkaporta discusses the way that claims to aboriginal title in Australia must be historically justified in law by reference to the situation at the point of British colonial subjection – and when Indigenous people play that game, they implicitly recognize British sovereignty in the process of claiming their own. I think this speaks to more general questions about the power of states over people which will only loom larger in the years ahead.

I’ll be writing several more posts on themes related to this point. For now, I’ll just summarize them by suggesting it’s unwise to search too hard for political authority in lines on a map or the lines in our minds drawn by those territorial histories.

Distribute the means to violence

A point related to the preceding one, which again Yunkaporta expresses far more concisely and elegantly than I can, so I will leave him with the last word:

in our culture we avoid the unsustainable practice of concentrating violence into the hands of one privileged group, or outsourcing violence to other places so we can enjoy the fruits of it without having to see it. Violence is part of creation and it is distributed evenly among all agents in sustainable systems to minimize the damage it can do (p.202)

65 thoughts on “Sand talking: can indigenous wisdom save the world?

  1. I follow most everything on SFF and since about this time last year have been reading and listening to Yunkaporta. He has a fairly prolific podcast output on The Other Others- well worth a listen. He is currently broadcasting many of the conversations which will form the basis of the Sand Talk follow up. He is also a guest on many other podcasts, I think I originally found him as an interviewee on Crazy Town from the Post Carbon Institute.
    Anyway as a general subscriber to the sort of future you envisage I often wonder what Yunkaporta would have to say about it.
    Seems his ideas are born of a culture much closer to its land based, non extractive orignins then we here in the UK. Whilst I find I generally agree with his outlook, I dont know if the small farm can exist without some form of civilisation (larger organisational/technological structures at least). How can we bring the two visions together? Can the small farm exist without some form of technical class/trades (whatever) supporting it?
    I would very much like to hear the two of you yarning.

    • There is a broad continuum of small farm types, from barely farming at all (mostly gathering and hunting), to swidden farming, to medieval village farming, to yeoman farming, all of which might use another broad continuum of more or less effective farming techniques. In the end, it is the combination of farm type and techniques used that creates enough energy surplus (in the form of food) to allow “civilization” to happen (in the form of non-farming populations).

      So, civilization is dependent on small farms, not the other way around, and there have always been many places around the world in which small farms produced little surplus beyond that needed for the farm population and civilization never developed at all.

  2. I have a question about resources…

    For ALL humans, regardless of situation or context, oxygen, water, food… these are resources. If I come to you and take your water or food – then I might rightfully be accused of “sucking resources” away from you (read Global North sucking resources from the Global South).

    Rare earth elements are not necessary for the human diet. No human must have rare earth elements to survive in a pre-modern context. [there may be medical devises necessary to prolong life that do employ rare earths… but this leads to the next aspect of my question].

    So if in the context of one’s indigenous lifeway there is no call for rare earth elements, do these elements represent resources?

    Is knowledge a resource?

    If I know how to make a bowl from a lump of clay, and someone comes along and learns from me how to make a bowl … are they sucking resources from me?

    • keywords:
      intangible resources
      intellectual property
      externalized costs

      “For example, De Gregori 1987, p. 1241 defines resources as ‘usable and serviceable to human beings’. Obviously, this is an anthropocentric view which is still quite common and dominant in economic reasoning.5 But he provides an even wider definition of resources which shall be followed here; they are defined as a ‘functional relationship’ (p. 1243). I think this is the very basic idea of resources in a most general sense; it describes a relation, it is a relational term. In this sense, resource means anything that is or could be entirely or partly of some use for something else – whatever these ‘things’ are and however the use und ends are defined and interpreted.”

      Quoted from “Intangible Resources – a Categorial System of Knowledge and other Intangible Assets”


      Externalized costs of battery storage
      “Environmental impacts of battery technology arise primarily from substantial quantities of embodied energy required and the mining of rare-earth materials. Li-ion batteries are by far the most thoroughly studied subject and we will assume that their external cost also applies to other battery chemistries. A very recent review of 113 studies has provided a good summary of the environmental impacts of Li-ion batteries…”

      “Key for environmental impacts: ADP = Abiotic depletion, AP = Acidification, GWP = global warming potential, EP = Eutrophication, ODP = Ozone depletion and HTP = Human toxicity.”

      Quoted from:

    • Hey Clem,

      That’s an excellent question!
      And I have no fundamental objection to you coming over to my house and taking all the Vanadium and Niobium from my yard.

      Except that you must not disturb the garden or the trees or my house or garage.

      The extraction of minerals is the object for the miners, but the total disruption of the landscape and ruination of the soil is the object for the residents.
      And they are called “rare earth” not because they are rare, but because they are diffuse. You’ll need to ruin many acres of land to make even a small number of fancy magnets.

      I guess this is as good a way as any, to suggest that when we start calling the land and living things around us “resources” we probably have some kind of violence in mind…

      And if you come over to my house and show me how to make a bowl, I’ll give you some tea and cookies.

      • Thanks Eric F…

        Except that you must not disturb the garden or the trees or my house or garage.
        A very generous offer – and a very insightful connection back to the environmental impact (as it currently is manifest).

        Before we walk away from the thought, lets come round to your property rights in making the demand that your garden, trees, house or garage not be violated. [I tend to agree with your position… but]

        US property rights are not absolute and if the TPTB decide there is a greater public interest in the rare earths on your property there may be a move to “take” either through eminent domain or some sort of government intervention. Thus the sucking might be labeled Global North sucking from the Global North. Land reclamation following the harvest of resources is seldom (ever??) to the status at the onset of the harvest (read mining, diversion, or simple harvest). So in this sense I agree with your concern.

        In this vein then, even hunter gatherers are harvesting from a habitat and changing it – sometimes as drastically as moderns (use of fire to torch a landscape for instance). And in this measure then one could argue the Global South is sucking from the Global South. [all this talk of sucking really sucks 🙁 ]

        You also said:

        I guess this is as good a way as any, to suggest that when we start calling the land and living things around us “resources” we probably have some kind of violence in mind…

        I can’t go so far as “probably”. I don’t imagine it violent to eat other living things as a means to sustain my own life. True enough, if it is an animal I will be killing it for my nourishment… for plants one can avoid killing if only consuming a portion of the plant (a leaf say), and if this is violence too, then all nature around us is necessarily violent and we’ll need to measure how much violence we’ll tolerate.

        So resources exist, all plants and animals use them as necessary (and perhaps the better argument might be that we humans often use resources beyond necessary).

        We’ll have to punch some possible timings into our magnetically dependent (and rare earth enabled) calendars to find a time for the pot throwing demonstration – but your generous offer of hospitality is most appreciated.

  3. Thanks for this detailed review of an extremely important book, Chris. I read it for the third time at the end of last year and it now has even more underlinings and sticky notes in it than before. I agree with the lessons you have taken from it, but there are plenty more and they will be specific to each reader, as the book covers a lot of ground. To those readers who (like me) are descendants of settler colonists, there is much to ponder about where our ancestors went wrong. For those with an interest in education and psychology there is lots of food for thought; if you are interested in languages then you can see if you can find an ‘pre-civilised’ language or its descendant which does pronouns by gender rather than relationship (I couldn’t); and if thinking about epistemology and differing ontologies appeals then try busting your brain on the implications of why those languages use the same word for ‘space’ and time’. (In Maori it is ‘wa’ or ‘takiwa’.)

  4. [continued] All of this and much more shared with humour and grace, and descriptions of mnemonic carvings Yunkaporta made with symbols relevant to the subject matter of each chapter. This book is a taonga (treasure) which repays deep reading.

  5. So … quick responses to a few points –

    Good reminder from Joe that civilizations depend on small farms and not vice versa. But maybe there’s an arc to Hanno’s question along the lines that farming can more easily push beyond the indigenous (as defined by Yunkaporta) towards increased input/output and become reliant on that new non-indigenous grounding. Perhaps I could invoke Graeber & Wengrow on this point to suggest that yes this can happen, but maybe we can stop it if we want to…

    To Clem’s comment, I’m not sure if the main intent is to suggest that the word ‘resource’ is sloppy because it conflates too many different things, or to suggest that the Global North is not a net beneficiary of resources or whatever else we might call them from the Global South. I might concede the first point, but not the second.

    As I see it, yes knowledge is a resource, or some other term if you prefer (I take Eric’s point about the violent potential of the word) … ‘human capital’ is another equally problematic one. Knowing how to speak a language, throw a pot or any number of other things are potentially necessary resources, human capital or patrimony (…yet another tricky word) for being able to live a congenial life and realize one’s values.

    Whether these resources are ‘sucked’ or not depends on the political context. If you teach me your language or how to throw a pot because you’re an elder in my group or because I wanted to learn them from you, then no I won’t be sucking resources from you. If you put me in a residential school, force me to learn your language and punish me for using mine until my whole generation has almost forgotten it, or if you create an economy around me in which I have no option but to make the pots you’ve shown me how to manufacture on terms that suit you more than me then perhaps you are.

    To Steve’s environmental impacts of lithium, we might add the social impacts for people who live near where it’s mined and who (have to) work in the mines. Saurav Roy has done some interesting work on this, I think – I’ll ask him if he’d like to comment here.

    Agree with your comments Christine – I barely scratched the surface of what’s in the book. For sure it raises deep questions about colonialism. And talking of taonga, I’ll be drawing on debates about gift economies in my next post, where that particular concept and Maori practices generally have loomed large.

    Thanks for the other comments and links – much to ponder and follow up!

    • On the use of ‘resources’ I am somewhat troubled by the extra wide inclusion for this particular discussion, but there is still a matter of coming to some understanding of where the balance might be found between employing resources between the North and South.

      You’ve nicely outlined several cases where some actors (primarily North) have dominated others (primarily South). And these impolite aggressions are regrettable. We will do well to avoid this sort of behavior toward one another. Not for nothing, many of these aggressions have been foisted onto others within a similar geography – so avoiding ‘sucking’ as a term could go hand in hand with avoiding the erection geographic silos for this conversation. Colonialism might be a better fit, or simple banditry.

      Indigenous lifeways have not always avoided violent behaviors either. So championing long term thinking of indigenous peoples to the expense of more recent thought patterns doesn’t appear to me to offer a solution to violence between members of our own species. I do think the ideas expressed by Tyson Yunkaporta are worth consideration, and I’m happy you’ve brought them to my attention. But I’m not following how a balance sheet between G North and G South and the relative sucking we all participate in comes back to his thought process there.

  6. Very interesting Chris.

    I wanted to comment a bit on the second point, “Indigeneity is a practice and a relation, not a thing”, as I have the benefit of living in an interesting place in the world.

    Most of British Columbia is unceded territory. There are communities on Vancouver Island, where I live, that experienced contact almost within living memory.

    This brings a political energy that is not so evident in most of Eastern Canada. Canada has also been wrestling with our relationship with indigenous peoples for a while, and seriously wrestling for a decade or so.

    An expansion on the “practice and relation” was taught to me during the Joseph Boyden scandal—in which it was revealed that a very famous indigenous author was in fact white. A friend said, “It is not just about who you claim, it is about who claims you.” Boyden claimed indigeneity, but was not claimed in any meaningful way.

    And so unrooted colonizers are very bent out of shape about blood quantum and whatnot, but Indigenous people may not be. In fact, this friends husband is Black, and he has now been claimed by the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw.

    I have found it very clarifying to emphasize the Nation in First Nation. They really are separate countries, and they can offer citizenship to whomever they like. Just as I, as a Canadian, have no input over the citizenship decisions of the US or the UK, I have no input over the citizenship decisions of the Pachedaht, or the Squamish, and whatever tests of blood, appearance, diet, activity, or technology I may wish to apply are irrelevant.

    Regarding “an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base. Indigenous Knowledge is any application of those memories as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances”, I have a Cree acquaintance who asks if you are really Indian if you are not out on the land. This is a deeply unpopular question, as so many Indigenous people were stolen by the government and forced into re-education and assimilation compounds.

    This quote is important to the “here first” approach. Here First is necessary, but not sufficient. You have to also be applying these memories to improve circumstances.
    And if you are living a land-based, indigenous, life, then you can invite and welcome whomever you like to be part of that community. And so immigrants can be claimed by Indigenous Brits, and white people who are not living sustainably on the land should keep their pie-hole shut about it.

    I will say that white North Americans can melt down quickly when they contemplate indigeneity in the rest of the world. We are very used to whiteness equalling colonizer, which falls apart across much of Europe, at least functionally. Is anybody going to argue the Anglo-Saxons are not indigenous because they have only been on the land for a millennia? From my standpoint, that would be silly.

    We also don’t tend to think of Pakistanis or Cambodians as indigenous. We have a lot of hangups. 🙂

    • Thanks for this, Ruben. The perspective of treating First Nations as actual nations is helpful to me (also a Canadian, but living in the UK for nearly 22 years).

  7. I’ll admit that I have just a smidge of interest in socio or anthropology. I’m not clear on why indigeneity is important going forward. A million years ago were the inhabitants of England white ? Other than that, Sand Talking sounds like it could be an insightful book. More later.

  8. Finished Sand Talk last month, and am half way through GW right now. Some interesting resonances, from quite different takes on our situation.

    For me, bottom line from Sand Talk was that there are no short cuts, and indigeniety takes time. How much? I guess it’s a matter of degree, but generations.

    The book was a good reminder to me that while I think of indigeniety as a physical relation to the local natural community, for humans, the necessary behavior patterns have to be preserved and passed on through cultural memory. Once that link is broken, it has to be started over again from scratch.

    Here in Wisconsin, there are farmers of European descent that have family farmed the same plot for over 100 years, and because of all the fossil fuel intermediation and ease, are NOT indigenous. They have been insulated from many mistakes, so have only made a small part of the journey.

    Once we were all indigenous, and we all will be once again. It’s like so many other discussions about our overshoot condition- we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Unfortunately, it looks like it will be the hard way.

    In the transition period, hunter gatherer lifestyles will be impossible for wide swaths of the world, till our tattered ecosystems recover, so for the near term, small farms it is.

    I’ve got more to say on GW, once I’m finished, if you’ll pardon the mistimed comment ( hazelnuts!).

  9. Today I just happened to be reading a section in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass that discusses indigeneity.

    “Immigrants cannot by definition be indigenous. Indigenous is a birthright word. No amount of time or caring changes history or substitutes for soul-deep fusion with the land.”

    She goes on with a comparison of immigrants to the Common Plantain. The plantain was introduced by Europeans to NA but is not “invasive” like Kudzu or Himalayan blackberry. It “is not like that. Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds.”

    “Plantain is not indigenous but “naturalized”.

  10. More comments, more responses…

    On ‘resource sucking’ – bold dualities like Global North/Global South or indigenous/non-indigenous are always more complicated in practice. But it can be worth hanging on to the big picture. In ‘Global Inequality’ Branko Milanovic says that in the early 19th century the most decisive thing determining one’s access to resources (as measured by income) globally was class (whether you were ‘well born’) and not country, whereas ever since then it’s been country and not class (i.e. almost everyone in, say, the UK or the US is better off than almost everyone in, say, Burundi).

    So yes there’s a class or intra-country ‘suck’, but the larger reality of the world today is a Global South to Global North ‘suck’. It may indeed be better termed colonialism, neocolonialism or banditry than a ‘resource suck’ – the important point is that it’s an active historical process in which some people’s relatively high wellbeing comes at the expense of other people’s relatively low wellbeing.

    I agree that not all indigenous practices historically have been ecologically benign, but poised as we are on the verge of climate catastrophe and a mass extinction event there are orders of magnitude between malign indigenous practices and malign modernist ones. Given the long-term sustainability of practices like fire-stick farming, I’m not sure that it can be described as a resource suck from Global South to Global South … though from a non-anthropocentric optic there may be organisms that would call it a resource suck if they could speak to us.

    Various other interesting comments on the nature of indigeneity – thanks all. Ruben’s point about the ‘nation’ in first nation is interesting. Especially alongside Josh’s quotation from Kimmerer. One of the problems I guess is that here in the UK, for example, a lot of people have been ‘claimed’ as British – the nationality in their passport says ‘British’ – but are not accepted as ‘really’ British by a significant portion of the population (including the Government, with its present legislation). To which one response is that ‘Britain’ means the Atlantic slave system and worldwide colonialism as well as a small country on the edge of the European subcontinent, so yes anyone whose ancestry was implicated in any of that IS ‘really’ British. But that won’t persuade those operating with a racial or ethno-nationalist understanding of the term. And so these arguments go on.

    Re Kimmerer, you can’t be indigenous by definition if you’re an immigrant if you define indigeneity as local birth (not how Yunkaporta defines it, of course). But I have a problem with her ‘soul deep fusion with the land’ point. As per Ruben’s comment, I might put it the other way round. You can’t be indigenous unless you have a soul deep fusion with the land, which a lot of locally-born people might not possess – and some incomers, or certainly their children, might. The case of the Finndians is kind of interesting here.

    Lots more to unpick on the meanings and histories behind indigeneity, what the term reveals and what it conceals. But I’ll have to leave it there for now.

    • I think Kimmerer would agree with you. Otherwise one of the main themes of her book falls apart. She just choses to use the word “naturalized” for those newcomers who develop “soul deep fusion with the land”, reserving “indigenous” for her ancestors and descendants. Seems like a possibly useful distinction given what seems to me to be an attempt to overload the definition of indigenous. I haven’t read Sand Talk yet but plan to maybe I’ll have a different understanding once I do.

      • I also agree that Chris has got her primary take on indigeneity right. I’m only halfway though Braiding Sweetgrass, but so far her emphasis is on the cultural-psychological aspects of one’s relation to the land, not ancestral identity or place of birth.

        She wants to persuade us who are non-indigenous that we should adopt indigenous emotional and attitudinal relationships with our surrounding natural environment, to the benefit of ourselves and the environment. She wants everyone to become indigenous in its most important aspect. If that were impossible or unimportant, why write a book?

        • She wants to persuade us who are non-indigenous that we should adopt indigenous emotional and attitudinal relationships with our surrounding natural environment, to the benefit of ourselves and the environment. She wants everyone to become indigenous in its most important aspect. If that were impossible or unimportant, why write a book?
          Depends what the ” indigenous ” were like , round here it was the Comanche a vicious nasty tribe roundly hated by everyone long before Europeans got here ,preying on other tribes , murder of and enslaving anyone they could catch they certainly were not nice people .

          • I think everyone would agree that there has been a lot of warfare between and within indigenous groups, but Kimmerer is (so far) more interested in indigenous relationships to the land than between tribes.

    • Now we’re getting close…
      the important point is that it’s an active historical process in which some people’s relatively high wellbeing comes at the expense of other people’s relatively low wellbeing.

      This latter description can move us to more readily point fingers and sift out bad actors from better ones. Finding those among us inflicting the greatest offense as apart from those trying to make matters better for all of us.

      I would have a similar disagreement with Branko if this were his blog:

      In ‘Global Inequality’ Branko Milanovic says that in the early 19th century the most decisive thing determining one’s access to resources (as measured by income) globally was class (whether you were ‘well born’) and not country, whereas ever since then it’s been country and not class (i.e. almost everyone in, say, the UK or the US is better off than almost everyone in, say, Burundi).

      There may be a hint of reality in his analysis here, but for me the truth on the ground is far more complicated. You can live in the UK or US and be quite poor, or quite oppressed and thus very unhappy (imisserated). At the same time one can live in Burundi and have a remarkably fulfilling life. Yes – the US citizen considered ‘poor’ may well have an income (resource extraction) orders of magnitude higher than that of the median income citizen of Burundi… but this is not an apples to apples comparison. Access to resources (cost of living) is a concept in need of much more nuance than we’ve allowed. Not only could we evaluate resource access by some index measure (ala Gini Coefficient, or a happiness coefficient), but we could also take into consideration opportunities for health care, communication, freedom, and so forth.

      I agree there are lots of resources being gobbled up by the Global North relative to resource capture by the Global South. But I’m not convinced that the degree of resource capture in intimately tied to wellbeing. Extreme levels of inequality matter… they matter a great deal. But I pin less significance on geography than Branko does. There are selfish and greedy folks on all continents and dealing with them where they are found would, for me at least, move us further toward peace and prosperity for all.

      • “But I’m not convinced that the degree of resource capture is intimately tied to wellbeing”


        And all the more reason to stop all that futile resource capturing, and learn how to be poor and happy.

  11. Sounds like a book worth reading – thanks for the review Chris.

    We’ve wrangled over the definition of indigineity here before, so I won’t revisit those points directly, but do think it’s worth touching on them. Yunkaporta’s definition is very interesting to me in being present-focused – there is no explicit appeal to ancestry. This is very useful in terms of the importance of context that you highlight re indigeneity in different parts of the world, and in exposing the fake ‘indigineity’ claimed by some people in the global core – in response to Ruben’s question, we can argue that present-day ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are not indigenous because that group name is used largely to categorise white people of English ‘heritage’ wherever and whatever they’re doing in the world, and not to label people with a sustainable relationship to land in a particular part of Europe.

    The question then becomes how does one ‘retain’ memories of ‘life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base’? Clearly that has to happen through being brought up in such a life-way, which may imply a significance for immediate ancestry, but need not if one is adopted into that life-way for whataver reason. So I can see your point when you describe ‘a long-haul thing in which people learn or relearn how to become indigenous to their local place in locally specific ways’.

    I can see how that works well as a goal, but I think it’s important to recognise the future-facing nature of this ‘indigeneity’. We here in the UK are not indigenous now (as we do not retain memories of sustainable life-ways in this land), but we might hope that the inheritors of the society we hope to build will be indigenous. But there’s an irony there, because those inheritors won’t need to call themselves ‘indigenous’ unless they feel their own life-ways are threatened by those of their contemporaries who insist in living non-sustaninable lives at the espense of the land. So there remains an antagonistic element to any explicit claim to indigineity, founded in its relation to colonialism (as per our earlier discussions on this).

    I don’t know how Yunkaporta deals with this antagonism – I’ll have to read the book! – but your comments on sovereignty struck me. Fair enough, legal recourse to indigenieity is hampered by using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. But some sense of indigenous sovereignty is politically necessary in the world today as a defense against neo-colonial offenses. Such sovereignty is inevitably inflected by the history of colonial territorial claims and yet is no less necessary for that. Ruben’s point about First Nations as nations is important here (and also well-made by ‘The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save our Earth’ by the Red Nation, a useful comnpanion to Ajl’s book).

    So our practice in the global core may look forward to the day when we have created ‘indigenous’ societies here, in a part of the globe that largely lacks them, but the practical use of ‘indigenous knowledge’ ‘as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances’ is only really impossible among communties that can claim indigeneity in the here and now. The importance of this lies not only in valuing their life-ways in and of themselves but in the amount of the world’s remaining complex biodiversity that lies within indigenous stewardship.

    • Andrew,

      You write, “the practical use of ‘indigenous knowledge’ ‘as living knowledge to improve present and future circumstances’ is only really impossible among communties that can claim indigeneity in the here and now”.

      Do you mean “only really possible”?

      If so, do you propose that indigenous knowledge is not transferable from one location (or people or land…) to another?

      I would say that by Yunkaporta’s definition I am not, myself, indigenous to anywhere. But when I create biochar for my allotment, or when I forage elderflowers or blackberries to make wine, or when I dehydrate wild mushrooms, or collect lime (linden) flowers for tea, am I not making use of indigenous knowledge, in some sense? Certainly I am doing these things as part of an intentional attempt at living more sustainably in the place I find myself.

      Making biochar on a small scale is obviously a very different sort of knowledge and practice to swidden agriculture or Terra preta, but it certainly has roots in those. The foraging I learned growing up is somewhat different than what I do now, as Saskatoon berries were the main thing where I spent my summers; if I went back to Saskatchewan tomorrow and tried to forage as much as I do here, I would get pretty hungry, because there are so many plants I don’t know (and also because winter there is so much colder than here); but I do know some, despite so much of my experience being UK-based.

      So, while I am not indigenous to anywhere, I hope I am contributing, in some small way, to a culture of practice and knowledge that may lead to indigeneity. In doing so, I have absolutely no qualms about applying knowledge from indigenous or traditional sources.

      (I wonder, too, about the interplay of religion and indigeneity; but that is another tangent.)

      • Yes, a typo, thanks Kathryn – I’d blame autocorrect but it was probably just me!

        ‘So, while I am not indigenous to anywhere, I hope I am contributing, in some small way, to a culture of practice and knowledge that may lead to indigeneity. In doing so, I have absolutely no qualms about applying knowledge from indigenous or traditional sources.’

        I agree with this. My clarification would be to acknowledge that the agrarian practices within indigenous knowledge are transferrable, dependent only on the similarity of ecological contexts in which they work best. But Indigenous Knowledge, working with Yunkaporta’s definition, is more than that, because it’s about reproducing the sustainable relationships a pre-existing indigenous community has with its land.

        This is, among other things, a political act resisting neo-colonial impositions in the global periphery. We in the core have our own obstacles in the way of creating sustainable land-based life-ways, and the way forward here will have to be different, even if some of the specific agrarian techniques are the same.

        • Yup .
          My indigenous agricultural knowledge comes from living and working in the agri business in England for 40 years , does it transcribe to TX , a resounding no !

  12. I think a real challenge of this conversation, and one of the reasons why so few people want to sink deeply into it, is that the racists and ethno-nationalists are right about some things.

    It is just that they are not right about everything, and they are missing some other key things.

    But the Venn diagram of land-based indigenous people and ethno-nationalists has a wee bit of overlap.

    I don’t think “British” describes indigeneity, British is a comparable level to First Nations.

    Around here, when a First Nations person, from, say, the Prairies, speaks at a gathering, they are careful to acknowledge they are not from here, and usually say something like they are a guest on these lands, or a guest of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples.

    They are Indigenous, but not of this land.

    I think it probably functions at even finer grains than being Devonian or Cornwalian, probably more village, or maybe microclimate. Shepherds are different people than grain farmers than dairymen.

    • The first nations are correct they say they are ” not from here ” geneticists state they are the third wave of immigrants to the American continent , the first live in the far South of the continent the second in middle America , North America are the third wave and I suppose Europeans are the fourth wave . We’re there any more ? Archeologists will tell us some day .

      • Perhaps the anthropologists might categorize by how some got to the place where they were found…

        By foot and of one’s own accord
        By foot against one’s own accord
        By sail and of one’s own accord
        By sail against one’s own accord
        By air, etc etc….

  13. Thanks for the further comments, from which I’ve learned quite a bit. I’m going to have to duck out now for a bit, much as ideally I’d like to respond. But some good discussions & I think a few resolutions or near resolutions have emerged!

  14. Yunkaporta says, “an Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land-base, as part of that land-base.”

    Subsistence and stewardship seem to be big parts of this. In Alaska, “subsistence” sounds a lot like being indigenous. “It’s always surprising to me that people don’t know what subsistence is, which is really just living a balanced and sustainable lifestyle with your local ecosystem, and stewarding that ecosystem for returns to come for generations in the future,” says Haliehana Stepetin, a teacher of Alaska Native studies. (Reference 1)

    As the federal government puts it, “For thousands of years Alaska’s indigenous people traveled extensively over the landscape, making a living through hunting, fishing, and gathering activities. In modern times, these activities became known collectively as subsistence, and both Alaska Natives and local rural users live off the land, relying on fish, wildlife and other wild resources. Alaska’s abundance of natural resources forms the backbone of life and economy for many residents of the state… Subsistence users have a unique connection to the land fostered by tradition and lifelong experience.” (Ref. 2)

    Note that “both Alaska Natives and local rural users” are included.

    “In 1980, Congress formally recognized the social and cultural importance of protecting subsistence for both Native and non-Native rural residents when it passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA)… The new law defined subsistence as:
    Customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools or transportation; for the making and selling of handicraft articles out of non-edible by-products of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption; for barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption; and for customary trade.” (Ref. 2)

    “ANILCA protected the customary and traditional uses of fish and wildlife for food and other noncommercial use, and made subsistence the priority use on federal lands, above sport or commercial fishing and hunting. But there was a catch. ANILCA designated subsistence to be a priority for [all] rural residents, not [just rural] Alaska Natives. Under this law, urban residents could still practice subsistence, they just wouldn’t receive priority status during times of shortage. The rural distinction was a compromise meant to protect Native subsistence, while not discriminating on the basis of ethnicity…” (Ref. 1)

    60% of Alaska is federal land, 30% is state land, and 10% is privately owned.

    “The state of Alaska set out to replicate this [federal] policy on non-federal lands, but urban hunters and fishers who considered it unfair were determined to fight it. After a few years of legal disputes, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled in their favor, deeming the rural distinction unconstitutional. The decision meant that any Alaskan resident could practice subsistence on state lands, if the state approved subsistence use in the area for that season.”

    “Today, this dynamic has resulted in a vague and often-clashing dual system. The federal government regulates subsistence on the 60% of Alaskan land under federal control, while the state regulates subsistence on the 30% of Alaska which is under state management, the 10% which is privately owned, and navigable waters.” (Ref. 1)


    1. “Can Indigenous subsistence rights still be protected in Alaska?”
    by Meghan Sullivan

    2. “The Subsistence Way of Life”
    U.S. National Park Service

  15. I really appreciate this post (and the book you’re reviewing): it’s a great summary of a point I’ve vaguely pondered before with fellow Catholic Workers. Often, the idea of “recovering/honoring indigenous wisdom” either means embodying a liberal virtue-signalling guilt for being a “colonizer” or trying “apply” such wisdom entirely out of its context to “fix” or “moderate” our technoindustrial empire. The definition of a land-based culture is succinct and persuasive. With that entire line of argument, I’m in entire agreement.

    One point of critique, however, to echo a few other commenters: I think the disavowal of “civilization” in favor of “indigeneity” is a false dichotomy which falls into the error of primitivism. (the main thesis I’d argue against is: “But admission to the rollcall of city-builders, of civilizations, comes at the price of being disbarred from the rollcall of Indigenous people”). It is generally true, in the course of world-history, that land-based culture has been vitiated, enslaved, or destroyed by city-based extractive-imperial regimes. However, it’s also true that similar relationships of exploitation have existed between ruler-subject, rich-poor, men-women; yet in no case do I want to universally eliminate one at the expense of the other. Rather, with these examples, there are models of /just/ arrangments of government, property, and marriage, and by extension, it would follow that there is a model of a just civilization which is supportive, rather than extractive, towards the land-based culture which provides its foundation. Things like reading, specialized medicine and scientific research, cities and cathedrals, international law (the “ius gentium”), and ‘high’ culture (communities of experts devoted to liturgy, music, art, literature) are all great goods, not in themselves, but because they are fruits of human reason working to their greatest potential.

    Now, to be clear, my loyalties are to the lowly, so if I can only choose between a land-based culture without civilization or a tyrannical civilization exploiting the land, I will choose the former every time. But I think it unwise and unsound to go too far on this point and disavow civilization and cities altogether.

    • Indigenous culture is not superior to civilization, but it is sustainable and civilization is not (so far). Now, some will claim that activities that lead to a premature death can be ‘better’ than those that avoid it, and that may be true in the case of individuals, but I fail to see how it can be true for cultures. In any case, indigenous cultures have persisted for tens of thousands of years. Their environmental and longevity bona fides are well established.

      But given the track record of human civilizations since the beginning of the iron age (when world human population started to grow continuously) and especially since the beginning of the fossil fuel era, it is incumbent on those who want to keep ‘high’ culture to show us the kind of civilization that can produce those “fruits of human reason” for many millennia and stay in equilibrium with its surrounding environment. That may be possible, but I’m doubtful.

      The Tokugawa Shogunate got a good start, 265 years of rough equilibrium, but other cultures put a stop to it. If you can show us a “model of a just civilization which is supportive, rather than extractive, towards the land-based culture which provides its foundation” I’d love to see it. If that model is not a single, worldwide civilization, please include the means by which it avoids maximum-power-principle issues and defends itself against competing ‘unjust’ civilizations.

      • I’m inclined to go along with Sean here – at least in broad strokes. Perhaps I’d like to define “high culture” a bit more broadly to include all the cultural artifacts existing from an enterprise not directly involved in survival. As such I would include cave painting as a form of high culture for those who lived at that particular time. The paintings may have had use as signals for others – to assist their survival efforts – but modern “art” efforts contribute to messaging as well. To the extent that liturgy, music, art, and literature contribute to making life pleasurable I think they are quite useful. Their utility in an economic measure will come under closer scrutiny as more and more effort is necessary to provide basics needs in a potentially dystopian future. But the arts have always had a certain ebb and flow of significance (resource use) depending on the available surplus at any given time.

        There are pyramids in Egypt and on the Yucatan peninsula… (and like earthworks in Cahokia, IL and southern OH) enormous efforts and cultural symbols of past civilizations. I’d argue none of these were used to survive (and their builders, indigenous or otherwise, are no longer here to testify to their significance) but the technology employed to erect them also served other ends – engineering, math, season measure, and so forth. Yes, slaves were employed in many of these efforts, and yes those civilizations have passed… but the tools passed down to us have provided many benefits.

        Not so far from Chris’ homestead at Frome is an ancient earthworks the rest of us know as Stonehenge. A pile of rocks to one, and a means to signal when Spring approaches for another. A gift from ancients, whether we count them as indigenous or not.

      • The effects of abusing power are more grave in relation to the greatness of the power. Therefore, civilizations are more capable of destroying themselves than primitive societies. I, like you, am “doubtful” about the longevity of civilizations, which so easily fall into the self-destruction of injustice, but I acknowledge that “civilization” in itself is a good thing. “Abusus non tollit usum.”

        Your point on the need for a single, worldwide civilization is well-said. But note that one of the fruits of civilization I mentioned was “international law/the “ius gentium”. The recognition and defense of universal human rights can only happen in the context of civilization (not that our present capitalist world order should be thought to do so!).

        And from my Catholic perspective, of course, the role of the Church as a supra-national organization devoted (in principle if, sadly, not always in reality) to spiritual rather than temporal ends also plays an important role in international peace and justice. Recall, historically, that it was the Roman Stoic and Christian/Catholic traditions which laid the philosophical and legal framework for universal human rights.

        • I think human flourishing is a good thing, and this has often been associated with cities and civilisation.

          I wonder if, without fossil fuels and with some intentional avoidance of certain types of exploitation (usury springs to mind), we might reach an equilibrium that includes cities and is also sustainable. I imagine this would be a dynamic equilibrium, with various small adjustments from time to time rather than the current huge overshoot in energy use. I can see an argument that we haven’t managed this in the past, instead moving along to another bit of wilderness to exploit. I think at this stage only a catastrophic population crash would get us to a point where that is a viable strategy, though.

          Cities as they currently exist are certainly unsustainable; but smaller cities and market towns have existed for a very long time and I suspect only the end of settled agriculture would do away with them. That doesn’t mean people living in cities now are in for an easy ride, of course.

          • Yes, I imagine a dynamic equilibrium would be plausible… maybe necessary.

            But I hold out hope that we needn’t come to some precipice where a catastrophic population crash is the only path.

            Perhaps mine is a sort of technophile’s conceit where with our facility to research and invent, to adapt and persevere we take a course where peace and prosperity are measured by metrics that consider our collective habitat more than our individual greed.

          • Clem — I meant that the strategy of overexploiting resources in one area and then moving on to wilderness to exploit that would only work in the event of a catastrophic population crash (or expansion onto other planets I guess, but that looks less and less likely all the time to me and comes with its own huge problems). I think a dynamic equilibrium that includes at least some smallish cities and market towns might well be possible without a population crash, though we’re cutting things mighty fine.

            Either way, a lot more people will need to produce a lot more of their own consumable goods a lot more locally than is currently the case.

  16. I’m enjoying the debate about cities, though I’m short on time to engage properly just now. It’s similar to how I feel watching Arsenal v Man City. I’m kind of hoping that Sean, Clem and Kathryn will win, but I fear the grinding, implacable force of Joe must triumph. Meanwhile, David Graeber and David Wengrow are the TV pundits full of intricate and plausible theories as to how Arsenal might just pull it off. But will they?

    Of course, the metaphor breaks down inasmuch as you’re all far too convivial to be likened to opposing football teams. Especially when there’s the guiding hand of such an expert referee to reckon with.

    Also, thanks for various other comments from people I haven’t engaged with – not least Andrew’s thought-provoking intervention on the concept of indigeneity. All grist to my mill.

    • Realizing Arsenal and Manchester City are opposite sides on a football pitch… I seem to be too far away to appreciate pieces of that reference. What English geography I can describe makes me think your farm is physically closer to Arsenal and thus you might be in favor of that side… or perhaps you’re the perennial fan of an underdog (though even that image might be dated – Arsenal having been a much stronger team at one point, no?).

      So I’m likely making no sense in regard to current British football reality… but part of me wants to dig into the metaphor a little more.

      By way of some background I’d offer that Alan Jacobs (author of How To Think which I did the book review of some months back) – so Alan is (or was) an Arsenal fan. He lives in Texas, was born and raised in Alabama, and to my knowledge has lived his entire life in the US… so one might wonder why he likes a British football team. Anyway, I said that to say this: Alan has on more than one occasion been motivated to share his disappointment in how British football teams are financed – their international ownership by the very wealth, their ability to pay exorbitant salaries, and then pointing to the resulting records posted by the richest teams in the league.

      Now, having bothered you all with that I wonder whether there isn’t some fodder within the British football metaphor to bring home to the small farm future: ie, perhaps money does not buy love (other Brits to thank for that line)… but apparently money does buy results on a football pitch. And to the message at hand – wishing a result for one side while acknowledging a more likely result for the other. Follow the money?

      • Indeed, I’m an Arsenal supporter (long story) – not that I care all that much about the results (my kids may tell you different). Historically Arsenal have been a stronger side than Man City, but the latter were bought up not so long ago by oil money which has bankrolled the manufacturing of a world-beating team. Agreed the money floating around in British football is truly obscene. I hadn’t really thought of the parallel when I dreamed up the scenario, but the concentration of capital in the appropriately named Manchester City as compared to the not quite so appropriately named Arsenal may be a pointer as to why cities and indigeneity might not mix. But it remains an open question.

        Also agree with Simon!

        • If cities and indigeneity might not, I think we can guess where that might leave Mars.
          Thanks for the review, much appreciated.

        • Again from a posting too far from a Premier pitch… but I’m aware of a couple recent matters –
          1) Arsenal’s ownership by the American billionaire Sam Kroenke might have a smaller capitalization, but one wonders whether lines blur after you pass 10 billion…

          2) There was a serious kerfuffle over a dozen or so owners trying to form a new and more exclusive league – Kroenke and the Man City owners were both on the side of change… [please correct me if I’m exaggerating or misinterpreting – pleading emotional and geographic distance]

          3) The effort was aborted, but the insight into the hubris of the global oligarch class leaves a bad flavor. Not sure I want to invoke “sucking” in the sense we’ve used above; but having a multi-billionaire class roaming our planet does create the vibe that this ‘sucks’….

          4) This rant drifts away from our normal course – but it gives me a sense we should keep an eye about for what the uber wealthy busy themselves with. Something akin to Bill Gates being the largest land holder here in the States.

        • Thanks for the clarification of current football context. I never ‘got’ spectator sports even when I can respect the skill and dedication of professional players, and was a little lost as to which side was supposed to represent which!

          Unfortunately us fans (or even those of us who are somewhat oblivious) don’t get much say in where the big money is spent.

          I recall a conversation with my spouse in around 2013 about the possibility of Brexit; I was flabbergasted that the Tories would even countenance a referendum.

          Much less surprises me now, and mismanagement of the pandemic response hasn’t exactly kindled my hope for good outcomes. I suppose I keep going on about the possibilities for a sustainable (if very different) civilisation not only because, like Sean, I see something of good in ‘high’ culture, but also because I feel a keen sense that the challenges ahead of us are as much about vision and imagination and communication as they are about pragmatic measures.

          Tangent ahead…

          I know I keep going on about not being able to put the Reformation back in the box (and here I mean the changes in communications technology that led to it as much as anything else). I think maybe our difficulty in moderating or stopping fossil fuel use (or deforestation, overgrazing, or any number of other ecological overshoots) is related to our difficulty with attending to externalities in general. Factory workers in England spinning cotton grown by enslaved people were caught in systems of oppression and ecological overshoot, whether or not they knew about the slavery or the ecological overshoot. Capitalists probably knew about the slavery but not so much the overshoot. Similarly today, sweatshop workers making polyester clothing are caught up in a system that would destroy the only world we have to increase profit on a pleather handbag; knowing about the overshoot hasn’t changed the dynamics much, if at all.

          Faster and more accessible communication has not, in the end, prevented us from continuing down various paths of destruction; it has not caused us to truly attend to one another and care for one another as human beings. And now we need all hands on deck, not to prevent catastrophe (it’s too late) but to mitigate the worst effects

          Of course ‘high’ culture is not the only measure of human flourishing. I think of it more as one expression of flourishing. But given our difficulty in prioritising long-term well-being over short-term interests, given our seeking inability to attend to the needs of people in our own neighbourhoods, let alone around the world, I find myself concerned with what sort of changes might prevent us from making this kind of error in future. Access to fossil fuels is a one-off in human history, as far as I can tell; but ecological overshoot is a product not only of cheap energy but of, I think, some kind of relational and spiritual malaise. That malaise may have smaller, more local consequences when we cannot turn to cheap energy to amplify our power, but it still matters. It still matters when we harm one another and all Creation.

          My own experience makes me think that such malaise will be exacerbated, not salved, by trauma. Changes in information and communications technology (the printing press; the radio; the telephone; social media) amplify our power to harm one another, perhaps even as much as fossil fuels have. A lie runs around the world before the truth has her boots on, and those lies are always accelerating in the name of profit. Those who have power now are going to try their hardest to hang onto it.

          These systemic problems are beyond the control of any one person, or even any one community, of course. But for me, at least, there is a sense in which throwing up my hands and saying “well, all I can do is try to survive this” is not enough. Part of my own commitment to attending to people as people (and theologically, as beloved children of God) means grappling with the questions of how to change course even if it is too late to avoid tragedy; how to reconcile true human flourishing with true sustainability (after all, unsustainable human flourishing is not true flourishing), how to begin to heal the spiritual malaise that got us here and will surely get us here (or somewhere similar) again if our wounds cannot be transformed. I can’t do that alone either, and I don’t expect to be particularly successful, but grapple I must. Maybe it is this grappling that prevents me taking a bigger plunge into some kind of smallholding or homestead (though the financial barriers remain considerable). Maybe it is simply inertia, and I am making excuses after the fact. Discernment is hard; please understand that I am not attempting to dictate how others should respond. Diversity of tactics is a strength, and we certainly need people with Joe’s approach (building a homestead for future generations to inherit) very much.

          I haven’t read Sand Talk yet, but it is on my list; it strikes me, from the discussion here, as one attempt to grapple with the same issues. So I look forward to reading it as part of my own discernment.

          (I did warn you it was a tangent!)

        • Clem – it’s a fair cop. That a club like Arsenal with its level of finance should be an underdog is but one of many indications of the mess our society is in. In any case, they just lost. So it’s all over for me.

          Kathryn – agree that at root the mess we’re in is spiritual, and that the remote & mediated nature of economic interaction is a problem – one reason why I favour localism, to keep the feedback loops real. Graeber’s Debt book argued at some length that it’s not a good idea to let the money men off the leash too much. There’s a link to the Reformation there for sure, but quite a complex one I think. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick that issue up in more detail another time. I’m sure Sean would have an interest there too.

  17. I’ve only lightly kept up with the comments on this post but there seems to have come a point where discussing indigeneity has raised the question/problem of money/wealth (I enjoyed your linked short essay, Sean).
    I remember many posts ago, pre Chris’s book being published, when he asked if anyone had any thoughts on the Islamic banking model, which does not work with the idea of interest. Last time I went back to check, that question was left hanging on a wall of silence.
    Since then, and elsewhere, I’ve read of Joe’s opinion that the best thing to do with money – and I understand completely where he is coming from, exasperating (and kind of amusing) though the idea is – is to burn it. I guess it’s the creme de la creme of first-world dilemmas to be anguished by this line of thought, and though I personally wouldn’t answer with a fist-pumping ‘yes’ to Clem’s question ‘follow the money?’, it sometimes seems, in this day and age, you’d be mAd not to.
    All of which kind of brings me round to ponder working for the common good (I also enjoyed that short linked essay, Sean, so thanks) rather than for personal, or even familial, gain, and whether the former, if one isn’t careful, can spill over into the latter… And then comes work to do, not just thoughts to be thunk… everything in moderation (including moderation).

    • I’ll second Simon’s appreciation for Sean’s link. And also note here that Debt (the book Sean refers to a couple times in his essay) is a very good read (at least thus far… I’ve only gotten a good start).

      Before we storm the capitols of the capitalists with knives and pitchforks it might be worth considering how some merchant activities do offer some value. Speculators and traders – market makers – do price discovery and assist us in perceiving value across time and space. The time element is particularly significant when even the smallest groups consider their options for resource allocation.

      One of my take a ways from Sean’s essay is that there are historical precedents for keeping merchant activities in check. Thus an SFF wouldn’t have to invent ways from whole cloth.

      Not all merchants are bad. Some may be, and their opportunities for evil do need to be restricted.

      • Despite my socialist sympathies I find myself agreeing with this, to some extent at least. I read an interesting study recently which suggested that the merchant’s cut, the difference between buying cheap and selling dear, is essentially the price producers and consumers pay for liquidity,
        paid to the market makers. It’s not necessarily the robbery of value belonging by rights to the producer.

        But the same study also paid much attention to the significance of sovereignty in any money-based society. The common understanding that guarantees money, as an exchange medium, will ‘work’, is always the ongoing result of political activity of some kind. The role of merchants is therefore always political in some way, never purely ‘economic’ (whatever that even means), and so whatever forms and structures money-using societies develop to manage themselves (or are imposed upon them) cannot help but involve merchants in some way. All of which is to agree with the need for restrictions of some kind on mercantile activity.

        Bit arcane at times, and not a quick read, but it got me thinking:

        • I’m quite a bit more concerned with limiting the activities of landlords and investors, if it comes down to it. (Which isn’t to say that either need be abolished; but Chris does explain Ricardian rent-seeking quite well in his book…)

          • A fair point, but also just the other side of the coin, if you’ll excuse the pun. Landlords and investors also rely on the existence of a market for their assets and stocks to validate their advantages – so they’re just as interested in the politics of money even if their goals are different. Ultimately I think any notion of a ‘better’ society in the future needs to be very clear about what money’s role within it will be, and how it will be controlled.

        • Indeed – not a quick read… though what I’ve seen thus far does appear to check several boxes of concern in our conversations here at SFF – so thanks much for sharing.

    • Thanks for this side discussion. I say much the same things as here in my book – merchants can be useful connectors, but need to be kept in check. Where we’ve fetched up now is a disastrous mercantilization of almost the entire global economy, but in a small farm future merchants might be valued for this more traditional role of market linkage and liquidity. But how valued? As Kathryn points out, the possibilities for creating monopoly and therefore Ricardian rent is a key feature of the merchant’s practice, but a lot of that rent does ultimately come from the unpaid labour of others (think of all those royal charters for colonial mercantile monopoly). In strongly agrarian premodern societies with little monetization, merchants indeed were providers of liquidity for wealthy landowners, while the rent charged by the landowner manifested mostly as labour service (no doubt Andrew has a more nuanced medievalist take on this). Things got more interesting where either the aristocrats or the merchants allied with ordinary labourers against the other class, rather than with each other as usual.

      Suppose that merchants were valued for the market linkage they created, but weren’t paid any more than, say, a skilled craftsman. Would they still wish to or be able to create new market linkages and liquidity? Whatever the answer to that question, I think it has interesting implications. Certainly a lot of the liquidity in the early modern economy that paved the way for the contemporary world had to do with the need for huge outlays upfront (e.g. for fitting out transoceanic merchant fleets) in the expectation of even huger returns, based to a considerable extent on the brutal exploitation of labour.

      I agree with Andrew that “any notion of a ‘better’ society in the future needs to be very clear about what money’s role within it will be, and how it will be controlled.” I wish I could claim to be very clear about its role in a small farm future, but alas … well, it’s hard to be clear about anything in the future I guess. However, I will have a few more things to say about this in due course I hope.

      • Sorry, I couldn’t resist, when you said “disastrous mercantilization”.

        I think I understand what you meant, more or less, but I’d put it “disastrous financialization”.

        It looks to me that the obscenely wealthy are not (anymore) primarily buyers and sellers of material goods at wholesale mark-up.
        The vast oceans of money flooding us are made of financial securities that have only tenuous linkage to the material world.

        So I tend to agree with Andrew, let the merchants see if they can offer something that the buyers feel worth their purchase. Without artificial selection by political force.

        Such awarding of monopoly is very similar to the kind of political pressure that props up money.

        Interesting also that you bring up “the need for huge outlays upfront” – the classic rationale for stock or bond issuance.
        My first inclination is to say that if you can’t do a job without financializing it, then you don’t get to do the job.

        I’m totally ignorant about this, but weren’t those Gothic cathedrals built on the current account?
        They didn’t issue bonds for them did they?
        Of course the kings and popes controlled all the wealth…

        But still, it seems to me that stock issuance only accelerates economic activity, but if there is sufficient social will, that large projects are possible without it.
        Though the projects will progress much more slowly.

        I don’t think that is a bad thing

        • Another term for the need for huge outlays upfront would be “barriers to entry” wherein a particular industry or a particular trade is so sophisticated that attempts by those without sufficient capital backing are thwarted. Lacking table stakes they aren’t even allowed a chance.

          In the market for property to live on? What sort of income do you have? Have an invention or an idea for a new product or service but can’t finance the startup? Sell your notion to a venture capitalist…

          And in a broad sense I really have no quarrel with the concept. Where I get sidetracked is on two fronts – bankruptcy law, and ‘too big to fail’ (which I suppose in one sense are a pair of angles on the same front… ).

          But the opportunity to accelerate – to get started before one has saved sufficient capital to fund it organically – I’m less concerned with the approach than Eric appears to be.

          Bankruptcy protection is a messy business. Like many social constructs it has a useful side, but can be abused. Allowing enormous entities to exist and covering their “moral hazard” risk taking because they’re deemed TOO BIG TO FAIL seems pretty short sighted from my perch. Deliberately building smaller scale, smaller community based infrastructure may be one method to back away from that precipice.

      • The distinction between ‘mercantilization’ and financialization is a bit arbitrary, but as I see it you first have to get into a mindset where you can put a price on everything before the things become redundant and you can start just putting a price on the prices themselves. However, I agree with Clem that a certain amount of getting started before you know how you’re going to finish is almost unavoidable. Maybe the trick is being wise about what to get started on.

  18. This from a recent book review written by Wolfgang Streeck:

    By and large,​ we know what we mean by technocracy: the delegation of public authority to an elite cadre with some sort of scientific expertise, their legitimacy derived from their superior knowledge. In a technocracy, decisions can be challenged only by other experts. Everyone else must sit back and watch.

    That everyone who is somehow not a sufficient expert must sit back and watch is related to the ‘barrier to entry’ meme mentioned above. Another meme from an expert colleague – if you can’t break down what you do into language that a non-expert can follow, your own credentials as ‘expert’ come into question.

  19. Pingback: Warre and peace: of gifts, government and men with guns - Resilience

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *