This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.
This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.
Mama D, Community Centred Knowledge
Whilst at school we learn about food webs and food chains defined as hierarchies of consumption. Each plant, then animal species obtains their nutrition through ascending layers of energy, becoming increasingly complex as it passes up the chain or across the web.
Primary producer species, such as grass: wheat or sugar cane, trap the energy of the sun through photosynthesis and converts it to starch or sugar. A primary consumer, a herbivore, say a buffalo or a gorilla comes along and eats the grass and converts it into mainly protein and fat. A secondary consumer, a carnivore or omnivore, perhaps a tiger or a human comes along and eats the herbivore and also converts it into protein and fat and possibly also, an aptitude for speed or intelligence.
All the above may be feasted upon by consumers such as bacteria, fungi or viruses. Different food chains or webs are found in different ecologies and are fine tuned for positive feedback unless a natural disaster or humans affect their environments and in such cases the system tries to re-equilibrate, where possible.
Living species are part of a complex web of interactions in which there are multiple interdependencies and balances. A food chain is really just a model to understand the link between species of different ‘trophic levels’ (the distinct group of species with similar eating habits and position in a food chain). It helps explain biomass at the different trophic levels and the energy passing through the system.
Humans are unique in being a species which can consume at every level of the chain and who live in ways which distort the delicate balance of a food web. In fact we can upset several food webs existing in multiple biomes simultaneously and we attempt to live in such a way as to remove all potential predators which would otherwise keep our numbers in check. We also regularly decimate numbers within our own trophic level for no other purpose than, ultimately, greed: Greed in the service of more greed.
Yet humans studying the intentional production of biomass, specifically geared towards our consumption, carried out in human-constructed systems of production, refer to some humans in such a system as consumers and another set as producers. How much sense does this really make?
In terms of promoting and encouraging our sustainable existence as one of the species of planet earth, how does such nomenclature assist? Does it promote a sense of balance between ourselves or even between ourselves and the food webs of which we are supposed to be a part?
Have we evolved beyond being a part of a planetary food web and if so, what are the consequences?
It would seem to be apparent that humans have replaced the food webs in which they were formerly part of, and dependent upon. We have constructed whole new systems, called agri or horti -culture or even agroforestry and forestry, fisheries and such like. We occupy them as if they were completely independent of any natural, earth based systems and we absolutely minimise our impact upon the ‘parallel’ natural ecosystems.
This is not however true. We have been evolving slowly and then at an increasingly rapid pace away from being a part of natural food webs. From forager, hunter and trapper, where we too were hunted we have become beings who create digitally automated systems to coerce nature into obeying our time frames, our sources of nutrients within massively altered environments and by using increasingly altered genetic material to wild type equivalents. We are doing so as if pushed by an imperative based upon rational and reasonable interpretations of data that are uncontested and for which we have received a global democratic mandate.
Such is the situation in which we find ourselves, in contradiction with nature, in contention within the sciences and in conflict with each other that we seek arguably more and more false solutions to the cul-de-sacs we head towards. We colonise other people’s lands, water and energy; intensify farming systems; seek to constrain and alter human diets and gradually demolish wildlife and wildspace. We rely on robots and nanobots and 3D technology for everyday consumption. We cultivate vertically, abandon rotations and grow underground.
Have nature’s tertiary consumers now become primary producers under an artificial sun?
Who then are the consumers we speak of who are now disempowered by supermarket and farmer alike to occupy niches of consumption more attuned to pocket than to participatory democracy?
In more human-centred systems, the world over, people struggle to retain ways of relating to earth in time honoured ways. Ways in which the pace of production is something the ecosystem has a chance of ’keeping up with’, ways in which the Earth is respected and engaged with as a being. These are ways in which farmers and agriculture are not labels to be studied but part of a way of being and inhabiting space. Will these ways whither in an age of technological dominance and the arrogance of a knowledge which is increasingly digitally generated?
We have different options in the role of consumer: Maybe we need to reconsider our role as consumer in the widest sense of the word? To reconsider and reflect upon the way in which we consume all of earth’s resources in the name of production. Maybe we need to reconnect with natural ecosystems and respect those who still value this connection as well as their ways of being and doing in traditional ways? Maybe we need to rename ourselves and our sciences, our knowledge and rationalities to make transparent our agendas? Maybe the way forward is to co-produce more and study the food webs and food chains we used to be part of and reconsider what it is to be a balanced co-consumer, a part of and not separate from Mother Earth?
Published in Issue 7, 2017, Spring and Summer edition of ‘The Plot’, CFGN in print newsletter.
All rights reserved.
by Mama D of Community Centred Knowledge
Associated movie: http://www.symphonyofthesoil.com/
When we, as Earth’s inhabitants, gain a clear understanding of the roots of Food Sovereignty and its role in bringing freedom from systems of food oppression to cultivators of the Global South, we will stand a greater chance of also understanding how well aligned it is with the call for all of humankind to take better care of the fragile skin that adorns the planet: this skin is called the soil.
Food Sovereignty exists as a statement of clearly articulated rights in the face of economic and political and cultural oppression and it militates against the structures – legal, political and economic – that arose out of colonisation, slavery and ‘entrepreneurial’ adventurism in the Global South, chiefly undertaken by men of means from the Global North.
It does not remain a Southern phenomenon, however, as the systems of resource or ‘capital’ control, developed out of these oppressions, have found themselves repeated in every act of enclosure of the commons and the labour of the common people. They manifest themselves in industrialised and exploitative forms of production, witnessed globally: North and South.
Food, then, becomes a totemic symbol of an act of resistance that implicates all of us, because we all eat food.
Soil, as the main substrate in which food is grown, might be seen as a key stakeholder, a foundational actor, a fundamental base and key variable in food sovereignty. This is especially the case for indigenous cultures which interface with the land in multi-dimensional ways and which confer on aspects of the land, such as the soil, rivers and mountains, personalities, which demand respect and consideration.
Other indigenous cultures observe soil-based rituals in recognition of its vital nature, which is regarded as transformative: the active womb of the earth, a portal for ancestral spirits.
We bury our nearest and dearest, upon transition from life, into the soil. We have done so for centuries, back to the first peoples. We also plant our seed in the same act of reverence and hope for rebirth.
La Via Campesina, an international movement of small-scale farmers, dependent upon their production systems for their livelihoods, speaks of food sovereignty, in context, as an act of resistance:
‘The principle of food sovereignty promotes the development of alternative production, distribution and consumption models based on a new logic, far removed from that of neo-liberalism which has always given the central role to markets and trade liberalisation, and which considers that only international markets can solve the problem of food insecurity.’
Nyéléni 2007 – Forum for Food Sovereignty. 23rd – 27th February 2007. Sélingué. Mali
Food Sovereignty, as a term, has been adopted and adapted by many actors to suit their own circumstances, as indeed has been advocated by the architects of it to date, but the essential meaning expressed at the Nyéléni 2007 Forum for Food Sovereignty is about:
“PEOPLES’ food sovereignty which is to be defined by social movements. It is a “vehicle”, a carrier, for our collective political project and our joint strategies and actions regarding food production and consumption at all levels.”
The statement below from Nyéléni has been distilled into seven pillars which are captured below it:
“Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation. It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food, farming, pastoral and fisheries systems determined by local producers and users.
Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal – fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability. Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees just incomes to all peoples as well as the rights of consumers to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations.
In Nyéléni, through numerous debates and interactions, we are deepening our collective understanding of food sovereignty and learning about the realities of the struggles of our respective movements to retain autonomy and regain our powers. We now understand better the tools we need to build our movement and advance our collective vision.”
One instrument of these ‘industrialising’ oppressions was, and remains, the imposition on entire cultures and environments of machine based and technophilic ‘solutions’ of industrial agriculture. These involve large scale cultivation of the land in the pursuit of financial profit alone, for the privileged few, yet with the stated objective of ‘feeding the world’ and contributing to its ‘food security’.
I say cultivation, but to cultivate something does not involve imposing upon it practices which cause it to become denuded of its nutrient base; exposed to the unforgiving elements and transformed into a mere substrate upon which to act out vainglorious actualisation of laboratory driven and finance focussed projects and programmes, does it?
This is where we begin to understand that soil is a fundamental variable in bringing land – and people – into optimal production, reproduction and relationship, not only of goods, but also of life itself.
Land is productive, not only when it yields a fantastic number of kilos of product per hectare but also when it supports a rich and varied array of life, human and non-human; when it is referenced in the development of abundant cultural forms and when it is enabled to interface with other land-dependent, natural assets in ways that continue to replenish it and keep it in a mode of resilience, secure for future generations and for reuse by the present generation.
Soil, the chief asset of the land which life requires in order for continuity, is not only a site of production but also one of reproduction. It enables the rich interplay of micro to macro organisms including humankind. It is the cultural base of our identities, and the material base of many of our arts and sciences. Without it we are nothing but fragile sentience upon the earth.
If land is our Father, then Earth, as soil, is our mother, whose womb we currently desecrate in search of supremacy of a most volatile kind: a separated existence as paper gods of a concrete earth.
Our connection with real food is predicated upon a reliance upon and the existence of real soil and the real agroecologically sound methods of cultivating this soil. This is so that it may be sustainably and reliably the source of our future realities upon the planet.
As it is said by our ancients: As above, so below. The very reason for the existence of calls for food sovereignty from the Global South must not be lost in the current clamouring for food growing rights in the Global North. These two ‘offspring’ are umbilically connected to the one Earth upon which we all stand. The basis for nutrition of the one is the same as for the other. The soil of each land must remain a sovereign asset, the knowledge of which is understood and shared within community and in so doing becomes located in the knowledge base of each community member and within each of the indigenous groups who have had longest association with that land and soil. It must be taught and learned by the ensuing generations.
The dance of life within traditional or innovative, but necessarily sound, growing systems is based upon a song, a call, or even a symphony of sovereignty that all who have ears must hear, if listening is what we are called upon to do, for our common survival.
This post was first blogged on http://www.cfgn.org.uk/ by Mama D October 20, 2015
I am a mother and, in relative terms, recently sourced from the African continent. As a woman, and an African, I am present, but without voice. Most of the time, unseen and unheard. Yet, my essential being represents that which gives, over eternities, but remains unacknowledged. It is also that for which there is no gratitude shown. Just like the soil we walk upon. Such things have consequences.
The first year of the ‘United Nations Decade for People of African Descent’ (2015-2024), is also the ‘United Nations Year of the Soil’ (2015).
I hold this not to be a co-incidence.
These two subjects of United Nations recognition: African people and the soils of Earth, are the twin, invisible presences at the root of much of the world’s prosperity.
There is reason for saying this. The labour and sacrifices of Africans have both directly and indirectly enabled, and fuelled, the productivity of industrial growth and the associated western knowledge revolutions.
For the most part, the same can be said of the poorly understood soil. It has been and continues to be exploited, unreasonably to the point of dissolution and in places, complete disappearance. What shall we call this? Pedocide? Lithocide?
Despite this, global politics continues to take both for granted. Each remains understated as an icon of what is good in the world. The People and produce of Africa, and the soils of the world, continue to contribute to global well-being. It ought to be a matter of global shame that these contributions are still insufficiently charted, documented or taught to the masses.
Such poor recording has led to a great deal of misunderstanding amongst the general populace about the critical importance of a vibrant African people or the healthy soil.
In the absence of knowledge, ignorance festers!
Who, then, will see cause to take steps to address their misinformation? Who will seek out appropriate knowledge and action? Are we too embattled by our own blindness to see our way out of the disasters we thereby create?
This is a pertinent question if we wish to stem the collapse of global well-being as we currently know it.
I am not being dramatic. The language concerning soil loss as 2015 loomed and began has been dramatic. This piece is too short for me to repeat it here.
If we are restless at the mention of food security and climate change, then we had better be fretful of a scenario of disappearing soils. We might well worry also at the loss of the traditional expertise to manage such fragile landscapes. It is especially so where it can be demonstrated that these tradition soil ‘husbandmen’ have proven resilient under oppressive circumstances.
We may be aware of roving corporate capitalism, looking for ever new opportunities to exploit and ravage land and people. La Via Campensina holds a torch for peasant resistances in ‘Latin’ America, Vandana Shiva lights up radicalism in India; for African people during this decade who will ignite the imagination of the world, one which connects all of the indigenous peoples of the globe? In this respect, African growers must be encouraged to share their ways of stewarding the land and their relationship with the soil lore with each other and with growers everywhere and their insights and experiences given recognition for life-affirming connections to be restored. It is good that African Soil Stories form a foundation for the African Story.
There is ancestral, intuitive knowledge, that the clay of my being, so close in colouring to that of the Earth, is a living, walking, and animated being. It is for only a span of a lifetime separated from the dust of the Earth, to perform a sacred, stewardship role.
I am as the soil on the massive surface of this vast organic, living entity. Like a protective cover for a good 30 per cent of the world’s surface. I am a kin to this medium – which ranges, in depth, from a few crumbs – to a few metres. I represent both the living, pulsating potential as well as the parent body that feeds much of what is yielded by the land.
Whist I attended my inner-city, secondary school, we were taught, in science, that soil was one of those things that should be listed under non-living materials.
Soil was to be thought of as dead, inanimate, made from rock, substantially, and so not a thing which breathed, ate, moved or reproduced. How wrong they were!
I felt this in my very bones. From childhood, I had been closely observing my grandmother tend the back-garden soil to produce extraordinary crops with merely the magic of her care. Sweetcorn, squashes and beetroot, carrots, potatoes and calalloo, all emerged from the richly dark, moving substrate; alive with micro-life which seemed to proliferate and creep into areas of garden I thought to be unproductive!
Children, and I was no exception, often use the dark soil of London as a key ingredient of mud ‘pies’. Does it resemble for them the nutritious ‘stew’ that it actually is? I studied the pathways of worms and ants. I loved the squishy and crumbly nature of the London, clayey loams and so I was often to be found digging around the ‘compost tip’ at the top of the garden, marvelling at the transformations taking place there.
Where comfrey grew were buried the foundations of my every present aspiration which were found in the shreddings of notebooks and the remains of Sunday dinner preparation and other ‘house wastes’.
It was from this transformed soil that I was almost literally fed until, late in teenager-hood; I left home to more rural parts of the country to learn the cycles of cows and sheep and the tyranny of tractors.
The Shaman, Malidoma Patrice Some speaks of the ritual immersion of the young person in the red soil of his village, as one of the necessary precursors to manhood amongst the Dagara of West Africa. It is where one gains possession of oneself through transformation. Moving from a burial to a resurrection in which one becomes ‘alive’ to one’s own, divine direction.
So my garden gave birth to me, one who was eventually to travel to the welcoming villages of Africa to discover the importance of interdependence. To learn, sometimes the hard way, of the necessary relationships of each living thing upon another, the impossibility of separation and the fundamental wrongness of living in and from a pathology of independence.
Increasingly what I hear coming out the voice of the Earth is a call to listen to the connecting places, that which is less visible, more silent, barely felt, scarcely sensed. We must re-attune our radars for better receptivity, for what is out there and all around us has lessons for us to both acknowledge and celebrate.
Let this year be the year of our truly seeing what is core to all of us: the African within and without and the soil at our feet. Maybe if we listen carefully enough and become immersed, we will hear and experience our own personal calls to action.
by Mama D
June 12, 2015
We are gathered here today…activists by definition because we have been called to witness the desecration of the countryside. Those could have been the words of the Rev Billy Talen who accompanies us on this protest march, in spirit and in song.
But I am here to clear the space for the Elephant, the invisible and so generally overlooked, yet heroic beast, whose size alone reflects the circumference of our activism at the margins and who demands to be taken notice of.
Who is the elephant?
We would not have the situation we have with uneconomically and unsustainably produced sugar beet were it not for its predecessor sugar cane: the tropical grass which beat the backs of my ancestors but which brought sweetness and heavy purses to the British aristocracy and burgeoning landed gentry, merchants and speculators. It also brought with it one of the most terrible tales of inhuman immorality and cruelty transacted between nations and with it a legacy of ill health and rotten teeth, not to mention the current burden of unfair taxes and subsidies upon a population too addicted to sweetness to bestir themselves to create sufficient momentum for change.
I speak of an elephant amongst us because all of us are here as activists, focusing upon a concept which celebrates and lobbies for the sovereignty of the food we gather, glean grow, process, distribute and eat. Yet we don’t always make the kind of connections we need to make that activism as complete or effective as it might be.
Prod the elephant.
Sugar beet symbolises a product of industrial agriculture in which a commodity is produced as an extraction of a root crop, grown upon the tired soil of increasingly enclosed land, to sell to a people increasingly alienated from that land to sustain their addiction. This addiction had already been established, and by not so sovereign means!
The uptake of beet production in the UK was an attempt by the agricultural and land-holding class of British farmers to capitalise upon a lucrative and expanding market for sugar already established by cane.
Sugar had long been traded to the UK. In the 1100s sugar had reached these shores, via traders from tropical Asia and Arabia who knew of supplies in Polynesia and environs, shipping small quantities, available only to the very privileged. It developed into a sought after commodity by wealthy speculators and by the Elizabethan age, such was its nature that with the penchant for sweetness established, the wealthy wanted more, in more regular supplies and then, when its price fell and it was available in abundance, sought to find ways of introducing its joys to the commoner, whose drudgery could be sugar-coated whilst his labour fortified by cheap but concealed calories.
Cane was king and its plantations ruled the sun soaked plains of regions within tropical dependencies in which free labour could be found, brought and beaten to work it. Sugar cane history is steeped in bloody exploitation, so it is no wonder that its sweetness and the headiness of the rum it is famous for, is also tinged with the bitterness of the sicknesses which it brings together with the depravations of the body and mind.
When war, which in itself was fuelled by the rivalry between powers for the control of trade routes and resources, meant that the interruption of the sweet toxin was to be put at risk, the possibility of supply substitution appeared through the commonBeta vulgaris, the sugar beet. Closely following successes in the researcher’s fields, it too was put to work at this time in British fields closer to home. This was in the era of tractors and mechanised farming. No longer requiring labour intensification, the beet was a popular alternative and substitute and its granulated whiteness an emblem of a recovery from the demerara dependency of far flung places increasingly seeking independence and autonomy.
The labourers of the tropics hopes were, however, like the cane itself, to be crushed. The wars between the Napoleonic and the second world wars did not succeed in beet replacing cane as a major source of ‘white gold’. The mainly East Anglian production of beet sugar, nevertheless, escalated, it is true:
“That first harvest and factory ‘campaign’ began a remarkable partnership between agriculture and industry that has endured throughout the 20th century. “
So extols the British Sugar Corporation. As beet sugar production in the UK rose and (expanded into vast areas of glasshouse tomato production) the British palate for sweetness and its industrial desire to process and industrialise consumption patterns meant that local demand for sugar also escalate.
What does this mean for us now? Nothing good on a dietary front.
Sugar calories are cheap calories and the use of sugar in its various forms hallmarks the foodstuffs, sweet and savoury, consumed by the working classes. No longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy, the monied classes eschew this now vulgar carbohydrate in favour of slow and less refined ‘real foods’. These are ‘good foods’ healthy, slowly produced and artisanal and less easily attainable than the very prevalent sucrose, fructose or glucose sugar infused commodities, which now make up a significant part of what are termed ‘fast’ or ‘junk’ consumables. The processed snacks and ‘not-real’ foods are favoured by the sectors of the population less well endowed with surplus cash, education/information or time to make better food choices.
But we are hurting our own futures because it is the young who are marketed the bulk of the saccharine and processed diet. It is also the young in the tropics who are belaboured with the arduous production of the (still) over-produced cane and yet again it is the young who are first affected by the nitrogen pollution of our water, leached out from the over-fertilised soil by over-subsidised beet farmers.
Sugar is no longer sweet.
We also have to take pause and reflect upon the waves of industrialisation in the west that the expansion of the cruel production of cane meant for tropical countries such as Santa Domingo.
Worth watching in this respect is the paradoxical tale of the Spanish Priest, son of Jam producer, Hartley’s, taking up the case of the modern cane slavery of Haitians: The Price of Sugar.
It is this industrialisation which marks the inception of the super-economies of the transnational corporations that have their roots in this era of expansionism. Sugar as fuel indeed and not just bio-fuel.
Some points to take away about sugar production and consumption are:
First posted on CFGN on 6th June 2015 by Mama D
by Mama D
“…I mean the bare necessities,
Old Mother Nature’s recipes
That brings the bare necessities of life...”
Bare Necessities, Jungle Book, (1967) Walt Disney Productions
You’ll see it’s true, someone like me
Can learn to be like someone like me
Can learn to be like someone like you
Can learn to be like someone like me
I wanna be like you. (1967) Jungle Book. Walt Disney Productions
The Invisible ones live in the concrete jungles of the metropoles and in ‘nature’ in the ‘hinterlands’. We are the ones who are not positively recorded in the annals of the mass-production empires of the world. Our lives, though primary, are rendered instead ‘primitive’.
(Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, 1982),
Even though forced to come to your shores by the economic imperative, driven by the malaises of our denuded environments, you cannot see us. You cannot hear us, even though we speak the languages your teachers taught us. Here we are, clothed in your promises, we drive your economic growth with our entrails and humility. We bring our foreign ways to enrich the culture but we are made drunk and enfeebled by yours.
Let me illuminate, here, by this street-lamp, returning from my third, weary job, to be able to just make ends meet. I gaze into my crystal ball and weave a story as a griot would, about how the biggest ism of them all (a distinctive doctrine, system, or theory[A]) was unleashed upon us all as eaters; as consumers of all that Nature, (who is also God, according to Spinoza[B]) provided for us, not to have dominion over, but to use responsibly and share earthspace with.
I share something of the essence, but not the form with your suited Shamans. I yearn for a remembrance. Your ‘Shamans’ look forward to a technologically-aided, future simplicity. Every dealer in the mysteries of this world desires, however, an Earth restored unto itself. One which also reflects the shared, yet diverse, restored nature of each and every Earth inhabitant.
I am a circle dweller, it is the shape and process of the nature I am born into. You, however, arm yourselves about with the empiricist delineations which amount to a box and it is this structure that you adorn with positivist paradigms and an array of limitations that suffer you to not be able to sway to the rhythm of daisies in a field or to smell, neither the roses, nor the lone and heady jasmine, the myrrh-encrusted, scrubby bush, nor the fields of cinnamon, all of which are now stranded in the desolate and mined fields of our lands.
I acknowledge, nevertheless, the box escapees: I salute you ‘Saint’ Honoré[C] for your embrace of Slow, and tackling the taboos; Green goddesses Vandana Shiva and Wangari Maathai for holding the torch for nature in your respective parts of the world; Scholar Chris Clarke for not walking on the line… (there are a veritable, small battalion of others, unmentioned here, saved for further writings)
were made to walk in line?
Were they yours?
Or, were they mine?
Even if they can walk ‘straight’,
Can they make it ‘there’
All the time?
What’s on my mind?
Let me give it to you
Give it to you
Over a Lifetime
One sentence can’t convey what’s on my mind
Will you wait?
For my feet,
Like my mind
Won’t walk straight…
©Mama D, 2000
We have been invaded by man-made infestations. Even so, sick as we are, we must talk now, even though the affliction is advanced and the patient rolls and groans and throws up violently the tsunamis, earthquakes and forest fires which beset the planet. We, the Invisibles, we feel these as inner travails too. We know that no sickness comes of itself without an inner thought-form. That thought form is the seed of our dis-ease.
This seed is called Consumerism. We know it as inner emptiness borne of disconnection.
“The most affluent countries operate on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency.
When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realise, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you cannot eat money”.
An Abenaki from the Odamak Reserve, Quebec
To many it may seem that Capitalism, that mind-child linked to economist Adam Smith, is the father of consumerism. Adam Smith, though, was aware of the folly of conspicuous consumption and contributed to a discourse on money which might have led to himself and Marx (Karl) sharing a cup of ale or a glass of port together, or whatever would have been their favourite tipple, could they have reached out to each other across the divide of a century.
He, Smith, would have been well aware of the effects of self-interest, having written extensively about its pros and cons. Also, he would have been able to draw upon a background history of the lessons of Holland during the time of the Tulip investment bubble. At that time one bulb was famously worth 13,000 florins, ‘more than the cost of the most expensive canal-side house in the centre of Amsterdam’ and a sailor was thrown in gaol for accidentally eating a different bulb (he supposed it to be an onion), worth 3,000 florins [D]. Eventually the ‘bubble’, like all inflationary devices, burst and many Dutch paid dearly for it.
Smith, therefore, would be unlikely to accept the modern forms of capitalist endeavour with rules made to break rules and the death of the free market which he also wrote of.
Collis’ paper[E], ‘argues that consumerism is more than an inflated term for describing a psycho-social adjunct of capitalism. It is, rather, a substantive ideological and behavioural pattern in its own right and ought not be considered as merely epiphenomenal to the deeper political and economic reality of capitalism’. The paper goes into, in depth, the ways in which consumerism can be likened to sexual abuse, oppression and exploitation and is a ‘spectacle which tells a story full of what now are…naturalised…myths’.
To understand this further, let’s take a walk over to the logos side of things, definitions and statistics…let’s look at how consumerism is being portrayed:
Dictionary.com[F] defines consumerism in the following way as:
2. The concept that an ever-expanding consumption of goods is advantageous to the economy.
Where is the unlimited supply to come from to produce the ‘ever-expanding’ consumption? The finite earth, though potentially existing as a self-renewing entity, cannot, sensibly, be considered, in the present, as anything but a finite supplier of resources for ’the economy’.
Why is this?
The reasons are multiple:
1. What we know about the Earth, though seemingly quite impressive, is limited. Our expression and experience of knowledge of the Earth is in one dimension only. It is predicated on the ability to know through primarily sense-based mechanisms, limited specifically to those belonging to the frontal cortex of the brain. The ‘we’ don’t tend to include the perspectives of ‘the Invisibles’, those who don’t count as having meaningful contributions of knowledge, unless they have first been fully indoctrinated within the educational institutions of the visible populations of the world.
We Invisibles, who have always lived in and with nature, relating to its essence in a myriad of ways, detect unease in the Earth, a strain, an emptying. It pulses through our destroyed ways of life, our lost routes and roots and our slow poisonings.[G]
2. What humans may consider a resource, to be bought and sold, the planet may more self-advisedly have been treating as a toxin, to be stored deep within the earth, or so our old stories go.
The extraction and use of mineral ores may upset the balance of the fabric of the planet, but this is being hidden or disguised from consumers by an ‘effacement of the traces of production’[H].
It might be hidden in filed reports and un-revealed images. It would not do to have the consumer identify with the real-times losses and damage to the fabric of the earth. Past relations with the places of ‘mined resources’ have mostly ensured that ‘the other’ and her affairs are effectively beyond the horizon of genuine concern. Processes of resource extraction are sanitised and the negative impacts upon distant economies often accredited to the indolent or greedy nature of ‘the natives’ themselves. Worldwatch and the Institute of Policy studies, as well as the researchers at ‘The story of Stuff’ have produced the following statistics:
‘In the Amazon rainforest, 2000 trees are felled every minute’.
The very headwaters of the Amazon river, in Ecuador are under threat from mining what are said to be the last Earth deposits of copper. 5% of the world’s population use 30 percent of its resources (2007) yet create 30% of its waste[I].This increased to approximately 43.7% of global resources[J] just three years later in 2010!
The planet has available 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes—yet the average person on Earth already uses 2.3 hectares worth. These “ecological footprints” range from the 9.7 hectares claimed by the average American to the 0.47 hectares used by the average Mozambican.
We would need approximately three and a half planets to produce the amount of resources at the rate they are being consumed in the wealthy worlds.
The Trans-Atlantic Slavery (Maafa), one of the largest mass movements of human and material factors of production, to gear up distant societies for pre-industrialisation has largely been reduced to a footnote of history. It is the rare scholar who strives to explore the impacts[K] that the thoughtless depopulation of Africa had on its subsequent economic and social development. Do any intellectuals today even consider how it must have also impacted upon the moral, ethical and emotional development of those who insist upon relegating the behaviour of their ancestors to mildewed archives, burial grounds in relation to modern notions of progress? That which is buried however feeds the future and the present trans-atlantic treaties are the guinea millionaires of yesteryear, no longer mindful of the politics of race, who have come to claim further protocols of plenty from the governments and people who authored their beginnings.
3. We are aware that former ‘Invisibles’ have studied at the universities of the rich and are donning the ‘cloaks of visibility’. A new middle-class, sweltering under the weight of consumerist uniforms shed by their former bosses, is expanding.
The scathing but often uncritical view is that the share of the physical resource wealth of the Earth is being claimed by Asians, Africans and South Americans, too rapidly for comfort and, I quote: ‘every day in 2003, some 11,000 more cars merged onto Chinese roads—4 million new, private cars during the year. Auto sales increased by 60 % in 2002 and by more than 80 % in the first half of 2003. If growth continues apace, 150 million cars could jam China’s streets by 2015—18 million more than were driven on U.S. streets and highways in 1999’[L].
However, ‘2 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe accounts for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent’[M].
We have to strive for balance, but empiricism conceals another ‘realism’ gained from using other perspectives. The world cannot only be known through the lens of number.
When I have looked at the language of the discussion around consumerism, with its range of definitions and approaches, I have found one critical thing in common. The language is exclusive, it is somehow elistist and reflects notions of class and culture inequalities which preceded the sharp climb in mass consumption of the latter end of the twentieth century. This applies equally to those conversations which are pro-consumerist as much as it does to those who vie for the best anti-consumerist solution. Many of these inequalities derive from an exaggerated sense of who the self is in relation to the other. Rip Cronk[N] might have referred to this as egocentrism, out of balance.
One feminist author[O], in 1969 argued that the sexism evident, even then, in advertising and marketing was not the result of consumerism, but simply reflective of the structural relationships that the genders are obligated to perform in European heritage societies. Consumerist marketing techniques simply magnified these relations. She also pointed out that this situation also applies to the other stereotyped groups: to people of ‘otherised’ heritage and to children, vulnerably portrayed and used.
What the consumerist mechanism simply achieves is to further stereotype these pre-existing positions and exaggerate them to the point of hyper-reality, which deforms our relationship with real histories, real ‘truths’, and real identities[P] and creates a fragmented pastiche of unreality in which meaning is distorted and used to ‘abuse’ the victimised consumer, because it is able to command obedience, in a manner, claims Ellis, similar to sexual abuse.
I have used ‘we’ and ‘our’ advisably, as it is clear that these references do not apply globally when used. The literature is divided. Britain speaks in the voice of Jonathan Porritt[Q], The Schumacher Institute and the New Economic Foundation. America has its own impressive battalion of defensive and offensive statistics well served by the image creation industry. Australia and Canada speak from the languages of their own troubled pasts and uncertain futures, as do individual European countries.
Even though there are communities of Invisibles within these territories, a glance at the language and imagery made use of in the above text indicates that ‘the dispossessed’ may have to find their own solutions. Structural relations created by ‘Old Capitalism/Materialism are unlikely to enable their access through The Gates foundation and similar inspired ‘Philanthropic Capitalism[R]’ any more than they are likely to benefit under ‘New materialism’[S].
Some structures just hold fast to ideas entrenched by years of warring against their future citizens driven by the greed inspired by those preceding them; without due reflection upon the consequences.
Fundamentally, the socio-cultural ethic held by the consumerist mind-set is based upon and reifies the individual. To target the individual is the supreme opportunity of the ‘divide and rule’ tactic, so beloved of the colonial impulse. It is anti-consumerist to act collaboratively, co-operatively. The true ‘co-operante’ mentality implies considered, mindful action; it anchors itself in multiple (our) stories; it does not privilege one gender over another, it is mindful of all ages and abilities.
Money, which operates as a power anchor in economic theory, arising out of differing considerations of creative substitutions, has power over labour. As such, it operates with a (neo) Darwinian impulse. What if we were to use the pure power of labour according to a Margulian ethos? Genevieve Vaughn, speaking on the gift economy, within a feminist critique of exchange, reveals how women have absolutely undervalued labour in terms of the ‘traditional’ relations which exist[T]. Women don’t gain fully, under patriarchy, the true value of what ‘the feminine’ dynamic can bring to the world and there are those who argue that a more gender balanced way of being is equivalent to the establishment and maintenance of a more sustainable and just (matriarchal)[U] society. We ought to be able to explore other world-views without feeling ‘our own’ is threatened.
There is a real need to understand what values are being held by all the different niches within society and the extent to which consumerism, as an orientation towards person as both producer and consumer, has changed those values, but in accordance with pre-existing classical relations or tendencies. There are writers who deny consumerism that role. For Doug Hendrie of Australia’s abc.net, ‘consumerism is an offshoot of the economic, virtuous cycle which has elevated billions of humans to comfortable lives undreamt of by their ancestors. Virtuous? The ‘drive to buy’ is simply consumption. Consumerism, however, by its very definition, means the impulse to repeatedly buy, beyond the ability of the Earth to sustain that level of extraction/production and the resulting depletion and waste which results. Is this state not unreasonably damaging, particularly uncomfortable, especially for the possible billions that are to come, should a future Earth sustain such numbers?
Spending is one thing, even though it is driven act under consumerism and not the act of a citizen in full possession of their faculties and fully informed. Spending beyond one’s means, at any level of societal organisation, means spending beyond the means of the Earth… to sustain itself. Production comes with a cost which is not met, or even known, by the consumer. Hidden costs may include:
What remains to be debated is who will pay for the true cost of what we consume? Where does the power lie in the system of production and how can we cause it to speak and live the truth?
The gentrification of the twilight zones of the city, in the materially richer countries of Europe and America has meant that new ghettoes of the dispossessed have been created on the peripheries of cities…as they always have been in more distant metropolises of newly industrialising economies.
This has two impacts: one is that some of the suffering of the poor, caused by high levels of consumption by an elite class will be distanced and thus out of sight (and unable to exert a positive (negative?) feedback effect). Secondly, those already dispossessed will not be able to easily access innovations from those who can afford to make low carbon innovations. This will have an impact on choice based consumption.
Tim Kasser in Simms and Potts (2012) speak of the extrinsic and intrinsic values of expenditure/consumption. As with the ‘ethos’ of rhetoric, these terms relate to status, money and image exhibited by an individual (externalised: extrinsic) and the sense of self (home relationships, sense of responsibility for the Earth, self acceptance and self autonomy and (intrinsic) respectively.
What is not said is that the possession of these are structurally determined by the historical adjuncts of capitalism and labour relations and so low extrinsic values, tend to mean greater levels of depression and stresses, narcissism, substance abuse, aggression, stealing, prejudice and anger which are going to find their focus and blame accumulating around the erstwhile ‘Invisible’ of the urban ghettoes and peripheries, rendering them more visible, but negatively so. However, ones in such situations are less likely to be able to accept a further down-sized life, in terms of material acquisition. What is demanded then, by society, is resilience: how well can those with low extrinsic value exhibit an ability to recover from the constant stresses brought about by a dwindling access to the consumerist dream turned nightmare?
There is resistance from the goods-deprived citizens of countries and regions less well served by consumerism. Why do the visible do-gooders wish to deprive them of the conspicuous consumption which has been denied them for so long, they ask. Especially when the problem of excessive consumption and Earth plundering cannot be really laid at their doorstep. Give us a chance, they lament, to experience the indulgencies and luxuries that you currently enjoy!
So how do we, and that means all of us, resolve this impasse of structural anomalies exacerbated by the bush fire of conspicuous consumption burning up the ‘developing world’? How can borders be maintained against the hordes seeking the consumerist ‘light’, how can we suffer the future youth to remain un-intoxicated by the opium drug of conspicuous possession, educated, as it is, in the logic of success through possession.
A glance through a recent edition of a ‘New African’ magazine, a collector’s edition[V] celebrating the 50th anniversary of the African Union (AU) reveals from the front cover and within, a preoccupation with what Africans can do to seemingly mimic the economic growth of the ‘developed world’. Although desiring to make the best use of home grown technologies and entrepreneurial skills, the dependency on foreign capital and investment, not to mention imported technologies and information, belies a truly authentic, localised development, substantially different to what has happened elsewhere in the world. What new vision of progress can so ancient a continent bring to the world? Are there no home grown philosophies and principles which can inspire a new way of relating to the Earth and each other? What has become of the Shamans of these lands?
The China Daily, a European weekly for those interested in China’s progress[W] indicates on its front cover: ‘China goes into overdrive to attract top-end professionals and keep economic momentum chugging’. I suppose we should be grateful that it did not wish the engine to go at high speed’! What does China seek in the world? What does its own overseas questing for ‘resources’ of land and ores speak to, if not the replication of the failures of the West?
Where can we find sets of relationships which augur better for the world and the future of the earth? Now it seems that the imperative of consumerism has blinded our senses to its imminent suicide, as we are unable to account for the home grown anti-green terrorism in our midst.
We will, each of us, have to look at our own stories. Those myths, legends and disputed ‘facts’ which make us, us. We will have to look at the language we use that underpins our values. What do we mean when we say ‘we’ or ‘us’ or ‘our’? When we speak of ‘worlds’, as in Third World, First World, are we really aware that there is just one world? Do we deeply understand that this world is based exclusively upon our one earth, social constructions aside?
It is these same social, but anti-social, constructions that prevent us from properly seeing one another. I am rendered invisible by the historical, social determinants of race, when we have just one, human race, on Earth.
Further writings here will look at how our language obstructs rather than help us to define a helpful vision for the future. We seem chained to linguistic contraptions such as ‘entrepreneur’: one who enters and takes. Historically, what this connotes is a plunderer!
Imagine this too, it is within our language that when we say something gains currency, we mean it gains validity! What have we linked to the notion of genuine, or even original meaning.
The notion of being able to enter somewhere and take something surely relates to a his-story of entitlement to what the earth has. It is an objectification, quite literally. Now ‘mater-reals’(materials) are regarded as re-sources (sources one can return to again and again). All this simply becomes ‘our way’, as opposed to an intelligent relationship, one in which we seek to sustainably and optimally relate to earth as being, rather than thing.
‘We are what we eat’, so we are what we consume, we are also how we consume, and why and when and for what reason…
If science means knowing, as its etymology suggests, then how can we have used it to underpin deep fallacies that prevent our becoming more effectively collaborative? Perhaps quantum science will identify avenues to a new understanding of self that will prove more malleable, more useful?
Subsequent writings will also seek to examine the creation stories and the community structures that give us our unique characters and what these mean for the grip that the buy-buy-buy machinery has on us.
How can the Zulu concept of Ubuntu help us to imagine a new world? What does the notion of merging imaginal cells of the transforming insect provide to us in terms of a new metaphor for working effectively and collectively towards evolving a progressive beginning?
We are yet to revisit the solutions provided by the scholars of the twenty first century and contrast them with what our very ancient thinkers, from all cultures, have provided by way of road maps.
When we can delve deeper into the make-up of what consumerism is and how it works and what it is becoming, we may be better able to recognise the different roles and responsibilities of each of us. In so doing, we can begin steer a way away from the tortuous, intellectual paths which are carved out of crumbling rocks of fallacy, held together by the politics of power, privilege and patriarchy.
I desire to hear your comments and your questions. After all, it is though informed enquiry that we can truly develop ourselves and grow. Not, however, like an invisible, ectopic growth which, if ignored could produce a stone baby, born dead upon delivery; but rather a movement towards each other, building a relationship we are designed for but are seemingly afraid to acknowledge.
No perspective, no matter how oppositional it may first appear, can be disregarded. Each view is one borne out of a pure reflection, or perhaps a dissonance, with the environment it contributes, nevertheless, to creating. As such, it has to be examined and brought into conversation with each and every other: to help the healing.
Each one, teach one.
Apart from the opportunity this brings in terms of learning, a necessity if we are to move ahead, I feel that in the process of developing mechanisms to enable greater interface, each one with another, we will also be able to harness the dynamic that complex nature brings. Some of these are interwoven in ancient texts and some are being brought to bear in the development of critical discussions on indeterminacy and the nature of fields in quantum science: the texts and sub-texts of change. More on this in future writings.
You make me visible by seeing me. But it is your inner eye which has this gift of vision.
Use it, don’t lose it.
Without it we may lose the Earth.
[B] Nadler, Steven, “Baruch Spinoza”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2012/entries/spinoza/>
[C] Honoré, Carl (2005) In Praise of Slow. Orion Books, London
[D] Dugan, Sally and David, (2000) The Day the World Took Off: The Roots of the Industrial Revolution. Macmillan Publishers, London
[E] Collis, Dave (1999) The Abuse of Consumerism. Zadok Paper S101. http://www.zadok.org.au/papers/collis/colliss10103.shtml
[F] Dictionary.com. Unabridged. Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/consumerism
[G] The Story of Stuff: Consumerism, capitalism and Environment in America (December 2, 2007), Annie Leonard in collaboration with Tides Foundation, Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, Free Range Studios and other foundations. http://www.youtube.com/user/storyofstuffproject
[H] Fredrick Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, Durham, 1991 in Collis, Dave (1999) The Abuse of Consumerism. Zadok Paper S101. http://www.zadok.org.au/papers/collis/colliss10103.shtml
[K] Rodney, Walter. (1981) How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Washington, D.C. : Howard University Press
[M] Ibid. Worldwatch Institute
[N] Cronk, R., (1996) Consumerism and the New Capital. http://www.westland.net/venice/art/cronk/consumer.htm
[O] Willis, Ellen (1969) Women and the Myth of Consumerism. Ramparts. http://fair-use.org/ellen-willis/women-and-the-myth-of-consumerism
[P] Op cit. Ellis, Dave
[Q] Porritt, Jonathan. (2006) Big Ideas that Changed the World: Consumerism. Mentorn TV
[S] Simms, Andrew and Potts, Ruth (2012) The New Materialism. How our relationship with the material world can change for the better. The Schumacher Institute. Dartington. https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/77684614/New_Materialism_24%2011%2012.pdf
[T] Vaughan, Genevieve (1997) For-Giving. A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Produced by Plain View Press in collaboration with the Foundation for a Compassionate Society. http://www.for-giving.com/forgiving_english.pdf
[U] Rigogliosio, Marguerite. (September, 2003) Breaking the Taboo on “Matriarchy”. First World Congress Explores Women-Centered Societies. http://www.universitadelledonne.it/english/matriarchy.htm
[V] New African, (May 2013) Our Future made in Africa. Collector’s Edition. Ashford, Kent
[W] China Daily. (April-May 2013). Talent Quest. abc Certified publication. Cannon Street. London