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.
An Infection of Individualism: The Affluenza Affliction
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’.
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)
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:
Sweat shop labour
Dangerous work conditions
Low pay/no pay
Poisoning the environment
Poisoning the food chain (including the human end of it)
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.