Mission 19: Finding Wetiko
Being in tune with nature means more than just a journey to nature. It also means travelling away from the stories of our culture that seem hell-bent on destroying the fabric of our planet for profit.
So this week’s mission is to examine yourself, your beliefs and activities for signs of ‘wetiko’, a mind virus destroying the integrity of our ecosystems to generate wealth for the few. When our stories of capitalism were made, the population of the earth was relatively small and nature seemed infinite. This led us to believe that nature was a resource we could plunder forever.
‘We can, if need be, ransack the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the earth, descend to the bottom of the deep, travel to the farthest regions of this world, to acquire wealth.’
William Derham, ‘Physio-Theology’, 1713
All this free stuff was so ready for the taking that it did not even have an associated value on the balance sheets (apart from the cost of extraction). Hence capitalism was born as a lie because it has been using what are fundamentally capital assets, the natural resources of the planet, as income, ever since it came into being. And now the population is huge and its exploitable assets are drying up. Extractivism is everywhere and just taken for granted. Human beings have become an eco-disaster.
Our investment in earth-rape is now so advanced that whole continents are on fire or melting. Our countries are having to cope with vast areas of flooding or other extreme weather events, yet we continue to spend trillions on war and its machinery whilst millions of people are starving. And this is because we have ‘the wrong stories’ as a culture. We always did have. That is why it has come to this.
The Wisdom of Indigenous people
“In the 1990s an unusual encounter took place in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In plant rituals, shamans of the Achuar, a tribe living in pristine forest that had never been in touch with Western civilization, received the warning that the ‘white man’ would try to invade their lands, cut down the forest and exploit the resources. Deeply shaken, they called out to the Spirits for help.
Soon after white people did approach them, coming to them however with supportive intentions – a group of activists from the United States, searching for ways to protect Indigenous Peoples from the oil industry. The Westerners found a deeply interconnected tribal society living in profound symbiosis with the Earth. Seeing the bulldozers coming closer and closer, they asked the Elders of the tribe how they could survive.
Their answer was surprising and straightforward:
“Don’t try to help us here. Go back to your own culture and change the dream of the modern world! It is because of this dream that we are perishing.”
Wetiko is more fully explained below, from an online article by by Alnoor Ladha & Martin Kirk. North American indigenous peoples identify a virus-like disease at the heart of Western culture which in one language is called ‘Wetiko’.
“Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam), Taoism, Gnosticism, as well as many Indigenous cultures, have long understood the mind-based nature of creation. These world views have at their core a recognition of the power of thought-forms to determine the course of physical events.
Various First Nations traditions of North America have specific and long established lore relating to cannibalism and a term for the thought-form that causes it: wetiko. We believe understanding this offers a powerful way of understanding the deepest roots of our current global polycrisis.
Wetiko is an Algonquin word for ‘a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess, and selfish consumption’. It deludes its host into believing that cannibalizing the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.
Wetiko short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. It is this false separation of self from nature that makes this cannibalism, rather than simple murder. It allows—indeed commands—the infected entity to consume far more than it needs in a blind, murderous daze of self-aggrandizement.
Author Paul Levy, in an attempt to find language accessible for Western audiences, describes it as ‘malignant egophrenia’—the ego unchained from reason and limits, acting with the malevolent logic of the cancer cell. We will use the term wetiko as it is the original, and reminds us of the wisdom to be found in Indigenous cultures, for those who have the ears to hear.
Wetiko can describe both the infection and the body infected; a person can be infected by wetiko or, in cases where the infection is very advanced, can personify the disease: ‘a wetiko.’ This holds true for cultures and systems; all can be described as being wetiko if they routinely manifest these traits.
When Western anthropologists first started to study wetiko, they believed it to be only a disease of the individual and a literal form of flesh-eating cannibalism. On both counts, as discussed, their understanding was, if not wrong, certainly limited to colonialist attitudes. They did, however, accurately isolate two traits that are relevant for thinking about wetiko:
(1) the initial act, even when driven by necessity, creates a residual, unnatural desire for more; and
(2) the host carrier, which they called the ‘victim,’ ended up with an ‘icy heart’— i.e., their ability for empathy and compassion was amputated.
The reader can probably already sense from the two traits mentioned above the wetiko nature of modern capitalism. Its insatiable hunger for finite resources; its disregard for the pain of groups and cultures it walks over and consumes; its belief in ‘consumption as saviour’; its overriding obsession with its own material growth; and its viral spread across the surface of the planet.
It is wholly accurate to describe neoliberal capitalism as cannibalizing life on this planet. It is not the only truth—capitalism has also facilitated an explosion of human life and ingenuity—but when taken as a whole, capitalism is certainly eating through the life-force of this planet in service of its own growth…
In other words, any system that is sufficiently infected by wetiko logic will reward cannibalistic behaviour. Or, in Jack Forbes’ evocative language,
“Those who squirm upwards [in a wetiko system] are, or become, wetiko, and they only perpetuate the system of corruption or oppression. Thus the communist leaders in the Soviet Union under Stalin were at least as vicious, deceitful and exploitative as their czarist predecessors. They obtained ‘power’ without changing their wetiko culture.”
This ensures that the essential logic of cultures spreads down through generations as well as across them. And it explains why they self-organize resources to maintain a high degree of continuity in distributions of power, when those distributions efficiently serve their survival and growth. When this continuity is interrupted or broken, revolutions occur and the system is put under threat.
However, as the above quote suggests, the disruption must happen at the right level. Merely trading one wetiko for another at the top of an otherwise unchanged wetiko infrastructure (as in the case of Stalin replacing the czars or, more contemporarily, (Biden replacing Trump replacing Obama replacing Bush) is largely pointless. At best, it might result in the softening of the cruellest edges of the wetiko machine. At worse, it does nothing except distract us from seeing the true infection.
The question, then, for anyone interested in excising the wetiko infection from a culture is, where is it? In one respect, because it is a psychic phenomenon that lives in potential in all of us, it is non-local. But this, though ultimately important to understand, is not the whole truth. It is also true that there is a conceptual place where the most powerful wetiko logic is held, and that, at least in theory, makes it vulnerable.
In the same way that a colony of bees will instinctively house its queen in the deepest chambers of the hive, so a complex adaptive system buries its most important operating logic furthest from the forces that can challenge them. This means two things: first, it means siting the logic in the deep rules that govern the whole. Not just this national economy or that, this government or that, but the mother system—the global operating system. And second, it means making these rules feel as intractable and inevitable as possible.
So what is this deep logic of the global operating system?
It comes in two parts. First, there is the ultimate purpose, which we might call the Prime Directive, which is to increase capital.
We often dress this up in a narrative that says capital generation is not the end but the means, the engine of progress. This makes the idea of dethroning it feel dangerous and even contrary to common sense. But the truth is, we have created a system that artificially treats money as sacred. At this point in capitalism’s history, life is controlled by, more than it controls, the forces of capital. The clue is really in the name. But if you need further proof, look no further than how we define and measure progress: GDP & GNP.
Then, there is the logic for how we, the living components of this system, should behave, which we would summarize with the following epithet:
‘Selfishness is rational and rationality is everything; therefore selfishness is everything.’
This dictates that if we all prioritize ourselves and maximize our own material wealth, an invisible hand will create an equilibrium state and life everywhere will be made better. We are pitted against each other in a form of distributed fascism where we cocoon ourselves in the immediate problems of our own circumstances and consume what we can. We then couch this behaviour in the benign language of family matters, national interests, job creation, GDP growth, and other upstanding endeavours.
Put these two parts of the puzzle together and it’s easy to see why the banker who generates excess capital receives vast rewards and is labelled ‘productive’ and ‘successful,’ almost regardless of the damage s/he causes.
Those who are less ‘successful’ at producing excess capital, meanwhile, are rewarded far less, regardless of the life-affirming good they may be doing. Nurses, mothers, teachers, journalists, activists, scientists—all receive far less reward because they are less efficient at obeying the Prime Directive and may even be countermanding the ‘self-interest’ operating principle. And as for those who are actually poor—well, they are effortlessly labelled not just as practical but also moral failures.
This infection is so far advanced that the system now requires exponential capital growth. The World Bank tells us that we have to grow the global economy by at least 3 percent per year to avoid recession. Let’s think about what this means. Global GDP in 2014 was roughly USD $78 trillion. We grew that pie by 2.4% in 2015, which resulted in the commodification and subsequent consumption of roughly another $2 trillion in human labour and natural resources. and more and more and more every year.
That’s roughly the size of the entire global economy in 1970. It took us from the dawn of civilization to 1970 to reach $2 trillion in global GDP, and now we need that just in the differential so the entire house of cards doesn’t crumble. In order to achieve this rate of growth year-on-year, we are destroying our planet, ensuring mass species extinction, and displacing millions of our brothers and sisters (who we commonly refer to as ‘poor people’) from around the world.
So when people tell us that the market knows best, or technology will save us, or philanthrocapitalism will redistribute opportunities (pace Bill Gates), we have to understand that all of these seemingly common sense truisms are embedded in a broader operating system, a wetikonomy, with all that that means. And the more they are presented as ‘unchangeable,’ the more often we’re told, ‘there is no alternative,’ the more we should question. There is actually a beautiful irony in the fact that, when we know what we’re up against, such statements are our signposts for where to look.”