You can’t get something for nothing. This is true and we all know it, though we often tend to forget it, ignore it, or leave it out of our plans or dreams.
In “developed” societies like the US, any monetary wealth that a person gains has a material cost in the world, both to other humans and to the environment. For every dollar that exists, labor was exploited, raw materials extracted, or pollution generated.
Our victims did not assent willingly, either. Their position is forced upon them with violence or its threat. The environment is increasingly toxic to life, including our own. In short, we’re bullies and we’re shitting in our own bed. In the interest of justice and a living ecology, then, we must collectively reduce our wealth generation.
This gets tricky though, both logistically and politically.
Take, for example, the case of the campaign for living wage. On the one hand, minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, and a full-time job at that rate is not adequate to pay rent on a two-bedroom apartment in any US state. That’s ridiculous. After all, what is a “minimum” wage supposed to cover, if not necessities? Can’t we just pay people enough to live already?
On the other hand, in an economy based on growth, wealth leads to consumption, which results in resource extraction and ecological damage. So I must ask if we can afford more wealth.
To which someone might say, “Well go tell the single mother working at McDonalds that she doesn’t deserve to make enough money to keep a roof over her children.” To which I could respond, “Well go tell the indigenous mother in the Amazon that she doesn’t deserve to live on her ancestral forest land anymore because it needs to be cleared to raise cattle for burgers in the United States.”
Our colonial mindset is showing when we draw up our wish list without considering how it will affect our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.
Our human supremacism is exposed when we fail to take into account how our consumption affects the other creatures on the planet.
But here in the US, can’t we just tax billionaires and corporations and provide everyone with our needs like housing and medical care and education? Sure. But ending income inequality would not put us in the clear. If we don’t change anything else—that is, if we don’t reduce our overall footprint—innumerable crimes will continue: wars, slavery, torture, habitat destruction, extinctions and more. These are the costs of producing the wealth that the billionaires and corporations are hoarding. Redistributing that glittering pile is not enough; we must drastically shrink its size.
Our planetary conundrum is deadly serious and we must adopt an entirely different approach, both in our philosophies and our actions. We can no longer act as if we can get something for nothing. We must replace extraction with exchange.
This entails expanding our outlook. Taking only humanity into account is far too narrow. We must include our extended family: everything animal, vegetable and mineral, plus. We’re all in this together and that’s a biological fact, not just a pithy phrase.
Fortunately for us, the human race has a long history of relating to the planet in terms of exchange rather than extraction. For the majority of our existence as a species—going back at least 200,000 years—that was our universal mode, prior to the Agricultural Revolution, a scant 10,000 or so years ago. One could even say that truly sustainable living based on exchange is human nature, and that our recent behavior is an uncharacteristic aberration.
Indigenous people around the world still enjoy lifestyles of exchange. You don’t have to go to the Amazon to find them, either. In the United States, traditions have been kept alive, some in secret, some more openly. I have personally met individuals, both indigenous and not, who are striving to live by such practices, and they’re having a good time doing it. (I have interviewed some and written about others. See here, here and here.)
Exchange means there is give and take, not just take. Plants that are harvested are also propagated. Animals are not killed without permission. Landscapes are tended to benefit everyone. Ceremony is used to help focus conscious attention and intention for these activities, as well as operating on other levels.
At the heart of all this is respect.
Conversely, extraction is driven by disrespect.
Indigenous tribes in the US American west who harvested roots in wetlands and replanted the smaller ones were participating in exchange. Colonizing Europeans who drained the marshes to raise cattle were extracting. The passage of time has not legitimized this theft nor exonerated the ranchers. Quite the contrary: the debt to be repaid mounts higher with each year of ongoing degradation.
Civilization—the physical and philosophical output of agriculture—is entirely dependent on extraction. It cannot be retooled to operate on exchange. The best thing we could do for ourselves and the planet now would be to implement its deconstruction. We have the ability to step back with grace and humility. Life is ready to welcome us back anytime.