What can we learn from an economist of the earth?
* See author list below
“If you don’t change directions, you’re going to end up where you’re headed.” The words Rebecca Adamson was told by her mother when growing up find new meaning in our globalized world today. What happens to the earth, happens to the children of the earth.
Rebecca Adamson was one of the speakers at the 2016 conference, Sustainable Wisdom: Integrating Indigenous Knowhow for Global Flourishing, held at the University of Notre Dame. Here are the summaries and reactions by several student members of the audience.
Adamson described alternative views of the economy, wealth and prosperity. She categorized economic outlooks into two main categories, Societal Economics and Tribal Economics. In most of the western world, we define economics as individuals with insatiable appetites competing for a scarcity of resources. We imagine unlimited desires all in competition with one another for a very limited number of resources and this is what is taught in economics classes. She describes our current world as having an insatiable lust for more, no matter what consequence it has on nature or our future world. She then contrasts that idea with the indigenous mindset that prosperity is achievable within the limits and means provided through nature and creation.
Tribal economics contends that there is not a scarcity, but an abundance of resources. The tribal belief system “assumes a prosperity and abundance of creation” and it “fundamentally assumes a kinship based idea of enoughness.” “Enoughness” is the key difference between the dominant mindset and the indigenous idea of prosperity.
Most tribal communities utilize what are called subsistence economies, which link people together through traditions and ceremonies tied to the land and nature. These subsistence economies operate on 4 main principles: Community, Nature as a source of knowledge, Interplay of spiritual beliefs, and that meaning is derived from the context of the group. In these economies it is understood that there must be equity and justice in and between communities for the survival of resources. In Tribal economics, resources are shared with everyone; they are are not scarce, but plentiful. Everyone owns the resources, but nobody can sell them. Indigenous people recognize that the community needs cooperation, not competition.
Adamson discussed how this mindset and the subsistence-based economy that arises from it promotes community and dependency within the groups of people, so it overall raises a sense of belonging and harmony within the group. She explained that the group’s connection with nature and wild resources is important and is passed down from generation to generation, allowing the traditional system to carry on without expanding beyond its means. She explained that the system is controlled by kinship-based production units, meaning that the boundaries of capital, land, and labor is decided communally, with nature’s overall importance in mind.
Additionally, Nature serves as a source of knowledge, and as a model to emulate. One does not waste. One takes only what one needs. Humans and nature are tied together spiritually. A fisherman does not just catch a fish, but the fish offers itself to the fisherman.
Finally, the community and economy changes according to each group. There is a “flexible kinship configuration that changes and shifts based on the resources to be taken and the expertise needed to harvest and process it.” That is, the economy shifts in accordance with the resource which is being taken. I thought Adamson did a very good job of analyzing the different styles of economic outlooks and discussing how we can implement the more tribal and community based approach. She even discussed one company which has already done so, VISA.
Additional reactions by authors:
KIT: Something that particularly stood out to me was the concept of individualism that is perpetuated in the modern world. We put value in people that have nothing and make something for themselves, and while there is something rewarding in seeing a rags-to-riches story, I think it misses the point. I have written before on the goals of humanity and our need to work together for the benefit of our entire species, and I think the talk today highlighted some of these important points. What she was able to show the viewers today was that humans have an extraordinary ability to work together for the benefit of everyone. By providing funds for an entire group in places around the work, she was able to find a correlation between these indigenous and groups and community-based effort. This kind of study into the way that humans work together brings me hope for our future; when we realize we need to live in a symbiotic relationship with the Earth as well as with each other, we can achieve so much more than through the mentality of every man for himself. This lecture today is important for a number of reasons, but chiefly it shows us that there isn’t some magic formula in regards to the best economic systems throughout the world. Capitalism isn’t always going to reign supreme, and by starting now we can try to find alternatives to a world filled with greed and a lack of understanding toward nature. Seeing the natural world around us as something other than a substance to be divided up and sold is going to be vital for our future on this planet, as well as vital for our understanding of what it means to work as a species, rather than just an individual.
JOHN: One fact that struck me immediately was that indigenous territory, i.e. territory controlled by indigenous people, spans just 20% of the earth’s land surface, however, it is home to 80% of earth’s total biodiversity. Adamson made it clear that this is not a coincidence. Though indigenous people have the technology to destroy the nature surrounding them, they also have the foresight and genius to be careful stewards of it. This fact made me realize how far we really have become from nature. It baffles me to consider how much of Earth’s resources we have depleted and destroyed. The exploitation of nature has led to a global loss of biodiversity, the extinction of thousands of species of plants and animals, and the endangerment of many more. At what point will we realize that enough is enough and begin to be proper stewards of the earth. Adamson stressed the interdependence of all living things, and noted that by failing to protect the environment, we are failing ourselves.
ANNE MARIE: When Ms. Adamson first introduced herself and spoke of her history supporting indigenous peoples through First People’s Worldwide I was proud of the work that the organization was doing to help those who are underrepresented in indigenous communities around the world. Then I started to feel ashamed because I had never heard of First People’s Worldwide, and I had never thought of the struggles that indigenous cultures face on a daily basis to keep their tradition alive. I was amazed at the parts of the world that the organization had reached, and I was shocked at the stories of discrimination and danger that indigenous peoples faced. When she told a story of an oil company imposing on a tribe in the Philippines and how the company cut the heads off of those who tried to dispute the company’s demands, I was shocked and angry that I had not heard of the injustice and that nothing was being done to stop it. Through this seminar I realized the importance of Adamson’s work with the organization, especially now with the North Dakota pipeline situation.
MACKIE: In her talk, Rebecca Adamson discussed indigenous economics and the role her business, First Peoples Worldwide, plays in national and international economics of indigenous peoples. I found it very interesting that the First Peoples worldwide system involved the use of what can be considered microloans, or small grants, to supplement the work native peoples are doing to restore their own livelihoods and sense of identity. She described how her company gives small amounts of money to projects that are the brainchildren of indigenous people. Beyond that, to receive a grant the projects must have a direct impact on the community they were developed in—an idea developed by an indigenous community to directly help them and further their way of life. Compared to the standard model of “people from other countries coming in and giving money to causes without doing a lot of research,” this technique seems like a much better, more focused option. By giving the money directly to the people it can help the most, and applying it to projects these people have created to bolster their own communities (rather than a project set up by outsiders who have a minimal sense of the needs and ethnic lifestyles of the community), there is a greater impact on the people who most need help. Allowing people to champion their causes and then giving them the money necessary to make those dreams a reality is also an amazing way of empowering the community as a whole, because it allows the group to work together as a team to come up with a solution that will further their cause and improve their situation while maintaining their way of life. When the solution is put into action and the community is improved as a result, it is made clear that the community can take action to improve themselves, rather than relying on hit-or-miss outside aid and hoping it will hit the mark. This will empower them to continue to take action to help themselves, creating a continuing cycle of self-improvement and better quality of life. This sense of empowerment also allows for a return to native lifestyles that have been lost due to modern industrialization, because it motivates indigenous peoples to take action to reclaim their traditions, and they know they can do it based on their own ideas for projects and community improvements. There is no waiting around for someone else to take action, or hoping a benefactor will miraculously arrive and know just what needs to be done—people who are a part of the community and know its inner workings in detail can step up to the plate and take action themselves, however small, to better their lives and the lives of their neighbors.
MADDIE: I think a major takeaway for me from the Sustainable Wisdom Conference was the question with which I was left ruminating: How do we continue to grow in a holistic way? I think about the way where we can clearly see a contrast between people using every part of an animal and a society which consists of a “throw away culture.” Where can we place more careful concern on the life-cycle of the products which pass before our eyes? Adamson reiterates the message that it is sustainability versus growth and that sustainability ultimately means survival. How can we practice growth not of property or possession but rather growth in spirit, wisdom, relationships, and community?
FOOTNOTE: Rebecca Adamson, First Peoples Worldwide, works to fund projects that support indigenous communities. This includes divesting in projects that harm indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline project. Here is one way to help protest that project. Also check the conference action page for more actions.
*Authors are undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame of the 2019 class:
Madeleine (Maddie) Thompson
Anne Marie Bonds
Christian (Kit) Jones
Mackenzie (Mackie) Graaf
Conference Talks with Links
“‘Woman Is the Mother of All’: Rising from the Earth” By Barbara Mann
“Orality, Literacy, and the Animate Earth” by David Abram
“Magic and the Machine; Reflections on Animism and Technology in an Age of Ecological Wipe-out” by David Abram