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In the last edition of Kosmos Journal, my brother-in-arms and I wrote about the Algonquin concept of wetiko.1 It was part of a campaign we were preparing at /TheRules2 to introduce the idea to a wider audience, a campaign that Kosmos has been graciously supporting by publishing that original article, then a wetiko themed newsletter, and now this piece.
The idea behind the campaign was to offer people a fresh lens through which to understand the vastly complex and interconnected crises currently facing the world, from climate change to inequality to mass poverty, and to do so at the level of the fundamental beliefs that underpin modern capitalist society.
A lot of attention is paid to the mechanics of what is going wrong—the ‘how,’ if you like. But far less attention is paid to the root question of ‘why?’ Why is it we humans find ourselves here, in a present that is so dangerous and unstable that it makes the very idea of a future questionable. What is the structure of our beliefs that has led us to this brink of existential ruin? The more we can understand the underlying why, the better equipped and more likely we are to respond appropriately.
In the endless quest for insight to help us make sense of what’s happening at this level, we came across the work of Native American activist and philosopher Jack D. Forbes and his book Columbus and Other Cannibals. He introduced us to wetiko and his plea was for more people to understand it and to see how, as he put it, “the history of the world for the past 2,000 years is, in great part, the story of the epidemiology of the wetiko disease.”3 The ‘Seeing Wetiko’ campaign is our very humble attempt to honour that plea.
The original article explored the full meaning and history of the concept. In this piece, I’d like to look at it from a more personal place. Given that we have invited people from all over the world to ‘see wetiko’—because by seeing it, we gain power over it—it is only fair that we do the same ourselves. So this is how I personally see wetiko and why I find it so enlightening and powerful.
I’ve been involved in social and environmental justice work for over 20 years. I’ve been a community activist, a global lobbyist for NGOs, a policy analyst, a researcher, and sometimes all of them at once. Like many people who do this sort of work, I’ve read hundreds of books and reports, travelled extensively around the world, and attended and convened more seminars and conferences than I can count. I’ve seen this sector from many angles and have been exposed to a wide range of views, contexts, and and theories. Even after all this, I know I’ve barely scratched the surface, but I flatter myself to think that I have a fairly solid sense of its essential nature.
One aspect of that nature that, looking back, I think I sensed pretty early on, was that most mainstream campaigning is fundamentally incommensurate with the scale of the problems it seeks to fix. Both the logic and the strategies are altogether too small. Wait, no, ‘small’ isn’t quite the right word. ‘Limited’ is closer to it. Let me offer an example.
Climate change is what is often called a ‘wicked problem’ because it is deeply systemic. It is interwoven across many systems—from energy to transport to finance to the ecosystem itself—that alter and influence one another in infinitely complex ways. It is about greenhouse gases and their effect on atmospheric systems, but to think about it only as a mechanical problem in this way—i.e., the ‘machine’ of our civilisation taking CO2, methane, etc. from the ground and transferring them to the atmosphere in concentrations that disrupt weather patterns—is certainly important but it’s a long way from sufficient.
That definition is not technically wrong, but nor is it wholly right. And this is what I mean by ‘limited.’ Without grounding our work in a deep understanding of why this machine exists as it does and what keeps it going, we will forever be locked into a logic that encourages confusing symptoms with causes. This means that the causes are left largely untouched, and, as any doctor will tell you, unless you treat the underlying disease, the symptoms will keep recurring.
Think for a moment about how we tend to talk about what’s needed to deal with climate change. Pick up almost any mainstream newspaper article, book, policy report, or UN treaty document and you’ll see how it all revolves around two core objectives: cutting emissions and mitigating impact. In the cutting emission camp are things like cap and trade, decarbonising energy grids, and even ideas like ‘sustainable consumption’ and the ‘green economy.’ In the mitigation camp, you find flood defences, resilience plans for ‘affected communities,’ and strategies to deal with climate-related migration. All are essential, without a doubt, (although with fundamental caveats where both ‘sustainable consumption’ and the ‘green economy’ are concerned), but they are all insufficient on their own. And not just because we’re not doing any of it fast enough (which is certainly true), but because climate change is not ultimately caused by the burning of fossil fuels; it’s caused by our belief in the basic rightness of the way of life that is entangled with massive fossil fuel consumption.
Put it this way: if we, the human race, could replace fossil fuels with renewables by clicking our fingers tomorrow and leave everything else the same—all the lifestyles, the social attitudes, the production and consumption patterns, and the power structures that hold it all together—we surely would, and no argument from even the most convincing climate denier could deter us. And it would feel great because by the dominant logic we would be justifiably satisfied, but that’s only because this logic does not extend to looking at the most dysfunctional aspects of our cultural beliefs. It stops at the water’s edge of how we currently fuel that culture.
This limits most mainstream strategies from engaging with the true cause of climate change and dooms them to being profoundly incommensurate with the scale of the problem we’re actually grappling with: a deeper logic encoded within capitalism. This logic, in turn, grew out of a logic encoded within our very civilisation: our cultural worldview, as it’s sometimes called. This worldview not only causes climate change but also poverty, inequality, and, indeed, a fair amount of our dysfunction.
What is this logic? That’s where the wisdom contained within the idea of wetiko comes in. Our first article explored the idea more fully, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll just repeat the basic definition here:
“Wetiko is… a thought-form that manifests as greed, excess, and selfish consumption. It deludes its host into believing that cannibalising whatever energy it can lay its hands on (including that of other humans, animals, and other forms of life) is a logical and morally upright strategy for a successful life… short-circuits an entity’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy.”
This thought-form sits right at the very heart of our modern consumer-capitalist culture. It is an animating logic for how to live, a cause of causes. It doesn’t explain everything about our culture (there is plenty of wonderful, compassionate logic in there too) but it does articulate one of its fundamental aspects. Until and unless we deal with our culture’s internal wetiko logic, all the problems it is causing now will resurface—many tomorrow, some in a hundred years, some maybe even later. Until we dispel wetiko, we will fix nothing for the long term. We will stay on the path of treating the natural world as a resource for our use until we exhaust it completely; we will keep visiting the sort of unspeakable cruelty and destruction on other life that is seen, for example, in much of the modern meat industry or the systematic destruction of rainforests; and we will keep finding it perfectly logical and socially acceptable to assume that some forms of human life are more valuable than others.
The invitation our campaign extends is for people to ‘see wetiko,’ in themselves, in the world around them, and in the superstructures of our global system. That ‘in themselves’ bit is, for me, one of its most powerful aspects because it means that we can’t simply externalise all our problems. We can’t just point fingers and blame others. It requires us to do the hard but essential work of understanding our relationship to this system, how it emerges from things that are as much in us as they are in the greediest tyrant, and, ultimately, our complicity in its ongoing survival.
Here’s just one of many ways I see wetiko in myself.
I enjoy eating meat and I have no ethical compunction about it per se. In the grand patterns of energy exchange, humans eating the flesh of other animals seems consistent with our place in the scheme of life. I respect those whose ethical or spiritual beliefs tell them otherwise, but I don’t share those particular beliefs.
Despite this, I currently live an almost exclusively vegetarian lifestyle. I don’t describe myself as vegetarian because I don’t subscribe to an absolute ‘no meat’ sanction. I am just extremely selective about the meat I will eat to the point that it passes my lips maybe once a month.
What’s this got to do with wetiko? Well, I have struggled with this question a fair bit in my adult life. I was a teenage vegetarian for a couple of years but went back to meat before my twenties. Since then, I have gone back and forth countless times on whether I should re-embrace vegetarianism. It’s been a battleground in my own psyche, where competing logics and beliefs have hashed it out. And one of those logics is wetiko (i.e., that which “short-circuits [my] ability to see [myself] as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment, and raises [my] self-serving ego to supremacy”).
What does it mean to “raise the self-serving ego to supremacy?” That’s the crux of this question. At what point does my eating meat constitute a critical disregard for the interdependent webs of life I am enmeshed within? As I said above, it is not my belief that eating meat of any kind in every circumstance qualifies, but there is a point at which my selfish wants override other considerations. That point is where my wetiko shows itself. It is never, though, a simple point to recognise because wetiko is tightly wrapped around everything else in my mind and is forever mixed up with things beyond me.
I live in the capitalist American mainstream. This means that I, like most people, am insulated from processes of meat production. I once killed and ate a trout from a Scottish loch, but that’s the limit of my experience of taking life so that I can eat.
This is one of the wetiko dimensions of modern capitalism. More private profit can be made when the average meat eater does not experience the reality of the industrial slaughterhouse. More profit is made when those processes maximise ‘economies of scale’ and when animals can be genetically modified to dramatically increase the amount and type of meat they provide. And these things are all mutually reinforcing. The more I am shielded, the more can be done that I might otherwise object to. And the more I buy industrial meat, the more the profit-collectors are encouraged to keep doing things that way.
It is up to me, then, to decide whether to accept this system and eat the meat it produces. The decision should ultimately be up to me, of course—I should be the captain of my fate and master of my soul—but in our hyper-consumption society, the wider political and social environment is anything but neutral. All the incentives are towards more industrial meat. In fact, wetiko logic is deliberately and systematically privileged. Just look at the protections that have been erected around industrial, wetiko-ised meat production. To quote Chris Hedges,
“The animal agriculture industry has used the excuse of national security, public safety, trade agreements and the need for business secrets to pass what are known as ag-gag-laws in about a dozen states and, on the federal level, the Animal Enterprise Act, all enhanced with anti-terrorism laws to criminalize anyone who investigates or challenges the industry. It is illegal under the Patriot Act to issue statements or carry out actions that harm the profits of the animal agriculture industry.” 4
On top of that, we need to layer in the vast advertising machine that keeps telling us it is safe, perfectly normal, and even moral to eat industrial meat. That works to ensure our attention is on anything but the meaning of being interconnected with all life.
And it is all made coherent in my mind, all rubber-stamped as valid, by the wetiko that lives in me.
If intelligence is the ability to find coherence in patterns of information, then wetiko could be said to be a corruption of my innate intelligence. I can barely watch videos of the horrific ways cattle are often treated. I physically flinch at descriptions of what humans have done to chickens to make them grow faster, with breasts so big that their legs buckle under the weight. It bothers me to my bones. In other words, I have an instinctive moral sense around these things, based, as far as I can tell, on a primal capacity for empathy and recognition that our base stance towards life should be one of humble respect, not “how can I profit off this thing?”
But then, for most of my adult life, I have still eaten industrial meat. I have tended toward organic, free range, all that good stuff, but I have taken shortcuts and allowed myself to see goodness when there is really only marketing spin. What my primal intelligence tells me about the value of life has been corrupted. The battles I have had with myself are symptoms of this corruption, which manifest as a lack of coherence, an inability to reconcile my innate intelligence with my—and the system’s—wetiko.
When I concentrate, I can almost feel the contours of wetiko in my mind. I can certainly trace countless wetiko-inspired decisions I’ve made, including around meat-eating. This is one I am trying to correct for, at the grand age of 44, but I don’t for a second delude myself into thinking there aren’t a thousand other ways it lives in me.
Becoming aware of wetiko has given me a tool I didn’t previously have with which to navigate these difficult internal waters. And for that I am eternally grateful.
1. Ladha, A., & Kirk, M. (2016). Seeing wetiko: On capitalism, mind viruses, and antidotes for a world in transition. Kosmos Journal, Spring/Summer, 22–27. Available at http://www.kosmosjournal.org/article/seeing-wetiko-on-capitalism-mind-viruses-and-antidotes-for-a-world-in-transition
3. Forbes, J.D. (2008). Columbus and other cannibals: The wetiko disease of exploitation, imperialism and terrorism (p. 46). New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
4. Hedges, C. (2014). Saving the planet, one meal at a time. Available at http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/saving_the_planet_one_meal_at_a_time_20141109
Martin Kirk is co-founder and Head of Strategy for /The Rules. Formerly, he was Head of Campaigns at Oxfam, GB and Head of Advocacy at Save the Children, UK, working with governments and multi-lateral institutions. He has been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera and authored Finding Frames: New Ways to Engage the UK Public in Global Poverty.