In my recent readings in the history of the Lakota and other native peoples of America’s Great Plains, I’ve been struck by descriptions of their giveaway ceremonies. They remind me of another practice I had learned of before, and which I believe is more generally familiar: the potlatch, a related custom practiced by Native Americans of the Northwest. Potlatches generally came with strict expectations of giving the gifts away again promptly, and then some. These exchanges cemented power relations and were often aggressively competitive; they’re better understood as tactical, sociopolitical transactions rather than simple acts of generosity.
Lakota giveaway ceremonies, however, are much more altruistic in the sense that we commonly understand the term. The gifts are given freely with no expectation of payback; in fact, the resulting impoverishment itself is a badge of honor. That’s why I chose a quote by Sitting Bull, the great Hunkpapa Lakota chief, to introduce this essay. He once illustrated the contrast between Lakota and white attitudes towards property by telling how his poverty aroused the admiration of his people, rather than the disdain most white people feel toward such a state. To those who share Sitting Bull’s impression of the invaders of his homeland, the driving need to amass and own material goods can be a sign of spiritual poverty.
Today’s United States, like those nations most similar to her in culture and economy, is very much not characterized by that less-is-more spirit. This is nothing new. The United States and Canadian governments’ historical prohibitions on giveaway ceremonies in vanquished tribes indicate that Sitting Bull’s characterization of white culture describes something that’s been around for quite a while. These governments viewed giveaway ceremonies as a challenge to the enthusiasm for a market-driven type of productive cooperation they wished to instill in the nations they conquered. These and other Western societies (derived from Europe) had been centered around the production, acquisition, accumulation, and display of goods particularly since the industrial age. This is reflected in our values, our mores, our politics, our language, our cultural attitudes, the ways we celebrate holidays and major life events, and even, increasingly, our religious and spiritual practices.
The free market system, a new style of trade characterized by Adam Smith as that best for improving lives of all human beings most efficiently, has indeed instilled many good practices and attitudes. For example, we’re less likely to see other nations and cultures as enemies when we cultivate relationships as trading partners; we see the effects of this change in international relations and in the relative peacefulness of the modern world to those which practiced the old feudal and mercantilist systems. We also see that more people throughout the world now live longer, more comfortable lives than ever before, as the market incentivizes and drives innovation to respond more efficiently to demand. But there have always been downsides to free markets too. Think of the slave trade; trade wars; colonialism; invasion and confiscation of indigenous lands; the immiseration of working people in squalid industrial towns and dismal factories; price- and wage-fixing by trusts and monopolies; and vast inequalities in wealth and in chances of success are but a few examples. Such practices and inefficiencies are not merely excesses or abuses perpetrated by a few bad actors: they are regular and expected outcomes of a system whose purpose is to maximize profit and come out ahead of everyone else.
And now, we see that market values have pervaded all levels of our consciousness, our self-conception of who we are and how we should best inhabit our world. As philosopher Michael Sandel describes it, we have gone from having a market economy to being a market society. The way we live, think, and feel is pervaded by consumerism. We’ve become buyers and sellers to the extent that we have become products ourselves, marketed and commodified, valued in work and in life insofar as we present ourselves the right way, are seen in the right places, wear the right brands and styles, drive the right cars, and use the right products.
And this has led us to a new problem, one unimaginable to John Locke, Adam Smith, and others who developed the theories about property rights and the benefits of open markets that we take for granted today. Human societies were relatively small then, and the uninhabited regions and untapped resources of the world seemed vast, even endless by comparison. It’s very different today. The population of the world has grown so large, our technological ability to produce goods from raw materials so varied, efficient, and prolific, and our ingrained habits of making, amassing, and consuming voraciously is leading us to a crisis of mass waste, pollution, and climate change.
The pollution problem can be seen as the modern corollary of Thomas Malthus’ 1798 theory that human reproduction would inevitably outstrip food production, leading to mass impoverishment. Though Malthus’ ideas had long gone out of fashion with advancements in agricultural technology and the widespread use of birth control, he’s enjoying a bit of a comeback. However long technology can stave off many of the ill effects of exponential population growth, the earth’s habitable surface and ability to produce what we need to survive (let alone to live well) is finite nonetheless. This is also true of our atmosphere’s ability to absorb the off-gassing of our industries without changing our biosphere’s ability to sustain the life it gave rise to. Over the centuries and decades, concerns about human impact on the natural world and its life-sustaining resources swing from optimism that we can and will create new technology and social practices that will solve everything, to worry that we won’t be sufficiently motivated or innovative in time to stave off the destruction of our own habitat.
Beginning with Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, environmental consciousness is becoming ever more pervasive across the political spectrum. But it seems that ecological responsibility is still an ideal that has not yet changed our behavior except in a few token ways. Even progressive, self-consciously ‘green’ micro-cultures, such as that of the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, generally consume and discard on a very large scale. There’s a strong market here for innovations in green products such as compostable and reusable utensils and packaging, recycled fiber and bamboo clothing, energy-efficient technology, and more. Some of this technology replaces other arrays of products such as CDs, books, ledgers, pens and pencils, camera film, landline telephones, and so on, and could in time reduce the amount of stuff made. Yet new generations and styles of products replace the old ones almost as often and quickly as they are introduced, and the things which the new products replace in turn become trash. And in the case of technology, particularly toxic trash. There are recycling programs, to be sure, but they don’t keep up with the volume of discards, and the recycling process itself can be toxic. And the compostable packaging which cocoons every fashionable new product and every new gadget adds to the deluge. Take-out meal services and ready-to-make meals in a box are ever-increasing in popularity, every breakfast, lunch, and dinner wrapped in a soon-to-be-wad-of-trash. Newly ubiquitous reusable shopping bags and thinly-walled plastic bottles do little in the face of this accelerating volume of throwaway goods and conveniently, disposably-packaged everything.
What does all this mean on a planet now so dominated by humans, materialistic, energetic, intelligent, creative, productive, and exponentially-reproductive?
It does seem that our love of possession is a disease with us, not just in the moral and spiritual sense that Sitting Bull refers to. It’s become something palpable, something we see before our eyes, that we breathe in, that we swim among. It shares characteristics of cancer, growing, proliferating, invading at an accelerating rate, which we still likewise seem powerless to stop. And the gases from the production and decay of all this stuff is changing the climate from the one that gave rise to the evolution of, and now sustains and nurtures, the plants and animals that give us life.
So what do we do? How do we divert or change this deeply ingrained cultural habit, this seemingly unstoppable force that we’ve unleashed?
I think about that other thing Sitting Bull said, about his people respecting him not because he owned many things in the way valued by white people, but because he kept little for himself. How, then, if we shift our values? How if we began to regard the need to compulsively and conspicuously consume stuff as crass, as burdensome, as uncool, as unenlightened, even as pitiable?
This isn’t necessarily as unlikely or even as unimaginable as it might seem. We often take for granted that our love and pursuit of stuff is an immutable trait of the human psyche. Yet, that’s not the case, as evidenced by cultural and spiritual mores that differ widely; we can look to the surprise and disgust of Sitting Bull and his people when encountering the white invaders’ greed for gold, land, and buffalo hides. There is an idea from Japanese culture, mottainai, which has deep roots and is growing again in popularity. This complex and hard-to-translate idea includes a reverence for objects and the value of frugality, both of which preclude the wasteful, polluting consumerist practices of modern market societies. And there are many more cultural and spiritual traditions of long standing in which the possession of more goods than needed is considered a negative.
Asceticism is an extreme variety of this less-is more value, an ancient tradition in which one seeks to reach the highest levels of spiritual perfection by divesting themselves of all or most material goods and comforts. There is also the culture of the traveler and world citizen, those who own little since having too many things to haul around gets in the way of opportunities for adventure. There is also a modern fad, admittedly a rather niche conceit of those with higher incomes, of living in tiny, design-heavy, super-efficient homes, reducing one’s personal possessions to the most utilitarian minimum.
However, these ways of life, admired and admirable as they can be, are not workable for most people. Except for asceticism, they are also unaffordable for most people, and none of these work for those who have families to care for, or those who are elderly or disabled, and so on. What of the least wealthy among us, those who must opt for the cheaper products regardless of whether they’ll wear out and become trash sooner? And what about the joy of shopping for stuff, new and novel things that relieve the monotony and stress of an ordinary working life? Even in this realm of life, however, we do have an awareness that the short-term fun of buying stuff can lead to long-term unhappiness. For example, the extremes of material consumption, hoarding and compulsive shopping, are widely considered destructive and unhealthy, if not forms of mental illness. Expanding this sense of the unhealthiness of having too much stuff can be gradually extended to include things that we might sorta like at first but realize we won’t use much or care about for long. Over time, we can acculturate ourselves to less but higher quality things, and better yet, to value publicly owned goods more highly: parks, museums, public beaches, public buildings, and hopefully in the future, more community- and government- owned public amusement centers such as skating rinks, gyms, arcades, and so on.
And while it might seem too difficult to inculcate the value of less-is-more, we can remember that many deeply-ingrained cultural values and habits have been purposely and quickly shifted. The right of gay people to marry and enjoy other equal benefits of society are now generally taken for granted when only two decades ago legal gay marriage was unimaginable to most. Smoking is widely considered unhealthy and a public nuisance, through just a few decades of education, public awareness campaigns, and taxation. Bullying, racist and sexist slurs, discriminatory practices, and many, many other bad habits, once so culturally pervasive, are no longer respectable.
While shopping and owning a lot of stuff might not seem to be habits as bad as any of the above, I believe that we’ll soon recognize that it might be. Now that there are so many of us in the world, we can no longer consider ourselves as morally responsible beings only as individuals when it comes to the health of our environment. With well over seven billion people on the earth increasing exponentially, we are now responsible to each other in the ways our actions contribute to the aggregate effects. Let’s make the effects of our presence on the earth not resemble those of a disease. Let’s instead make it more aligned with mottainai by treating the earth as the most precious object there is; more akin to the role of earth-steward as the God of Genesis called on his human creation to be; more akin to Sitting Bull and his generous less-is-more spirit. Our physical and spiritual health and our very lives depend upon it.
Sources and Inspiration
Auxier, Randall. ‘Indian Givers‘, Nov 15th, 2013. Radically Empirical blog
Blaisdell. Robert (ed.) Great Speeches by Native Americans. NY: Dover, 2000.
Bruchac, Joseph. ‘Sacred Giving, Sacred Receiving‘, June 20, 2016, Parabola
Cole, Douglas and Ira Chaikin. An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Vancouver: Douglas & Mclntyre, 1990 (PDF download)
Her Many Horses, Emil. ‘A Song for the Horse Nation: Remembering Lakota Ways‘. From A Song for the Horse Nation, edited by George P. Horse Capture (A’aninin) and Emil Her Many Horses
Jackson, Joe. Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.
‘Mottainai: a Philosophy of Waste‘. August, 2015. Interview and discussion with Kevin Taylor by Joe Gelonesi for The Philosopher’s Zone, a podcast of Radio National, Australia.
Pettipas, Katherine. Severing the Ties that Bind: Government Repression of Indigenous Religious Ceremonies on the Prairies. Winnepeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1994.
Rachel Carson, American Experience by PBS, April 18th, 2010
Roth, Christopher E. ‘Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch‘, American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Feb., 2002), pp. 123-150
Sandel, Michael. What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
‘Sitting Bull‘. Encyclopædia Britannica, April 21, 2017
‘Thomas Malthus‘. Encyclopædia Britannica.