consumerism

Wettiko, the mythological consumer

Reading s Team Human recently, I came across an anecdote about early European settlers and the way they were perceived by Native American cultures. Rushkoff puts it this way:

On encountering the destructiveness of European colonialists, Native Americans concluded that the invaders must have a disease. They called it wettiko: a delusional belief that cannibalising the life force of others is a logical and morally upright way to live. The Native Americans believed that wettiko derived from people’s inability to see themselves as enmeshed, interdependent parts of the natural environment.

If that was observable in early colonial times, it’s all the more true today. The failure to recognise that the economy is nested within ecology, and that humans are part of nature, could be seen as pathological. It’s not a literal diagnosis of a real condition of course,  but a useful metaphor for a certain mindset.

Wettiko has a number of variants, with different North American tribes having their own words and stories associated with it. In Algonquian folklore, the Wendigo or Windigo is a lonely creature with terrifying strength and an insatiable greed, similar to werewolf stories elsewhere. Like many folk tales, stories about the Wendigo serve a cultural purpose, as the explains:

A windigo’s legendary greed represented attitudes about sharing in many Indigenous cultures. In the wilderness, human survival often depended on communal cooperation and the sharing of food and possessions. Any individual who refused to share local resources, especially in times of great deprivation, was considered a “monster.”

Monstrous it may have been to the Algonquin, but it’s perfectly normal today. We refer to ourselves as ‘consumers’ – creatures whose primary attribute is to consume. Modern economics assumes that we are both rational and insatiable.

The earth is not an infinite resource at our disposal. There must be such a thing as enough. And we should stop calling ourselves consumers.

3 comments

  1. Jeremy,
    Native mythology is as rich as any Old World story. Idealizing any culture though can minimize the human nature expressed by the morality tale for the original listeners. The lesson? These are fables for the ages. All humans benefit — as much in our time — through acting with generosity. How much is possible today with our wealth, knowledge and technologies applied in the service of greater good?
    Thank you,
    Steve

    1. Absolutely, there’s no ideal culture, and the story wouldn’t have been told if there wasn’t that human tendency towards greed in those people too. The main difference is that those attitudes are socially unacceptably in that culture, something you warn your children about. And in ours it’s taken for granted that it’s normal, natural, and necessary for the functioning of the economy.

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