Reading Douglas Rushkoff’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 Canadian Encyclopedia 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.