Thoughts from the heartlands (on wealth)

A young Weyeba boy on the island of Sumba in Indonesia watches the loggers cutting down the giant trees near his village and asks his web of tree lifegrandfather: why are they destroying what is valuable?

“Because to them, the trees are worth more dead than alive. You may ask: how can this be? The answer is that they do not understand the true meaning of wealth.

“Once people learned to farm, to accumulate surplus, and to use that surplus to obtain material goods or people’s labour, wealth began to be measured in terms of how much people could hoard. Eventually it took its most extreme form, and became represented by quantities of money. Most money is obtained by a person or organisation somewhere, somehow, taking, exploiting, controlling or killing something living; or otherwise appropriating things that were once naturally and spontaneously given such as friendship, counselling, childcare, care of the elderly, support in times of difficulty or sex (even sex!) – and charging money to supply them.

“Of course, none of this produces wealth as we Weyeba know it. In our world, as you know, wealth is life. How could it be anything else? How can we appreciate any value in anything if we are not alive – and how can we live without other living things?

“The entire biosphere of life is the bedrock of wealth. Life becomes more abundant and resilient as it becomes more varied. Do you know the reason for this? It’s because where there is diversity and abundance, the relationships between the different beings are more complex, and the networks connecting them are more robust. The exchanges on which the networks depend – of nutrients, water, oxygen, carbon, energy – can occur through a greater variety of routes and therefore grow more impervious to change.

“Nature does not accumulate; its essence is exchange and cooperation. Where there is diversity and abundance there is resilience, stability – and also beauty. True wealth can only be measured in terms of relationships. (Tom Brown Junior, the North American naturalist and wilderness expert, spotted this a long time ago, saying, “Prosperity is relating, not acquiring.”) In our Weyeba culture we know this intuitively; and nature’s networks of flow and reciprocity are reflected in our systems of exchange, which are based on giving rather than hoarding, on sharing rather than on competition, and on community not individuality.

holding hands

“We are not alone. Many other land-based peoples see it this way. The Gabra of East Africa, who have a sophisticated moral economy based on several different ways of giving, say that people who do not give in the Gabra way die alone under a tree, and that ‘a poor man shames us all’.

“However those who live off the global capitalist system, who run corporations that corrupt relationships into commodities for profit, can’t see it this way. Don’t blame them. They don’t see that they are interrupting the natural exchanges and disrupting the natural relationships, because they have been educated specifically not to see it. They think that by positioning themselves in places where they can siphon off the outputs, they are directing wealth towards themselves. (It’s revealing that their word entrepreneur, traced back to its French roots, means ‘between-taker’.)

It is time we showed them that the wealth lies in the flow, in the taking part, in the passing on, rather than in blocking and amassing. Perhaps then they might learn to restore the sacred connections, to rebuild the flow of life that is the wealth of us all, and to open their eyes to the knowledge that trees are worth more alive than dead.

Grateful thanks for the inspiration behind this fictional account are due to the writing of Charles Eisenstein, an account by activist and ecopsychologist Allison Weeks, and the writing of the late great anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis – in particular his book Millennium, Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World.

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