Lessons from the ancestors: Solving sustainability with animism

Sustainability is a wicked problem, but we can crack it. But marketing cannot fix the ecological crisis for which it bears a lot of responsibility as I explain in the paper. Instead, we can learn from our ancestors how to live with rather than against the world of living things of which we are a part. Animist wisdom culled from those misty times when we cultivated relationships with semi wild animals and plants, when combined with unfettered interdisciplinary science holds the keys to cracking the sustainability problem.

So what do the ancestors teach?

Thanks to a resurgence of interest in philosophy among anthropologists we know a lot more about animist philosophy and ecological-economic principles than we used to know. First, animists, who have tended to live in intimate contact with other living things recognize that all living beings are of necessity in communicative relations with significant others in their environment. Anthropologist Eduardo Kohn (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSdrdY6vmDo) has shown that since their livelihoods depend upon it, they are acute interpreters of the signs and signals animals employ to communicate.

Science provides a lot of support for this animist knowledge. Ethology, the science of animal behavior has stacked up a lot of evidence that animals of different species communicate. But so do animals and plants. For example, a recent entomological study by Pashalidou and her colleagues reveals that bumble bees bite flowering plants to induce rapid flowering, perhaps through chemical signals in their saliva. Remarkably, given their short life cycles these flowers will benefit only the next generation of bees. In healthy forests, plant biologists like Suzanne Simard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs) provide dramatic evidence that trees communicate among and between species via the chemical translating work of fungi. Resources flow to trees in need from those flush with resources via complex bio-chemical signals.

Second, animists tend to ascribe personhood to those animals and even plants with whom communication is important. A corollary of this principle is that animists extend the principle of sociality to other living beings. Anthropologists now tend to explain animists hunting prowess and the practice of giving offerings to animal and plant “spirits” as evidence of animists’ communications with, and treatment of other beings as members of related communities. In a way contemporary evolutionary theory, which has moved from an emphasis on species as the unit of analysis to ecosystems as the unit of analysis is more in tune with animist principles than the old caricature of a Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQLgwFwdMBk ) once described our animist ancestors as living in the original affluent society because of the effectiveness of their strategies for exchanging resources sustainably with their animal and plant neighbors. Anthropologist James Suzman has elaborated on this point, showing that abundance and work are not necessarily related (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGTyfIa9TXA ).

Anthropologist Philippe Descola describes the transitive principles of resource circulation and value creation that emerge from an animist worldview: predation, gifting, and reciprocal exchange. The former means human partners require something of the essence of animal partners to survive but recognize they must not destroy the conditions of reproduction of the predated species, who are after all persons too. Animist hunters never take too much game. Some maintain close relations with their “prey” as in the management of semi-wild reindeer in the circumpolar North or even in the relationship between the cattle herders of the Sudan (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7z3SsT-FW7Q; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SfF6Y6GVtE ).

Gifting is the principle of demand sharing, those who have must give to those who need. Animist often develop complex rules to ensure this flow of resources within and across communities. Reciprocal exchange often assumes the form of ostentatious giving, a practice that creates relationships of indebtedness. Marriage rules often provide elaborate examples in animist communities, but it is also through such exchanges that objects of worth and distinctions in social status are created and managed in animist communities. A key element in these systems is that the absence of standardized units of exchange, money, in short, helps animists avoid the a-social quality of monetary transactions with which we are familiar.

Anthropologist Anna Tsing gives a contemporary example of these principles in action (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8MhBwsKdJA). Reinterpreting Tsing’s ethnographic material slightly, I suggest the matsutake mushroom eco-economic system entails relations of predation between pine forests, pine forest soils, matsutake spores and hyphae, and the matsutake foraging communities. Tsing shows each of these biotic communities feeds off the other, allowing all to thrive together in degraded environmental conditions. Notably, humans cannot cultivate or control matsutake, much as Amazonian foragers nurture their rainforest environment. In the US, matsutake foragers themselves are often cast-offs from the market economy comprised of the homeless, the unemployed, and refugees from foreign conflicts. Matsutake foragers predate the mushrooms they procure through public forest access.

The wholesaling and exporting processes translate the matsutake foragers’ mushrooms into commodities with monetary exchange value. However, gifting structures the human links in the value chain. For example, to cement relations between foragers and wholesalers, North American foragers “make” bulkers buy “baby” matsutake with no market value down the value chain. In rural Yunnan where matsutake are also sourced, small town bosses and foragers do not negotiate prices. Reciprocal social entanglements mean the bosses give the pickers “their best price” and foragers “trust” the wholesale bosses.

In Japan, wholesaler buyers and retailers translate the matsutake commodity definitively back into the gift economy. Through “matchmaking” they pair specific customers with specific mushrooms. Importantly, almost no one buys a fine matsutake to sell or eat. Instead, wholesalers, retailers, and final customers gift mushrooms to specific partners to build relational ties and express distinctions in status; commodity relations diminish, and personal ties increase with each successive transfer.

Similar principles of resource circulation to those anthropologists illustrate among animists enliven the world of biodynamic agriculture and carbon farming, can be seen in Community Supported Agriculture programs and in ecovillages. They pop up in open-source software relationships, in the circulation of geo-caching tokens, and in online music sharing. Putting animist principles at the heart of global value chains such as Tsing describes for matsutake, but developed with the help of interdisciplinary science to understand the messages and resource needs of other members of the biotic community would take us some way towards resolving the challenge of sustainability.

Read the original research article – Open Access: Arnould, E.J. (2021). Ontology and circulation: towards an eco-economy of persons. Journal of Marketing Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/0267257X.2021.2000007

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Eric J. Arnould

Eric J. Arnould

Dr. Eric J. Arnould is Senior Fellow of Marketing at the Aalto University Business School. He continues a long career in applied social science. Before entering academia, he focused on development anthropology consulting in West Africa. He received a PhD in anthropology from The University of Arizona in 1982 and was awarded honorary doctorates in business by Aalto University in 2016 and University of Southern Denmark in 2020. Eric’s foundational research on consumer culture, cultural marketing strategy, qualitative research methods, services, and development appears in major social science and management journals and books. Recently, he co-edited a special issue of the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research focused on consumption collectivities and is revising Consumer Culture Theory, an edited text summarizing major contributions in this subfield.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this posting are the views of the Author(s), and are not necessarily the views of the JMM Editors, Westburn Publishers Ltd. or Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.