Where Am I? Consumerism, High Fantasy, and Longing for Reciprocity with the Earth
It has been 507 days since I last set foot in my office on the university campus where I work. Even saying it out loud, I find it hard to comprehend. When I packed up my computer bag on that fateful Thursday in March last year, I thought I would be out of the office for a long weekend, maybe a whole week. I'm not sure why, but I hadn't even considered the possibility that I may never return to that space.
This little box, cozy, but windowless, had been my home for 40 hours a week for almost a year. My real home, the one I spent an hour driving to and from every day, was reserved for eating dinner, showering, sleeping, and keeping my dog comfortable and safe while I was at work.
But then, as it did for so many people around the world, everything changed. I woke up Friday morning and walked a mere 15 steps across the upstairs hallway into my new office. My new box. But this one had windows! And I didn't have to put on real pants! And my dog could spend all day curled up on my lap! In an instant, my work and my home merged into one. Spaces that previously made up only a fraction of my physical environment suddenly became the places where I spent 90% of my time.
I learned rather quickly that during the early months of a global pandemic, especially one that forces us indoors and away from the outside world, you become acutely aware of the space around you, primarily because that space has changed without your consent.
My house became my entire world, and while I was incredibly fortunate to be able to keep my full-time job and continue to pay rent, I also knew that I needed to make some changes if I was going to successfully transition to a 100% work-from-home arrangement. I became hyper-aware of every detail of my new work space. I learned the exact angle the sun hits the window at each hour of the day. I calculated the perfect time to adjust my thermostat to allow the warm or cool air to reach my office on the third floor of my townhouse. I (frustratingly) discovered my Wi-Fi’s inability to properly connect to my laptop from a different floor of the house.
I also became much more intentional with how I choose to exist in the spaces outside of my home. While my options were limited, the state park near my home, along with my favorite hiking trail, stayed open during the lockdowns. Other than brief grocery store runs, the only space that I regularly occupied outside of my home was this park. This trail. Nature became my new solace. It became a comfort that I had long neglected. Those early days of the pandemic were made more bearable, and slightly less scary, when I could find peace among the trees. Yet the more time I spent taking from nature, the more I began to reckon with how little I was giving back to her. I felt selfish, offering nothing in return beyond my appreciation. And while I was certainly appreciative of everything that was being given to me in those moments, I also knew that my relationship with the earth was broken. With my physical space in flux, I was having trouble understanding where I was and where I was meant to be.
My sociological training provides a pretty decent starting point for understanding how Western society, through industrialization, has largely destroyed its relationship with the planet. Every day, our global society is dealing with the environmental and social consequences of the system of mass production inherent in industrialized nations. However, this is not the only option available for a relationship between humans and the earth. In fact, for thousands of years, Indigenous people living in what is now known as North America, have built relationships of reciprocity, of give and take, with the land. After centuries of colonialism, genocide, and industrial destruction, many of those cultural traditions were wiped out in favor of European ideals. But not all was lost. There are those that still carry this message with them.
While we have spent hundreds of years treating the earth as something to be exploited and commodified, meaningful change is on the horizon. Whether that change comes from the renewal of long-held cultural traditions, through an outright rejection of mainstream modern consumerist culture, or even by embracing the fantasy genre as commentary on our relationship with nature, this new era will undoubtedly require that we ask ourselves some challenging questions about where we exist in the world. How are we meant to live in the spaces around us? What obligation do we have to fully understand those spaces? Their histories? Their pain? Their possibilities? And, ultimately, what responsibilities do we have to preserve and protect them?
Industrialism and Consumption
The late 1700s and early 1800s saw a remarkable shift in the way that much of the Western world interacted with the physical space around it. Industrialization, which is marked by a society’s shift from agrarian (or agricultural) social and economic systems to industrial ones, saw the rise of cities and factories and the rapid expansion of global trade. The production of certain material goods, once dependent on human labor, was made more efficient by new technologies such as machine tools, textiles manufacturing, and steam power. Western Europe, and eventually North America, were brimming with possibilities. It was this industrial revolution (along with major economic, political, and philosophical shifts) that created what we now call modern society.
The industrial revolution was also one component of the larger technical revolution, which led to the rise of what sociologist Jacques Ellul calls the technological society. While the 1700s saw the innovation of new inventions, this was only a precursor to the true revolution. It wasn’t until the 1800s that industrial societies were fully able to advance the technical application of these new techniques of production. What resulted was a cyclical relationship of mass production and mass consumption. These new techniques could produce more materials goods in less time and for less money: the hallmark of profitability. And when products become more affordable, they also become more consumable.
In his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, American sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen highlighted the universal impulse of humans to compare themselves to one another, particularly through the consumption of material goods. While social theorists in the mid-1800s understood the struggle for wealth as one of subsistence (i.e., fighting to survive), Veblen argued that by the late 1800s, modern societies had moved beyond these early conceptions of survival into a slightly more comfortable way of life. The accumulation of wealth, and the use of that wealth to increase the consumption of materials goods, became methods of displaying one's social status.
According to Veblen, consumption is an inherently social act. He argued that members of the American middle class go to great lengths to demonstrate both their wealth (called “conspicuous consumption”) and the amount of time they were able to spend not working (called “conspicuous leisure”) in order to convey a certain level of social prestige. Prior to Veblen’s critical analysis of capitalist consumer culture, classical social theorists were much more focused on understanding the acquisition of wealth as a means to unrestricted power (see: Karl Marx) or as proof of eternal salvation (see: Max Weber). Yet Veblen was insistent that the spending of money and the attainment of non-essential material goods is a method of demonstrating social class.
While Veblen was theorizing specifically about consumer culture in the late 1800s, it is not difficult to see how his theories and concepts apply to the 21st century. You need only to look as far as social media and the various ways that people of all ages display (for social validation) their latest vacation photos or newest pair of shoes. Modern popular culture is also hyper-fixated on how celebrities spend their money and their free time, so much so that companies are willing to spend millions of dollars to have celebrities endorse their products in hopes that the average consumer will pay money to own those same products.
This phenomenon is known as emulation. While traditionally people have engaged in horizontal emulation, or using consumption as a way to mirror the lifestyles of other people within their own income bracket, consumers also engage in vertical emulation: aspiring to be like those above your own economic bracket. Additionally, this desire to constantly emulate the spending patterns of others has led to what economist and sociologist Juliet Schor calls turbo-consumption, which is only made possible by the mass production of materials goods in the modern age. Schor argues that mass production and turbo-consumption on a global level have led to large-scale ecological consequences. The production of enormous amounts of material goods requires an equally enormous level of resources, all of which must be taken from the earth. Ultimately, this can result in the exploitation of the land itself. Schor is less interested in the individual consequences of turbo-consumption and more concerned with the unjust and unsustainable conditions inherent in this style of production and consumption.
Yet not all is lost! In what she calls “downshifting”, Schor argues that society is beginning to rebel against this unrestricted consumerist culture in favor of more ethical ways of consuming, specifically through veganism, ethical production practices, fair trade products, slow fashion, etc. She explains:
“People have to consume. Consuming is a very legitimate, and very important, life activity. The literature has been very polarized into very pro- and anti-consumer society and culture positions: the formulation in the literature is that you’ve got the critics and you’ve got the defenders. But really the question is: what kind of consumers do we want to be? And that’s a better articulation, I think, because people are identified so much with being consumers. The possibility of not being a consumer no longer really exists. So I think the questions that we want to be asking are: where is my clothing coming from? What is its symbolic meaning?” Schor (2008)
For Schor, downshifting is not about forcing people to consume less. Rather, it is about changing the overall structure and culture of consumption in modern society. It is about acknowledging that our current way of producing and consuming is not sustainable for the future.
Indigenous Relationships With the Land
Last year, I stumbled upon a 2016 episode of the podcast On Being in which Krista Tippett interviews botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer, on the intelligence of trees. In the episode, Kimmerer discusses the oftentimes conflicting nature of her formal education in the field of botany and the botany that she learned from Indigenous teachings while growing up.
I immediately followed up the podcast with a reading of Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, and I was captivated by her message: our relationship with the land was not always so tenuous and there is hope for redemption.
One particular chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass stood out to me for how closely it reinforces many of the conclusions that Juliet Schor made in her critique of turbo-consumption. In the chapter titled “The Gift of Strawberries,” Kimmerer explains how our relationship with the land changes depending on if we are functioning in a “gift economy” or a “market (commodity) economy.” For the Potawatomi people, land was not meant for private ownership:
“Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away, stolen when you weren’t looking because you were trying to stay alive. In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold.” Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Kimmerer describes a relationship with the land that is based on reciprocity and respect. The land provides sustenance, and people then have a responsibility to take care of it. Gifts from the land, therefore, are not free in the gift economy. Rather, they come with a set of expectations and responsibilities. While the “gift economy” was widely recognized by Native Americans, widespread colonialism, coupled with the rise of industrialism and capitalism, introduced a new relationship with the land in North America. In a market economy, land can be owned. It can be classified as private property. It can be exploited for personal gain. It does not need to be respected. Similar to Juliet Schor, Kimmerer warns of the consequences of the market economy:
“But some invented a different story, a social construct in which everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. The market economy story has spread like wildfire, with uneven results for human well-being and devastation for the natural world.” Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
At the beginning of this particular chapter, Kimmerer tells her story of growing up in the wild strawberry fields of upstate New York. She recalls her occasional impatience when waiting for the strawberries to ripen, instead opting to eat the sour, white berries. Yet, when her patience was practiced, the ripened strawberries felt like gifts from the earth, gifts that could be received, passed along to others, and then returned to the earth. Receiving such gifts establishes relationships with the land, an expectation of reciprocity. Like Schor, Kimmerer senses a coming shift in the way that people in industrialized societies conceptualize their relationship with the the land:
“The commodity economy has been here on Turtle Island for four hundred years, eating up the white strawberries and everything else. But people have grown weary of the sour taste in their mouths. A great longing is upon us, to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like a fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze.” Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
The Great Longing
Lately, I have been trying to trace the origins of my interest in, from a sociological perspective, this counter-culture (although some may argue that it is becoming a bit more mainstream) that includes minimalism, ethical food consumption, eco-friendliness, etc. While I personally have worked to incorporate many of these practices into my own life, I am still fascinated by industrialized societies' attempts to reject the very components that make them what they are, namely: mass production, exploitation, and excess.
Take for example: smartphones. As I've written previously, I am hyper-connected to technology, especially my smartphone, and I will tout the benefits of smartphones until I'm blue in the face. I am a better worker, a better artist, a better friend, and generally a better human being because of all the things that I can do with my smartphone. But I am simultaneously keenly aware of the devastating environmental impacts of the smartphone industry. I struggle with this dichotomy daily. As a sociologist of technology, I often question whether the benefits of technological advancements, particularly ones that improve people's lives, truly outweigh the costs of producing the devices that make that technology a reality.
I know that I am not alone in asking these questions. There is a great longing among us for something to change.
In 2013, Chipotle released "The Scarecrow'', an illustrated short film about a dystopian society stuck in a system of mass produced foods and other consumer goods. Set against a haunting soundtrack of Fiona Apple's rendition of "Pure Imagination," the short follows the titular scarecrow as he comes to the realization that there must be a better way than this. He fights back against the corporation of mechanical crows and their factory farms, and he opens up a farm-to-table restaurant for his neighbors. By changing the way that society consumes food, the scarecrow revolutionizes the world around him.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the short film was actually an advertisement for a Chipotle video game, but damn did it stir something in me. Yes, I love dystopian fiction, but what really caught my attention was how heavily Chipotle leaned into and promoted their anti-fast food philosophy, and how reminiscent it was of this counter-cultural movement. I'm not here to debate the sincerity of their message, but I also have no doubt in my mind that Chipotle intentionally capitalized on this “great longing” that was recognized by both Robin Wall Kimmerer and Juliet Schor.
More recently, we've seen similar movements, such as a renewed attention on slow fashion, a major rise in the popularity of veganism and similar ethical food consumption practices, and even a Western appreciation for certain non-Western cultural practices, such as Marie Kondo's tidying up and her infamous question, "Does this spark joy?"
While these different movements embody unique cultural components, they are similar in their rejection of turbo-consumption and the consumer culture rampant in an industrialized society. Altogether, they reflect a more intentional and thoughtful way of relating to the material world that is reminiscent of the tenets of reciprocity that Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses from her Native practices.
Reciprocity and a Return to the Gift Economy
So where do we go from here? How do we return to a time when our relationship with the earth is one based on reciprocity rather than exploitation? As Robin Wall Kimmerer asks and suggests:
“How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers - the living world could not bear our weight - but even in a market economy, can we behave ‘as if’ the living world were a gift?”
Can we return to a time where the living world is treated as a gift that we are not only willing to receive but also one that encourages us to commit to a relationship of responsibilities with the land?
In the world of literary fiction, the fantasy genre is particularly adept at exploring the power of nature. My favorite book from the past year is Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree, a fantasy novel built around the concepts of Virtudom, magic, and mythical creatures. The novel primarily follows the stories of two young women, Ead and Tané, from different ends of the earth, as they wage their own battles against the Draconian Army of wyrms (i.e., dragons), including its overlord, The Nameless One, as he threatens to break free from the hellish depths to which he once was banished.
Ead, who has secretly been sent to protect Virtudom’s queen, is a member of a hidden society of magic users, the Priory of the Orange Tree, tasked with hunting down wyrms and other members of the Draconian Army. What makes this story particularly relevant to our conversation on reciprocity is that the source of Ead’s magic is the titular orange tree that sits at the center of the priory’s home. Her magic is a type of terrene (earth) magic called siden: “It comes from the core of the world, and is channeled through the tree. Those who eat of its fruit can wield its magic. Once there were at least three siden trees--the orange, the hawthorn, and the mulberry.” Also present in this world is the “natural opposite” of siden, sterren, or a sidereal magic that comes from the stars.
After years of being separated from the orange tree, Ead’s magic grows weaker. Her connection to the tree is beginning to wane. Throughout the story, she finally has the opportunity to return to her home and to the tree that gives her power:
“One thousand steps took her to the very foot of the valley. Her bare feet sank into the grass and loam. She paused for a moment, to breathe in the night, before she let her robe fall. White blossom strewed the valley. The orange tree loomed, its branches spread open like hands. Every step she took toward it seared her throat. She had crossed half the world to return here, to the wellspring of her power. The night seemed to embrace her as she descended to her knees. As her fingers sank into the earth, the tears of relief overran, and each breath came like the drag of a knife up to her throat. She forgot about everyone she had ever known. There was only the tree. The giver of fire.” Shannon, Priory of the Orange Tree
As a member of the priory, Ead’s sacred duty relies on her using her magic to protect the queen. Yet each time it is used, she becomes more and more disconnected from the source of her power. Every day, she longs to return to that reciprocal relationship with her orange tree. Are our own relationships with the trees really that much different than Ead’s? After all, how beautiful it is to be reunited with nature after so much time away. The first set of tracks in a fresh snowfall. A deep breath after a heavy rain. The inaugural hike on a warm spring afternoon.
That is the great longing. It is the knowledge that there is something better than what we have right now. It is the belief that there is a great orange tree waiting for us at the end of one thousand steps, eager to welcome us home.
While The Priory of Orange Tree isn’t the only fantasy novel that uses trees and nature as sources of power and magic (see for example the “Tree of Souls” in Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost), the story’s commitment to the reciprocity between Ead and the orange tree illustrates how readers of the fantasy genre are often already members of “the great longing.” The tree as a source of power is not meant to be exploited. It is a gift from the earth. It is an invitation to a relationship of responsibilities.
Now that the spark of the great longing has been lit within me, I am compelled to commit in the coming year to being more intentional in my relationship with the earth. I acknowledge that it is a lifelong journey, but I hope that it is one that you’ll take with me. At times it will feel almost impossible, but never forget that we are not alone in this counter-cultural, anti-turbo consumption movement. A shift is coming. And we need only look to the teachings of the Indigenous tribes that inhabited these lands for thousands of years before European colonization ever began. They are the same people who initiated the relationship of responsibilities and continue to maintain it. They are those who understand the power of reciprocity.
Just as Ead’s journey was not easy, nor is ours. The great longing is a spark, but it is not yet the flame. The downshifting is a step, but it is not the end of the road. For many, the work is just beginning. Like Juliet Schor, I want to emphasize that the major problems that we have with the earth were not caused by individual failings, and they will not be fixed through individual changes. Our strained relationship with the earth, on a societal level, stems from the failings of an industrialized, capitalistic system that prioritizes profit and production over sustainability, and it will take a global effort to reverse that damage.
However, what I am talking about here are individual choices that are in service to your personal relationship with the earth. Reciprocity is for you and it is for the land. It is not about forging a new path or finding a new way to live. Rather, it is about coming home. It is where we are meant to be.
As we continue on this journey of understanding where we are, I’ll leave you with some final words from Braiding Sweetgrass:
“It was through her actions of reciprocity, the give and take with the land, that the original immigrant became indigenous. For all of us, becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.”
- JL Snyder
References and Further Reading
Ellul, Jacques. 1964. The Technological Society. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Córdova, Zoraida. 2016. Labyrinth Lost. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Fire.
Schor, Juliet. 2008. “Tackling Turbo Consumption.” Cultural Studies 22(5):588-598.
Shannon, Samantha. 2019. The Priory of the Orange Tree. London: Bloomsbury.
Tippett, Krista. 2016. “Robin Wall Kimmerer: The Intelligence of Plants.” Minneapolis, MN. On Being Podcasts. (https://onbeing.org/programs/robin-wall-kimmerer-the-intelligence-of-plants/).
Veblen, Thorstein. 1899. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Other Contributed Work by JL Snyder:
Online Interaction, Social Surveillance, and the Looking Glass Emoji, JL Snyder