The Spread of Ecological Wisdom and Confronting the Artifice of Capitalism

The Reawakening of Tribal Consciousness

When we learn to come together we are whole
when we learn to recognize the enemy
we will know what we need to know
to learn to come together
to learn to weave and mend.

— Anne Cameron, Daughters of Copper Woman

I am the guardian of life
and death
all my children come back to me
I call you
conjure you
hide you in my breast
you nourish me with your bones
and live again.
I am your Mother Earth
your dark Mother Earth.
If you insist on destroying me
you will destroy yourselves.
Wake up
my children
listen to my cry.

— Claribel Alegría, “Gaia’s Cry”

Recent world events are playing out a drama unseen since the mid-17th century. When the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, European borders were drawn so that sovereign states would establish the sole rule of law within their own respective territories. Today, transnational capitalism, huge waves of immigrants from war-torn and poverty-stricken regions, instant globe-spanning internet communication, and the threat of fundamentalist terrorism are dissolving borders at a rapid pace. In its wake, the notions of duty, respect for environmental rights, citizenship, and nations are being reformed to shape this rapidly forming interconnected global culture. Leaders of modern nation-states are proving less and less adept at handling crises and managing world affairs: they turn to various technocrats within the maze of various government ministries, powerful businesspeople whose lobbyists write the laws for the legislature, non-profits and NGOs who carry out needed health and infrastructure projects, and community leaders from civil society who are able to wade through ethnic and tribal antagonisms with ease.

As nations falter due to weak links of shared identity between citizens, new ecologically and culturally conscious groups of people are linking together, as globe-spanning tribes based on tradition, ritual, spirituality, reciprocity, and love of the environment are gathering to create the most important movement of the 21st century. As refugees from the Middle East flee warfare, as Latin Americans leave their homelands due to little or no job security, and as highly educated East and South Asians emigrate to pursue advanced careers in engineering, science, and more, global tribes are forming that transcend the modern nation-state. Millions of people now have dual citizenship and conflicting allegiances between their nation of birth and their new homes.

The Western state is now collapsing under the weight of its own bloated bureaucracies; its satiated, anesthetized, and myopic views of politics; and its inability, its unwillingness, to confront the environmental destruction and social ennui endemic to capitalism. The predatory nature of the state and its capacity for resource extraction and organized violence is becoming all too clear for globally oriented people, those who adhere to a one-world philosophy and a desire to eliminate borders. Many young people are beginning to consider themselves as world citizens or at least as member of larger regions, just as people in the EU refer to European citizenship and the European community. In the Islamic world, a similar concept has been used for centuries: Muslims are members of the ummah, the collective community of believers in Islam.

The Vision of Global Tribes

These questions surrounding transnational violence, religious fundamentalism, world citizenship, and social backgrounds are explored in depth in Amin Maaolouf’s In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. Maalouf traces his personal background, explains why having numerous tribal and ethnic allegiances does not inevitably have to lead to conflict, how modern Western nations react to “the other”, and most importantly, explains his notion of global tribes. He asserts that in contemporary life we have reached “The Age of Global Tribes”, a new era in which a patchwork of shifting ethnic, religious, and tribal allegiances compete with nation-states for glory, the need for social identity, and power.

Maalouf focuses on the Arab world due to his dual French-Lebanese background. For Maalouf, fundamentalist Islamism gives disaffected individuals in undemocratic, dictatorial regimes a stable identity, despite the possibility of fomenting hatred and nihilism that fundamentalism can lead to. The corollaries in Western society would be people like Timothy McVeigh, Anders Breivik, the Unabomber, and the odd racist or militia group that advocates violence. While it would be tidy to lay all the blame on a nihilistic outlook, on the death drive (Freud’s Thanatos), this seems an oversimplification. For the young, well-educated, and politically-oriented men in Arab nations, but those not rich enough to emigrate to the West or enjoy the simulacra consumer “paradise” that Arab nations try to copy, there are few options for social belonging. Fifty years ago, Marxist groups would have provided an outlet for social belonging; thirty years ago, the examples of Nasser, Sadat, and Khomeini led youths towards pan-Arab or nationalist organizations. Today, with the failure of both, and the covert support of the Gulf monarchies and their Western backers for jihadi terror, Islamist groups provide the need for social belonging in a very small percentage of young Arabs. Maalouf explains: “In [Islamism] they find satisfaction for their need for identity, for affiliation to a group, for spirituality, for a simple interpretation of too-complex realities and for action and revolt.”1

The need to find affiliation for young people is due to the loss of power of the modern nation-state, which has exploited various ideologies to cling to power over the last few centuries. The construct of the nation-state, and its right to exist, has been delegitimized by the failed ideologies of Marxism in Eastern Europe, Maoism in East Asia, permanent ethnic conflict in Africa, dictatorships in the Mideast, unregulated capitalism in North America and Western Europe, and the machismo populism prevalent in parts of Latin America. Thus it is no surprise to Maalouf and others that religion is what groups will fall back on in the modern era of crony capitalism and ecological disaster. Maalouf’s solution is language: if we all learn to adopt three (or more) languages, cultural differences and tensions will relax, and a true world community where religious belief no longer coincides with group violence and mob rule can flourish.

Neo-Tribal Consciousness and Organization

What is missing from Maalouf’s analysis is the organization of this future society. For author Daniel Quinn, it is the tribe that will become the backbone of our emerging culture. He explores these ideals in his book Beyond Civilization where he calls for a “New Tribal Revolution”. And in many ways the neo-tribal group seems the best option: tribes which share the work and share the profit of collective endeavors will inevitably have much less inequality and are likely be much more peaceful. As Quinn explains:

Tribal life is not in fact perfect, idyllic, noble, or wonderful, but wherever it’s found intact, it’s found to be working well – as well as the life of lizards, raccoons, geese, or beetles – with the result that the members of the tribe are not generally enraged, rebellious, desperate, stressed-out borderline psychotics being torn apart by crime, hatred, and violence. What anthropologists find is that tribal peoples, far from being nobler, sweeter, or wiser than us, are as capable as we are of being mean, unkind, short-sighted, selfish, insensitive, stubborn, and short-tempered. The tribal life doesn’t turn people into saints; it enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress year after year, generation after generation.2

A new form of tribe is emerging, not the suffocating, tyrannical, stereotypical, monotype tribe of the kind we read about in school history books: new groups where tradition does not dictate every action of the individual, where individuals feel free to express their spirituality without the needed to conform to a group religion. An egalitarian tribe, where merit matters, not rigid hierarchy or nepotism. Most importantly, neo-tribal wisdom accepts the idea that ecocentrism is central: the idea that humanity is not center stage in a drama located on planet Earth; the idea that we are all part of a cosmic web, a sacred hoop in Native American terms; that the environment does not derive its worth from human value, but has innate value and should be protected from short-term exploitation. For Quinn, the new tribal revolution is distinctly post-modern: it signifies the end of meta-narratives, the end of the idea that, in his words “There is only one right way to live”: the end of the superficial, spiritually myopic way of the modern techno-capitalist state.

The Delusion of Left vs. Right

Viewing the world from the holistic, ecocentrist way, the futile arguments over liberal versus conservative beliefs are unmasked for what they are: a distraction, a carnival. The antagonism of Liberal/Conservative is thus a collective hallucination designed by elites to divide and conquer the people, as well as destroy ecosystems and pillage resources. Capitalist and Marxist-Leninist communist societies controlled by oligarchies have both ravaged environments immensely, and both have had industrial growth at the heart of their belief system. They both constitute, for author Jonathon Porritt, a super-ideology: industrialism. Here’s Porritt:

[Capitalism and Communism] are dedicated to industrial growth, to the expansion of the means of production, to a materialist ethic as the best means of meeting people’s needs, and to unimpeded technological development. Both rely on increasing centralization and large-scale bureaucratic control and coordination. From a viewpoint of narrow scientific rationalism, both insist that the planet is there to be conquered, that big is self-evidently beautiful, and that what cannot be measured is of no importance.3

The only politics that matters is how the human race uses and protects its lands and waters for the betterment of our own societies, our future children, and our fellow plant and animal species. How we can in small groups, clans, tribes, and perhaps even bioregional city-states grow enough food, collect enough clean water, gather materials for shelter, use appropriately scaled technology, and foster a vibrant culture among peaceable citizens. This philosophy goes by many names: sustainability, deep ecology, ecocentrism, etc. Indigenous cultures have been practicing these skills for millennia, passing on oral traditions and ecological and agricultural knowledge so detailed it would make the Library of Congress look insignificant in comparison. Much of this knowledge and ancient wisdom has been lost to the sands of time, victim of the uprooting of cultures because of colonial wars, epidemic diseases, the techno-reductionism of modern health and science, capitalism, and Christianity’s missionary engulfment over entire continents, and more.

Ideas surrounding ecocentric politics, liberty, and democracy are being questioned from new radical perspectives, although Western media blacks out massive progress; in Ecuador and Bolivia, the socialist parties in power are immensely raising standards of living and education, while improving rights for the environment and indigenous groups. In Spain, Podemos’ combination of direct and digital democracy, and its citizen circles used to debate local and municipal issues are redefining European politics. In the state of Chiapas, Mexico, Zapatistas led by the EZLN group have been busy for the past twenty-one years opening schools and hospitals, redistributing farmland for struggling farmers, saving diverse rainforests from logging and grazing, and imparting deep ecological values to its youths. Also, the EZLN are committed to passing on their own traditional Mayan culture within a framework of egalitarian deals, communalism, and socialist beliefs, distancing themselves from the whirlwind of neo-colonial capitalism that lords over most of North, Central, and South America.

What is also interesting is that many of these new perspectives and leaders are not committed to the ossifying processes that soon results from traditional political parties and the levels of bureaucracy that ensue. Groups like Bolivia’s MAS party, and the EZLN, have begun to embody the ideal of direct, grassroots participatory democracy. This is because it is only the people of a nation, its citizens, and not the faceless multinationals and their political figureheads, who are able to understand that inequality, injustice, and environmental degradation are a direct result of corporate-induced poverty, resource consumption, a loss of choices in the public sphere, and lack of regulations and care for the Earth.

The Paradox of Modern Education: Liberation versus Indoctrination

Today, modern Western education systems are playing a dual and contradictory role: edifying our youth and steeping them in critical ecological knowledge and value systems, while at the same time indoctrinating them into a corporate and conformist lifestyle by teaching them to obey and buy the products of the multinational companies pillaging the Earth.

Possibly the most intelligent tract concerning modern-day mindlessness when it comes to education is Paul Goodman’s devastatingly accurate Growing Up Absurd. Written back in 1960, Goodman torched the official out-of-touch education system, and laments the disaffected youths who feel excluded from capitalism and the anomie that emerges. Still immensely relevant today, Goodman explains the sheer naivety and blind spots of western pedagogical methods:

Social scientists … have begun to think that ‘social animal’ means ‘harmoniously belonging.’ They do not like to think that fighting and dissenting are proper social functions, nor that rebelling or initiating fundamental change is a social function. Rather, if something does not run smoothly, they say it has been improperly socialized; there has been a failure in communication. … But perhaps there has not been a failure in communication. Perhaps the social message has been communicated clearly…and is unacceptable. … We must ask the question, ‘Is the harmonious organization to which the young are inadequately socialized perhaps against human nature, or not worthy of human nature, and therefore there is difficulty in growing up?’4

Goodman’s analysis of juvenile delinquency, the lack of hope and prospects for young people, as well as his treatment on many issues including the structural racism of the prison system, and the missed revolutions in modern society are devastatingly accurate today. Education which focuses on world cultures, equality, indigenous beliefs, sustainability, and love of nature for its own sake and not human instrumental needs, teachings outside the Eurocentric worldview, will foster an ecocentric outlook, and progress then can be made towards a peaceful world community.

The Anatomy of Power

The modern nation-state faces a series of contradictions, not just in health, agriculture, and education. It simply is becoming more impotent as solving problems in mass society due to layers of bureaucracy, inflation of the currency which makes every social service more expensive to implement, the hollowing out of community services due to privatizations, etc. And problems of an interconnected, interdependent, globalized world lie outside the reach of the state. In Daniel Bell’s words, nations “have become too small to solve big problems, too big to solve small problems.”

States in the 21st century are most likely to function and thrive by governing horizontally: with many connections between workers unions, local politicians, civic groups, environmental non-profits, etc. In this way, local production takes precedence over mass-manufactured goods from China and places halfway across the world, lowering greenhouse emissions. Thus practices of bioregionalism are employed, and what experts might call the “topology of power relations” is changed to include environmental concerns and forms of eco-cultural restoration. Culture can then recreate itself around annual agricultural and ethical-responsible means of production, and recreate its connection to time and space: rather than continuing exclusively under the atomized Gregorian time system and borders imposed by conniving politicians, our world culture can work, play, and sink into the ever-present moment, what the Aborigines called the Dreaming.

If power is already beginning to be dispersed tribally, and through bioregional processes, are there any examples we can point to? Certainly, in the West, the case of the breakup of Yugoslavia, referendums in Quebec, Scotland, the fight for a referendum in Catalonia, all qualify as sub-national tribal entities reasserting their right to self-rule. Further, in the region of the former Soviet Union, the cases of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, East Ukraine, and Crimea, while they are often vilified as a form of ethno-nationalist fascism originating in the Kremlin, are undoubtedly due to the tribal allegiances shared between these fragile mini-states and the Russian motherland.

There are even wannabe theorists in the US who claim to have identified the tribal identities in the USA, such as Colin Woodward and Joel Garreau. You can find the facile representations of their findings here and here. Both authors appear to be older, white, privileged, and seemingly unaware that US culture is very homogeneous, and perhaps they didn’t consider that there are vastly less cultural differences between New York and California — a 3,000 mile trek — than, say, the short hop between Brussels and Amsterdam. Further, unsurprisingly, Garreau does not even have any territory set aside for the First Nations, the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived here for millennia, while Woodward only includes land in Northern Canada and Alaska for First Nation status, apparently oblivious to the 333 federally recognized Indigenous Nations in the US that are not in Alaska.

Badiou’s Rebirth of History

The most striking examples of tribal, sub-national, mass movement intuitive wisdom towards rebellion and revolution against corrupt nations can be found in the 2011 Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and Spain’s Indignados. In all three instances, it was an activist minority who ignited popular dissatisfaction against corrupt regimes: in the West, oligarchic capitalism, in the Arab world, the figure of the Western-backed strongman, the dictator. For philosopher Alain Badiou, each of these dedicated protests represents a historical riot: an attempt to portray a political Truth to the world. Further, these acts showed that they represented the true will of the people, in the most general and universal terms: even though they accounted for a tiny minority, mainstream media regularly referred to Egyptian protesters at Tahrir Square as democratic, as representing the will of the people.

Of course, in the Middle East and North Africa the Arab Spring was about much more than democracy in any representative, parliamentarian sense: besides throwing out dictators like Mubarak and Ben Ali, social justice, dignity, equality, and freedom from Western hegemony were among key issues. The state should not have total power to determine law, taxes, industrial organization: civil society and direct democracy has a role to play as well. For the state, this is non-negotiable. As Badiou puts it:

A massive popular event creates a de-statification of the issue of what is possible. In general, and especially in recent decades, the state has arrogated to itself the right to say what is possible in the political order and what is not. It is thus possible to ‘humanize ‘ capitalism and ‘develop’ democracy. But to construct a productive, institutional social order normed by equality and genuine popular command – that is completely impossible, a fatal utopia.5

To Badiou, the instincts of these protesters are correct in the sense that they tend towards universality: the values expressed (freedom, justice, forcing dictators to step down, etc.) not only apply to the nations involved, but are political truths the whole world must accept. This marks our age as an interregnum, or as Badiou says, an intervallic period, a stage between crony capitalism and a possible future world order of justice and egalitarianism. History is being born again out of the Thatcherite-Reagan period of hyper-capitalism from approximately 1980-2011, where greed was good, deregulation and privatization ruled, and the World Bank and IMF plundered the developing nations. The rise of civil society and grassroots democracy will lead to the withering away of the state, to Communism, in Badiou’s mind. For other theorists, ecologism is the preferred term to refer to the future era of politics, for others, bioregionalism, or environmental democracy.

Despite the differences in the symbolic nomenclature, in ideology, there are key similarities between theorists of leftist political thought, and though they are hesitant to use terminology of the tribe, their principles often align with indigenous groups: smaller organizations of well-integrated peoples living and working together, with forms of consensus, direct democracy, horizontal civic groups, and yes, even tribal and religious elders who will uphold essential traditions, rituals, and spirituality necessary for group survival and cultural enrichment.

Lessons from Anthropology

For cultural anthropologist John H. Bodley, there are three cultural worlds: the tribal, the imperial, and the commercial. Most 21st century states are commercial states, dependent on industrialization, fossil fuels, high technology, global markets and cities, and representative government. Yet as he points out, “Commercialization co-opts both humanization and politicization processes to promote economic growth and the accumulation of financial capital.”6 Political “elites” agree, although they use vague and convoluted arguments, threats, rhetoric, and would demur from ever saying so in such a blunt manner. For instance, the humanism of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is now seen as idealistic and unworkable by most “modern” Western states. The politicization process begun in the Enlightenment now begins and ends with liberal democracy, which today only buys time for authoritarian capitalism and the oligarchy that funnels money to the one-percent and their multinationals.

The commercial (liberal) arguments that restricting personal freedoms and thinning out the social commons are necessary for civilization are simply cases of falling for one’s own propaganda. The most glaring and infamous recent example being Fukuyama’s The End of History, in which he posits free-market capitalism, liberal democracy, and globalization marked the end of world conflict, the rising of standards of living globally, and that liberal capitalism was the last and greatest socioeconomic ideology. These are “Delusions of Progress” according to Bodley. Bodley rejects the materialist technological, epidemiological, and geographical reasons for Eurocentric dominance (Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel argument) in the imperial and commercial worlds, and for him:

“The fate of humanity is determined by three variables…the scale at which people organize their sociocultural systems…how people control social power…and their deceptive use of culture to control perception.”7

In the imperial states of the 16th century through the commercial states in the 21st, the Westphalian states meet all three criteria for domination of weaker tribes and small nations. Recall the huge organizational scale of Spanish, Dutch, British, and French empires; the figure of the leader, replaced by rulers and later parliaments who demand tribute in the form of taxes to control social power; and the use of culture for dark purposes (consider the hypocritical and murderous rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, Bush’s “War on Terror”, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, etc.).

The Global System, Political Ecologism, and Their Limits

Global institutions like the UN, World Trade Organization, the EU, and their associated NGOs are simply not equipped to handle the flood of crises that scientific and social experts are predicting. And the nation-state will not be ready to handle issues when the floodgates open either. There are calls from a few (mostly ignored) expert theorists to begin planning for what they call the Eco-state, or the Green State,8 which will delegate responsibility of the bottom-up duties of social welfare and assign them to civil society, non-profits, and grassroots citizen groups; and the top-down, streamlined hierarchy of government responsible for natural disasters, tax collection, defense, and integrating trade within the global architecture. Green political ecologism does impart an especially important lesson, one that tribal societies understand implicitly: to expand the moral community to provide political protection for the rights of future human generations, non-human life forms, and the biosphere as a whole.

Political elites are not interested in imparting these deep ecological values: the elites instead appeal to the darkest, craven, lowest-common-denominator voter who refuses to consider lowering their habits of consumption. Everything could be changed by sharply limiting what we buy, lowering meat and especially beef consumption, rationing fossil fuel use, etc.; quality of life would vastly improve, average lifespan would increase, the arts would be rejuvenated, and morally responsible technology would develop.

As long as elites are bought by lobbyists pushing corporate agendas, and electorates are unwilling to see that the “standard of living” does not equate with the amount of things one owns, the green state and the interlocking global framework it requires seems far off. Perhaps the late 21st or the 22nd century will provide the state system needed for ecological stability and interdependence. For now, the smaller scale of the tribe will have to suffice.

Tribal Seeds: Reproducing Culture from Time Immemorial

While great philosophers like Badiou extol communism, and green theorists such as Dobson and Eckersely promote ecological politics, the annals of history and examples of indigenous tribes today can provide a model for the future. As Bodley shows, it is the tribal world that knows how to reproduce culture. Small-scale tribes are less likely to use organize violence as a tool for coercive and deadly clashes with rival nations, and much more likely to use sustainable farming and technology. A sharing and bartering society, with organic, biodynamic agricultural practices nourishing people materially and spiritually, would go a long way towards healing the open wounds of our mother Earth and the ethnic and sectarian tensions plaguing most nations. Rather than keeping food, housing, material and intellectual property under lock and key, a culture of abundance would allow unparalleled access to health, education, and scale-appropriate technology.

All the while, transnational notions of identity allow numerous chances for the cross-fertilization of sub-national groups and tribes. Civic engagement is slowly regaining strength as citizens want to expand communal gardening and agricultural practices, energy-efficient housing and irrigation, and renewable energy projects. As mass movements rally for social justice and direct democracy, the idea of what a tribal nation can be will spark a change in the public, and the struggle for liberation from suicidal capitalism and respect for universal human rights dissolve people’s delusions that a tribe must be xenophobic and anti-democratic.

Tribal society can be insular when it comes to one issue, however: the idea of reproducing culture. Certain rituals and rites of passage remain a closely guarded secret for many tribes, because of their profound mystical and spiritual implications. Shamans and chieftains in indigenous society are trained their whole lives to guide and groom the next generation: there are risks involved when passing through stages of life, and traveling through spiritual realms. Similarly, the industrialized nations face similar risks today, which can only be solved by a tribe, a village, a community. We must invent ways where we can initiate youths and adolescents, mothers and fathers, so that they can develop harmoniously within the social fabric. We must confront the ennui and malaise that the consumer culture has spawned. And hopefully, then we can learn the holy, sacred secrets to reproducing and recreating ecosystems and cultures worth passing on to the next generation.

  1. Amin Maalouf. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong. p. 90. Penguin Books, New York, 2000. []
  2. Daniel Quinn. Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure. p. 61. Three Rivers Press, New York, 1999. []
  3. Quoted in Andrew Dobson. Green Political Thought (4th ed.). Routledge, New York, 2007. p. 18. []
  4. Paul Goodman. Growing Up Absurd. p. 10-11. Vintage, New York, 1960. []
  5. Badiou Riots and Uprisings p. 94. []
  6. John H. Bodley. Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States, and the Global System. (5th ed.) p. 17. Altamira, Plymouth, 2011. []
  7. Bodley. p. 19. []
  8. Robyn Eckersely. The Green State. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2004. []

William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and the environment. You can find his e-book of collected essays here. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, and Counterpunch. You can email him at Read other articles by William.