Reciprocity vs. the Overculture
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Overculture lately: how the dominant values and paradigms of our societies inform how we think, how we speak, and what we do.
For a discussion of all that, I invite you to listen to this week’s episode of THE WONDER podcast. That will give you a good sense of what I’m talking about. It was a great conversation with Yucca.
The Overculture is tricky to talk about because it is the water within which we fish swim: it’s everywhere, and to talk about other ways of living seems alien and farfetched. But we know they exist: we did not always live in a commodified, capitalistic world, and there are some indigenous societies which still reject the fundamental framework of capitalism, which is that the only thing that really matters is money, and everything else is just a means of getting it…or doesn’t have any value.
Including people. And certainly including the biosphere, which we Atheopagans prefer to think of as the Sacred Earth.
Last year, I read botanist and registered member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation Robin Wall Kimmerer’s incredible book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. In it, she describes the contrast in ways of knowing between the counting/cataloguing/reductionist model of modern botany and the reciprocal relationship-based way of her indigenous people. I highly recommend this book for Atheopagans.
Kimmerer’s description of her people’s approach to understanding plants and the natural world is a revelation, because it is about building not only knowledge of how plants can be used, but their “personalities”, their proclivities and what helps them to thrive: how they will give to us in exchange for our respect and support. In this manner, members of the Citizen Potawatomi nation have sustainably harvested useful plants for millennia, within the natural context in which they evolved rather than in destructive monocrop agriculture, which eradicates wildlife habitat and depletes soil.
This idea of reciprocity underpins many of the Atheopagan values and Principles. We are socially responsible (Principle 9) because we are interconnected: the well-being of our fellow creatures, including humans, is linked with our own. We hold the Earth as Sacred in part because we are the Earth: not “from” it or “of” it or “living on it”, but actual extensions of the planet’s biosphere that can think and feel. Our responsibility in having developed these awesome powers is to listen carefully to what the biosphere tells us, and to live in dynamic harmony with that received wisdom.
Our obsession with accumulation of economic surpluses—and particularly, elites’ wielding of power to sequester those surpluses for themselves—have led us into severe danger. We must begin to think differently, and Atheopaganism is one gateway into that radically different perspective.
Imagine: a world where enough and some to share was the sum total economic aspiration of the average person: where none wanted for basics, and none had fabulous wealth because they understood that such accumulation was irresponsible. Where cooperation and co-creation were celebrated more than competition, and enterprises were established to add real value to both human and non-human life, rather than to attract money from elite gamblers (“investors”) hoping to increase their own accumulation of surplus wealth.
It’s hard, I know. It sounds far-fetched, or naive. But that is because the Overculture does not want us to think in such terms. The ideology of Empire, of colonialism, of disregard for our fellow species, of senseless and unending greed does not want us to imagine a world in which we bridge our divides with our commonalities, and understand our lives as presenting us with responsibilities as well as rights. It wants us to be divided along arbitrary and invented lines of difference, and to scrabble over the scraps left by those who have far more than their rightful share of the world’s wealth.
We can do better. And in order to do better we must first dream better, and live by the values of that imagined better world.
Even if—especially if—in the short term we are screwed.