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How understanding the concept of 'wetiko' will help you build a better future
“Understanding [wetiko] offers a powerful way of understanding the deepest roots of our current global polycrisis.”
This week, I’d like to highlight a perspective-shifting idea that I’ve come across in this brilliant article written by Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk Seeing Wetiko, and the books Columbus and Other Cannibals by Jack Forbes and Wetiko: Healing the Mind-Virus That Plagues Our World by Paul Levy. A quick exploration into an interesting indigenous concept that I think will make you see the world differently.
So, here we go!
We call nature ‘the wilderness’ and animals within it ‘wild animals’ while we are ‘civil’ humans. This type of language alone shows our un-symbiotic relationship with nature. We see us, humans, ourselves, as being separate or even superior to nature (the ‘wild’ vs the tame, conscious, civil), a mental model that is at the root of so many powerful and often destructive systems we’ve built.
Such subject-object thinking is alien to many indigenous communities. Jack Forbes, writer and activist for the rights of Native Americans, showcases the core belief of various indigenous cultures in his aforementioned book:
“This earth is your grandmother. The dirt is your grandmother. Whatever grows in the earth is your mother. It is just like a sucking baby on a mother… Always remember, your grandmother is underneath your feet always. You are always on her, and your father is above.”
“The Lakota people, according to Luther Standing Bear, actively felt themselves to be kin with all creatures.”
“When a plant, tree or animal is to be killed, first, the need must be great; second, permission is asked for, if time allows; third, the creature is thanked; and, fourth, dances, prayers and ceremonies are used to further thank the creatures so killed and to help those that are alive to grow and prosper”
“All of nature is in us, all of us is in nature.”
So What Is Wetiko?
Wetiko reframes the un-symbiotic and destructive relationship between humans and nature into a so-called ‘mind-virus’:
“Wetiko is an Algonquin [indigenous people of Eastern Canada] word for a cannibalistic spirit that is driven by greed, excess and selfish consumption (in Ojibwa it is windigo, wintiko in Powhatan).
It deludes its host into believing that cannibalising the life-force of others (others in the broad sense, including animals and other forms of Gaian life) is a logical and morally upright way to live.
Wetiko short-circuits the individual’s ability to see itself as an enmeshed and interdependent part of a balanced environment and raises the self-serving ego to supremacy. It is this false separation of self from nature that makes this cannibalism, rather than simple murder.”
While being obvious to many indigenous cultures, it may take quite of a mind-shift for us others to see ourselves as one (or even just interdependent) with nature and our overall environment, and to see any damage or destruction of that environment as a form of cannibalism (or self-destruction). But framing the unsustainable destruction of the environment as cannibalism or even a cannibalic mind-virus - because ‘nature is within us, and we are within nature’ - really opens up new ways of thinking. New ways of seeing and defining the problem. And new ways of finding solutions.
So, Why Is Understanding Wetiko So Important?
To change a system you must first correctly understand and identify the problem. What some call the Iceberg Model and others Causal Layered Analysis or First Principles Thinking is a systems thinking tool that can help us go to the roots of systems to transform them from the bottom up. I use it very often.
Wetiko gives a name to the mental model that lies at the root of our destructive systems. And that mental model is influencing our thinking and action in one way or the other (often even unconsciously).
“Those who live in a wetiko culture will manifest, to one degree or other, wetiko beliefs and behaviours.”
The idea of wetiko being a ‘mind-virus’ also means that this belief system has typical virus-like traits:
“(1) the initial act, even when driven by necessity, creates a residual, unnatural desire for more cannibalism; and (2) the host carrier, which they called the victim, ended up with an ‘icy heart’ – their ability for empathy and compassion was amputated.”
When linked to systems such as the economy or capitalism, the idea of wetiko helps us see a ‘wetikonomy’ in which growth leads to the desire for only more growth while the core, initially empathy-driven purpose of seeking growth is being diluted.
The Dissolution of Wetiko
I have shared this quote in a previous issue already:
“Every year that we head closer to catastrophe […] the old narrative loses its hold on the collective consciousness. Waves of young people are looking for a new worldview—one that makes sense of the current unraveling, one that offers them a future they can believe in.” - Jeremy Lent
As the world crumbles and….
“…the veils obscuring wetiko are starting to be lifted […][,] let us be pollinators of new memetic hives built on altruism, empathy, inter-connectedness, reverence, communality and solidarity, defying the subject-object dualities of Cartesian/Newtonian/Enlightenment logic. […]
And let us re-embrace the ancient futures of our indigenous ancestors that represent the only continuous line of living in symbiosis with Mother Nature. The dissolution of wetiko will be as much about remembering as it will be about creation.”
Thank you for reading! Please do check out the entire article about Seeing Wetiko by Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk at Culture Hack Labs.
See you next week!