Questioning the colonialist mindset
July 30, 2022
This is the Too Many Trees newsletter, where I share what I’ve been writing and reading in the realm of leadership and personal development. My coaching practice is centered around the idea that we are more effective in moving towards our goals when we become more conscious and intentional in focusing our time and attention, and learn how our unconscious patterns are holding us back. If you know somebody that could benefit from my perspective, please forward this to them or let them know they can set up a free intro chat with me.
[I was stuck as to what to write for this newsletter until Seppo posted about the colonialist zero-sum mindset this morning, and my comments proliferated into something I wanted to share here as well. Thanks, Seppo!]
I read an article a few months ago on Qallunology 101: A Lesson Plan for the Non-Indigenous (which I found from this page at White Awake) that had this great line that colonialists "like to take an abundance, make it scarce, and charge people money to get access to it."
Once I read that line, I’ve seen it everywhere e.g. Matt Stoller’s article on “counterfeit capitalism explaining how monopolistic companies create shortages and then charge outrageous prices to access their products, or how the oil companies made $50 billion in profit in Q2 while blaming the Ukraine war.
And yet I am still working to break myself of the colonialist mindset, as I was raised to think of everything as being scarce, and of the price-demand curve as a law of nature (things cost more because they are scarce). As Lynne Twist details in The Soul of Money, the three toxic myths of capitalism are:
There’s not enough.
More is better.
That’s just the way it is.
I learned to succeed in that system, figuring out how to do more and more so I could get “more” money (myth #2), despite never having “enough” time (myth #1, which is just incorrect). Of course, I was aided by incredible amounts of privilege, but because I was succeeding and benefiting from the system, I never questioned it because of myth #3 (“that’s just the way it is”). I had to burn myself out, and literally break my body before I stopped to question myth #2 of whether I really wanted “more”.
But what’s the alternative to extractive colonialist capitalism?
I talk a little bit about this in my post on de-capitalization, but part of the answer is to realize that our worth as human beings is rich and multidimensional, not determined by the single number in our bank account. We can choose how we measure our life.
Another part of the answer is to realize that a key assumption of the colonialist mindset is that the world is zero-sum where resources are scarce and non-renewable (like gold or oil). God created a fixed amount of stuff, and no more is being created, so if I want more of something, I must take it from somebody else. This mindset drove the colonizers to take whatever they wanted from indigenous peoples, because they could use their military power to do so.
But the world is not zero-sum. When we share resources, others can create more, and everybody benefits. In a world of abundance, I can give from my abundance, and somehow receive even more in response. One example is that one can share seeds from a garden, and the garden will still be there next year, but others can start gardens from those seeds, creating more life. It’s not about profiting from a non-renewable resource (like the horrific Monsanto seeds that are sterile and need to be purchased each year), but about ensuring the flow of renewal, as explained by Lewis Hyde in The Gift.
An example from my own life is that I give away insights and advice on LinkedIn and my blog, and in this newsletter. The colonialist mindset might say I should charge for that advice ("make it scarce and charge people money to get access to it"). But more people benefit if I share more widely what I'm learning. And I benefit more, because a bigger audience means more people becoming aware of my coaching services, which leads to more clients, which leads to more insights to share. It's a positive feedback loop where growth perpetuates, because there is no scarcity of ideas.
Compare this to our current system that prioritize hierarchies of power and caste, where those at the top benefit from inequality and scarcity. In fact, they want scarcity to continue because they get what they want, and scarcity “motivates” those lower in the hierarchy to work harder (so the elite can accumulate more wealth). There are no positive feedback loops of growth here, just extraction of labor and resources to benefit those at the top until the world and its people are emptied and exhausted.
As I understand more about this mindset, I am starting to see the wisdom that if we create systems that treat everybody equally, especially those who are most marginalized, we will all benefit by the abundance that is unleashed by nurturing each seed of human life. My former self would have said “But what can they contribute?” as I used to believe that the myth of meritocracy that people who were at the bottom of the power hierarchy deserved to be there. Now I wonder what would be possible if everybody had access to universal basic income and health care.
Is that realistic? I don’t know, but a lot of my skepticism derives from that assumption of scarcity, of a zero-sum world where there isn’t “enough” to share, and there can never be more. I don’t know if a communitarian or even anarchistic culture can work at scale, but maybe it’s time to try more experiments in that direction.
And now for the normal personal development content:
LinkedIn: These are ideas that have helped my clients (or myself), and that I share via LinkedIn to help a wider audience.
Values and culture matter more as an executive. Executive decision making is all about making tradeoffs; you can't do everything due to limited resources, so you have to choose to do this, and not that. And if you as an exec are not aligned with your peer execs on what's most important, you will be in constant battles about those tradeoffs.
There is no “right track”. There is no "right" answer when it comes to your career (or your life!). Each of us has different gifts and interests, and we are each optimizing for different things. People get caught up in comparison, and see others getting promoted faster, and wonder what they are doing "wrong", but they may just be in a different situation playing a different game.
Articles and resources I’ve found interesting:
The Loneliest Americans, by Jay Caspian Kang. As a half-Korean who passed for white for most of my life, I rarely identified as an “Asian American”. Kang dives in the murkiness of this artificial racial category that includes working class immigrants from Southeast Asia, highly educated professionals from Korean, Japan and China, Filipino nurses and housekeepers, and a wide assortment of others. I learned more of the history of how this category was created in Berkeley in the 60s (of course), and appreciated Kang’s sharing of his own experience as a Korean American navigating the Black / White dynamic of US racial politics.
The Decline of Empathy, and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics, by Michael Bader. “Inequality makes people feel insecure, preoccupied with their relative status and standing, and vulnerable to the judgment of others, and it creates a greater degree of social distance between people that deprives them of opportunities for intimate and healing experiences of recognition and empathy.”
Thanks for reading! See you in a couple weeks!