Ethics Vs. Rewilding

Since its inception civilization has created a value system of good vs. evil. The concept of good and evil (or the more scientific “right” and “wrong,” seems to permeate so much of our thought, that we have projected it onto indigenous mythologies as well. “Surely the notion of good and evil comes from human nature, not culture!” Perhaps if we look deeper, we may see that the notion of good and evil live and die with a culture of destruction.

Some people think the pope creates good. Some people think the pope creates more evil. Good and evil exist as subjective, cultural perspectives. Some believe that clear-cutting forests creates good by providing people with jobs and lumber. Others say that clear-cutting forests creates evil, by destroying a landbase. Good and Evil, a dichotomy different than night and day in that night and day may change slightly depending on longitude, but do not exist as a cultural meme that can morph within a people. Night and day exist outside of our control, as does hot and cold (to the extent we cannot alter them indefinitely). But we can control the perception of good and evil quite easily. And that makes it a very dangerous cultural meme.

It should not surprise anyone that the notion of “good” in civilization generally equates with an action based on an individuals ability to do extra work. “Do a good turn daily,” says the Boy Scout motto. Helping and old lady across the street, volunteering for a cause, giving away your hard earned money… all involve going out of your way. It makes perfect sense then how the noble savage myth came about. Civilized people could not understand how indigenous peoples had such ease at things like sharing. They must have better qualities than us, thought our civilized ancestors.

The best example of this I can think of involves the non-profit sector of environmental education. A mass of organizations struggling to make ends meet in order to teach children about nature. Most employees work 40-80 hour weeks and receive very little money for this work. It makes cry just thinking about it. People who feel our destruction so deeply that they sacrifice themselves to keep alive the spark. To people living closely to the land, the idea of a nature camp would seem ludicrous. Teaching children about ecology simply works as part of their culture, not an extra element that parents must pay for. And what do these camps do, but merely keep the spark alive? They don’t change civilization. They merely work to keep children inspired to do something… what that something involves… who knows? I haven’t seen anything remotely close to what the planet needs to survive at this point.

Rewilding usurps the notion of good and evil, right and wrong by eliminating the cultural variable and thinking in terms of environmental systems, of the physical world. If you do damage to the environment, you will feel the consequences. Right and wrong, good and evil have little bearing on that. In terms of ethics, it seems survival may have held a foundation for the origination of the ethical good and evil.

Indigenous cultures do not separate their religion from the land they live on. This means that their religion comes from their relationship to the land, not “the spirit,” unless you mean to say they mean the same thing. At the Art of Mentoring Jon Young tells a story of one of his Lakota mentors who explained to him the word people have commonly translated to “sacred” actually means “inspired by or promotes life.” What our english translators took to mean holy, or revered for its spiritual significance, actually meant something much more. It seems a lot less “wu-wu” when the word has real world application and not just some mystical quality. A “sacred ceremony” or ritual creates more life, and not just human life, but other-than-humans as well. As my good friend Willem puts it, “Sacred means survival.”

An interesting perspective on the Mayans comes from Martin Prechtel who lived with post-collapse Mayans for 15 years while they still had remnants of a village. He speaks of the Mayan spiritual concept of “original debt.”

…In the Mayan worldview, we are all born owing a spiritual debt to the other world for having created us, for having sung us into existence. It must be fed; otherwise, it’s going to take its payment out of our lives…You have to give a gift to that which gives you life. It’s an actual payment in kind. That’s the spiritual economy of a village.


A knife, for instance, is a very minimal, almost primitive tool to people in a modern industrial society…But for the Mayan people, the spiritual debt that must be paid for the creation of such a tool is great…So, just to get the iron, the shaman has to pay for the ore, the fire, the wind, and so on” not in dollars and cents, but in ritual activity equal to what’s been given…All of those ritual gifts make the knife enormously “expensive,” and make the process quite involved and time-consuming. The need for ritual makes some things too spiritually expensive to bother with…That’s why the Mayans didn’t invent space shuttles or shopping malls or backhoes.

Civilization would feel too spiritually expensive in this paradigm. A paradigm that came about after the culture collapsed and yet reflects many of the spiritual beliefs of never-approaching-civilization cultures that practiced intensification of food production. The more anthropologists discover about indigenous intensification of food production they come to the conclusion that it does not reflect a one-way path to agriculture and civilization, but that they can exist in larger densities without exploiting the land and becoming agriculturalists. Values and ethics largely shape a cultures decision-making and practices.

With the intensification of corn production, the Iroquois became much more complex and yet they still had a value system that protected the land from their subsistence strategy; every decision had to reflect a healthy world for seven generations into the future. A value system works to keep people from destroying the land they live on.

Rewilding ethics looks like working to make the web of life tighter. Rather than have ungrounded changeable ideas of good and evil, it seems the origin point comes more from cause and reaction in the real world; do damage to the environment and do damage to your culture, strengthen the environment, strengthen your culture. Let’s get rid of the right and wrong, good and evil dichotomy and ask ourselves, will it kill us? Does it meet the needs of the environment? Will it meet the needs of the future generations? We need a healthy physical world to continue living. Indigenous ethics base themselves on the needs of the physical world, whereas civilization has removed itself so much so that it doesn’t even recognize a physical world. Rewilding buries right and wrong back in the land where it belongs.

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4 Comments on “Ethics Vs. Rewilding”

  1. That’s a wonderful excerpt on the Mayan worldview.

    Part of the problem in our culture is the disconnect between production and consumption; very few people purchasing a knife today, for instance, would give a second thought as to all the work and energy that went into it–let alone the people who routinely frequent grocery stores for goods that were produced halfway across the world. This disconnect makes it very easy to lose the spiritual connection that many other cultures seem able to maintain.

    I’m also reminded of the Futurama quote: “Right and wrong are just words. The important thing is what you do.”

    Great thoughts!

  2. The pope? Huh? Lots of interesting tidbits here – I especially like the proposed Lakota translation of sacred. I will certainly make use of that one in the future.

    To quote a Supreme Court justice – “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

    I’d say something about ethics, but at this point I’d feel like I had begun buffetting the poor chap who expired flogging the dead horse.

  3. “the more scientific ‘right’ and ‘wrong'”
    science doesn’t do diddly with rights and wrongs Petey…positivist science has to do with fact finding to support knowledge claims. Religion, faith and philosophy is where you get into the rightyness and wrongyness