What does it mean to live in reciprocity?

As a function of capitalism, our relationships have become extractive, conditional, monetised, scarcity-driven. Living with a system that seeks to squeeze evermore value in return for less and less inevitably leads to these extractive principles being reflected in our own lives too, in the way we act in relationship with others. By turning to the more-than-human world, we see that we have lost our way.

“An ecosystem is the embodiment of reciprocity. It consists of a multitude of beings related in endless ways. Ecological life is always lived in relationships with others.” - Andreas Weber

It is clear when we look at ecosystems that there is, quite simply, no possibility of the ecosystem functioning as a whole if each being, each living organism, doesn’t do its part. Weber explains that: “An ecosystem is a commons, shared and brought forth by all its participants. It is not an assemblage of egoistic agents.” Similarly, in the human world: “we are not atomistic individuals set against one another, but on a deep level we collectively create one coherent process of life”.

It is easier to see how extractive relationships between humans have ruined us, for the consequences of that are borne by ourselves and those around us. But what about the ways in which the extractive quality of our relationships have impacted the more-than-human world? It is our—save, of course, those who live and have been living in right relationship—wilful ignorance of this that lies at the heart of our environmental crisis today.

“For many of us who are beginning to awaken, it is important for us to be humble and respectful in understanding that we are not discovering anything new. We are returning to the continuum with cognisance anchored in Indigenous consciousness.” - Tiokasin Ghosthorse

Living in reciprocity may seem now far away and unnatural for us, but our Indigenous relatives have always been rooted in living with this principle. Robin Wall Kimmerer explains that “Indigenous story traditions are full of cautionary tales about the failure of gratitude”, and notes that the “worldview of unbridled exploitation is to [her] mind the greatest threat to the life that surrounds us”. The question for her is not, as it is in this economy, “What more can we take from the Earth?” Rather, it is, “What does the Earth ask of us?”

And how do we listen for the answer? Kimmerer calls for deep attention, which she explains leads us into deep relationship. “They are known; they have names. There was a time, not so long ago, when to be human meant knowing the names of the beings with whom we cohabit the world. Knowing a name is the way we humans build relationship. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it.”

“We have enabled a state of nameless anonymity, bringing human people to a condition of isolation and disconnection, that philosophers have called “species loneliness.” Species loneliness—this deep, unnamed sadness—is the cost of estrangement from the rest of creation, from the loss of relationship.” - Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Returning the Gift”

Naming, respect-building, being-recognition, are all necessary aspects of redefining personhood. A prerequisite to living in reciprocity is just that: reconfiguring what we mean by “person”. Here, again, our Indigenous relatives have not been deluded as we have.

Weber notes: “Animism, the cosmology of indigenous peoples, is the most radical form to think and to enact reciprocity among beings – human and non-human persons.” He further explains: “Animistic thinking perceives subjectivity and matter not as exclusive and contradictory, but as co-present. Therefore, indigenous thought takes the world – humans, plants, animals, rivers, rocks, rain, and spirits – as a society of “persons”, which are in a constant becoming-together.”

In the English language—the colonisers’ language—we confer an inanimate, unalive, near nonexistent status to everything that is not human. We put them into a singular category of “it”: no wonder we feel deeply alone in this world, no wonder some among us feel entitled to take what we see, and no wonder we have such a phrase as terra nullius. We have enclosed ourselves from truly seeing the world around us, starting with our vocabularies that are in deep deficit.

“One temptation is to think that animism belongs solely to the indigenous and therefore remains out of reach to those of us in the West, the Global North. For, hungry as we are for better ways to relate to the nonhuman, we cannot and must not appropriate what is not ours.” - Andy Letcher

Ruth Łchav’aya K’isen Miller explains on For The Wild that the worldview of reciprocity is essentially “a worldview of responsibility for one another, and fundamental community”. If so, then Indigenous tradition and animism (and in fact, animism is not exclusive to Indigenous thought—it is a practice and worldview we all have roots in and that can be local to us all) are not the only places from which we can draw to learn and practice reciprocity.

Despite, and indeed even because of, extractive capitalism, there are communities that have built, from the (under)ground up, ways to survive and exist, with relationships of reciprocity. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes in “A Modest Proposal for a Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy”, an essay in Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice: “your life as a working-class or poor and/or sex-working and/or disabled and/or Black or brown femme person has taught you that the only damn way you or anybody survives is by helping each other. No institutions exist to help us survive—we survive because of each other. Your life is maintained by a complex, nonmonetary economy of shared, reciprocal care.”

Out of material circumstance, a lack of access to provided resource and comforts, entire care webs have emerged in these circles. In the opening essay “Care Webs: Experiments in Creating Collective Access”, she emphasises that “mutual aid”, meaning “a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit”, is not a concept invented by white people, despite citations that might indicate otherwise: “many precolonial (and after) Black, Indigenous, and brown communities have complex webs of exchanges of care”.

In these circles, worlds embedded with reciprocity are possible because there are fundamentally different conceptions of relationships. These circles practice radical, queer kinship: kinship beyond blood, kinship beyond traceable, linear ancestry, kinship beyond traditional family structures—similarly, our Indigenous relatives practice and speak a language of kinship that animates their worldview. With different forms of kinship, one can live in ecological life with others, and in fact must be responsible for each other.

These different forms of kinship are already around us: in the more-than-human world, within Indigenous languages, and lodged in mutual aid circles sprung from Black, queer, femme, working-class and disabled communities. The question now is whether we are willing to engage with them, before it’s too late.

“What can the language of kinship teach us about giving back, about reciprocity, and about being a good relative in these times of fatal estrangement”? - Tiokasin Ghosthorse


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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