Beyond Plunder

Making space for the light within

A photo of the sun rising over Mt. Hood in the distance, with trees peaking through the mist-filled valley in the foreground

Photo by the author

In my youthful days I sometimes pilfered my mother’s private stash of goodies while she was away. I was naughty that way. She’d gossip with her friends that her kitchen was plundered while she was at the market. Sometimes it was not me but a particularly persistent troop of monkeys who pilfered her unguarded larder. Our kitchen, at the time, was open to the garden, with easy access for clever, observant beings with thumbs.

Plunder was a living reality for my parents and grandparents, who were born and brought up during the Raj, a system of legal plundering through settler colonialism, prefaced in idealized civility and based in violence, othering, and extraction.

Plunder is one of my favorite words. It has an ominous tone of being pulled under. Plunder debases humanity. Plunder is the base of global economic transactions. Plundering ways are embedded into every aspect of daily goings-on: our work depends on it, and our laws prop it up. Plundering is taught as history, encouraged and rewarded in business, and reinforced in entertainment and advertising. Plunder feeds a booming economy whose purpose is to sell more stuff to more people, more often, for more money, regardless of the human or ecological costs. Our governments prop up this status quo and accept injustice, exclusion, and voicelessness as “unintentional consequences” of progress and prosperity.

The plundered and their places are numerous. They are both human and marvelous Earthly beings. They are the voiceless millions kept hidden behind the gloss of free-market magic. We are all guilty of aiding plunderers while being plundered ourselves.

Plunder is the unrepentant foundation of the American myth, the codex of lies bound together by age-old conspiracies. Plundering makes othering easy. It reduces the person to a “consumer” on an endless treadmill of consumption and servitude. It robs people of their dignity. This othering extends beyond people: Plunder destroys, devolves, demeans, denies, desecrates, de-creates. De-creation is the alarm theme of the Anthropocene, the Age of Extinction driven by our incoherent rush to somewhere not yet understood.

Meanwhile, we are surrounded by parallel universes of perception, a phenomenology of life’s diversity that remains beyond our grasp because of our many ways of cutting ourselves off from our own nature. Our reluctance to acknowledge the wondrous alien Earthlings with whom we share the planet has left us incomplete. Plants, their insect collaborators and lovers, the unseen microbes that govern our bodies and soils, and the relational co-evolution of life itself all reveal the limited nature of our ideas and imaginations. We need balance and equilibrium for life to thrive, both our own and those of the living marvels and wonders that make this Earth unique among the known heavens—our place in the universe.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Coho salmon is poised for extinction due to rampant pollution and development pressures. The Coho is destined to be de-created, quietly carrying forward the conspiracies of patriarchal settler colonialism. What will become of the people whose identities and ways of being are linked to their salmon ancestors? What is the Pacific Northwest without its Salmon People? What safeguards are worthy of the moment?

Our concepts, laws, regulations, and tools for protecting people and the environment are overly simple and often provide cover for clever acts of plundering in the name of the deified economy. Post-emission environmental protection is feeble. It is of marginal use at best; at worst, it helps to prop up the plundering ways, diminishing life, living, and thriving for everyone.

Plunder epitomizes disloyalty to civilization. It keeps us from reconciling the anchors of the past and manifesting a better today. So long as plunder is the base for human development, there can be no sustaining of life, of living and thriving.

If we are serious about thriving in the future, then we must aspire to thrive here and now. If we seek a sustainable future, then let us acknowledge the harsh realities lived by millions, not just those faraway people and places we rely on for cheap throwaway goods, but also the multitudes right here in our backyards: the millions vulnerable to climate disasters and other calamities. What do the dark bodies, the stolen ones, the poor in the land of plenty—those who’ve been awaiting their turn on the “sustainability journey"—get out of resilient and green systems of efficient plunder? Many have waited for generations. They wait still.

Homo sapiens is Latin for “the wise” or “the clever” human. Our cleverness has supplanted our wisdom. Much unlearning is needed to dislodge the tenacious hooks of our plundering, past and present. We must name the roots of discontent: settler colonialism, toxic masculinity, and White supremacy. Let us begin by seeing capitalism clearly as the system of efficient plundering. I don’t mean to say that we cannot aspire to do well in material ways, only that we must orient ourselves to ethical responsibility and moral obligation on our road to equitable material futures. We must foster genuine reciprocity with this one living Earth. For my part, I owe as much to my own future self, my ancestors, and to your children and theirs. I owe it to the living marvels, all those fellow Earthlings who make our planet an Eden and who are being plundered to satisfy our growing afflictions. Such is the legacy handed to us. It need not be our evolution and becoming.

It was Diwali when I edited this essay, a time when the Indian diaspora was preparing for the annual celebration popularly known as the Festival of Lights. It is a time cherished by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and casual revelers alike. Diwali symbolically celebrates the victory of light over darkness. It is an apt metaphor for the topic of plunder, the philosophy of darkness that holds back human potential, and the light within straining to break free from between tiny cracks and outrageous fissures of separation forming everywhere.

The struggles of our times, our shared conundrums, cannot be driven out therapeutically or with advanced techno-wizardry. The remedy is metaphysical and requires changing our internal map of life and our attitude towards it—crawling and scratching, if need be, toward balance and harmony with the living Earth and ourselves. It is an inner journey of unlearning the nonsense burned into our collective psyche, a cleansing of sorts to accept the fullness of life and its innate desire to thrive. Everything at this crucial point in the Age of Extinction lies in the attitude which we assume towards life’s flows. It is an epic struggle toward the light.

May we be awake enough to be in the flow with fellow Earthlings: creatures, plants, trees, fungi, microbes; the mineral earth and the sky; rivers, seas, and waters underground; mountains, forests, and deserts too. May we remember our cleverness beyond our techno-wizardry to recognize our humanimalness: the humanity that is within us already. May we learn to witness wonder again past crusted layers of distraction and the demanding noise of modernity. May we walk together with our differences in full view, centering on our undeniable oneness instead. Onward!


Culture, Environment, Global and Local, The Human Condition, Nature


No comments yet.

Add a Comment