Podcast Episode 4: Economies of scarcity and abundance

In the 4th episode of PUAN podcast, co-host Saumya Pandey interviews a professor of English, Candace Fujikane, on how ideas of abundance and scarcity are forged under capitalism. Professor Fujikane’s research uses cartography as a methodology to map Kanaka Maoli’s knowledge and relation of abundance with lands, seas and skies. In doing so, Fujikane’s work raises fundamental concern about the capitalist economies of scarcity, which have devastating consequences for the planet.


SP: Today I am really hoping to learn how ideas of abundance and scarcity are forged under capitalism. Your book, Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future starts with an interesting provocation that capitalism fears abundance. Could you please elaborate on this?

CF: Thank you. I went to a critical studies ethnic conference in 2012 and my former dissertation advisor gave a talk. This is David Lloyd. He gave a beautiful talk about how capital fear abundance because abundance promises the just redistribution of resources. At that time, I had been working on restoration projects in Hawaii, restoring waterways, restoring fishponds, and Kalo Loi, which are the local Taro Pond fields. Basically, we were working to restore what Noelani Goodyear-Ka’ōpu calls structures that feed us. I was seeing the ways in which restoration projects built on each other.You talk to restoration program directors about climate change; they all talk about how this is actually a chance for people to turn climate change events into greater possibilities for abundance. So, I was thinking that if capital fears abundance, then why not strike at capital where it is most vulnerable by mapping the abundance it fears, i.e., mapping these restoration projects and how they built upon each other. I began to see the ways that rather than seeing climate change as apocalyptic, we can see climate change events as bringing about the demise of capitalist economies of scarcity, making possible or making way for indigenous economies of abundance. So, indigenous economies that focus on production of food and water shows that indigenous people can survive what capital cannot. It fits into this larger problem where I would talk to my students about climate change, they just want to turn away. It was too depressing for them. So, I argue in my book that mapping abundance is a refusal to succumb to capital’s logic that we are past an apocalyptic threshold of no return. That’s where a lot of theorems of climate change comes from—the idea that it is already a foregone conclusion. But Kanaka Maoli, and their allies in Hawaii and the indigenous people around the world are on the frontline of climate change and they are providing us visual and textual illustration of flourishing indigenous economies of abundance. So, it is a way of getting at climate change through an indigenous viewpoint that sees the element around us as elements of energy and understanding those elements in relation to each other. It is so exciting to learn about the ways that Kanaka Maoli ancestors approaches climate change and I think that’s one of the lessons that we are learning through climate change i.e., that we need to cultivate a closer relationship with elements around us. Kanaka Maoli had an amazing practice of kilo; keen observation of the natural phenomena in order to understand how they worked with each other. Our ancestors did that, I know mine in Japan did that, there is the Shintō religion but when we move to other countries and become settlers in settler colonial systems, we are taught in the educational systems to identify with settler colonial power. Anyway, very long way of saying that abundance and scarcity is a way of thinking more generatively about climate change and what it can be.

SP: One of the things I enjoyed reading in your book is how knowledge about abundance is created, and you describe this process as abundant-mindedness. I am curious about this process of mapping abundance and if you could help our listeners understand how you thought through it

CF: Yes, that came out in an interview that I did with a restoration project manager and director, Puni Jackson. She said that as Kanaka Maoli who have been dispossessed, the population of Hawaiians collapsed from a million down to 40,000 after colonial contact. She says that everyone says that “poor Hawaiians, they had this taken from them and that taken from them” that creates a kind of victimization that really takes from Kanaka Maoli their agency as active agents who are determining their own futures. So, she says that what she cultivates amongst her students who come to volunteer in her programme is abundant-mindedness. She says that we always have so much around us, our relationships, our children, we have the abundance that is here in the natural world. No matter what or how the state tries to represent that abundance as wasteland, which the settler state is always doing, trying to condemn lands as wastelands so that they can be ceased and used for highways or telescopes or other kinds of things that native communities have had to fight against. That abundant-mindedness is what she grew up with. Some people think that in the era of climate change to talk about mapping abundance is a luxury—I talk about how it is not a luxury. Rather it is an urgent insistence on life. That shows us what indigenous people are fighting for—their future; the lives of their children; The elements in the natural world they see as their family members. That’s the abundant-mindedness that we all should cultivate in this era of climate change. These project managers talk about how these changes in climate bring about opportunities for abundance. So, how do we transform the way we see climate change events as not just acts of devastation but what forces us to think about other ways of producing abundance. For example, fishponds are facing seas-level rise in Hawaii along shorelines. When I have talked to project managers there, they say that if sea-level rise continues, they will build the fishpond walls higher to the point where it makes no sense anymore, they will then move inland to cultivate freshwater fish ponds. It is that kinds of ability to adapt. One of my teachers says that the three magic words are: assess, adapt and activate. We need to focus on learning to activate ourselves to act in ways that help us adapt to change. And this is not a resignation to conditions that are beyond our control. I think we should continue to fight against corporate devastation of the earth. Right now, in Hawaii we are fighting against the military, which has planted 187 million gallons of jet fuel underground, which are not contaminating drinking water. It’s turning out to be worse than the conditions in Flint, Michigan. There is a comparison there. How do we activate ourselves? We do so at multiple levels in response to and against the settler state action and the actions of the military. But we also see a future beyond settler colonialism by working on our capacity to feed ourselves.  

SP: Often we notice that there is a tendency to essentialize indigenous knowledge, where it is made into an alternative category of capitalism. How did you avoid slipping into that trope in your research?

CF: I love that question. You are absolutely right. I read other books that to kind of romanticize indigenous knowledge. So, how I tried to avoid essentializing that is by focusing on specific struggles. I engaged in struggles on different levels. We fight against the settler state in court rooms. What we have to do is provide evidence of what the state is doing and evidence that there is another way to do things. So, I think it is through concrete praxis that we avoid essentializing. It is the fact that the kind of work that I am calling for is very embodied. It is not just about theorizing about change. It is about those of us who are not indigenous, those of us who are settlers taking our places on the frontline so that we get to speak with people, and we get to learn from them. How they are viewing an abundant-mindedness that gives them the courage to stand up against police armed with tear gas and sound canons to protect water. In the case of Hawaii, I was standing up against (and I know this sounds ironic) giant wind turbines. Now, wind power is very important as a renewable source of energy but what these corporations do is that they place the turbines too close to homes and schools. These are 1500 feet in height, and they were trying to place it near schools. We were trying to stop the developer of these wind farms from putting that up. So, these are coming from an understanding of how corporations manipulate renewable energy for their own purposes in ways that exploit indigenous communities. It is very embodied, and I didn’t realise, and I wouldn’t understand this about renewable energy—that sort of greenwashing corporations do that can be damaging or harmful but it is only when you are standing on the frontlines and talking to people and getting their firsthand account that you begin to see the struggles that they are facing. So, as a writer I have access to publications and so in my book I’ve sort of opened up a space for the people on the frontlines to tell their stories of struggle, stories about why they are standing up to protect these places and lands and waters, and how their stand gives a different understanding to ancestral knowledge. And ancestral knowledge was also about being guardians of water and guardians of the land. So, they are fulfilling their responsibilities in multiple ways. You can see that only through the embodied practice of being in those communities and working with them and really making it a part of your lifestyle. 

SP: On the one side, we have this economic and extractive logic that we follow that everything is for the market to grab, historically wetlands were treated as wastelands, dry arid landscapes were considered devoid of life, so on and so forth. There are then these limits to spatial mapping where things are fixed and concretised in landscape, but they are in fact fluid. So, in this embodied practice that you mentioned I see a feminist interpretation of that which is always in abundance, not being under control, unmanageable, leaking its abstract boundaries. I was wondering if this kind of thought process was in fact behind reclaiming the space of abundance.

CF: Ya, I really like that question. When I was testifying in front of state agencies, I saw that it doesn’t work to keep reiterating the same kinds of arguments that state makes so you get into this kind of mode where you are responding to their cartographies. And their cartographies are cartographies of death. They are trying to show you that their land is a wasteland, that there is no future on this land and that the people who are fighting for these lands are themselves vestiges of lives that no longer exists. It is just kind of ridiculous. And so I had to learn more about indigenous ways of knowing the world that exceed beyond corporate or capital cartographies. Cartographies of capital are constantly instituting these kinds of false constraints. So, they will say you cannot do this, for example, commission for water resources management to this day will say that water stops at the shoreline. It is these kinds of ridiculous constraints. Whereas in Kanaka Maoli waterways are at the outer edge of the reef because all of that estuary is part of that waterway. Mapping differently instead of the ways in which cartographies of capital fragment land into smaller and smaller manageable pieces that can evade environmental protection and I see that kind of way that maps of capital that map pieces of land that alienate them from its history and the larger context of the communities around it. Indigenous ways are much more expansive, again, exceeding beyond the limitations of cartographies of capital. In a feminist kind of way, I have been very influenced by French feminists who talk about how body exceeds beyond the limitation of your body. So, I did have that kind of training in grad. school. But I think indigenous knowledge takes it in a different direction in terms of the question of how we have these kinds of genealogical relationships with the elements around us. You know, I hesitate as a settler to talk about the reign being part of my genealogy but on a molecular level the rain becomes part of my body. So, those kinds of divisions between self and the natural world are actually so much more porous now. I still call myself a settler and I think in a settler colonial system it is important to maintain those distinctions and that settlers realise that they should not be making those decisions about lands that are being stewarded for thousands of years by indigenous people. That happens in Hawaii all the time where settlers are trying to make these decisions but rather understanding that having that stewardship allows them to have a more expansive understanding of the natural world than settlers do. A concrete example, the army core of engineers has been so bad at Hawaii. The army core of engineer, what it does is that it brings in work that they have done elsewhere as if you can just plug that model of restoration in Hawaii without understanding the factors around it. So, we have had so many incredibly damaging projects. The army core of engineers will create a concrete channel for waterways that prevents water from going back into the aquifer. It prevents waterways from taking nutrients from uplands to the estuaries. These concrete channels destroy estuaries. They were put into place to prevent the flooding of home. But there are other ways of doing it by breaking the concrete and putting a wired mesh over a rock so that there can be both a feeding back into the aquifer and a carrying of nutrients into the estuaries. This is just one of the many examples about the ways in which the army core of engineers technically takes the things that have been done elsewhere and try to import them into Hawaii without that kind of expansive system of observation and forecasting that Kanaka Maoli have done of natural phenomena.

SP: Finally, I was hoping you could help our listeners understand the distinction between capitalist modes of manufacturing scarcity and how indigenous people respond to it

CF: Capital functions by creating needs. Capital is actually in the business of creating the illusion of scarcity. It has to create in you a sense of need or desire. And capital can only survive by opening market. So, the difference between that and indigenous economies, indigenous economies focus on—like for Hawaiians it is Āina Momona, flat and fertile land—make you full or satisfied. Indigenous economies of economies are about the production of food and the cultivation of relationships. So, those are two things very commonly we find in the alienation under a capitalist system. Capital creates scarcity, it creates the illusion of scarcity and also the material conditions of scarcity. And so often times, for example, in Waianae there was a plan for a late-industrial park, basically a trucking yard for corporations. And they were planning to put that on top of a land that was historically involved in agricultural production. But you know, they make this argument that these lands are not culturally productive, and they bank of the land use commission without knowing the history of the land but instead what happened was that the indigenous communities, Kanaka Maoli communities came forward. They had the photographs of the land in active agricultural production. I gave testimony and my argument was that in order to produce the perception that the land being a wasteland the developer evaluated the land unirrigated. If you don’t put water in a land of course it is a wasteland. But what I found that they do have a designation I—so lands that are not irrigated could be something like D64, once irrigated those lands become B64I. When irrigated the lands improves to B quality land, which is the second highest category of productivity. But the developers tried to state that these are D64 category because they were not irrigated. Ya, you do have to water the land! It is kind of funny that this particular site that they were trying to develop was surrounded by farmlands with the B64I designation. I don’t mean to take it lightly, but it is ludicrous the way capital manipulates rhetoric in order to get its projects passed. And that is what we see all the time in Hawaii, that the argument they make are ridiculous. Mauna Kea, the mountain that we have been fighting to protect for it the maps actually say “no vegetation, wasteland”—to describe the summit of Mauna Kea. But the reality is that all mountains are receptacles of water. Mauna Kea collects the water that feeds the islands, that feeds the aquifers that goes up to all of the residents of the island. And how is that water collected is not through rainfall but through fog drip. So, what capital will do is calculate rainfall. “Oh, there is very little rainfall up there.” But what is happening is that they’re obscuring the other sources of water such as fog drip. Mauna Kea is most of the time under cloud cover or there is fog every day, what they call Lilino, which is the deity of the fog or mist, the lands are always draped in mist and water condenses on rocks and plant life and feeds into the earth. As in any desert, how do animals survive? If you scratch the surface of a desert, you eventually come across to a wet spot where it is saturated with water. Maona Kea is basically saturated with water. Far from being a barren wasteland it’s a receptacle for water—that is what Kanaka Maoli scientists […] have argued that it is actually a repository of water.     

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