Why Subsistence?

Fishing on the Skeena River, 1915. Source: William James Topley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Editor’s note: This month The Otter will feature posts on issues in Canadian Environmental History written by historians attending the American Society of Environmental History meeting in Toronto 3-6 April, 2013. If you would like to join the conversation you can leave comments below or attend the panels in Toronto. The first post in this series asks the question: “Why Subsistence?” and panelists will explore the controversial role subsistence plays in environmental history at a roundtable discussion on Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm in the Quebec room.

Subsistence has a bad reputation. Say it and people hear “near starvation.” If I say “subsistence farm” you, environmental historian that you are, are now probably picturing scrawny children standing in the midst of some sort of storm-blasted hellscape, tattered calico dresses and torn knee breeches hanging from their emaciated frames. But lately a group of us have been devoting some serious scholarly attention to the subject of subsistence, and are finding a minimum of post-apocalytic hellscapes (though if you like that sort of thing I can recommend some good films, many of them starring Charlton Heston). Self-provisioning – grabbing your food directly from nature – was once ubiquitous and survives today in more places than even many scholars realize. The study of it is well established in anthropology and parts of geography and rural history, but environmental historians have much to offer to the discussion, and insights to gain into the intersections of capitalism, nature, and human survival in the modern world.

Part of subsistence’s reputation problem comes from differing ideas of what is meant by “subsistence.” The children in your head are hungry because they were part of a liberal capitalist system where their family was expected to fend for itself. Such individual self-reliance has little to do with how people have actually incorporated self-provisioning into their food systems. Medieval English peasants, North American First Nations people pre-and-post contact: these people practiced getting for themselves as a community or kin group, and usually combined it with trade of some sort, whether it was oolichan oil carried over the Coast Mountains or spices from Asia. Really only with the advent of capitalism came the idea that there were different ways of valuing things: according to what they could get in exchange for something else, and according to their use value. Capitalism proceeded by removing non-market access to the means of subsistence, by stripping away customary guarantees to land, forests or waters and making these things available instead through the market. English peasants, Scottish highlanders and the Secwepemc of British Columbia, amongst many others, had their land enclosed, their ancient right to access it for growing or gathering food cut off, the land turned instead to commercial crops of wheat, sheep, lumber or minerals. Inside Western economic thinking, amongst modernizers, development-minded governments, or those determined to help First Nations people adjust to colonialism, subsistence became something practiced by those unable or unwilling to engage with capitalist markets. Nature was to be accessed directly only for recreation (which might involve eating what was hooked or shot) or, in the case of First Nations people, for cultural or ceremonial reasons.

Yet subsistence as a serious form of self-provisioning continued. It continued because people found it to be vital. Take the Cree of northern Alberta, as studied by anthropologist Clint Westman. The Cree word that best translates into subsistence, pimâtisowin, also means the good life and, more generally, just “life.” A whole person, a person who is truly alive, is one who spends real time in the bush. Subsistence survives as well in the cracks of capitalism. In places like the outports of Newfoundland or northern Ontario self-provisioning kept fishing families alive to produce more salt cod, kept operating farms that could supply lumber camps. Subsistence lives in relationship to capitalist market exchange, and persists because, like the welfare state, it smoothes out the contradictions of capitalist markets.

It has been suggested to me that I am romanticizing subsistence. This may be. But when you live in northern Ontario, you notice some things. You notice that people really like to go out into the woods or out onto a lake (frozen or not) to find animals, kill them, and eat them. You also notice that that is about all they can do with the enormous amounts of the valuable stuff of nature around us, as opposed to the large companies that extract minerals or lumber and pay for them with unstable jobs and royalties that go south. You notice that the history of this place can be summed up with the phrase “other people got rich, us, not so much.” I’m not sure why northern Ontarians, and all the other people in all the other places like it in this country and abroad, should not be able to draw more directly on the nature around them for their subsistence, should not benefit more from the valuable resources that flow past our homes to speed down the sparkling new four-lane Highway 11 that the Ontario government has built for them.

Our conversations about subsistence began at a NiCHE-sponsored workshop in 2009. The workshop led to a book manuscript and will continue in a panel at the ASEH in Toronto (Saturday, April 6 at 1:30 pm in the Quebec room, if you’ll be there).

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Jamie Murton is a Professor in the Department of History at Nipissing University. His research focuses on the environmental history of food and agriculture, and particularly of subsistence production and its relationship to capitalist markets for food. Canadians and Their Natural Environment: A History is out now from Oxford University Press.

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