Lessons from the New World

Four hundred years ago, British ships deposited 104 settlers on the shores of a richly diverse and sustaining land. Their task, and that of a later shipload, was to find wealth for their underwriters, the shareholders of the Virginia Company of London, and ship it posthaste back to the mother country.

At the end of one year, sixty-six of these men had died — many of starvation. Yet sustenance was available everywhere around them, if they had only opened their minds to the New World. There were fruit and nut trees, berries, roots, greens, fish, game, herbal medicines, rocks and minerals, clay, soil, wood, and fresh water. By all accounts the native Powhatan people were robust; the English were astonished at their strength and vitality, perfect posture, cold tolerance, and lack of disease.

Why were these Englishmen fighting for their lives in a warm, abundant land when the natives lived a sustainable life?

For the English, the New World was not a place to become a part of. They did not even try to gather food for themselves. They would not eat corn, which they considered animal food, until they were absolutely desperate. They drank brackish water because that was the closest supply. They insisted on wearing armor and layers of English clothing in the Virginia heat.

The English at Jamestown were not inherently weaker or more feeble-minded than their native neighbors. Their overwhelming problems lay in the way they thought. The English were heavily invested in one, uncompromising way of life: they considered themselves above nature, and certainly not part of this foreign land. They saw the New World as a place to exploit — to gather riches from and bring (or send) them “home” to England. The Powhatans did consider themselves part of nature. The English suffered terribly. The natives thrived, even during the Little Ice Age that coincided with the English arrival.

Our modern society is built on the Jamestown mindset. We try to change the landscape, to force the Earth to bend to our will. I do not mean “we” Americans, though Americans as a whole are perhaps the most guilty. I am speaking of Western or “developed” culture — known more appropriately by Daniel Quinn as “Taker” culture, which he compares to “undeveloped” or “Leaver” culture. The Leavers lived sustainably for two million years. They used what nature offered and allowed natural cycles to determine their fates. A Leaver culture could not cause its own extinction by its use of the Earth.

Western mythology casts the Takers as winners and the Leavers as losers. Indeed, the Jamestown settlers eventually overcame their problems to promote a culture of greater wealth than had ever been imagined. Their salvation lay in the export of tobacco — a mild recreational drug. Even today, we squander our natural resources for the production of useless, or minimally useful, disposable and addictive products. We are compelled to work in an economy of things that endanger our existence, both personally and as a society. The Jamestown settlers may have “won” wealth in the short run, but their way of life required more natural resources and energy than can be sustained. Tobacco is an addictive, health-destroying crop culpable for the enslavement of Africans in the New World. That’s not winning.

I am not idealizing the Powhatans. But until they encountered Taker culture they had mastered the earthly art of staying alive in perpetuity. The Takers have led our species down the road of extinction with nuclear war, resource depletion, and pollution. We need the wisdom and knowledge of Leaver cultures in order to survive into the indefinite future.

Gina Cassidy is a former educator with the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Virginia.