The Mushroom at the End of the World

On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

This book has rewired my brain in ways I’m only just beginning to understand. Tsing digs into the ecology, community, and history around the matsutake mushroom, a much-loved Japanese delicacy that has a complicated symbiotic relationship with pine trees and humans. But the mushrooms lead Tsing into a much larger and extraordinary set of ideas, about living in precarity, the multiple natures of the commons, interspecies interdependence, cultivating forests, noticing and salvaging and more. Perhaps most remarkably, the book closes nothing down, comes to no conclusions—rather, it is an extended opening up, a kind of foraged treatise on inexhaustible territory, into which you can only wander. I will be wandering here for a long while.

Reading notes

Savage salvage

One of the core principles in The Mushroom at the End of the World is something writer Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing refers to as “salvage capitalism”:

In the nineteenth century, when capitalism first became an object of inquiry, raw materials were imagined as an infinite bequest from Nature to Man. Raw materials can no longer be taken for granted. In our food procurement system, for example, capitalists exploit ecologies not only by reshaping them but also by taking advantage of their capacities. Even in industrial farms, farmers depend on life processes outside of their control, such as photosynthesis and animal digestion. In capitalist farms, living things made within ecological processes are coopted for concentration of wealth. This is what I shall call “salvage,” that is, taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control. Many capitalist raw materials (consider coal and oil) came into existence long before capitalism. Capitalists also cannot produce human life, the prerequisite of labor. “Salvage accumulation” is the process through which lead firms amass capital without controlling the conditions under which commodities are produced. Salvage is not an ornament on ordinary capitalist processes; it is a feature of how capitalism works.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 62

Tsing is riffing on Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation, in which capitalists violently acquire resources and convert them into commodities. As an example, the modern day use of eminent domain to displace a community in order to make way for sports stadiums converts homes and public spaces into seats that can be sold at a (typically, hefty) price. Salvage accumulation differs in that it’s ongoing, “never complete,” in Tsing’s words. Each new generation of workers, each season’s sunlight, present continual opportunities for exploitation. Tsing continues:

Salvage accumulation through global supply chains is not new, and some well-known earlier examples can clarify how it works. Consider the nineteenth-century ivory supply chain connecting central Africa and Europe as told in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. The story turns around the narrator’s discovery that the European trader he much admired has turned to savagery to procure his ivory. The savagery is a surprise because everyone expects the European presence in Africa to be a force for civilization and progress. Instead, civilization and progress turn out to be cover-ups and translation mechanisms for getting access to value procured through violence: classic salvage.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 63

It’s interesting to think about the use of the word “salvage” in this context; the word means to rescue or to save. One “salvages” a sunken ship, for example. Likewise, the payment made for rescuing a ship’s cargo is referred to as “salvage.” But a ship’s cargo is already part of the capitalist system; salvaging it prevents it from being lost. While Kurtz’s ivory, and the natives he briefly subdues, begin outside capitalism and are unwillingly “salvaged” into its grip. Tsing further notes that

savage and salvage are often twins: salvage translates violence and pollution into profit.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 64

Another example concerns the matsutake mushrooms that Tsing takes as her primary object of research. Matsutake cannot be cultivated: they grow in very particular conditions, among disturbed forests (whether the disturbance is caused by humans, animals, or fire) and have a close relationship with pine trees that cannot be reproduced on a farm. They must be gathered, and while many of the gatherers that Tsing follows expect to sell the mushrooms, their primary motivations for hunting them are outside that financial aim: many pursue the mushroom as a way of escaping the ordinary capitalist labor market. Meanwhile, nearly all matsutake mushrooms ultimately end up in Japan, where they play an important social role as a symbol of family and community. Matsutake are also salvaged, but ever so briefly:

Matsutake is then a capitalist commodity that begins and ends in life as a gift. It spends only a few hours as a fully alienated commodity: the time when it waits as inventory in shipping crates on the tarmac and travels in the belly of a plane. But these are hours that count. Relations between exporters and importers, which dominate and structure the supply chain, are cemented within the possibility of these hours. As inventory, matsutake allow calculations that channel profits to exporters and importers, making the work of organizing the commodity chain worthwhile from their perspective. This is salvage accumulation: the creation of capitalist value from noncapitalist regimes.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 128

Since first encountering this term, I’ve started to see salvage everywhere, and not only in the dirt: a marketplace like Etsy salvages the culture and objects of craftwork in order to amass wealth for its investors. Platforms salvage the web for the same ends. Advertising salvages attention and identity. And just as Marlowe did, we may have to travel far up the river to understand exactly how that salvage works—and to know just how savage it can be.

A theory of nonscalability

Tsing on scalability:

Progress itself has often been defined by its ability to make projects expand without changing their framing assumptions. This quality is “scalability.” The term is a bit confusing, because it could be interpreted to mean “able to be discussed in terms of scale.” Both scalable and nonscalable projects, however, can be discussed in relation to scale. When Ferdand Braudel explained history’s “long durée” or Niels Bohr showed us the quantum atom, these were not projects of scalability, although they each revolutionized thinking about scale. Scalability, in contrast, is the ability of a project to change scales smoothly without any change in project frames. A scalable business, for example, does not change its organization as it expands. This is possible only if business relations are not transformative, changing the business as new relations are added. Similarly, a scalable research project admits only data that already fit the research frame. Scalability requires that project elements be oblivious to indeterminacies of encounter; that’s how they allow smooth expansion. Thus, too, scalability banishes meaningful diversity, that is, diversity that might change things.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 38

(Emphasis mine.) I think about scalability and diversity in my work-life quite a bit: the tech and media industries have explicitly acknowledged the need for diversity (while so far only making token steps towards achieving it). But there’s often a notion that diversifying an organization will not require changes to that organization’s culture: the concept of “culture fit” presumes someone can neatly fit into the existing culture, as opposed to challenging it or expanding it—or even razing it. That tech (and, increasingly, media—and oh, that boundary is nothing if not fluid) also speaks of scalability in religious terms puts Tsing’s contention here in an even more interesting light. Scalability is expressed not only in the external artifacts of an organization—the software, the servers, the business model—but also the people who work for it and the people who interact with it as customers, clients, and, increasingly, inconstant laborers. That latter category—the Uber drivers, TaskRabbits, and Postmates—seems especially relevant to notions of scalability. Uber can scale, but the single parent who works as a driver and can’t predict what they’ll make from week to week cannot.

Tsing continues:

Scalability is not an ordinary feature of nature. Making projects scalable takes a lot of work. Even after that work, there will still be interactions between scalable and nonscalable project elements. Yet, despite the contributions of thinkers like Braudel and Bohr, the connection between scaling up and the advancement of humanity has been so strong that scalable elements receive the lion’s share of attention. The nonscalable becomes an impediment. It’s time to turn attention to the nonscalable, not only as objects for description but also as incitements to theory.

A theory of nonscalability might begin in the work it takes to create scalability—and the messes it makes. One vantage point might be that early and influential icon for this work: the European colonial plantation. In their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sugarcane plantations in Brazil, for example, Portuguese planters stumbled on a formula for smooth expansion. They crafted self-contained, interchangeable project elements, as follows: exterminate local people and plants; prepare now-empty, unclaimed land; and bring in exotic and isolated labor and crops for production. This landscape model of scalability became an inspiration for later industrialization and modernization.

Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, page 38

There’s the savage bit again: scalability often swamps all other considerations. If you define scalability as the solitary success metric, then you are bound to ignore—or violently overcome—all other measures. So another place to begin to build a theory of nonscalability might be to ask by what other metrics we should measure progress. Scalability cannot be our only aim.

We are at stake to each other

Donna Haraway rejects both the term “Anthropocene” and its lesser-known cousin “Capitalocene,” proposing instead we refer to this new epoch as the “Chthulucene.” The Chthulucene has, by my estimate, a less than zero chance of becoming a widely adopted term, but as usual, Haraway’s argument is cogent.

[T]he Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen—yet. We are at stake to each other. Unlike the domininant dramas of Anthropocene and Capitalocene discourse, human beings are not the only important actors in the Chthulucene, with all other beings able simply to react. The order is rather reversed: human beings are with and of the earth, and the other biotic and abiotic powers of this earth are the main story.

However, the doings of situated, actual human beings matter. It matters which ways of living and dying we cast our lot with rather than others. It matters not just to human beings, but also to those many critters across taxa which and whom we have subjected to exterminations, extinctions, genocides, and prospects of futurelessness. Like it or not, we are in the string figure game of caring for and with precarious worldings made terribly more precarious by fossil-burning man making new fossils as rapidly as possible in Anthropocene and Capitalocene orgies. Diverse human and nonhuman players are necessary in every fiber of the tissues of the urgently needed Chthulucene story. The chief actors are not restricted to the too-big players in the too-big stories of Capitalism and the Anthropos, both of which invite odd apocolyptic panics and even odder disengaged denunciations rather than attentive practices of thought, love, rage, and care.

Both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene lend themselves to cynicism, defeatism, and self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse I hear all around me these days, in both expert and popular discourses, in which both technotheocratic geoengineering fixes and wallowing in despair seem to co-infect any possible common imagination.

Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, page 59

The precariousness she discusses here is also a theme in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s excellent book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, as is the notion that we need to decenter humans from ecologies—without excluding them. We are of nature not apart from it, and by no means the heart of it. What’s interesting about both Tsing and Haraway’s writing is the implicit and explicit feminism of their positions. Which is also another knock against the Anthropocene: it neither foregrounds equality nor rejects the “age of man” that chokes its roots.