"The Mushroom at the End of the World" by Anna Tsing

The section of this book we were tasked with reading sparked an interest in these mushrooms I haven’t felt for something like a fungi in a while (maybe ever?). The story of these mushrooms are quite unique in nature. While many fruits, vegetables, and other edible plants have been grown on a massive scale for consumption worldwide, these Matsutake mushrooms are near impossible to domesticate and mass produce, as many farmers and producers have found out. The specific growth requirements, the forrest terrain location, and the competition with forrest wildlife has caused these mushrooms to be quite elusive. With so many boxes to check in order to survive, how do they make it? The answer, I believe, is an underlying message of this book.

These mushrooms rely heavily on the system around them. Without the help of nearby roots of other species, cover and nutrients from the tree and its root system, and eventually the forgers that find theM, they could not survive as the delicacy they are today (being sold in Japan from all the way up to $1,000/kg). This is where the criticism and tie in to capitalism comes in. Capitalism is an economic system where the government plays a secondary role, and private owners dominate the market. It is an aggressive, competitive environment. Tsing is arguing that a system where a symbiotic relationship among many users offers a more stable situation where all parties benefit, not just the strong ones.

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Emmett, I follow you regarding the importance of symbiosis to the matsutake’s proliferation, but I’m understanding Tsing’s take-home message differently. You say

Tsing is arguing that a system where a symbiotic relationship among many users offers a more stable situation where all parties benefit…

I agree that symbiosis (whether it be beneficial, neutral, or parasitic) is a critical element of the world that Tsing illustrates following the matsutake, but I don’t think she claims that stability is the goal; in fact, I think she’s saying (almost) the opposite. Before speaking to the question of stability, I’d posit that Tsing wouldn’t say the central issue with capitalism is competition; competition is not unknown to ecosystems and can be a part of what we perceive as symbiosis. Her qualm with capitalism is its drive to compartmentalize the world in an effort to commodify objects to amass capital.

The matsutake as Tsing describes emerges from, exists in, and contributes to precarity - a state of unpredictability, in which the relationships and occurrences between many different actors matter. Acknowledging this is antithetical to the philosophy from which capitalism (and by extension, dominant Western thought and culture) emerges that views the world as comprised of disparate “things” - subjects and objects - whose connections to their fellow “things” can be severed.

Tsing’s point is that in a world that can no longer feign the objective of stasis and in which security is no guarantee, there must be a paradigm shift in recognition of the connections that blur the lines between subject and object; the world changes itself and us, and we in turn change it. Tsing gives us the matsutake and its accompanying market as an example of precarity on the periphery of a “stable” capitalist core. What do we do as the periphery takes up more space?

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Vince, I really like your analysis of “The Mushroom at the End of the World”. I agree with your reading of Tsing’s argument, although I do not necessarily agree with the argument on commodification being inherently bad. Like all theoretical political systems, I think that capitalism, like communism or even benevolent dictatorships and philosopher kings, sounds great when laid out on the page, but gets a lot hairier when applied.

In economics, and especially environmental economics, there is a lot of talk about externalities, and internalization of externalities. I think that Tsing’s argument that capitalism and the drive for ever-greater accumulation of wealth lead to compartmentalization and severing of connections to “things” is disrupted by this idea. In essence, externalities are the idea an deal between two or more parties can have effects that benefit or harm third-parties who do not have say in the decision making process. For example, Americans deciding to use natural gas to power our homes in exchange for increased climate change is a value proposition that we have decided pays off, although pig farmers in the small island of Vanuatu have had no say in the deal, and do not benefit from natural gas use, but are still impacted by increased climate change.

When Tsing was talking about compartmentalization and commodification of things, I took it to mean she was talking about the externalities not considered when we are engaging in the global capitalistic market. However, in an ideal capitalist market, there are no externalities – all goods and services have their true prices attached, as this will lead to maximum number of satisfied actors, and therefore will be economically optimal. In practice, these are things like carbon taxes increasing the price of coal, and then using the excess profit to offset the negative effects of climate change.

While I believe that the ease of ignoring externalities in the modern American realization of capitalism is a major–and perhaps catastrophic–flaw in our system, I think that it is important to differentiate this from being a flaw in the theory of capitalism. Capitalism itself is not inherently individualistic (see China), nor does it inherently dehumanize (in the same way that communism does not inherently dehumanize, although the Soviet incarnation of it did). However, the American cultural history of Calvinism, Slavery, and individualism, have led to an incarnation of capitalism that causes compartmentalization and commodification of shared resources in favor of personal gain–we don’t internalize the costs of our actions as it means that the individual can prosper at the cost of the collective.

While I think that this is a somewhat semantic distinction from what Tsing said, I do think that this is important to consider. It is much easier to change a system and its norms than to rebuild from the ground up, and while I have some major problems with American society–and the American led global world order, I think that the problem of leaving externalities external is one of our culture, not necessarily the economic logic backing our markets up.

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Mitchell, I appreciate a well thought-out rebuttal here. This is a hairy topic and it’s easy to get caught up in semantics (something I really love doing actually, so I’m not bothered a bit).

I definitely agree ignorance towards externalities is an issue, but I’d push back on that being what’s referred to when we, Tsing, or anti-capitalist critics at large speak of commodification. The critique typically lands in the philosophical realm: commodifying is abstracting some inherent, axiomatic value an object/person/“thing” embodies to facilitate its exchange for things of otherwise incomparable value. In a capitalist market, it’s required by design; using currency/money (a commodity itself), we need some way to translate things of value (natural resources, human labor-time) to the currency in order to exchange again for other things of value. There is an inevitable loss of value (for lack of a better word) that you cannot quantify specifically because it cannot be represented by a system that simplifies.

A good way (hopefully!) to distinguish this: If you believe alienation is a prerequisite for commodification, then you do not believe any greater amount of money in exchange for the commodity makes up the value lost by commodifying. If you reduce the issue to “internalizing externalities,” you assume an increase in cost makes up for the inherent value lost. The former believes currency/commodity is inherently insufficient, whereas the latter finds it an appropriate representation of a thing’s real value.

While I am one to believe that, yes, commodification is inherently bad because it contributes to the alienation that severs relationships other cultures appreciate (thinking Kimmerer’s essays), I’ll try to stick with defending my interpretation of Tsing’s beliefs rather than my own. Tsing’s argument is larger than the question of externalities. She hits it pretty early on:

There is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce up front: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into resources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter. (p. 5)

By the very act of investing (currency) in humans and nonhumans - through a specifically capitalist mode of economics - we have abstracted the complexities of living relationships. This isn’t the setup for an argument claiming that if we were to pay more for negative impacts of economic activity that things would balance out; the commodity introduces the problem from the start. She continues:

Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere. (p. 5)

I.e. commodification isolates a “thing” from its nature, allowing it to to be exchanged for something with which it has no relationship outside of the economics. Finishing up…

This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world–for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. (p. 5)

Commodifying something in order to objectify it elsewhere does not dignify it in the same way natural processes utilize their constituents. All this said, I’d caution against simplifying Tsing’s critique of capitalism to the tendency to externalize costs. She’s taking issue with the commodity itself, not how much we account for it in certain processes.


Less critical to discussing Tsing, but so as to not ignore a good point you bring up: Also agreed that forms the world has seen of “communism” or “socialism” fall into this trap of alienation and dehumanization. An important thing to remember is that historically these societies that have attempted to move beyond Western confines found themselves continuing to play in a capitalist global context. If you want to talk about socialism or communism (strictly with respect to Marx for argument’s sake), we wouldn’t be accurate in using either to describe the USSR or China at any point. That (and even expanding upon the discussion of alienation/commodity fetishism) is worth many more words outside of the scope of Emmett’s post.

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