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Resilience, Reciprocity and Ecological Economics: Northwest Coast Sustainability

By Ronald Trosper

Review By Jude Isabella

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 175 Autumn 2012  | p. 116

In this brief and densely-packed treatise on why and how the aboriginal economy of the Northwest Coast worked so well, Ronald Trosper dives into the science fiction/fantasy territory: he re-imagines the clash of two competing economic systems. One system focused on the group, the other on the individual. It’s a compelling “What if…” scenario with a happier ending.

In Resilience, Reciprocity and Ecological Economics, Trosper — an economist well-versed in anthropological literature — is part of an academic effort in the natural and social sciences to investigate how past human cultures lived successfully within local ecosystems without destroying them. Trosper spent much of his research time with the Nisga’a First Nation.

Formerly a University of British Columbia professor and a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, Trosper first pierces an enduring myth that stalls any conversation about how some human cultures lived within nature’s boundaries — the myth of the Noble Savage. The myth was debunked almost 100 years ago, and again by anthropologist Ter Ellingson in his 2001 book The Myth of the Noble Savage. Trosper further eviscerates the myth’s “spin game” by methodically dissecting how First Nations from northern California to southern Alaska exploited a common pool of resources for the collective good.

He devotes over half the book to revealing how First Nations’ societal regulations protected their resources from overexploitation. Generosity and reciprocity are key protective elements employed by the potlatch, a societal ritual providing rules around land proprietorship. Only good resource managers could keep the wealth (salmon) flowing to the community. For anyone who enjoys economists’ preoccupation with game theory, Trosper casts the potlatch system into the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Through the potlatch, First Nations solved the dilemma in the case of fisheries: “leaders of the groups with access to the fishery were required to give away wealth through feasts. This requirement, applied to the prisoner’s dilemma story, is that the fishermen share their catch.”

It’s Trosper’s trip into the alternative universe, however, that imparts a sense of forward motion toward creating a resilient society. In the chapter  “An Alternative History of Industrialization of the Northwest Coast,” he creates a counter-factual history of how two disparate groups with different economic systems could have interacted. In trotting through how canneries, mining, or lumber industries might have functioned under an aboriginal economic system, Trosper, as economist, builds a picture for readers, an illuminating picture illustrating how any economy can have a conservation ethic by invoking societal norms that considers the group (present and future) and not just the individual.


Resilience, Reciprocity and Ecological Economics: Northwest Coast Sustainability
By Ronald Trosper
London and New York: Routledge, 2009. 188 pages $130.00