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Subsistence economics

Some of my first lessons in business and economics came from subsistence fishermen and farmers in different places of the world. Not your typical background for a business school instructor. One such teacher was an Alutiiq elder in Alaska.

Chenega Bay is on an island in Prince William Sound. You land on a narrow strip of dirt and the village is a short 4-wheeler ride away. The coffee was black and the elder’s face was dark and deeply wrinkled. His people—the Chenega—had lived on what we now call Prince William Sound for 10,000 years. They are part of the Alutiiq (ah-loo-tik) tribal family and their native language is called Suqcestun (sooks – toon). He had invited me into his home for coffee. I don’t recall the reason. It was the late 1990s and I was working with Camp Fire’s Bush Program (now called the “Rural Program”).

The Rural Program started 60 years ago as a way to address the high rate of drowning in rural Alaska, which is 10 times the national average. Young lifeguard-trained adventurers like myself were paired up and flown to remote villages all over the state. It was a breathtaking experience and one of the first to widen the aperture of life. I formed close bonds with the many children we met as we taught swimming, creative arts, cooperative games, healthy life skills, etc. I got to know their parents, grandparents and elders of the villages.

Sipping black coffee we made small talk. I don’t remember much of the conversation. Perhaps we talked about the sweat lodge where his son had tried to cook me earlier in the day (or at least it felt that way). In my memory, the whole dialogue now hangs one penetrating line: “When I die, the language will die with me.” These nine words shook me. He had so radically pushed out the edges of the too small circle I didn’t know I had drawn around the world.

In March 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood had been drinking not too far from where we were sipping coffee. It was a dark and very cold evening and most everyone in Chenega was asleep. It is dangerous to captain any kind of boat when intoxicated, much more so when it's an oil tanker. At 12:04 am, the tanker hit a reef, tearing open the hull and releasing 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Over 1,000 miles of coastline were devastated, including Chenega.

The global business of companies overwhelmed the small, local business of the subsistence fishing village. The youth don't want to learn the language or go fishing anymore. Most want to wear Nike sneakers, play video games, and go to Anchorage.

All economies are subsistence economies. Doesn't all business rely on the healthy flourishing of the natural world and of human communities? We need to keep the languages around that remind us of what that means. And we need to create new ways of talking about profit--and loss.

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