It is winter, and Kimmerer walks through the snow. In times like these all of nature is hungry, and the “Windigo is afoot.” She then explains the history of the Windigo, who is a traditional Anishinaabe monster. The Windigo is usually portrayed as a giant being with a heart of ice, skinny with hunger and stinking of carrion: the spirit of starvation in winter. Windigos were once human beings, that now they have become cannibal monsters and can bite other humans and transform them into Windigos too.
In this final section Kimmerer starts to reckon more directly with the evils that humans have perpetrated against each other and against the land, and to look for ways to undo them and restore our relationships. A personification of many of these evils is found in the traditional monster of the Windigo, described here as the personification of starvation, ravenous greed, and isolation.
In the past, especially during the era of the Little Ice Age, Indigenous Americans faced real starvation in winter. The Windigo myth likely grew out of this, partly as a means of reinforcing the taboo against cannibalism. The Windigo also reflects their culture’s general worldview, however: in a culture based around communal good and reciprocity, the ultimate monster is “that within us which cares more for its own survival than anything else.”
Like its language and creation stories, a culture’s mythical monsters can reveal important aspects of its worldview. The Windigo is defined by isolation and selfish greed, taking more than his share at the expense of the community (even to the extent of cannibalizing his fellows). By contrast, this shows the importance of the common good and mutual assistance in the cultures that created the Windigo.
Kimmerer defines the Windigo as a case of a “positive feedback loop,” in which a change in a certain direction triggers further change in that same direction, and so on—like the Windigo’s hunger leading to more consumption, which only leads to more hunger. Negative feedback loops are characteristic of stable systems, and Kimmerer sees a culture of reciprocity as a negative feedback loop, in which changes lead to balance. The old stories about Windigo, then, sought to reinforce the importance of negative feedback loops in their listeners.
Negative feedback loops are essentially systems that are in balance and therefore sustainable in the long term. The endless overconsumption and greed of the Windigo (like the modern capitalist economy) is not sustainable, however, as there are not infinite resources to feed that infinite hunger.
The Windigo may have originated in the hungry Northern winters, Kimmerer says, but by now it has spread worldwide as corporations devour resources “not for need but for greed.” Kimmerer describes a trip she took to the Amazon, seeing from the plane how the lush forest suddenly changed to dead fields of oil pipelines: she describes this as Windigo footprints. “So many have been bitten” by the Windigo these days, she says, and his traces are all around the world wherever excessive consumption and greed run rampant. It’s not just the giant corporations who are at fault, but also we as consumers who keep the commodity market flowing with constant demand.
The Windigo is an ancient myth, but as Kimmerer has stated before, many Indigenous cultures see time as cyclical rather than linear, so Windigo stories can also be interpreted as being about the present or even the future. Kimmerer sees this everywhere in corporate greed and the environmental destruction that accompanies it, but also in the mindset of the average American who has been trained to keep consuming no matter their current abundance, and has no relationship to the land from which their purchases come. Indeed, the Windigo wouldn’t be a monster at all in a capitalist economy, but rather the ideal customer: one who never stops consuming.
The Windigo arose as a monster for a communal society: an individual whose greed is dangerous for the community. It may have partially been based on banished individuals, Kimmerer says, those who were punished by being forced to live outside the tribe. “It is a terrible punishment to be banished from the web of reciprocity, with no one to share with you and no one for you to care for,” she says.
The danger of the Windigo is not only the practical danger of overconsumption in a world of finite resources, but also the sense of isolation and pain that comes with being cut off from the “web of reciprocity.” Kimmerer has described the “species loneliness” that contemporary humans feel as we are disconnected from our fellow citizens of the world, and this disconnection too is part of the Windigo syndrome.
Even most environmentalist policies are still based in the market economy, aiming only for a “sustainability” that allows constant growth to continue. “We continue to embrace economic systems that prescribe infinite growth on a finite plant,” Kimmerer says, contradicting the most fundamental laws of physics. This is “Windigo thinking,” and those in power seem to have no desire to stop.
Environmental movements seek to undo some of the damage, but as long as they are still based in consumerist thinking, they only seek to slow the Windigo’s consumption, not defeat him altogether. This chapter ends on a bleak note, as Kimmerer points out the Windigo thinking and its dire consequences everywhere around us.