Ursula Le Guin's theory of the carrier bag as the earliest human tool challenges the linear trajectory of history, which is often associated with violence and domination. The carrier bag, as Le Guin proposes, is a vessel that can gather, hold, and share things. This idea of non-linear time, the lack of heroes, and the collective rather than individualistic approach are central to anticolonial and anarcho-feminist politics. Instead of telling the story of domination over nature, we must abandon the old story and embrace the unheroic, non-linear narrative that recognizes the complexity and diversity of life. By doing so, we can give agency to non-human actors, incorporate social movements and political imagination, and increase our chances of survival.
Capitalism, or so wrote Marx back in 1844, supposedly alienates us from four different things: from ourselves, from each other, from the products of our labor, and from nature. We develop an adversarial relationship with each. “Nature”(a constructed, slippery category that shifts over time) can, or even must, be tamed: capricious rivers are diverted, genomes are edited, crude oil is transformed into fuel.
Le Guin describes her discovery of the carrier bag theory as grounding her “in human culture in a way I never felt grounded before.” The stick, sword, or spear, designed for “bashing and killing,” alienated her from history so much that she felt she “was either extremely defective as a human being, or not human at all.”
The only problem is that a carrier bag story isn’t, at first glance, very exciting. “It is hard to tell”, writes Le Guin, “a really gripping tale of how I wrested a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then I scratched my gnat bites, and Ool said something funny, and we went to the creek and got a drink and watched newts for a while, and then I found another patch of oats…”