The Future is Fungal
Scifi dystopias tell us the earth will soon be but a wasteland, and our future is in space. But in the midst of blasted landscapes, the mushroom thrives.
The future as shown to us by science fictions is almost always shiny. Whether in aspirational daydreams or depictions of dystopia, the vision continues to be one of gleaming metal, stark white interiors, and of course many more robots. The imaginary-de-jour is the Fully Automated Gay Space Luxury Communism meme, a giddy heralding of a time after the revolution when we have left a scarred Earth for the stars and self-replicating robots have replaced the need for most human labor. Adapted from Marxist theories of automation and inspired by a mix of Soviet and millennial techno-utopianism, the images circulated amongst young leftists signal a cheeky but earnest aspiration for both a literal new world and a new human condition.
While I too dream of the end of waged labor and having gay sex on Mars, this cosmic vision with its Apple-store aesthetic is much too sleek and aseptic compared to the future I imagine at the final countdown of capitalist colonialism. The memes do not depict the mess of cum in zero gravity or new kinds of post-wage world-making but rather rainbow-colored spacecraft and fully-suited astronauts standing alone with their hammer-and-sickle flag planted in a barren alien landscape. These kinds of images betray the belief in untapped empty lands that constitutes the colonial trappings of many world-building projects. Also troubling is the trajectory of increasing automation, a process that currently appears to lead to more intense stratification where the wealthy benefit from advanced machine learning and poor, racialized people continue to struggle for basic resources on Earth. While the elite may soon be packing for their outer-space smart homes, those of us cast aside will have to find ways to help each other live in the cruddy and contaminated wastelands of our already existing post-apocalyptic future. Before the damned make their claim to Mars, we can build a luxury communism of the future in the broken lands left on Earth.
Here with us, a companion species in blasted landscapes, the mushroom thrives. In the workings of mushrooms and other fungi, I glimpse how we might find potential forms of anti-capitalist life in the dirty depths of contaminated earth.
Mushrooms have been used for gastronomical, medicinal, and recreational ends for thousands of years and more recently humans have adapted fungi to the aid of large-scale environmental problems. The oyster mushroom, pleurotus ostreatus, the edible kind with a smell of licorice before cooked, feeds off the matter in its surroundings; when placed near oil spills or areas with high levels of mercury, it has been found to absorb these toxins, digest them and remove them from harming other surrounding organisms. Oil spills occur in the process of continuously increasing extraction of fossil fuels – much of which gets turned into plastics. Mushrooms can aid in this too. People are starting to produce fungal plastics which use the strength of mycelial structures (the white floss like substance that permeates in the decaying matter of soil and from where mushrooms fruit) that can be bound with other plant life like hemp to make moldable, sturdy, completely bio-degradable materials.
Fungi are some of the oldest forms of life on this earth – their ability to digest rocks into soil is one reason plants were able to take root here – but they are also very much of the future. Fungi have a lot to teach us about survival and world-making in the wastelands, those ever-expanding zones of sacrifice and extraction that the colonial empire leaves behind. That is what Anna Tsing proposes in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World. Tsing sets out to imagine a different conception of progress through the lens of the matsutake mushroom, a delicacy in Japan and a forager’s bounty in the Pacific Northwest. What draws Tsing to this mushroom is its ability, or rather its preference, to live in disturbed and even industrialized landscapes – those conservationists might consider ruined. From its ability to bloom in post-nuclear disaster Hiroshima to providing a source of income to freedom-seeking foragers in North America, Tsing presents the mushroom as an overlooked substance with amazing abilities of ecological collaboration under conditions of precarity. Tsing writes that the “matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home.”
It is not just that the matsutake is some kind of anthropogenic inspiration story. It is a material sign that despite environmental disasters and manufactured crisis, there is still life to be made in complicated interdependence with other beings. The matsutakes and other fungal forms of life can allow us to re-orient our relation to the other-than-human in ways that also shape our human-to-human work of living together. One way is simply by recognizing the liveliness of the wastelands, the persistence of eruptive forces such as people and mushrooms, whether it be through foraging or more generalized openness to understanding the infrastructures of the world and our place in them.
I live in New York City, which may not seem the best place to take an interest in mushrooms but, like the matsutake, there are plenty of fungal fruits that pop up along the edges and in the thick of human disturbance, even a disturbance as big as five boroughs. One morning, I take the 4-train to the last stop for Woodlawn Cemetery to look for fall mushrooms with the New York Mycological Society, co-founded by none other than John Cage who had his own gastronomical and philosophical interest in mushrooms. It is in Woodlawn near the decaying matter beneath and amongst the tombstones that I find my first edible mushroom: the hen of woods or grifola frondosa, a mushroom that thrives with its companion species oak trees and contributed a nutty depth to perhaps the best pasta I have ever made. Other days, I veer off the dirt paths of Prospect or Inwood or Riverside Park to seek morsels among the spots of chaos abutting micro-managed public space. In the car on the way back from the Catskills, I try to catch glimpses of large mushrooms on the fallen oak logs bordering the highway.
One evening walking to the side of the Prospect Park bike path looking for and finding some mushrooms, I noticed a stranger also on the side of the path taking pics of mushrooms with his iPad. He eventually recognized my fixed-to-the-dirt gaze, we made eye contact, and he asked, “Looking for mushrooms too?” Foraging on public lands in NYC and many parts of the United States remains technically illegal, so a chance encounter with a fellow forager feels like a meeting of mushroom marauders.
Each time I find a mushroom in the city I feel a triumphant sense of stealing something from a place that takes so much from me. Foraging is a small return to the commons or what Tsing calls the “latent commons” the ubiquitous but unseen grounds of cultivating resources outside market logics that straddles the human and non-human. This illegality then creates for now a kind of fugitivity in which mushroom foragers must seek out their morsels. In this there is a suggestion of luxury and decadence: we can find in the decaying matter of city parks the stuff of feasts. For most people, it is never going to be an accessible or viable form of sustenance to live off foraged mushrooms. But that moment of foraging for delicacies in the dirt is a taste of the pleasurable bounty of life outside capitalism.
The Oregon-based Radical Mycology group works with mushrooms as ecological collaborators, hosting workshops and conducting research on how to use mushrooms for food as well as to increase biodiversity, remove soil toxins and improve water quality. In phrasing strikingly similar to Tsing’s, the organization’s website states their philosophy that “the highly resilient life cycles of fungi and their interactions in nature serve as powerful learning tools for how humans can best relate to each other and help steward the environment.” In the world-making and world-transforming power of fungi, Radical Mycology have identified a kind of symbiotic relationality that they believe speaks to how humans can learn to feel and act on their entanglements with other humans and the complex systems we dwell in. This group is part of an international grassroots coalition of fungi researchers called The Mycelial Network, a name that plays on mycelium’s association as the world wide web of ecosystems, sending and delivery information and food across its many threads not unlike fiber optic cables.
Networking across different organisms for different ends and needs is related to the common theme in Tsing’s book of the concept of patches or patchiness. Patchiness in Tsing’s work is associated with unpredictability, heterogeneity, and entanglement. It is the mosaic-quality of a world with many worlds inside it. A mycelium network can emerge from a tiny spore transported by chance to grow until it stretches across large miles-wide tracts of subterranean earth. Patchiness also occurs to me as an organizing principle that describes the way disparate people, organisms, and collectives may find mutuality through unexpected encounters, collaborations, and cross-contamination. Similarly to how Deleuze and Guattari suggest the rhizome as an image of multiplicity and non-hierarchical growth in cultural formations, mycelium growth and fungal patches model the ways in which seemingly unconnected events on the local level form a globally networked consciousness and proliferate into liberatory moments. The patches through which mushrooms develop are models of inter-dependency and indeterminacy. They cannot grow without a great deal of chance and not without becoming completely entangled with organisms living and dead in their surroundings. Just like we as humans rely on each other and are inextricably linked, in the bonded fungal colonies of lichen or in the mycelium structures that suture to tree roots, it can be difficult to parse one species from another, yet the ecosystem only thrives because there is difference.
I sometimes doubt whether human beings can be anything other than destroyers, that indeed there is a species destiny and our place in the ecosystem is to cause the kind of death not even mycelium can process back into life. Even if this is true, I don’t want to resign myself to being a destroyer of worlds, let alone relish it as Oppenheimer seemed to do during the first atomic bomb blast. Despite my skepticism for progress, the turn to a mushroom-riddled view of the long- standing post-apocalypse is not a neo-primitivist call to abandon civilization. But it is an inquiry into what civilization can mean or be re-thought as and this might go along with a much more muddled world of newer forms of tech being used alongside more longstanding technologies. If the future is already here but unevenly distributed, as famously said by sci-fi author William Gibson, then we must think of what kinds of futures we want to work toward: a sanitized future addicted to advancement, or a dirty future of collaboration.
A particularly harmful technique of the ill-distributed future is the allocation of waste, toxins, pollutants, extraction projects, and so on on or near Black and Indigenous communities. This proximity of some to the deathly consequences of environmental crises is what allows other (white, wealthy) people to speak panickedly of a catastrophe still forthcoming. Coalitions between these abandoned and targeted communities are especially important for finding ways to survive and thrive despite environmental and other forms of racism. Talking and working across sometimes radical difference, whether racial, gendered or otherwise, is a fungal kind of collaboration that works to (re)distribute resources across networked patches. Such collaborations are not necessarily aimed at unity but instead present a variegated project of making the world livable for those already precariously positioned within it. Tsing praises, and I follow, those “disturbance-based ecologies in which many species sometimes live together without either harmony or conquest.” [emphasis in original] The different peoples most often treated as contagions, parasites, and otherwise dangerous unruly organisms, in our insistence on proliferating alternative social forms and political action, have a friend in fungi.
Speculative fiction author Nalo Hopkinson describes an anti-utopian utopian thinking that is also instructive along these rhizomatic lines. In her vastly underappreciated novel Midnight Robber, Hopkinson imagines a world in which technology such as computer science and artificial intelligence developed according to non-Western philosophies – an idea central to my own visions of a dirt-caked fungal future in opposition to sterile Silicone Valley designs. Hopkinson explains her aversion to paradisal visions with the pithy phrase: “Utopia is dead; dynamic tension reigns.” How can this not resonate with the mutsutake of Tsing’s exploration or indeed the messy world we all inhabit? To think of our political coalitions, our communities, and our ecosystems as in dynamic tension is to acknowledge there will always be conflict and necessary, shifting differences. These are not qualities of life to be eradicated. Instead like the mushroom, we can learn to grow from disturbance, to erupt into the crisis and insist always on life.
Illustrations by Emma Hovi