Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cultural Homogeneity and Its Discontents

"The problem is not technology itself; the Sioux Indians did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow, any more than Americans stopped being American when they gave up the horse and buggy. It's not change, or technology, that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere, it is power. The crude faith of domination. And whenever you look around the world, you realize, that these are not cultures destined to fade away, these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to."

I watched this video, a talk by Wade Davis, and even though it didn't tell me anything factually, that I didn't already know, it was still thought-provoking, and moving, nonetheless. He tells of the loss of cultural knowledge, the death of over 50% of the worlds' languages, the ever-increasing homogenization of people and culture around the globe. I knew all that, at least in a factual sense. But he still manages to bring a new perspective to the issue, which I appreciate greatly.

Wade Davis started out as a graduate student in ethnobotany, looking for the plant poison or compound used to make zombies. This lead him to a life of living with indigenous cultures, tribal and ethnic groups all over the world, and writing about it for National Geographic.

He has coined the term "ethnosphere" as an analog to the concept of the "biosphere" the sum total of the world's biological, or in this case, cultural diversity. As I listened to his talk, I was impressed by his passion for the subject, for the knowledge of these indigenous cultures all over the world, and his sadness at their loss.

He makes many compelling arguments for why we should care about indigenous people and the cultural knowledge that they carry. (Just watch the video to hear what he has to say.) But he didn't make one argument that seems obvious to me. Maybe it's an idea he thinks is too obvious, maybe he has written or talked about it elsewhere. It is the concept, as in the "biosphere" and population genetics, that diversity is adaptive; that diversity is advantageous.

To have a wide and diverse "ethnosphere" is to have a greater body of knowledge, ideas, and ways of thinking for our species to draw from. Just as decreased genetic diversity in a population of any organism creates inherent risks for that organism to survive new diseases and adapt to new conditions, decreased cultural diversity of humanity creates inherent risks for our long-term survival as well.

What are the forces that are killing indigenous cultures (and sometimes indigenous people)? It is the villain in so many modern stories: global consumer capitalism. What Wade Davis calls simply, "power". Are we helpless to stop it? I hope not.

And I hope he's right, that through stories like those in National Geographic and elsewhere, or by any means at all really, that people everywhere come to value cultural diversity, and not degrade it. It's not even about individual human lives, which also have value. It is about the sum total of culture, of knowledge, and belief, and world-view, of logics and ways of seeing the world, that are being lost. And that is greater than any individual. As it has always been, culture is greater than the sum of it's parts (the sum of its people). But when you reduce the sum of the parts to zero, there is nothing left of culture either.