Editor’s Note – This article collates the excerpts from the Wade Davis lecture’s “The Wayfinders,” broadcast in November 2009 as part of CBC Radio’s Ideas series

“The ideal of a single civilization for everyone implicit in the cult of progress and technique impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears,
diminishes a possibility of life.” — Octavio Paz

Before she died, anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke of her singular fear that, as we drift toward a more homogenous world, we are laying the foundations of a blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that will have no rivals. The entire imagination of humanity, she feared, might be confined within the limits of a single intellectual and spiritual modality. Her nightmare was the possibility that we might wake up one day and not even remember what had been lost.

Modern industrial society as we know it is scarcely 300 years old. This shallow history should not suggest to any of us that we have all the answers for all of the challenges that will confront us as a species in the coming millennia. The goal is not to freeze people in time. One cannot make a rainforest park of the mind. Cultures are not museum pieces; they are communities of real people with real needs. The question, as Hugh Brody has written, is not the traditional versus the modern, but the right of free peoples to choose the components of their lives. The point is not to deny access, but rather to ensure that all peoples are able to benefit from the genius of modernity on their own terms, and without that engagement demanding the death of their ethnicity.

It is perhaps useful to reflect on what we mean when we use the term modernity, or the modern world. All cultures are ethnocentric, fiercely loyal to their own interpretations of reality. Indeed, the names of many indigenous societies translate as “the people,” the implication being t hat e very other human is a non-person, a savage from beyond the realm of the civilized. The word barbarian derives from the Greek barbarus, meaning one who babbles. In the ancient world, if you did not speak Greek, you were a barbarian. The Aztec had the same notion. Anyone who could not speak Nahuatl was a non-human.

We too are culturally myopic and often forget that we represent not the absolute wave of history but merely a world view, and that modernity — whether you identify it by the monikers westernization, globalization, capitalism, democracy, or free trade — is but an expression of our cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history. It is merely a constellation of beliefs,   convictions, economic paradigms that represent one way of doing things, of going about the complex process of organizing human activities. Our achievements to be sure have been stunning, our technological innovations dazzling. The development within the last century of a modern, scientific system of medicine alone represents one of the greatest episodes in human endeavor. Sever a limb in a car accident and you won’t want to be taken to an herbalist.But these accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought to have a monopoly on the path to the future.

An anthropologist from a distant planet landing in the United States would see many wondrous things. But he or she or it would also encounter a culture that reveres marriage, yet allows half of its marriages to end in divorce; that admires its elderly, yet has grandparents living with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its households; that loves its children, yet embraces a slogan — “twenty-four/seven” — that implies total devotion to the workplace at the expense of family. By the age of eighteen, the average American youth has spent two years watching television. One in five Americans is clinically obese and 60 percent are overweight, in part because 20 percent of all meals are consumed in automobiles and a third of children eat fast food every day. The country manufactures 200 million tons of industrial chemicals each year, while its people consume twothirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The four hundred most prosperous Americans control more wealth than 2.5 billion people in the poorest eighty-one nations with whom they share the planet. The nation spends more money on armaments and war than the collective military budgets of its seventeen closest rivals. The state of California spends more money on prisons than on universities. Technological wizardry is balanced by the embrace of an economic model of production and consumption that compromises the life supports of the planet. Extreme would be one word for a civilization that contaminates with its waste the air, water, and soil; that drives plants and animals to extinction on a scale not seen on earth since the disappearance of the dinosaurs; that dams the rivers, tears down the ancient forests, empties the seas of fish, and does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere.

Our way of life, inspired in so many ways, is not the paragon of humanity’s potential. Once we look through the anthropological lens and see, perhaps for the first time, that all cultures have unique attributes that reflect choices made over generations, it becomes absolutely clear that there is no universal progression in the lives and destiny of human beings. Were societies to be ranked on the basis of technological prowess, the Western scientific experiment, radiant and brilliant, would no doubt come out on top. But if the criteria of excellence shifted, for example to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, with a true reverence and appreciation for the earth, the Western paradigm would fail. If the imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longing, then our dogmatic conclusions would again be found wanting.

When we project modernity, as we define it, as the inevitable destiny of all human societies, we are being disingenuous in the extreme. Indeed, the Western model of development has failed in so many places in good measure because it has been based on the false promise that people who follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity enjoyed by a handful of nations of the West. Even were this possible, it is not at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials throughout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would imply so severely compromising the biosphere that the earth would be unrecognizable. Given the values that drive most decisions in the international community, this is not about to happen. In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has been a process in  which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.

Consider the key indices of the development paradigm. An increase in life expectancy suggests a drop in infant mortality, but reveals nothing of the quality of the lives led by those who survive childhood. Globalization is celebrated with iconic intensity. But what does it really mean? In Bangladesh, garment workers are paid pennies to sew clothing that retails in the United States and Canada for tens of dollars. Eighty percent of the toys and sporting goods sold in America are produced in sweatshops in China, where millions work for wages as low as 12 cents an hour, 400,000 die prematurely each year due to air pollution, and 400 million people do not have access to potable water, so ruined are the rivers with industrial toxins. The Washington Post reports that in Lahore, Pakistan, one Muhammad Saeed earns $88 a month stitching shirts and jeans at a factory that supplies Gap and Eddie Bauer. He and his five family members share a single bed in a one-room home tucked away in a warren of alleys strewn with sewage and refuse. Earning three times the money that he made at his last job, he is the poster child of globalization. Without doubt, images of comfort and wealth, of technological sophistication, have a magnetic allure. Any job in the city may seem better than back-breaking labour in sun-scorched fields. Entranced by the promise of the new, people throughout the world have in many instances voluntarily and in great earnest turned their backs on the old. The consequences, as we have seen in Kenya, can be profoundly disappointing. The fate of the vast majority of those who sever their ties with their traditions will not be to attain the prosperity of the West, but to join the legions of urban poor, trapped in squalor, struggling to survive.

As cultures wither away, individuals remain, often shadows of their former selves, caught in time, unable to return to the past, yet denied any real possibility of securing a place in a world whose values they seek to emulate and whose wealth they long to acquire. This creates a dangerous and explosive situation, which is precisely why the plight of diverse cultures is not a simple matter of nostalgia or even of human rights alone, but a serious issue of geopolitical stability and survival.

Were I to distill a single message from these Massey Lectures it would be that culture is not trivial. It is not decoration or artifice, the songs we sing or even the prayers we chant. It is a blanket of comfort that gives meaning to lives. It is a body of knowledge that allows the individual to make sense out of the infinite sensations of consciousness, to find meaning and order in a universe that ultimately has neither. Culture is a body of laws and traditions, a moral and ethical code that insulates a people from the barbaric heart that history suggests lies just beneath the surface of all human societies and indeed all human beings. Culture alone allows us to reach, as Abraham Lincoln said, for the better angels of our nature.


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