Friday, May 30, 2008

I've been thinking about the foodways and agricultural practices of indigenous people, how they are being damaged and destroyed and how that directly impacts the health of these dynamic cultures. What about our habits of producing food is threatening the dynamic "ethnosphere" that makes up our world?

Wade Davis, anthropologist and ethnobotanist talks about the cultural and spiritual web of life.

Taken from an interview with the National Geographic, May 2003
Just as there is a biological web of life, there is also a cultural and spiritual web of life—what we at the National Geographic have taken to calling the "ethnosphere." It's really the sum total of all the thoughts, beliefs, myths, and institutions brought into being by the human imagination. It is humanity's greatest legacy, embodying everything we have produced as a curious and amazingly adaptive species. The ethnosphere is as vital to our collective well-being as the biosphere. And just as the biosphere is being eroded, so is the ethnosphere—if anything, at a far greater rate.

Some people say: "What does it matter if these cultures fade away." The answer is simple. When asked the meaning of being human, all the diverse cultures of the world respond with 10,000 different voices. Distinct cultures represent unique visions of life itself, morally inspired and inherently right. And those different voices become part of the overall repertoire of humanity for coping with challenges confronting us in the future. As we drift toward a blandly amorphous, generic world, as cultures disappear and life becomes more uniform, we as a people and a species, and Earth itself, will be deeply impoverished.

This is a key point. There's a tendency for those of us in the dominant Western culture to view traditional people—even when we're sympathetic to their plight—as quaint and colorful, but reduced to the sidelines of history, while the real world, which of course is our world, continues moving forward. We see these societies as failed attempts at modernity, as if they're destined to fade away by some natural law, as if they can't cope with change. That's simply not true. Change is the one constant in history. All societies in all times and in all places constantly adapt to new possibilities for life. It's not change per se that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere, nor is it technology. The Sioux Indian did not stop being a Sioux when he gave up a bow and arrow, any more than an American farmer stopped being an American when he gave up the horse and buggy.

It's neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere. It is power—the crude face of domination. In every instance, these societies are not failed attempts of modernity. They're not archaic, destined to fade away. They are dynamic, living, vital cultures that are being driven out of existence by identifiable external forces. Whether it is diseases that have come into the homeland of the Yanomami in Brazil, or the fact that the Ogoni in the Niger Delta find their once-fertile soils poisoned by effluent from the petroleum industry, or whether in Sarawak the forest homelands of the Penan have been destroyed, there is always an identifiable element. This is both discouraging and encouraging, for if human beings are agents of cultural destruction, we can also be facilitators of cultural survival.

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