“Cultures Are No Museum Specimens”: Should we care about biological and cultural diversity even if its decline does not affect us?

April 9, 2012

The European:

The European: Anthropologists warn that up to half of the world’s languages might disappear within the next generation. But that doesn’t mean that we will become speechless: Other languages and cultural contexts will take their place. So why should we care?
Maffi: That question is often asked by people whose culture and language are not threatened. It is difficult to understand the significance of the decline of cultural diversity unless you are affected by it. When your culture carries prestige and is widespread, it is easy to assume that others would want to join it. So we have to turn things on their head and look at cultural diversity from the perspective of minorities: What does it mean for them to lose their culture and their language? And what does it mean for us globally?

The European: Most of our lives will be completely undisturbed by the loss of languages or cultural heritage elsewhere. What are the global consequences?
Maffi: As humans, we have evolved to differentiate ourselves culturally and linguistically from each other. The role of cultural diversification is similar to the evolution of complex ecosystems in nature: It gives resilience to human society as a whole, just as biodiversity gives resilience to ecosystems. Today, we are converging more and more as diverse cultures assimilate into the dominant model of Western society. As a consequence, the pool of perspectives on human life is being drained. In the past, new solutions to societal and environmental problems could come from non-Western cultures, but that opportunity is diminishing. In the words of the linguist Peter Mühlhäusler, we are developing cultural blind spots. That reality is staring us in the face but we are caught in denial.

The European: Instead of critically analyzing our own conventional wisdom from a different perspective, we embrace it.
Maffi: The range of perspectives on human existence is increasingly narrow and often tied to the notion of unlimited and unfettered economic growth. But unlimited growth within a finite system of natural resources is impossible. Diverse cultural perspectives provide us with alternative ways of looking at human activity and its relation to the natural world.

The European: If faced with the possibility of learning English and moving to a city, few people decline. The history of globalization is a history of exploitation, but it can also be seen as a history of expanding choices and human empowerment. Don’t you think that we should expand rather than restrict access to that history?
Maffi: Yes, choice is always important. But it cuts both ways: We also should not deny the right to remain within traditional culture. Cultures are not museum specimens that can be frozen in time, they are always alive and evolving. In many cases, the shift from traditional cultures to Western culture cannot be understood as a free choice if we apply the standards of freedom and human rights. Assimilation is often forced, sometimes in subtle ways. For example, if we force someone to make a choice without providing the necessary information about consequences, that choice cannot be understood as an informed and free choice. Or someone might be driven by desperation and poverty when processes of globalization undermine their traditional way of life. That, too, is not a free choice.

The European: If you attempted to draw a line at this point to judge whether or not indigenous cultures have benefitted from the spread of Western culture, where do you come down?
Maffi: On the whole, they have not benefitted. Think of all the slums that have developed throughout the developing world: The promise of prosperity has failed to materialize for most people. And if you take a broader perspective to include issues like cultural identity, public health, and societal integrity, you see that those have been undermined as well. Thriving communities have been uprooted; people have been displaced on a massive scale. That is tragic, especially when you consider that almost 85 percent of global cultural diversity derives from indigenous cultures.

The European: We recently talked to the anthropologist Wade Davis, who gave a forceful defense of indigenous religions.

But it seems that the arguments we employ to protect those cultural traditions are precisely the same arguments that we discount within our own secular culture: Arguments about discrimination, about freedom of choice, or about scientific rationality. Maffi: It is interesting that we often focus on the most extreme aspects of religiosity: Female circumcision, the stoning of adulterers, and so on. Those things certainly exist, and for that matter, Christianity too has had its fair share of cruelty…

The European: That would precisely be the argument: We have overcome dogmatic belief, and so should you! How can we reconcile the commitment to diversity with our own humanistic tradition?
Maffi: It makes sense to talk about spirituality rather than religion. What we should be interested in is the spiritual connection between ourselves and the world at large. In my opinion, the loss of that connection is at the root of the current crisis. We have come to see ourselves as disconnected from nature and increasingly superior to it. We are oblivious to the fact that we still completely depend on the natural environment for our survival. The relevance of spiritual beliefs lies in the fact that, in most cases, they make us aware of that connection.

The European: When did we go astray?
Maffi: The Age of Enlightenment is when it started. The primacy of reason and the separation of mind and body really began to develop at that point, preceding the era of industrialization. In the 19th century, those beliefs were combined with the conviction that machines could provide the answers to all our problems. Today, technology has monopolized our thinking and we are not able to direct our activities towards sustainable living. Current technologies are very good at extraction and exploitation of natural resources, but not very good at conserving and protecting them, or at repairing the damage that we have done. Green technology is a promising change, but it will be insufficient unless we adjust our fundamental principles and values as well. In the end, the world remains a finite place and we need to find a way to live sustainably within it.

The European: Some environmentalists question the idea that the human should be at the center of our moral universe. Your project sounds a bit more humble: To point out the connections between man and nature that make our culture sustainable.
Maffi: That’s right. There is no doubt that we are an incredibly clever and versatile species. Our cultural faculty has allowed us to outfox the processes of natural evolution itself. But now we need to engage in reflection and introspection and ask: What do we have to do to regain a balance with the natural environment? Our humanistic traditions should serve us well: The idea of reason has elevated us to the top of the evolutionary food chain, but it also has the potential to foster a reflective approach to human civilization…

Read it all.

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