“The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World”

Wade Davis, The Long Now Foundation
Native guidance

What does it mean to be human and alive?

The thousands of different cultures and languages on Earth have compellingly different answers to that question. “We are a wildly imaginative and creative species,” Davis declared, and then proved it with his accounts and photographs of humanity plumbing the soul of culture, of psyche, and of landscape.

He began with Polynesians, the wayfinders who mastered the Pacific ocean in the world’s largest diaspora. Without writing or chronometers they learned 220 stars by name, learned to read the subtle influence of distant islands on wave patterns and clouds, and navigated the open sea by a sheer act of integrative memory. For the duration of an ocean passage “navigators do not sleep.”

In the Amazon, which used to be thought of as a “green hell” or “counterfeit paradise,” living remnants may be found of complex forest civilizations that transformed 20 percent of the land into arable soil. The Anaconda peoples carry out five-day rituals with 250 people in vast longhouses, and live by stringent rules such as requiring that everyone must marry outside their language. Their mastery of botany let them find exactly the right combination of subspecies of plants to concoct ayahuasca, a drug so potent that one ethnobotantist described the effect of having it blown up your nose by a shaman as “like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with Baroque paintings and landing in a sea of electricity.”

In the Andes the Incas built 8,500 miles of roads over impossibly vertical country in a hundred years, and their descendents still run the mountains on intense ritual pilgrimages, grounding their culture in every detail of the landscape.

In Haiti, during the four years Davis spent discovering the chemical used to make real-life zombies, he saw intact African religion alive in the practice of voodoo. “The dead must serve the living by becoming manifest” in those possessed. It was his first experience in “the power of culture to create new realities.”

The threat to cultures is often ideological, Davis noted, such as when Mao whispered in the ear of the Dalai Lama that “all religion is poison,” set about destroying Tibetan culture.

The genius of culture is the ability to survive in impossible conditions, Davis concluded. We cannot afford to lose any of that variety of skills, because we are not only impoverished without it, we are vulnerable without it.

PS. Wade Davis’ SALT talk was based on his five Massey Lectures in Canada last year, which are collected in a book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.
— by Stewart Brand
(13 January 2010)
Recommended by Big Gav. Transcript and audio available at the site. -BA

Who Will Build the Ark?

Mike Davis, New Left Review
What follows is rather like the famous courtroom scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947). [1] In that noir allegory of proletarian virtue in the embrace of ruling-class decadence, Welles plays a leftwing sailor named Michael O’Hara who rolls in the hay with femme fatale Rita Hayworth, and then gets framed for murder. Her husband, Arthur Bannister, the most celebrated criminal lawyer in America, played by Everett Sloane, convinces O’Hara to appoint him as his defence, all the better to ensure his rival’s conviction and execution. At the turning point in the trial, decried by the prosecution as ‘yet another of the great Bannister’s famous tricks’, Bannister the attorney calls Bannister the aggrieved husband to the witness stand and interrogates himself in rapid schizoid volleys, to the mirth of the jury. In the spirit of Lady from Shanghai, this essay is organized as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable.

In the first section, ‘Pessimism of the Intellect’, I adduce arguments for believing that we have already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. The Kyoto Protocol, in the smug but sadly accurate words of one of its chief opponents, has done ‘nothing measurable’ about climate change. Global carbon dioxide emissions rose by the same amount they were supposed to fall because of it. [2] It is highly unlikely that greenhouse gas accumulation can be stabilized this side of the famous ‘red line’ of 450 ppm by 2020. If this is the case, the most heroic efforts of our children’s generation will be unable to forestall a radical reshaping of ecologies, water resources and agricultural systems. In a warmer world, moreover, socio-economic inequality will have a meteorological mandate, and there will be little incentive for the rich northern hemisphere countries, whose carbon emissions have destroyed the climate equilibrium of the Holocene, to share resources for adaptation with those poor subtropical countries most vulnerable to droughts and floods.

The second part of the essay, ‘Optimism of the Imagination’, is my self-rebuttal. I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming—the urbanization of humanity—is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.


Our old world, the one that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper has yet printed its scientific obituary. The verdict is that of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London. Founded in 1807, the Society is the world’s oldest association of earth scientists, and its Stratigraphy Commission acts as a college of cardinals in the adjudication of the geological time-scale. Stratigraphers slice up Earth’s history as preserved in sedimentary strata into a hierarchy of eons, eras, periods and epochs, marked by the ‘golden spikes’ of mass extinctions, speciation events or abrupt changes in atmospheric chemistry. In geology, as in biology and history, periodization is a complex, controversial art; the most bitter feud in nineteenth-century British science—still known as the ‘Great Devonian Controversy’—was fought over competing interpretations of homely Welsh greywackes and English Old Red Sandstone. As a result, Earth science sets extraordinarily rigorous standards for the beatification of any new geological division. Although the idea of an ‘Anthropocene’ epoch—defined by the emergence of urban-industrial society as a geological force—has long circulated in the literature, stratigraphers have never acknowledged its warrant…


Scholarly research has come late in the day to confront the synergistic possibilities of peak population growth, agricultural collapse, abrupt climate change, peak oil and, in some regions, peak water, and the accumulated penalties of urban neglect. If investigations by the German government, Pentagon and CIA into the national-security implications of a multiply determined world crisis in the coming decades have had a Hollywoodish ring, it is hardly surprising. As a recent UN Human Development Report observed: ‘There are no obvious historical analogies for the urgency of the climate change problem.’ [23] While paleoclimatology can help scientists anticipate the non-linear physics of a warming Earth, there is no historical precedent or vantage point for understanding what will happen in the 2050s when a peak species population of 9 to 11 billion struggles to adapt to climate chaos and depleted fossil energy. Almost any scenario, from the collapse of civilization to a new golden age of fusion power, can be projected on the strange screen of our grandchildren’s future…
(January-February 2010 issue)

Why Ecological Revolution?

John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review
It is now universally recognized within science that humanity is confronting the prospect — if we do not soon change course — of a planetary ecological collapse. Not only is the global ecological crisis becoming more and more severe, with the time in which to address it fast running out, but the dominant environmental strategies are also forms of denial, demonstrably doomed to fail, judging by their own limited objectives. This tragic failure, I will argue, can be attributed to the refusal of the powers that be to address the roots of the ecological problem in capitalist production and the resulting necessity of ecological and social revolution.

The term “crisis,” attached to the global ecological problem, although unavoidable, is somewhat misleading, given its dominant economic associations. Since 2008, we have been living through a world economic crisis — the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. This has been a source of untold suffering for hundreds of millions, indeed billions, of people. But insofar as it is related to the business cycle and not to long-term factors, expectations are that it is temporary and will end, to be followed by a period of economic recovery and growth — until the advent of the next crisis. Capitalism is, in this sense, a crisis-ridden, cyclical economic system. Even if we were to go further, to conclude that the present crisis of accumulation is part of a long-term economic stagnation of the system — that is, a slowdown of the trend-rate of growth beyond the mere business cycle — we would still see this as a partial, historically limited calamity, raising, at most, the question of the future of the present system of production.1

When we speak today of the world ecological crisis, however, we are referring to something that could turn out to be final, i.e., there is a high probability, if we do not quickly change course, of a terminal crisis — a death of the whole anthropocene, the period of human dominance of the planet. Human actions are generating environmental changes that threaten the extermination of most species on the planet, along with civilization, and conceivably our own species as well…
(January 2010 issue)

‘Population Justice’ — The Wrong Way to Go

Ian Angus, Climate and Capitalism
… In this article I focus on some specific problems with the “Population Justice” concept that Mazur defends. I won’t repeat the broader criticisms of the population growth explanation for climate change that I and others have made elsewhere.[4]

A New Conversation?

[Laurie Mazur, the founder of Population Justice and editor of A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice and the Environmental Challenge] presents herself as the voice of reason in the “polarized debate” between population extremists like Paul Ehrlich on one side, and people like Betsy Hartmann, whom she labels “population deniers,” on the other. Mazur calls for a “a new conversation about population and the environment,” with a goal of “slowing population growth” but doing so without coercion, respecting women’s need for reproductive health services and right to make their own choices.

But that’s not a new conversation. For two decades, even the most reactionary population control outfits have given lip service to women’s rights and voluntary birth control – but they still blame poor women’s fertility for environmental problems, and call for reducing the birth rate in the Third World as the sine qua non of any solution.

… The line between coercive and non-coercive birth control programs is not easily drawn: programs motivated by overpopulation arguments tend to promote population reduction, regardless of the actual needs of the communities and individuals involved. That’s especially true in the impoverished countries that population programs usually target, where poor women have long been deprived to the power to make choices about many aspects of their lives.

Project staff who believe they are protecting the environment frequently pressure women to accept sterilization or unsafe long-term contraceptives. Supposedly voluntary programs have included coercive elements such as denying women access to other services if they don’t attend lectures on the importance of having fewer babies, or dividing people into teams that compete for maximum participation in family planning services. [6]

… Mazur says that she wants to reduce emissions by slowing population growth – but if that’s so, why does her project place so much emphasis on the fertility of the poorest women in the world?

Per capita emission rates in the United States, Canada and Australia are the highest in the world. If more babies equals more emissions, shouldn’t Mazur’s group emphasize population reduction in rich countries, where each avoided birth will have a greater effect than dozens in the global south?

… Mazur’s approach directs attention away from the huge ecological debt that rich countries owe to the global South. A central focus for the global climate justice movement is the demand for repayment of that debt, both in financial contributions and through massive transfer of low emissions technology that can enable economic development without promoting climate change. Achieving this won’t be easy – but populationists who start from socially conservative assumptions don’t even consider the possibility of transforming the way the global economy works.

In Hartmann’s words: “Missing from the equation is any notion that people are capable of effecting positive social and environmental change, and that the next generation could make the transition out of fossil fuels.”

The wrong way to go

For the poorest women in the world, winning unrestricted access to high quality health services, including safe birth control and abortion, would be a huge victory. But linking that campaign to global warming is the wrong way to go.
(31 January 2010)

Looks like the perennial debate between leftists and population control advocates is heating up again. Let’s hope it is more productive than the last time around. There is truth on both sides. -BA