Cultures define what we know about the world, and so what we do in the world. We need to pay them more attention.
When I was young, back in the 1970s, I spent two years travelling across the world: by truck with a group through Africa from south to north; in a campervan with a friend through northern and eastern Europe and Russia; on foot along most of the south coast of Crete; and by boat, bus, truck and train across Asia to India and Nepal.
The most difficult cultural adjustment I had to make was not to the cultures of other countries, but to my own on my return home to Australia. Many long-term Western travellers have the same experience, shocked in particular by the West’s extravagant consumerism. My initial response on flying into Sydney from Bangkok was one of wonder at the orderliness and cleanliness, the abundantly stocked shops, the clear-eyed children, seemingly so healthy and carefree. However, this initial celebration of the material comforts and individual freedoms soon gave way to a growing apprehension about the Western way of life.
In a way I hadn’t anticipated, the experience allowed me to view my native culture from the outside; and in ways I hadn’t appreciated before, I became aware ours was a flawed and harsh culture. I realised that the Western worldview was not necessarily the truest or best, as I had been brought up and educated to believe, but just one of many, defined and supported by deeply ingrained beliefs and myths like any other.
We in the West tend to see material poverty as synonymous with misery and squalor; yet only with the most abject poverty is this so. Mostly the poorer societies I travelled through had a social cohesion and spiritual richness that I felt the West lacked. We see others as crippled by ignorance and cowed by superstition; we don’t see the extent to which we are, in our own ways, oppressed by our rationalism and lack of ‘superstition’ (in a spiritual sense).
Over the following decades, as a researcher and writer, I developed these early insights into an analysis of cultural influences on health and wellbeing; how we define and measure human progress and development; and what the future holds for our civilisation and species. This is the topic of an essay published recently in the American magazine, Salon. It argues cultures exert a powerful, but largely invisible, influence on our lives: on what we understand the world to be, and so on how we behave in it.
This extract from the essay focuses on the importance of paying attention to other cultures and their stories if we are to meet the challenges of the future. These challenges are ‘existential’ in that they both materially and physically threaten human existence, and also undermine people’s sense of confidence and certainty about life.
The cultural transformation we need can be compared to that in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment: from the medieval mind, dominated by religion and the afterlife, to the modern mind, focused on material life here and now. Just as it was impossible for the medieval mind to anticipate the modern, so too is it impossible for the modern mind to grasp what might come next. However, a greater awareness and acknowledgement of the flaws and failings of modern Western culture, and its defining ideas of material progress and modernisation, encourages us to think more positively about alternative ways of living that deliver a high quality of life with much lower material consumption and social complexity.
Thus humanity faces another rupture or discontinuity in its view of what it is to be human that will change profoundly what we believe and how we live. Growing and deepening crises will help to precipitate this change.
Listening to other cultural stories
Anthropologist Wade Davis’s writing is an eloquent exposition of this viewpoint. In his books, Light at the Edge of the World: Journey through the realm of vanishing cultures (2001/2007), and The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world (2009), he urges us to heed the voices of other cultures because these remind us that there are alternatives, ‘other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual, and ecological space’.
They allow us ‘to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny is therefore not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise’. By their very existence, he says, the diverse cultures of the world show we can change, as we know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.
Davis learned as a student to appreciate and embrace the key revelation of anthropology: the idea that distinct cultures represent unique visions of life itself, morally inspired and inherently right. Cultural beliefs really do generate different realities, separate and utterly distinct from each other, even as they face the same fundamental challenges.
The significance of an esoteric belief lies not in its veracity in some absolute sense but in what it can tell us about a culture, he says. ‘What matters is the potency of the belief and the manner in which the conviction plays out in the day to day life of a people’. A child raised to believe that a mountain is the abode of a protective spirit will be a profoundly different human being from one brought up to believe that a mountain is an inert mass of rock ready to be mined. A child raised to revere forests as a spiritual home will be different from one who believes that they exist to be logged.
Davis cautions that modernity (whether identified as Westernisation, globalisation, capitalism, or democracy) is an expression of 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’. The Western paradigm, for all its accomplishments, and inspired in so many ways, is not ‘the paragon of humanity’s potential’, he says;
‘there is no universal progression in the lives and destiny of human beings’.
The writer Barry Lopez, in Horizons (2019) also brings an anthropological perspective to humankind’s precarity, ‘a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future’.
‘As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes more imperative…. Many cultures are still distinguished today by wisdoms not associated with modern technologies but grounded, instead, in an acute awareness of human foibles, of the traps people tend to set for themselves as they enter the ancient labyrinth of hubris or blindly pursue the appeasement of their appetites’.
Lopez warns that if we persist in believing that we alone (whatever our culture) are right, and that we have no need to listen to anyone else’s stories, we endanger ourselves.
‘If we remain fearful of human diversity, our potential to evolve into the very thing we most fear – to become our own fatal nemesis – only increases’.
The future of cultures
Davis’s and Lopez’s warnings took me back to an early 1990s UNESCO project on the futures of cultures, which had as its hypothesis that ‘cultures and their futures, rather than technological and economic developments, are at the core of humankind’s highly uncertain future’. A project report notes:
‘Some of the participants expressed the view that culture may well prove to be the last resort for the salvation of humankind.’
The project considered some critical questions about culture. Will economic and technological progress destroy the cultural diversity that is our precious heritage? Will the ‘meaning systems’ of different societies, which have provided their members with a sense of identity, meaning and place in the totality of the universe, be reduced to insignificance by the steamroller effects of mass culture, characterised by electronic media, consumer gadgets, occupational and geographic mobility and globally disseminated role models?
Or, on the other hand, will the explosive release of ethnic emotions accompanying political liberation destroy all possibility of both genuine development founded on universal solidarity and community-building across differences? Will we witness a return of local chauvinisms, breeding new wars over boundaries and intercultural discriminations?
Background papers for the UNESCO project proposed two scenarios – one pessimistic, one optimistic. The pessimistic scenario is that cultures and authentic cultural values will be, throughout the world, bastardised or reduced to marginal or ornamental roles in most national societies and regional or local communities because of powerful forces of cultural standardisation. These forces are technology, especially media technology; the nature of the modern state, which is bureaucratic, centralising, legalistic and controlling; and the spread of ‘managerial organisation’ as the one best way of making decisions and coordinating actions.
The optimistic scenario is that humanity advances in global solidarity and with ecological and economic collaboration as responsible stewards of the cosmos. Numerous, vital and authentic cultures flourish, each proud of its identity while actively rejoicing in differences exhibited by other cultures. Human beings everywhere nurture a sense of possessing several partial and overlapping identities while recognising their primary allegiance to the human species. Cultural communities plunge creatively into their roots and find new ways of being modern and of contributing precious values to the universal human culture now in gestation.
Participants in the UNESCO project appeared to see the pessimistic scenario as the more likely, as things stood (and perhaps even more likely today?); the optimistic scenario was more an ideal to guide policy.
Thus with culture, as with so many other areas of modern life, humanity’s destiny hangs in the balance: a dominant culture that is deeply flawed is nevertheless spreading throughout the world. Epitomised by today’s global, technocratic, managerial elite, this culture has become hugely powerful, the ‘default setting’ for running national and world affairs. Yet its failures grow correspondingly more profound, with growing inequality and concentration of wealth and power, growing mistrust of government and other institutions, growing global problems such as climate change. At the same time, ethnic and other ‘tribal’ feelings have become more fervent and exclusive, often fanatical, including in the West. The 20-year war in Afghanistan is a powerful symbol of this cultural contest.
On the other hand, somewhere beyond this ugly mix, largely hidden by the outdated and dysfunctional cultures of mainstream politics and the news media, through these same dual processes, there is also the potential, the possibility, for the optimistic scenario: a world where rich cultural diversity underpins a new and vital cultural universality.
At least we should hope so. Humanity’s fate hangs on the outcome.
Richard Eckersley is an Australian researcher and writer on human progress, wellbeing and the future. www.richardeckersley.com.au This article is extracted from an essay published recently in the US magazine, Salon.
Teaser photo credit: By Dsdugan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58551261