So how would you go about changing culture?
Why would you want to?
Well, in a recent conversation among ecologists, I was privy to the question: “Where do humans fit in the ecosystem?”
And this is a great question to consider, right now, with… well, things being as they environmentally are.
How do we humans go about assuming our place in our environment when our presence in the environment tends toward oil spill disasters, loss of species with biodiversity, air pollution with global climate change? How can or why do we maintain modern Western Culture with its characteristic mining of natural resources for industry and economic growth, growth, growth? How can or why do we maintain our “pop culture” with its role as raison d’être for Western culture’s overconsumption of natural resources? The “greatest generation” sacrificed their lives so that we can conveniently have our coffee in our SUVs right now, so that we can talk on our phones to anyone we’re not with wherever we want, and we sacrifice our children’s lives for the same things. As Elsa pointed out, “American Apparel has a beauty code”, after all.
We could just assume that we humans are “maladapted,” if you will. Maybe we’re doomed to flood our waters with oil, damned to fire up our climate with carbon. Perhaps modern culture is pathological, and we’re the only species destined to take our biosphere down with us. I’ll admit that I’ve been tempted more often than not to adopt such a fatalistic position. “Good job, BP.”
In this regard I think of On Hope written by Spencer Holst. The story tells of an animal trainer whose monkey was trained to steal necklaces and unwittingly brought him the cursed “Diamond of Hope”. Recognizing the necklace and knowing the curse, the man kept returning the necklace only to have the monkey bring it back to him until the monkey fell to the curse and was killed. Fearing the diamond and the curse, the man swam far out to the sea and dropped the diamond in the ocean to be rid of it.
But as the diamond fell through the depths it landed, wouldn’t you know, on the dorsal fin of a shark. Startled, the shark rose to the surface, swimming toward the man. The man saw only the diamond reflected in the moonlight, floating across the water toward him. In awe, he swam toward the diamond.
And Spencer asks the reader, “What do you think happened?”
Then he muses:
“I can’t help noticing, at this moment, that at first glance it seems inevitable-you know, that the shark will devour the man.
But I do not believe that result is as inevitable as it seems at first glance; that is, I believe there are several reasons, so to speak, for hope.
1. I do not think a shark has ever been approached like this before, that is, by a man wondering whether the shark is a miraculous manifestation, or whether it is merely a figment of his own imagination.
2. The man is a gypsy animal trainer.
3. The shark is now in possession of the necklace.”
Not to suggest that environmental disaster is a man-eating shark. The connection, for me, is that we humans are most certainly swimming toward our inevitable doom. And like the man who trained his monkey to steal necklaces, our doom is certainly by our own design. It doesn’t take an octopus oracle to see we’re headed down a sinkhole. But there are reasons for hope.
First, to assume that humans and modern culture are maladaptive and pathological is at best a gross over generalization. To do so is to ignore numerous examples of benefit toward our environment. Let me name a couple.
One classic is that of Roy A. Rappaport’s 1971 “The flow of energy in an agricultural society” [Scientific American 224(3):116-32]. In this article Rappaport quantifies the efficiency of traditional tribal cultural practices in New Guinea. They clear a few acres, burn it, let it recover together with domesticated plants. From this small field they can produce enough to support them for up to five years until they move to the next spot. Coincidentally similar to those of Native Amazonian agriculturalists. And the system is not only well-adapted to their environment but also increase the biodiversity of the forest.
A recent example is in the work of Paul Robbins at the University of Arizona. Paul works on human-environment dynamics involving the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan, India. Though data has not yet been conclusively linked, there is reason to suggest that firewood gathering by surrounding rural communities contributes to the biodiversity of that forest [Robbins, Chhangani, Rice, Trigosa, & Mohnot. Enforcement Authority and Vegetation Change at Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan, India. Environmental Management (2007) 40:365–378.]. What he has been able to point out is that traditional forest grazing practices do contribute to the success of wildlife in that sanctuary [Chhangani, A. K., Robbins, P. and Mohnot, S. M. (2008) 'Crop Raiding and Livestock Predation at Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajasthan India', Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 13:5,305—316]. This traditional kind of forest use produces the diverse forest mosaic consistent with what developed nations’ management schemes aim for [Sitzia, Semenzato, and Trentanovi (2007). Natural reforestation is changing spatial patterns of rural mountain and hill landscapes: A global overview. Forest Ecology and Management 259 (8):1354-1362].
These are cultural examples. What of the individual humans like Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel peace prize for her efforts to reforest Kenya?
Second, one characteristic of modern Western Culture is the leisure and/or the social economic status that affords concern for the environment. Humans in developing countries cannot often afford the time or money to worry over the effects their behaviors have on their environment; they’re busy enough trying to survive. I always find it interesting at the zoo to see how people in the U. S. think elephants are so cute and cuddly. Our friends in Kenya are terrified of them. Elephants wipe out a whole farm in a single night and stomp a man to death when accidentally startled. We know half a dozen women who are widows to those hug-able horrors. When the environment is trying to kill you, you’re hard pressed to prioritize protecting it over defending yourself and family. For the moment, at least, we Westerners in developed nations can afford to worry about things like endangered species and global climate change.
Third, frankly, I find it ethically dangerous to condemn ourselves. To assume all culture to be pathological, to condemn all humans as maladapted is to become self destructive. Self-depreciating humans are dangerous humans. Hutu were taught by colonialism to depreciate themselves and turned their hatred toward their neighbors. Hitler hated himself and elevated his phenotypic opposite to the genocide of all others. To be without hope is to be without a reason for morality. This is the true pathology. One that concerns me. In this context legitimate environmental crisis may become a rationalization for humanitarian crises. Already, hand in hand with a loss of ecological diversity, Western culture accompanies a loss of cultural diversity. Already access to natural places has become a privilege of the have’s and not the have not’s.
Where humans fit in the ecosystem is interacting as a functional unit with every other species and the non-living environment. To do this, to interact as a functional unit, to change cultures in a way that makes this possible, we must recognize that to destroy our selves or benefit our selves, to harm our fellow humans or benefit our fellow humans, to harm our environment or destroy our environment is within our own power, whatever power chance affords us.