Culture an invaluable asset for dealing with big challenges: author

Justin Brake
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Wade Davis — File photo

Wade Davis has the kind of knowledge you can’t glean from books.

At 58, the B.C. native plays many roles, including husband, father, anthropologist, ethnobotanist, author, photographer, filmmaker and even National Geographic explorer-in-residence, but at the most basic human level it’s his keen sense of curiosity and his pursuit of holistic perspective that have made Davis’ a respected voice.

Having spent the past 30 years living with indigenous groups around the globe, Davis has experienced different ways of understanding both ourselves and our world.

In 1985, he came to prominence as an academic and author with his book “The Serpent and The Rainbow.”

He has since published a number of others, made documentary films, and in 2009 was commissioned by the CBC for the Massey Lectures and book “The Wayfinders,” which illustrates why and how we need to look to what we already know for the solutions to modernity’s biggest problems.

To mark International Education Week, Memorial University’s International Centre has invited Davis to share some of his experiences and talk about the substance and role of cultural diversity as it relates to humanity and our most pressing dilemmas.

In the leadup to his visit, Davis spoke with The Telegram and painted, with the brush strokes of his ethnographic informants’ wisdom, a vivid, colourful and honest picture of the world.

One of the extraordinary things science has taught us is “that all human beings essentially share the same genetic endowment,” he says, beginning a lengthy explanation of how cultural diversity is at the heart of human existence.

“All of us are descendants of a handful of people who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and embarked on this incredible journey of humanity that took us to every corner of the habitable world within 2,500 generations of roughly 40,000 years,” he says.

“(This) means by definition that we all share the same raw intellectual capacity, and whether that genius is expressed through technological wizardry, which is the great achievement of the West, or by unravelling the complex threads of memory inherent in myth, is simply a matter of choice.

“So if you accept what is scientifically proven to be the case,” that genetics has exposed race “as a complete fiction” and “reaffirmed the essential connectedness of humanity,” says Davis, it is dangerous to hold specific cultural ideas like progress or the superiority of modern over traditional as being universally valuable to all people.

“Other peoples of the world, with their various practices and beliefs, aren’t failed attempts at being us,” he continues. “They’re unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? They answer that question in 7,000 different voices, and these voices represent unique visions of life itself.”

With the knowledge he has acquired from peoples throughout his travels to the Amazon, the Arctic, Tibet, Africa, Nepal, Columbia, Peru, Haiti, Mongolia, Polynesia and Australia, Davis reminds us that the diversity within our collective cultural expression is crucial because it means together we share a richer toolbox of perspectives and wisdom, “which collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that confront us all as a species,” maximizing our efficiency and effectiveness in seeking suitable adaptive responses to change.

Yet as we struggle to support and maintain an economic system that requires constant growth and limitless natural resources in a finite world, and as we scramble for solutions to avert the looming consequences of a warming climate, we are simultaneously limiting our adaptive potential by ignoring the knowledge and wisdom we’ve cultivated over thousands of years, he says.

“There’s this haunting consensus amongst academic linguists that of those 7,000 languages (spoken today), half aren’t being taught to children, which means they’re on the road to extinction, which means we’re losing half of humanity’s social and spiritual legacy in a generation,” Davis explains. “This doesn’t have to happen.”

It is not change or technology in and of themselves that threatens culture, he says, but “power — decisions made by human beings.”

“And whether those decisions are the imposition of egregious industrial activities … or whether they’re the triumph of certain ideological and belief systems … the bottom line is the realization that cultures aren’t destined to fade away, they aren’t failed attempts at being modern. They are in every case dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces.

“And that’s actually an optimistic observation because it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the facilitators of cultural survival.”

In “The Wayfinders,” Davis says, though his response to the question of why wisdom matters in the world was implicit throughout the book, he was forced to express it concisely at the end. After some contemplation, he recalls, “I just thought two words: climate change.

“I strongly believe that we only can do what we do to the environment because fundamentally we believe that the world is inert, that mountains have no essence to them — they’re nothing more than rock and dirt ready to be exploited,” he says.

“What we’ve forgotten is that much of what has propelled human experience has existed in a certain kind of metaphorical space. For example, I was raised in the forests of British Columbia to believe that those forests existed to be cut. That was the foundation of the ideology of scientific forestry that I learned in school and practised in the woods as a logger,” recalls Davis.

“That made me different than a kid from the First Nations raised to believe that the same forests, for example, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, would be the abode of Huxwhukw and the Crooked Beak of Heaven and the cannibal spirits that dwelled at the north end of the world that the youth would have to embrace during the Hamatsa initiation so that the wisdom of the wild could be brought back to the community in a potlatch.

“The issue isn’t who’s right and who’s wrong. Is that forest mere cellulose and board feet, or is it the domain of the spirits? That’s not the interesting question. The interesting observation is how the belief system mediates the interaction between a particular culture and that environment such that the First Nations of the coast had a relatively modest ecological footprint for at least 1,000 years. We, by contrast, in three generations have torn these forests asunder.

“And so as we move into an era where the entire world is aspiring to a level of consumption and affluence that to date only a small percentage of human beings have enjoyed … (we) worry about our capacity to, in a truly disastrous way, impact the Earth by this consumption. And it is worth pointing out that this way of thinking about the Earth, this way of interacting with it, is not the norm in most cultures.

“I’m not trying to knock what we are,” Davis continues. “I’m always just trying to say we should have the humility to recognize by definition we’re not the paragon of humanity’s potential. We have something to contribute to the world, but this idea that we promote our world, the world of modernity, as the absolute wave of history is simply not the case.

“Like any other cultural set of values, it’s a set of beliefs and values and ways of organizing economic activity that emerges from a particular historical antecedent, and it’s not the only way of doing things.”

A common response to ideas like Davis’, he says, is the assumption that humans must, out of necessity, return to a pre-industrial way of living.

“I’m not suggesting in any way that we abandon our current world or that we keep anybody on the planet from benefitting from the genius of modernity and from science,” he says.

“The point is that the very existence of all these different cultures, all these different ways of thinking about being alive on the planet, offer alternatives. They suggest that we’re not stuck, that there are alternative ways of thinking, that humanity is not on this inexorable descent into the consequences of climate change.

“We all know fundamentally, climate change or no climate change, that we have to change the way we interact with the natural world,” he continues. “And so what I’m trying to say is that one of the things that imprisons us in this trajectory to what could be ecological disaster is this feeling that there’s nothing else we can do because, after all, this is the modern world and the modern world moves on.

“Well, it’s important to realize that the modern world is itself a construct as much as any one culture anywhere is. And so once you know it’s a construct, you have a lot more confidence in your ability that it be modified. It’s not written in stone, the way we do things.”

Davis will deliver the keynote presentation for “All People in All Gardens: An Intercultural Exhibit on Multiculturalism in the 21st Century” Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Bruneau Centre for Research and Innovation.

Organizations: National Geographic, The Rainbow, CBC International Centre Amazon First Nations Bruneau Centre for Research

Geographic location: B.C., Africa, Arctic Tibet Nepal Peru Haiti Mongolia Polynesia Australia British Columbia Vancouver Island

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