Review of Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World video

I read the book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, which is based on Wade Davis’ 2009 Massey Lectures. Davis’s lecture to a San Francisco audience compresses that, plus there’s a Q&A. The video is online with beautiful stills. (These images are from the internet, though some are also in this video).

Because it’s compressed, it’s crammed. Hang on!

The video begins with ‘The Sky in Motion’ by Till Credner, four minutes of beautiful time-lapsed photography and ambient guitar. image of sun by till credner

The lecture is introduced by Stewart Brand, author of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, of longnow.org .  image of brand by cellanr

Davis says the central lesson of anthropology is ‘to realize our world is only one of many’, to realize that ‘the world into which we’re born does not exist in some absolute sense but is just a model of reality.’ images by wade davis

Each culture is an answer to the question, ‘ ”What does it mean to be human and alive?” All these people teach us that there are other ways of thinking, other ways of being, other ways of orienting yourself in social and spiritual and ecological space and that’s an idea of course that can only fill us with hope,’ says Davis.

wade-davis-article-from-ng-02While Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society he coined the term ‘ethnosphere’ to describe ‘this incredible web of cultural life that enveloped the planet and that was just as important to the well-being of the planet’ as the biosphere.  He chose the term ‘ethnosphere’ to unite science and religious belief. Like the biosphere, the ethnosphere experiences gain and loss.

Cultural loss is indicated by the rate of language loss, which is huge, and at 50% this loss is ‘the canary in the coal mine’. A language is ‘a flash of the human spirit’; ‘it is a vehicle through which of each particular culture comes into contact with the material realm. Every language,’ says Davis, ‘is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of social/spiritual/political possibilities’. In re-telling the story of the Inuit shit-knife, Davis emphasizes that ingenious, local, empirical knowledge complements and often outstrips our Western, remote, bookish knowledge.

In the Q&A which follows the lecture, Davis answers several questions from the audience and the internet, including:

  1. ‘None of these societies is isolated. They’re completely connected through the internet, through communication, and still yet they have made the choice [to distance themselves from Western culture].’ Davis talks of how the Eskimos of Greenland have chosen to keep their dogs, whereas the Inuit of Canada have chosen to use snowmobiles; however, a friend of mine who lived seven years in the Arctic told me that the RCMP used to shoot the Inuit’s sled-dogs to force relocation; Davis doesn’t mention this, nor other efforts of forced relocation. Shooting someone’s dog does not offer him or her a choice. It’s a show of power, which Davis does address in the next response.
  2. ‘Technology and change doesn’t threaten culture; power threatens culture. The other side of the story is that the power of a culture is incredible.’ It is not fragile, which gives Davis much optimism.
  3. Brand says that EO Wilson calls this a period of the bottleneck–loss of biodiversity, loss of habitat, et cetera–and the species that survive the next 50 to 100 years will be in better shape. Davis says, ‘Pessimism is an indulgence. If you’re a father, you can’t be pessimistic.’ He points out that ‘within our lifetime women have gone from the kitchen to the boardroom, gay people from the closet to the altar, African-Americans from the woodshed to the Whitehouse;’ thirty years ago people threw garbage out car windows, now ‘biosphere’ is part of school children’s vernacular. He quotes Daniel Bell, who said that the nation-state has become too big for the little problems of the world and too little for the big problems of the world. Sent as an anthropologist to COP 15 in Copenhagen, he saw the nation states, both developed and developing, exaggerating and posturing and he found that ‘uninspiring’. On the other hand, he found the corporate presence ‘really interesting’, for even the worst in corporate greed, Davis says, will go after climate change ‘big time’. However, I wonder, isn’t corporate greed myopic, and isn’t corporate greed how we got into this mess in the first place?
  4. Many of the cultures presented in this lecture are older than the last ice age. They have experienced climate change, but they have no actual stories, just mythology. Yet, ‘some of this mythology is probably deep memory’.
  5. In spite of the diversity of people, it’s the commonalities that Davis finds most fascinating.
  6. The solitary explorer is false. Davis, who sees himself more as a storyteller than an explorer, says he rarely uses ‘I’ in his stories. His credo is, ‘the more, the merrier’.
  7. Urbanization is huge. Half of humanity now lives in cities, and that will rise to 80%. Will it kill non-urban cultures by swamping them, or will it save them by giving them back non-urban spaces? [By extension, will urbanization kill or save wildlife?] Brand is pro-urbanization, but Davis doesn’t quite buy it. For example, Brand sees favellas (slums) as places of great creativity, but Davis knows they are also places of incredible despair. I bet neither lives in one. Davis speaks of non-urban cultures. They have urban contacts. It’s not ‘either/or’–either the city or the country; it’s ‘both’. ‘It doesn’t mean the urban space has to consume the rural or drain the rural; on the contrary. [He doesn’t explain, but I call to mind both the book’s sub-title, that ancient wisdom matters in the modern world, and Thoreau’s dictum: ‘In wilderness is the preservation of the world’.] … A lot of it has to do with whether the traditional activities and practices of the culture in place are acknowledged and honoured by the metropolitan society. And that is what is so interesting about Colombia. Colombia, for all its agony, has got this one thing it can be extremely proud of…. It’s sought a kind of restitution with its indigenous population.’
  8. What can the individual do? ‘All cultures are famously culturally myopic,’ Davis say. ‘My argument is that we can’t afford that myopia any more in an interconnected world.’ What can the individual do?
    • Demand openness from your government
    • Have a basic humility

    [Davis cites Colombia and Nunavut. They are examples of ancient wisdom restored in modern times, requiring an openness and humility at both the governmental and the individual levels. Things go horribly wrong when, in our myopic hubris, we lose sight of that.] For example, climate change is the world’s problem, yet it was created by only a subset worldview. However, we think of that worldview as reality. We need humility, not just in physics or economy, says Davis, but also in psychology, because we have this mechanistic view, instead of a holistic view. He tells the story of some local religious pilgrims in the Andes who have stopped taking ice from a glacier during an annual celebration back to their villages because the glacier is melting from the planet heating up. The ice they take is a piddly amount. It’s not their fault the glacier is melting. But they feel personally responsible and know they are connected–again, not mechanically but holistically–to it, to the earth, life, the universe, and everything. Davis gives two further examples of interconnectedness–one pre-historic, the other post-modern. wade-davis-article-from-bobonbrand-com-01In the Arctic ‘seela‘ is the same word for weather and for consciousness. The internet has become the global campfire. The Inuit know the very air we breathe connects the whole planet to how each of us thinks and feels, connections we share, Davis says, in 1500 languages on the internet.

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