At a push, if one had to suggest one book, and one book alone, on South America – that would cover History, Politics, Culture and Society, and yet be a startlingly good read, with a dose of botany thrown in for good measure, there can only be one recommendation – One River by Wade Davis. A book that not only details his own trips in South America, searching for the botanical origins of the coca leaf, with colleague Tim Plowman, but also the journeys of their Mentor Richard Evans Schultes through Mexico, Colombia, and the Amazonian regions of South America. The book is filled with fascinating asides, and plot twists and turns.
But Wade Davis is also the scientist who wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow a scientific exploration of the phenomenon of Vodoun (Editor’s note: commonly referred to as Voodoo) in Haiti. A serious book, detailing how he found the pharmacological basis for Zombieism in Haiti. Ironically, the book, which was a serious debunking of the legends and myths created by Hollywood and pulp fiction, later was turned into a ridiculous horror movie.
Currently working for National Geographic, and promoting ideas such as the Ethnosphere (read on!), Wade Davis is both the best interview subject, and the most difficult –because quite simply, what ever the topic, he is well informed and can speak at length. At one point during the interview, which lasted two hours, Dr Davis mentioned that he would have to go to work, but then proceeded lucidly and passionately to continue to answer a question for another ten minutes. A joy to interview, but a nightmare to edit, as deciding what is of little interest is virtually impossible. He is truly one of a kind – and so with great pleasure Three Monkeys Online presents Wade Davis in interview:
With the upcoming election in America, some have suggested that the Environment will be a major voting issue. What do you think?
Well, I think the Environment is always an important issue, but in this case the contrast between the two competing candidates is so obvious; Kerry has one of the most positive records in the entire Senate on environmental issues, and Bush's record of course is not just weak, but self-consciously dreadful. In other words, he wears his anti-environmental record as a badge of achievement and courage, as a part of his fundamental ideology. So in that sense I don't think the election will be run on that issue.
I think the American election coming up is arguably the most important this country has faced since 1940, when Roosevelt ran for a third term. It really is a manifestation of this cultural war that has more and more defined the landscape of American society.
Basically, what you've got going on in America is something that I think it's difficult for the European perspective to grasp, perhaps, in its intensity. It’s the fact that obviously this is a country that's always swung between extremes and has always harboured in its underbelly some of the best hopes for humanity, and some of the worst. That's precisely why America is so fascinating. What's going on now, it seems to me, from an anthropological point of view, is that fundamentally, Western society as well, but particularly American society, has been asked to accept, in a single generation or two, sociological transformation and intellectual transformations that are really quite stunning. I mean, not only have we been asked, for example, to shift our attitudes to the environment totally. Two generations ago, just getting people to stop throwing garbage out of a car window was considered an environmental victory, and now we're asking people to even contemplate the possibility that man is creating severe impacts for the biosphere to the extent that literally we're provoking climate change, which may even of itself be provoking a massive extinction not seen since the last massive extinction 55 million years ago. That's a pretty tough thought to wrap your mind around. We've been asking people to go, again in a couple of generations, from reviling homo-sexuality to, not just celebrating it but now allowing homosexuals to marry. On an even more profound level, society has been asked to transform the structure of the family, in the sense that – when I was a child, one's father worked 40 hours a week, and brought home enough money to support the whole family. Now by definition both Mothers and Fathers have to work to create that economic base, and that's a change that's irreversible, and so profound that people almost don't talk about it, but from a sociological perspective this has severe consequences for the nature of child rearing, the differences between husband and wife, parents and children and so on.
Now, all of these changes I would thoroughly endorse; I lie on the side of the cultural war that says these are some of the best things to ever have happened to America – we can add to that list Civil Rights for example. When the right wing ideologues in America wax nostalgic for the 1950's, I don't know what decade they're talking about. The 1950's was the era of segregation. How anyone could be nostalgic for the values of an era which as part of its complex of ideas embraced openly and accepted segregation based on race – how can anyone look fondly on that era? But, what I see happening is, all of these changes have been let out of the bottle, and none of them can be put back in the bottle. I think it's all wonderful myself but society is very much divided between those for whom those changes are comfortable and those who celebrate those changes, versus those for whom those changes are profoundly threatening.
What you see on the far right, it's not even the far right in fact – it's almost mainstream in America, is the circling of the wagons, and the invocation of a fantasy American society that never existed but was presumed to have existed to allay one's current fears. You have this general right wing, Christian, fundamentalist trend – which is a scary thing. In a sense it's scary – because America never sought Empire, and anyone who talks about American conspiracies has never met an American. I've never met an American who could keep a secret, let alone mount a conspiracy. This is ultimately a phenomenally open society. When shit happens here, it almost inevitably always gets out. Anyone who talks about American Empire doesn't know their history either. In the 1940's, when the whole of civilization was about to go up in flames and when we were about to embark on a crusade that would save civilization, because had the nazis won we would have entered a dark age that we can't even begin to imagine, but in the 1940's both Bulgaria and Portugal had larger armies than the United States. So this is not a country that ever sought dominance, but in the wake of the second world war, and with the ensuing cold war conflict, which I as someone who leans ideologically to the left, or centre left, totally acknowledge in retrospect that that was a struggle we needed to win, for all of humanity. The Soviet system was just a dreadful strangulation of the spirit of human beings. And the people who kept posters of Mao-se-Tung on their walls in the 60's, as I did, ought to recall that Mao Tse Tung was responsible for the deaths of more of his countrymen than either Stalin or Hitler.