Wade Davis interview

The Shaman from Harvard – Wade Davis in interview


That’s very valid, to a point – but you’ve travelled a huge amount in Central and South America and you’ve seen the opposite side to that, in terms of fighting the cold war, in the sense that America very obviously has been involved in the suppression of human rights throughout the region, in the name of the cold war.

It’s not that I’m trying to defend America. What I was trying to say was that the irony is that this country that historically has, not only indulged in, but celebrated this cultural myopia suddenly, due to extraordinary circumstances, found itself more powerful politically, economically and socially than any other power since Rome and a combination of America’s cultural myopia and this important power is a very dangerous combination as we’re seeing in Iraq.

There is a sort of frightening consolidation of paranoia in this country, the circling of the wagons that happens domestically, also is happening internationally. The fact that, when you really look back historically on this administration, it’s going to be seen as this administration that in the most ignorant of manners compromised the integrity of the entire country by severing relations upon which all international dialogue had been based. To think of how this president has squandered the moral capital gained through 9/11 – for a wonderful few weeks the whole world was sympathetic with the plight of Americans. That goodwill was squandered in the most arrogant, ignorant and foolish manner, foolish because it was counter-productive in terms of its own self interest.

The great revelation of Anthropology is the world into which you were born doesn’t exist in some absolute sense – it’s just one model at reality – and these other peoples aren’t failed attempts at being you – they’re unique experiments in the human imagination.

If you had a guiding hand on the so-called ‘War on Terror’ – how would you fight it then?

I wrote, immediately after 9/11 a strong opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and I argued one of the problems that I alluded to earlier. America finds itself in this position of such authority, and yet cultural myopia, and it’s very difficult for this country, so inordinately wealthy that for example American citizens spend more money on maintaining their lawns than India collects in tax revenue; the defence budget here is a trivial percentage of GDP, but it’s larger than the economy of Australia, so how does a country like this understand a world where 2 billion people get by on less than two dollars a day. We’re wired to the Internet; how does this world understand what it means to never have had a phone call, let alone send an email.

We export our version of reality, the Western version, which is just a version, as in fact the cutting wave of History and as such, either through coercion or through encouragement or sometimes people through their own volition turn their backs on their own traditions, to aspire to this world that they can only imagine, with the idea that, if they follow the dictates, the economic, social and political paradigm, that they’ll somehow achieve the level of affluence that we in the West enjoy. The truth is that for the world’s population by 2100 to achieve the affluence of the west, would require the resources of four planet earths with energy consumption alone – so it’s just not going to happen. What does happen throughout the world is that individuals turn their backs on their past to move on to the lowest rung of a economic ladder that goes nowhere and they can’t go back, because they’ve been taught in many cases to have contempt for who they were. What does it mean to move forward? It means to move to the cities of the third world which increasingly become seas of misery. Places like Lima, Peru which had a population of 400,000 in 1940 is now roughly 13 million, and for most people trying to scratch a living on the edges of the cash economy, it becomes a sea of misery.

All the indices of development say very little about the actual quality of life of those people – for example life expectancy going up may just mean that infant mortality has gone down, but it says very little about the quality of life of those people. Per capita income measures generation of cash within a certain economic paradigm, but it says very little about the quality of life. How do you compare life in a non-cash economy, in an agrarian context with life in a slum, working in some sweatshop.

And one of the things that anthropology teaches is that when people are shorn of their tradition, of culture, rather desperate things can happen. Culture is not decorative – Culture is the blanket of insulation that we envelop ourselves in, both in order to keep the barbaric heart that history teaches lies underneath the surface of the individual at bay, but also to allow us to make sense of the sensation, to find order and meaning in a universe that ultimately may have neither. It’s culture that allows us, as Lincoln said, to reach for the better angels of our nature. When culture is shorn from the person, and the person survives as a shadow of their former selves, all sorts of dreadful things can happen.

I see the overall issue of 9/11 as, not to say that the people who perpetrated that evil deed shouldn’t be hunted down and expunged from the body of humanity, but at the same time it behoves us to understand where that hatred comes from, and my feeling is that the world can no longer tolerate a situation where such a large percentage of the world’s bounty is controlled by such an insignificant percentage of the world’s population.

This is a hidden backdrop to our age that I try to speak about. People talk a lot about the loss of biological diversity, the loss of habitat, the loss of plant and animal species, but no biologist would dare to suggest that 50% of all species of life are moribund or at the point of extinction, because it’s simply not true, but that apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity approaches what we know to be one of the most optimistic scenarios in the field of cultural diversity – the great indicator of that is language loss. When most of us still alive were born there were six thousand languages spoken on Earth, and a language isn’t just a body of vocabulary and a set of grammatical rules, it’s a part of the human spirit, it’s a vehicle through which the soul of a people reaches its material world. Of those six thousand, over half today are not taught to children, which means that perspespectively they’re already dead. We’re living through a time when half of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual legacy is being lost within a generation or two. The frightening thing about that to me is that these other societies and cultures aren’t failed attempts at modernity, these aren’t quaint and colourful societies destined to fade away as if by natural law, on the contrary in every case they’re dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces, which I guess is an optimistic observation which suggests, as human beings are agents of cultural destruction, they could also be facilitators of cultural survival.

Then again, as an Irishman – the Irish language is to all effects dead, yet the Irish culture is certainly not. To what extent does a language hold the key to a culture? Is it not a case that languages and cultures are to an extent subject to Darwinian forces, with the strongest ones surviving – with languages evolving?

Well, language isn’t necessarily co-terminus with culture, and certainly for example Alaskan indigenous communities that have lost their language still have a very strong sense of having their own culture. The reason language is so interesting, is because it’s such a useful concrete indicator. It’s like the canary in the coalmine. You speak about cultures being assimilated or slipping away, or whatever – it’s all rather fuzzy, but what you can actually say is when a language is disappearing. It’s concrete, and it really wakes people up. There are many people of course who say, “Well, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we spoke only one language?” Wouldn’t communication be facilitated etc etc. To which I always respond “what a great idea – but let’s make that language Yorba, or Cantonese, or Quechua” and suddenly you begin to get a sense of what it would be like to be enveloped in silence, to have no means to pass on the knowledge of your ancestors or anticipating the problems of your children – and that phase actually happens to someone roughly every fortnight, every two weeks roughly someone dies and takes with them to the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue.

I love English – it’s my native language, and to me it’s a very efficient and beautiful language but I don’t want it to be like a cultural nerve gas sweeping over the planet. It’s important to realise too, the threat to culture is not change. All peoples through all times have been dancing to the impossibilities of life. The threat isn’t technology either – the Sioux Indians didn’t stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow, any more than American farmers stopped being Americans when they stopped using the horse and plough. The interesting thing is that the threat to culture is power and whether that power is deforestation in the homelands of Panang, or ideological triumphalism in the case of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. And so, as I said earlier, that observation is a kind of optimistic one because we can be agents of cultural survival, facilitators of cultural survival – the real question is what kind of world do we want to live in? A monochrome world of monotony, or a polychromatic world of diversity? The obvious challenge is not to freeze people out of modernity but to find ways in which all peoples can benefit from the genius of modernity, without that engagement having to imply the diminution of who they are as an ethnicity.

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