Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world was discussed last Friday by National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis at the University of Calgary. The event was hosted by the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation.
Davis's talk focused on the role cultural diversity plays in understanding our place in the world. This diversity is under threat from many directions. "Half of the approximately 7,000 languages being spoken today are not being taught to children," said Davis in an interview before his talk. "Within a generation or two, we're losing half of humanity's linguistic -- but also social, spiritual, ecological and psychological -- knowledge. This doesn't have to happen," he said.
Davis explored two major themes in his lecture. The first is that "ethnocide," the term he uses to describe the destruction of culture, negatively affects the people living those experiences. The other major theme is that collecting as much human wisdom as possible is important for the problems the world is facing today. Davis said studying different cultures is "not just [out of] nostalgia or romanticism or intrigue. It's that the spirit of cultural myopia is just something that we cannot indulge anymore in a multicultural, interconnected world.
"It's not trivial, and part of the lessons of anthropology are not lessons to suggest that cultures go backwards to some pre-industrial past, or that any people be kept from the benefits of modernity, but rather to ask the question 'what kind of world [do] we want to go forward to?' So that all peoples have a chance to be part of a dialogue that helps us to determine which way we're going to move."
For Davis, a significant step toward addressing these issues is to recognize our own particular cultural biases. The importance of the stories that can be told led Davis to educate the general public about other cultures, rather than strictly researching in an academic setting.
"I really felt that the issues of both the demise of biological diversity and the erosion of cultural diversity were just simply too important to be familiar only to a handful of scholars," he said.
The problems surrounding ethnocide are different than protecting biological diversity, which is a much more common topic in popular discussion. "In the realm of biological diversity you can make a protected area, but you can't make a protected rainforest of the mind, or a protected area of the imagination, or of a culture," said Davis.
The problem is exacerbated because while biological protection is a popular theme, stopping the destruction of cultures is not something governments feel a need to address, according to Davis.
Through his use of storytelling and vivid description, Davis is adept at describing the incredible achievements of humanity. When describing how Polynesians were able to navigate over thousands of kilometres of ocean in open boats, he describes their achievement as an indication of the same genius it took to land a man on the moon.
Davis has two new books coming out this fall. Into the Silence, is an account of British soldiers who fought in the First World War and then went to Everest in the 1920s. The second book is a collection of photographs called The Sacred Headwaters, detailing the northern British Columbia land under threat from methane extraction development. development.