Musings On the Ethnosphere

Will we turn around one day and discover that the way of life we have created, with all its individual freedoms, is totally unsustainable? Will we come to agree with most of the societies who have ever lived on Earth that interdependence is the only way to go on a planet as small, and yet incredibly diverse, as ours?

Just as there is a biological web of life, there is also a cultural and spiritual web of life — […] the ‘ethnosphere.’ It’s really the sum total of all the thoughts, beliefs, myths, and institutions brought into being by the human imagination. It is humanity’s greatest legacy… When asked the meaning of being human, all the diverse cultures of the world respond with 10,000 different voices.

On the National Geographic News website, Wade Davis, the “Explorer in Residence” speaks passionately about the need to preserve our ethnosphere, which is disappearing fast (languages being taught in school having, for example, halved in a single generation). If language is, as Wade says, a unique “flash of the human spirit”, a whole way in which to structure, see, and act in the world, then this is a massive loss for us all, one step further towards a bland amorphous monoculture.

There are many political and ecological ways to tackle this; as Wade reminds us, it is not the case that societies just get left behind by inevitable change in the direction of our own. In each instance the factor is power, domination, identifiable external forces, usually to do with economic factors and destruction of ecosystems. But what interests me is the psychological element: the huge resource bank of ways of interpreting and experiencing human experiences.

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Western society, with all its different psychological schools, has more or less created a dominant consensus of how human beings work, psychologically, and the conditions they need in which to be healthy. These conditions are usually based on the individual, and particular notions of freedom and happiness. The theories stand up in their own context, but they are not the only way and cannot pretend universal truth.

To most societies who have ever lived on Earth our individual freedoms look like a total abstraction. We may turn around one day, when the penny finally drops that the way of life we have created is totally unsustainable, and start to agree with them, that interdependence is the only way to go on a planet as small, and yet incredibly diverse, as ours.

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