Anthropologist Wade Davis, from his excellent 2009 book “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World”:
Our way of life, inspired in so many ways, is not the paragon of humanity’s potential. Once we look through the anthropological lens and see, perhaps for the first time, that all cultures have unique attributes that reflect choices made over generations, it becomes absolutely clear that there is no universal progression in the lives and destiny of human beings. Were societies to be ranked on the basis of technological prowess, the Western scientific experiment, radiant and brilliants, would no doubt come out on top. But if the criteria of excellence shifted, for example to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, with a true reverence and appreciation for the earth, the Western paradigm would fail. If the imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longing, then our dogmatic conclusions would again be found wanting.When we project modernity, as we define it, as the inevitable destiny of all human societies, we are being disingenuous in the extreme. Indeed, the Western model of development has failed in so many places in good measure because it has been based on the false promise that people who follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity enjoyed by a handful of nations of the West. Even were this possible, it is not at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials througout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would imply so severely compromising the biosphere that the earth would be unrecognizable. Given the values that drive most decisions in the international community, this is not about to happen. In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of th world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.
Davis goes on to write about a Catholic priest he knows in Africa, who has long ministered to a tribal people, trying to get them educated, and improved. He now believes he helped bring on a tragedy:
“Schooling,” [the priest] told me, “has not changed the people for the better. This is the pain in my heart. Those educated want nothing to do with their animals. They just want to leave. Education should not be a reason to go away. It’s an obligation to come back.”
But, as Davis writes, leave they do — joining the masses of urban poor in teeming Third World cities, where there is no work for them. They are unfit for living in the old ways, having emptied their minds of traditional knowledge in exchange for “book learning” — yet there are no jobs for them in the modern world. Is there a parallel set of lessons to be learned about rural America? Davis argues in his book that globalization and modern economic practices are not impersonal forces that we cannot control, but rather expressions of a particular culture — ours. We are not fated to live by these rules — but those who don’t wish to, but who lack the power, political and otherwise, to resist, may well be. And yet, how many of us, living our middle-class lives, would endorse our children choosing to refuse success as middle-class America defines it, instead returning to the land to farm, or to engage in some other non-remunerative activity that guarantees that they’ll live on the relative margins of our society? I’d like to think that I would, because it’s more true to what I value, but I cannot say with confidence that I would. Because after all, I have not made that choice for myself. Below the jump, watch a Davis film clip about the “ancestral genius” of the Wayfinders of Polynesia. Great stuff — if you like it, you have to buy his book, which is all about this kind of thing. That is, the hidden genius of traditional peoples that we moderns overlook.