Last night I went to a lecture by Wade Davis at UBC. It was hosted by their Beaty Biodiversity series.
The delivery of the talk was awesome – if you haven’t heard Wade Davis, I’d recommend giving him a listen. You can tell he’s a very practiced speaker, and he just flows seamlessly from one story into another…sometimes in a rather stream-of-consciousness fashion, but not in a way that you can’t follow him.
The content really drove home the point that humanity is what it is because of all the various cultures within it. I think he called culture an answer to three key questions: Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? And the collective answers from all the world’s cultures makes up humanity’s answer.
I think this makes perfect sense, of course, my background being anthropology. No one country or region of the world represents the whole planet (in terms of geography, climate, plant and animal species, and so on), so no single human population that springs from one of those regions can represent all of humanity.
He was careful to point out at the end of the talk that cultural relativity does not translate into moral relativity; anthropologists do not demand that we withhold judgement of cultural practices (in fact, anthropologists are often critical of practices in their own or other cultures that they find to be damaging or harmful, and frequently get involved in efforts to bring about an end to those practices). Anthropology does, however, demand that we suspend judgement, so that our opinions are informed ones. In other words, it just wouldn’t be appropriate to presume that because a practice or way of looking at the world is different from your own way, or from what you are used to, then it must be wrong or in need of changing.
Anyway, what the talk left me with was a sort of renewed confidence that there are many ways of approaching the ecological and biodiversity-related issues we are facing, and that listening and looking at other ways of living is a great way to get ideas on how best to proceed.
I also ended up thinking (during a section where he was talking about Haiti and vodun/voodoo) about an initiative called SOIL in Haiti, that basically practices humanure as an alternative to western water-based sewage systems. I have a LOT of enthusiasm for these kinds of practices, because honestly, no matter what else we do in terms of trying to create food security, we won’t get anywhere long-term if we don’t put nutrients back in the soil. (And part of that is safely recovering the nutrients like phosphorus that are in animal solid waste, and humans are animals!) Part of the vodun religion or system of belief is a deep understanding and respect for the relationship between life and death; specifically, that death feeds life and visa versa. I wonder if part of the reasons that initiatives like SOIL are able to thrive in Haiti (aside from necessity and the existing infrastructure, which is of course a HUGE reason I’m sure) is because the people are already receptive to the idea that death, decomposition, and breaking down what once was alive is a necessary ingredient for new life (and replenishing the soil). Something to think about.