The European: Anthropologists warn that up to half of the world’s languages might disappear within the next generation. But that doesn’t mean that we will become speechless: Other languages and cultural contexts will take their place. So why should we care?
Maffi: That question is often asked by people whose culture and language are not threatened. It is difficult to understand the significance of the decline of cultural diversity unless you are affected by it. When your culture carries prestige and is widespread, it is easy to assume that others would want to join it. So we have to turn things on their head and look at cultural diversity from the perspective of minorities: What does it mean for them to lose their culture and their language? And what does it mean for us globally?
The European: Most of our lives will be completely undisturbed by the loss of languages or cultural heritage elsewhere. What are the global consequences?
Maffi: As humans, we have evolved to differentiate ourselves culturally and linguistically from each other. The role of cultural diversification is similar to the evolution of complex ecosystems in nature: It gives resilience to human society as a whole, just as biodiversity gives resilience to ecosystems. Today, we are converging more and more as diverse cultures assimilate into the dominant model of Western society. As a consequence, the pool of perspectives on human life is being drained. In the past, new solutions to societal and environmental problems could come from non-Western cultures, but that opportunity is diminishing. In the words of the linguist Peter Mühlhäusler, we are developing cultural blind spots. That reality is staring us in the face but we are caught in denial.
The European: Instead of critically analyzing our own conventional wisdom from a different perspective, we embrace it.
Maffi: The range of perspectives on human existence is increasingly narrow and often tied to the notion of unlimited and unfettered economic growth. But unlimited growth within a finite system of natural resources is impossible. Diverse cultural perspectives provide us with alternative ways of looking at human activity and its relation to the natural world.
The European: If faced with the possibility of learning English and moving to a city, few people decline. The history of globalization is a history of exploitation, but it can also be seen as a history of expanding choices and human empowerment. Don’t you think that we should expand rather than restrict access to that history?
Maffi: Yes, choice is always important. But it cuts both ways: We also should not deny the right to remain within traditional culture. Cultures are not museum specimens that can be frozen in time, they are always alive and evolving. In many cases, the shift from traditional cultures to Western culture cannot be understood as a free choice if we apply the standards of freedom and human rights. Assimilation is often forced, sometimes in subtle ways. For example, if we force someone to make a choice without providing the necessary information about consequences, that choice cannot be understood as an informed and free choice. Or someone might be driven by desperation and poverty when processes of globalization undermine their traditional way of life. That, too, is not a free choice.
The European: If you attempted to draw a line at this point to judge whether or not indigenous cultures have benefitted from the spread of Western culture, where do you come down?
Maffi: On the whole, they have not benefitted. Think of all the slums that have developed throughout the developing world: The promise of prosperity has failed to materialize for most people. And if you take a broader perspective to include issues like cultural identity, public health, and societal integrity, you see that those have been undermined as well. Thriving communities have been uprooted; people have been displaced on a massive scale. That is tragic, especially when you consider that almost 85 percent of global cultural diversity derives from indigenous cultures.
The European: We recently talked to the anthropologist Wade Davis, who gave a forceful defense of indigenous religions. But it seems that the arguments we employ to protect those cultural traditions are precisely the same arguments that we discount within our own secular culture: Arguments about discrimination, about freedom of choice, or about scientific rationality.
Maffi: It is interesting that we often focus on the most extreme aspects of religiosity: Female circumcision, the stoning of adulterers, and so on. Those things certainly exist, and for that matter, Christianity too has had its fair share of cruelty…
The European: That would precisely be the argument: We have overcome dogmatic belief, and so should you! How can we reconcile the commitment to diversity with our own humanistic tradition?
Maffi: It makes sense to talk about spirituality rather than religion. What we should be interested in is the spiritual connection between ourselves and the world at large. In my opinion, the loss of that connection is at the root of the current crisis. We have come to see ourselves as disconnected from nature and increasingly superior to it. We are oblivious to the fact that we still completely depend on the natural environment for our survival. The relevance of spiritual beliefs lies in the fact that, in most cases, they make us aware of that connection.
The European: When did we go astray?
Maffi: The Age of Enlightenment is when it started. The primacy of reason and the separation of mind and body really began to develop at that point, preceding the era of industrialization. In the 19th century, those beliefs were combined with the conviction that machines could provide the answers to all our problems. Today, technology has monopolized our thinking and we are not able to direct our activities towards sustainable living. Current technologies are very good at extraction and exploitation of natural resources, but not very good at conserving and protecting them, or at repairing the damage that we have done. Green technology is a promising change, but it will be insufficient unless we adjust our fundamental principles and values as well. In the end, the world remains a finite place and we need to find a way to live sustainably within it.
The European: Some environmentalists question the idea that the human should be at the center of our moral universe. Your project sounds a bit more humble: To point out the connections between man and nature that make our culture sustainable.
Maffi: That’s right. There is no doubt that we are an incredibly clever and versatile species. Our cultural faculty has allowed us to outfox the processes of natural evolution itself. But now we need to engage in reflection and introspection and ask: What do we have to do to regain a balance with the natural environment? Our humanistic traditions should serve us well: The idea of reason has elevated us to the top of the evolutionary food chain, but it also has the potential to foster a reflective approach to human civilization.
The European: You already mentioned the idea of resilience. I am struck by the resurgence of metaphors from ecology, biology, or network theory in economic discourse. What can the natural sciences contribute to the social sciences?
Maffi: I would probably call them applications rather than metaphors. From a theoretical perspective, social systems are complex and have similar characteristics to natural systems. The work I am doing with my partner in life and work, David Rapport, who is an ecologist, looks at the idea of applying insights about ecological vitality and resilience to cultural systems. We should think about eco-cultural systems rather than separating the two components. When we look at hunter-gatherer societies, we can see how closely linked their culture is to the local ecosystem. But the same logic can be applied to ecosystems in which human presence has become dominant.
The European: Resilience theory suggests the existence of tipping points: Once a certain threshold of destruction has been crossed, the system quickly becomes unstable. What does that mean for cultural systems?
Maffi: Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Tipping points are happening right now on all continents. Large terrestrial ecosystems – forests, grasslands, wetlands, coastal regions, you name it – are collapsing. This affects not only the ecosystems but also the cultures and the people in those areas. For instance, the draining of the Mesopotamian Marshlands in the Middle East, because of agricultural development and industrialization, has led to a complete change in the ecosystem and has driven out the local inhabitants, the Madan or Marsh Arabs, who for centuries had followed a traditional way of life fully integrated and in balance with the local environment. Millions of dollars have now been spent to try to restore the ecosystem, to little avail, and most of the Madan have not been able to return to their homelands. In fact, there’s little knowledge about what’s happened to them after they were displaced. So the whole eco-cultural system is gone.
The European: It seems that the consequences are most often borne by non-Western cultures. I guess the ultimate tipping point would be one that directly affects us. As you said earlier: Unless we are affected, it is hard to understand the significance of the changes that occur.
Maffi: The Great Lakes region of North America is a good example. The lakes are the world’s largest freshwater reservoir, and they are on the verge of ecosystem collapse. The first wave of European conquest replaced the indigenous peoples who had lived in the region for millennia, establishing large-scale industry and agriculture in the Great Lakes basin. That European way of life is now being threatened by the progressive disablement of the Great Lakes ecosystems. Pollution, toxic algal blooms, the proliferation of non-native species in the lakes, and other negative impacts of intensive development have already radically transformed the lakes’ ecosystems, undermining the local billion-dollar fishing industry and threatened human health.
The European: I don’t want to belittle those effects, but they don’t seem entirely existential to me. It might be inconvenient to have polluted water, or unsightly to have trashed beaches. But the threats we discussed earlier were truly existential threats to cultural survival.
Maffi: That is true. But look at the effects: Our interaction with nature is already diminished, the lives of fishermen are threatened, and we are set on a path that will lead us towards broader existential threats. The mindset in the West is still that if we cannot get something here, we will be able to get it elsewhere. We are delaying the effects of our destructive practices. The cultures that feel the immediate effects are often not the cultures that are responsible for them. But we’re running out of “elsewheres” to go to, and the effects of our destructive practice sooner or later come back to haunt us where we are.
The European: What’s the way forward?
Maffi: Nobody likes to re-examine one’s own lifestyle. One perspective might be to seek a reconnection between humans and the natural world. Changes should be understood as positive, not as sacrificial. Education is key in that regard: Education of the mind and the heart. That will allow us to reevaluate our priorities and contemplate with a positive spirit the political, economic, and cultural changes we need to undertake to live sustainably on earth.
The European: The economist Herman Daly argues for policies that make environmentally unsustainable practices financially unsustainable as well. Let’s incentivize conservation.
Maffi: There is no doubt that the current economic system is dependent on a culture of incentives for many practices that are unsustainable. If we want to move away from our current practices and reflect on the infinite costs of unsustainable growth, the whole system needs to be be turned on its head.
The European: This seems like an issue where environmentalists and conservatives could form a broad alliance…
Maffi: Yes, I think we have to be open to new alliances, and especially to the alliance of the human species. We are a giant multilingual and multicultural swarm. Recognizing the power of our shared human consciousness gives me hope for our future, and for the future of our children and our children’s children.