It’s impossible to say how many cultures there are on Earth. Lines of division blur, the sheer number of people groups make accuracy impossible and the dynamic nature of societies presents a moving target. What can be said, however, is that distinct social systems are disappearing as trends in globalization indicate shifts toward homogenization.
Which is progress, right? A simpler world is easier to handle. It’s especially helpful if cultures have much to offer—political and religious freedom, career opportunities for economic security, civil infrastructure to protect the safety and rights of humans, so on and so forth. These are conceptions often thought to be inherent in Western societies.
The prolific and enigmatic 20th century environmentalist, David Brower, compressed four and a half billion years of Earth’s history and that of its inhabitants into Genesis’ six-day creation. When that time frame is considered, it isn’t until 4:00 p.m. on the last day that dinosaurs walk the Earth. By 9:00 p.m., these dinosaurs are extinct. At 11:57 p.m., humans appear on the scene. Jesus is born forty-five seconds later. The Industrial Revolution occurs 1/40th of a second before midnight. Since this moment of innovation, more resources have been extracted and consumed than by the rest of the people who’ve ever lived combined.
Brower states, “There are people who think what we’ve been doing for the last fraction of a second can continue indefinitely. They are considered reasonable people, but they are stark raving mad!”
Humans have existed for an awful long time, yet it wasn’t until recently they began to alter the planet and its ecological balances as significantly and seriously as they do now. It’s no coincidence that 95 percent of the areas identified by the World Wildlife Fund Global 200 as harboring exceptional biodiversity are home to indigenous peoples. This isn’t to paint pre-industrial societies as utopian. Survival entails struggle, and bouts of starvation and disease aren’t to be considered lightly. Today, we think we have answers for these. We think we have answers for everything. We’ve essentially circumvented natural selection. But despite—or perhaps due to—this feat, creation groans.
Lack of clean water, food, medicine and decent sanitation threaten many today. This is well understood. The solution cannot, however, be to bring all into the same conditions that we as Westerners live in today. This “flourishing” is literally impossible, as it would require four Earths to support the world’s population living as Americans, as according to the Global Footprint Network. Developing technology is often brought up as an answer, but gambling on things that do not, and may not exist, may not be the wisest or most responsible choice,especially as it is in our collective power now to make changes with positive repercussions among humanity and creation.
We must lower our conception of ourselves to the point where we can consider that necessary changes, developments and the shaping of lives very well might ask the transformation of ourselves as much as it does others. How do we use technology responsibly? How do we love, interact with and learn from those who live differently than us? And, most importantly, and possibly all encompassing, how do we humble ourselves before God, and find ourselves back in the correct order of creation? We have been given much. We are responsible for much. And for the many cultures, perspectives and ideologies, we are thankful. We have a lot to learn.
Indigenous and Traditional Peoples of the World and Ecoregion Conservation (p. 28,Publication). (2000). Gland, Switzerland: WWF International- Terralingua.
Note: I wrote this quick little article for Spring Arbor’s student paper. Between the day that I submitted it, and the day that it was posted, this took place:
The Prominent Environmental Activist Berta Cáceres Has Been Assassinated in Honduras
“How do you feel about the world around you? Do you feel like grappling with the world in all its complexity would be difficult?
As regards “grappling” with the world, in its present state, I will frankly confide to you two very personal vulnerabilities which would make living outside the cloister very difficult for me. First is my impression of the general formlessness of life in America today. So many people today live without a coherent language, symbol system, tradition, or rituals to give concrete expression to what they believe and so speak of seeking “happiness,” “contentment, “light,” “fulfillment”… The abstract formlessness of how Americans talk about matters of ultimate concern wearies me deeply.
The other is the loneliness that characterizes life in America today. Mother Theresa, visiting the U.S. for the first time in the 70s, said she had never seen poverty like what she saw here and she meant the loneliness of Americans. The breakdown and relinquishment of shared value systems and traditions, has left individuals adrift in a private search for God and meaning. This is a terribly lonely way to live. In America, loneliness can become like the blueness of the sky. After a while, people don’t think about it anymore.
Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?
Father A: The motivation is to focus our hearts and attention on the Truth of God that resides at the center of our being and is supremely Simple. (While living at Walden, a visitor one day asked Henry David Thoreau did he read the story in the paper about the man in Concord who committed suicide. “I don’t need to read the story”, he answered, “I understand the principle.”) We do not watch television and so would not have access to the daily news, but do keep informed about important developments such as the financial crisis, by means of newspapers.
I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don’t know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant. There is, for example, nothing “new” about the “New Atheism.” You see it heralded as complicating our world in a challenging and refreshing way, but its claims were much more intelligently pressed in the past and rejected by our ancestors. It is astonishing to me that, after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and China, people can speak of the experiment with radical secularism as if it were “breaking news.” Been there, done that.
Father B: I worry and pray about world poverty, overpopulation, consumerism, the moral bankruptcy of laissez-faire capitalism, the polarized, simplistic “thinking” in our country; about the public face and stupid blunders of the Catholic Church, about politicians who capitalize on religion; about veterans, war refugees, migrant workers; about people in jail (I used to do intervention work in the Criminal Justice System and in the inner city) and people with no meaning in their lives. I didn’t come here to get out of the real world but to get perspective on the real world.
I still believe that intentional community, communal ownership and a community of goods is a viable human endeavor, but I look for no utopia. My faith could not survive without engaging the concretely realities of human experience. My faith is forged in that collision. I find the here-and-now of vital importance, but not ultimate importance. It’s important because it is ephemeral; this moment is here and gone. How I respond to it is the vital question. Do I respond to it from my deepest values? that’s the important thing for me and the reality of my faith.”
Those who are familiar with world history know plenty about the conquests and endeavors in the past to assert national and empirical dominance of people groups, geographical areas and financial systems. From the Mongols, to the Vikings, the Safavids, the Conquistadors, the settlers of the Western United States, the Romans, the USSR and so forth, history is full of stories of contention for power. Often when we hear of these stories they come along with tales of atrocities and outright wrongs as far as how they left and treated the land, customs and culture of the people they met along the way. When I hear of these things, I usually have thoughts about the ignorance of the perpetrators, the carelessness of what they did and their slights to even the most basic of moral virtues. Whatever your faith or political standing, it should be clear that many of these “power-grabs” ended up with less than desirable results.
The thought that follows for myself is less centered on those at the forefront of these movements. It’s “What in the world are the people behind the scenes thinking? Can’t they see the decimation that is occuring? Why do they allow it? And why do they support it?” I think the answer lies in the fact that it’s easier to turn a blind eye when the gain is for yourself and “your people” (whether that be a national, religions, or domestic identification). At least, more so than the proposition that they simply do not have enough influence or power to do anything. Likely, they are both factors, but I really believe the first reason rings truer in most cases.
Changing gears a bit, there are a lot of people in this world who are “on top”. People who have money, people who have influence, people who have power, etc. And the thing is, they’re striving for more. Why? Not because they want to use their resources to help those that need it. Because they want more. But, frankly, once you get to a very basic certain level, more no longer equates to happiness or fulfillment. In fact, as a goal, the pursuit of more in a selfish context never ends and just gets more and more tangled and complex along the way. It’s been proven in many studies that once certain basic needs are met, no matter how much money people make there really is not much difference in happiness at all. There’s a plateau. And it really is not very high up. But we still have a world of people struggling well beneath this plateau, struggling to live. To survive. And then on the other side, we have people who have a dangerous “give me more” mentality. A mentality that says they they are entitled to vast amounts of possessions. The book “Deep Economy” puts it well when it describes this mentality with a simple anecdote, “Two beers made me feel good, so ten will make me feel five times better.” But it doesn’t work that way.
A couple days ago an American fighter jet crashed in rebel held, eastern Libya due to a mechanical problem. The pilots both ejected. Both landed safely, hid and were eventually safe and flown out. But that isn’t the whole story. One pilot (the two were separated) was taken in and given water and juice by Hamid Moussa el-Amruni and his family. They also brought out a doctor to see him. Soon after, an American jet flew over and strafed the same field, also dropping two 500 lb. bombs. Hamid was shot, and has shrapnel wounds in his legs and back and is now using a broomstick as a crutch so that he can walk. His farmland and house are pockmarked from the shrapnel and the blasts. His response? “They bombed us randomly to bring the mercenaries out, because they wanted to rescue the pilot. Then they pulled out the pilot but we understand (why they did this). We thank the forces of the coalition, the United States and France.” He thanked them and understood that what had happened was an accident. I didn’t put this up to comment on the United States’ involvement in Libya or foreign affairs or to make a statement about military procedure. I put this up because this man has the right attitude. He understands that life is not fair. He understands that mistakes happen. He understands that the past is the past. But most of all, he is willing to value others as much as himself. He could have been enraged with what happened. But instead, he looked past his present situation and what it meant for him, and saw what the whole of what it meant for his people and was thankful. Thankful.
That’s all I want to say. We need to take a look at what we are doing, how we are living, our attitudes, our possessions, our livelihoods and that of the rest of the world and evaluate our priorities. I’m not asking anyone to be perfect, none of us are. But some of us, myself included, are much farther away than we should be. Take a look at Earth and how sustainable our treatment of it is. Take a look at the inequality that is prevalent in our world. Check out the Gini Coefficient in your country. Look at your countries bureaucratic and economic policies. Look at the effectiveness of the world’s educational systems. Take a long hard look at our planet. And then do something. Many of these “systems” are directly influenced by our attitudes, choices, and values whether we like it or not. We are in a place of influence. An array of changes on a worldwide level may begin to take place simply because of everyday people like us making fundamental decisions to examine our faith, what we value and invest our time in and how we treat and respect others near and far away. The effects of these decisions must be shown in our lives. This is how we change things.