All the books of anthropology which I have read have been about isolated tribes living a hunter-gatherer or fishing lifestyle.
The great gift for me from extensive travels in exotic cultures was a basis for comparison with my own culture. Now I had a critical perspective on my own culture and by extension, my own habits. This is because I believe that culture is 90% unconscious, 90% habits passed on from generation to generation by unconscious role-modelling and imitation. I believe that in their inception such habits were learned as skills in adaptation to particular places (indigenous culture). But in our culture they have been overlaid by habits associated with militarism and hierarchy.
The same is true of most of the cultures through which I have wandered, to a greater or lesser extent. This is why I cherish the window into non-militaristic, non-hierarchical cultures provided by anthropology. These same cultures, most significantly, were ecologically sustainable: they did not degrade their natural environment in thousands of years of occupying the same territory. It seems so poignant that just as the last of such cultures is on the brink of extinction in the Amazon the rest of humanity is just starting to learn how to live in a way that does not degrade the global environment.
I have often said that the test of beliefs is not whether they are true but whether they work (to sustain health and wellbeing). I recognize that among the beliefs which I unconsciously inherited are some which are distinctly unhealthy. Mainstream science which, supplanting Religion, claims the corner on truth, suggests that we live in a Universe of discrete objects interacting in accordance with the laws of gravity and reaction, that we ourselves are discrete individuals with machine-like bodies, in competition with one-another. This seems to me like it is based on the projection of assumptions arising from militaristic, hierarchical culture.
Contrast this with the belief of hunter-gatherers that they are integral parts of a living Universe. The pygmies called the forest (which was their Universe) ‘Mother’. Many indigenous peoples were animist, believing that all plants and animals and even rocks were animated by spirits which played a big part in their lives. Contrast it with the beliefs of pre-renaissance Europeans. They thought that the Earth was flat and that above the sky God reigned in Heaven. The Europeans believed that God had given the Earth to humans to use as we saw fit. This belief was not so destructive until science spawned industrial technology. Now this belief is suicidal.
Indigenous people believe that humans are a part of the Earth and that to hurt it is to hurt ourselves. It is only recently, since the reach of industrial capitalism has become global, that global consciousness has arisen. As Joseph Campbell pointed out, that we are living on a finite planet was introduced to public awareness by the first photographs of the Earth from space in 1959. It was driven home by the publication of The Limits to Growth in 1972 (I read it hot off the press) and by the oil crisis of 1973 when the writing was on the wall that oil reserves are finite.
James Lovelock published the Gaia Hypothesis in 1979. This pointed out how the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere has been maintained in an optimal composition for the thriving of life for millions of years (until human-induced climate change). Plants consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Animals consume oxygen and produce carbon dioxide. Lovelock noted that this maintained balance is similar to homeostasis in the body. One could say that the biosphere is like a living being in which plants and animals are cells. All this indicates how functional is the indigenous belief that we belong to the Earth. It does not belong to us.
So now we are challenged to create a sustainable culture, a sustainable lifestyle which does not destroy our planet home. It seems like there is no time to waste as extreme weather events announce the onset of climate change and Fukushima threatens to spread radioactivity across the northern hemisphere. I believe that pre-requisite to creating a sustainable society is a basic shift in consciousness to the view that what we do to the Earth we do to ourselves, that we are parts of the whole that is the biosphere. In effect this has been the project of eastern religions for over two thousand years working against the hierarchical, militaristic mainstream of their cultures. Buddhism points to a deeper reality: that we are ‘one with everything’. Taoism encourages us to learn to live in harmony with the natural order.
To me it is exquisitely beautiful to see how things unfold. Another way of saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is ‘crisis generates creativity’ or ‘crisis is the engine of evolution’. The future is the realm of possibility and there is never a foregone conclusion. But we now stand at the divide. In a crisis there is no staying the same, no business as usual. If we do not go up we will go down.
So reading anthropology gives us an opportunity to learn from tribal people how to live in harmony with nature by realizing that we are not separate from it. It is this same realization that will enable us to live in harmony with one-another.
The Forest People by Colin Turnbull, 1962
The Lost World of the Kalahari by Lawrence Van der Post, 1958
The Other Side of Eden by Hugh Brody, 2001
The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, 2009