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Embracing the 'Ethnosphere' For A Resilient World

November 30, 2012 | By Dina Buck

In this thought-provoking video, titled "Dreams From Endangered Cultures," Anthropologist and Enthnobotanist, Wade Davis, who is also a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, extols the importance of the "ethnosphere." The ethnosphere is the cultural and spiritual web of life, says Davis.

The "Ethnosphere" Contains All We Are and All We Can Be

He states, "You might think of the ethnosphere as the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, ideas, inspirations, intuitions brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity’s great legacy. It’s a symbol of all that we are, and all that we can be as an astonishingly inquisitive species. And just as the biosphere is being severely eroded, so too is the ethnosphere, and if anything, at a far greater rate."

To give just one example of how rapidly the ethnosphere is being eroded, Davis asks us to consider dying languages. Davis says roughly every 2 weeks, someone who is the last speaker of a language dies. If we consider that language is a living thing, not simply a tool to communicate with, but the embodiment of an entire peoples history and understanding of the world, we realize to lose a language is, in essence, to lose an entire facet of humanity.

A World With Few Perspectives is Weaker Than One With Many

This decreasing diversity of knowledge and wisdom means our world becomes more "monochromatic."  Someday, we could find ourselves living in a world where a limited number of world perspectives will reign. This will drastically curb our ability to respond to the problems we face collectively, since how we perceive the world can confine the possibilities we see as well.  Our worldview shapes our abilities and sense of possibilities. Possibilities that fall outside the view we hold may never be discovered if there isn't someone else, with a different perspective, to shine a light.  States Davis, "As we lose the diversity of ideas, of ways of life, our modality of thought narrows, and we will eventually lose knowledge that there were ever any different possibilities in the first place."  Thus, the ethnosphere, Davis says, is as vital to the well-being of life on our planet as the biosphere is.

Davis also points out that other cultures, other ways of knowing the world, are dying out not because they are antiquated or no longer relevant.  And the problem is not due to change or technology .  The problem, he says, is domination.  He states, "They are being driven out of existence by the forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to."  How, for example, is an indigenous people supposed to survive when the forest they have lived in since time immemorial is destroyed?  How are a people supposed to thrive under political domination that doesn't allow them to express or practice their traditional beliefs?  Through these things, cultures are being actively destroyed.

Solving Global Problems Will Require a Diversity of Knowledge

As a final thought, Davis points out that, given how recently we have come into being as a species, we will need all the voices, all the different perspectives, all the different branches of imagination humans are capable of, to guide us through the problems that are facing now, and will face in the future.

We continue to learn that modern perspectives and ways are not always the answer to a better world.  Increasingly, we find ourselves turning back to traditional and indigenous knowledge to find solutions we forgot we knew, conveyed by the increasingly few that still practice and remember.

We are, indeed, an astonishingly inquisitive species, and our world is undoubtedly richer when we embrace all the incredible ways we have learned to walk on the Earth.

To learn more about how indigenous and modern ways can inform each other, see also this link.

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