Cultures Are No Museum Specimens: Should We Care About Biological and Cultural Diversity Even if Its Decline Does Not Affect Us?
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.