When I was young, back in the 1970s, I spent two years travelling across the world: by truck with a group through Africa from south to north; in a campervan with a friend through northern and eastern Europe and Russia; on foot along most of the south coast of Crete; and by boat, bus, truck and train across Asia to India and Nepal.
The most difficult cultural adjustment I had to make was not to the cultures of other countries, but to my own on my return home to Australia. Many long-term Western travellers have the same experience, shocked in particular by the West's extravagant consumerism. My initial response on flying into Sydney from Bangkok was one of wonder at the orderliness and cleanliness, the abundantly stocked shops, the clear-eyed children, seemingly so healthy and carefree. However, this initial celebration of the material comforts and individual freedoms soon gave way to a growing apprehension about the Western way of life.
In a way I hadn't anticipated, the experience allowed me to view my native culture from the outside; and in ways I hadn't appreciated before, I became aware ours was a flawed and harsh culture. I realised that the Western worldview was not necessarily the truest or best, as I had been brought up and educated to believe, but just one of many, defined and supported by deeply ingrained beliefs and myths like any other.
We in the West tend to see material poverty as synonymous with misery and squalor; yet only with the most abject poverty is this so. Mostly the poorer societies I travelled through had a social cohesion and spiritual richness that I felt the West lacked. We see others as crippled by ignorance and cowed by superstition; we don't see the extent to which we are, in our own ways, oppressed by our rationalism and lack of 'superstition' (in a spiritual sense).
Over the following decades, as a researcher and writer, I developed these early insights into an analysis of cultural influences on health and wellbeing; how we define and measure human progress and development; and what the future holds for our civilisation and species. This is the topic of an essaypublished recently in the American magazine, Salon. It argues cultures exert a powerful, but largely invisible, influence on our lives: on what we understand the world to be, and so on how we behave in it.
This extract from the essay focuses on the importance of paying attention to other cultures and their stories if we are to meet the challenges of the future. These challenges are 'existential' in that they both materially and physically threaten human existence, and also undermine people's sense of confidence and certainty about life.
Listening to other cultural stories
Anthropologist Wade Davis's writing is an eloquent exposition of this viewpoint. In his books, Light at the Edge of the World: Journey through the realm of vanishing cultures (2001/2007), and The Wayfinders: Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world (2009), he urges us to heed the voices of other cultures because these remind us that there are alternatives, 'other ways of orienting human beings in social, spiritual, and ecological space'.
They allow us 'to draw inspiration and comfort from the fact that the path we have taken is not the only one available, that our destiny is therefore not indelibly written in a set of choices that demonstrably and scientifically have proven not to be wise'. By their very existence, he says, the diverse cultures of the world show we can change, as we know we must, the fundamental manner in which we inhabit this planet.
Davis learned as a student to appreciate and embrace the key revelation of anthropology: the idea that distinct cultures represent unique visions of life itself, morally inspired and inherently right. Cultural beliefs really do generate different realities, separate and utterly distinct from each other, even as they face the same fundamental challenges. Davis cautions that modernity (whether identified as Westernisation, globalisation, capitalism, or democracy) is an expression of cultural values: 'It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history'.
The writer Barry Lopez, in Horizons (2019) also brings an anthropological perspective to humankind's precarity, 'a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future'. 'As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes more imperative…. Many cultures are still distinguished today by wisdoms not associated with modern technologies but grounded, instead, in an acute awareness of human foibles, of the traps people tend to set for themselves as they enter the ancient labyrinth of hubris or blindly pursue the appeasement of their appetites'.
The future of cultures