There’s a Vanishing Resource We’re Not Talking About

Humans are losing our cultural diversity even faster than we’re destroying the planet. Yet that diversity could be key to surviving environmental extremes.

Jessica Stites

A new study in the Athens Journal of History argues that cave paintings like the Lascaux Shaft Scene in France (circa 15,200 B.C.) are records of comet strikes, using an ancient zodiac passed down for millennia. Some evolutionary anthropologists believe that such inherited cultural knowledge has been key to human survival. (MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

With­in 100 years, many of our cities will become unin­hab­it­able, sub­merged under oceans or dead­ly hot. Food will be more dif­fi­cult to grow. Storms will become more vio­lent. The gen­tle plan­et we’ve known will be no more.

We are a young, genetically homogenous species. For survival, we rely on a staggering diversity of cultures.

That’s hard to wrap one’s brain around. Some turn to faith, oth­ers despair.

I turned to anthro­pol­o­gy, and found that the pre­vail­ing think­ing on humans’ knack for sur­vival has changed since my intro class. Sci­en­tists are no longer as impressed with indi­vid­ual human clev­er­ness. Many ani­mals, from macaws to chim­panzees to otters, are adept at inno­v­a­tive problem-solving.

Instead, a grow­ing school of evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy believes that our abil­i­ty to adapt to cli­mates, from the Arc­tic to the Sahara, is because of our cul­tur­al diver­si­ty and abil­i­ty to pass on detailed knowl­edge for gen­er­a­tions. Anthro­pol­o­gist Joseph Hen­rich observes:

Sur­viv­ing in this immense diver­si­ty of habi­tats depend­ed not on spe­cif­ic genet­ic adap­ta­tions, but on large bod­ies of cul­tur­al­ly trans­mit­ted know-how, abil­i­ties and skills that no sin­gle indi­vid­ual could fig­ure out in his or her life­time (e.g., blow­guns, ani­mal track­ing). Many an explor­er has per­ished in sup­pos­ed­ly harsh’ envi­ron­ments in which local ado­les­cents would have eas­i­ly survived.

We are a young, genet­i­cal­ly homoge­nous species. Where oth­ers rely on genet­ic diver­si­ty for sur­vival, we rely on a stag­ger­ing diver­si­ty of cultures.

Or we used to. Cap­i­tal­ist economies that stress on non­stop eco­nom­ic growth … are paving the way to the homog­e­niza­tion of cul­tures and land­scapes,” warned 13 biol­o­gists and researchers in the jour­nal Con­ser­va­tion & Soci­ety in 2009. Land grabs, efforts to mod­ern­ize” indige­nous ways of life, con­sumerism and urban­iza­tion, among oth­er forces, are dri­ving a cul­tur­al die-off. One rough proxy is lan­guage: Of Earth’s rough­ly 7,000 lan­guages, one becomes extinct every oth­er week. 

That loss threat­ens not only the capac­i­ty of human sys­tems to adapt to change,” the Con­ser­va­tion & Soci­ety writ­ers warn, but ecosys­tems as a whole. Numer­ous stud­ies have linked lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty and bio­di­ver­si­ty. Lose local lan­guages, and you lose local species.

That is like­ly because the van­ish­ing lan­guages and cul­tures belong to indige­nous peo­ples. Land is revered and respect­ed … in vir­tu­al­ly every indige­nous cos­mo­vi­sion,” says ecosys­tem and sus­tain­abil­i­ty researcher Víc­tor M. Toledo. 

What ends up hap­pen­ing when we lose lin­guis­tic diver­si­ty is we lose a bunch of small groups with tra­di­tion­al eco­nom­ics,” explains Pro­fes­sor Lar­ry J. Goren­flo of Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty, who has stud­ied the link between lin­guis­tic and bio­log­i­cal diver­si­ty. Indige­nous lan­guages tend to be replaced by those asso­ci­at­ed with a mod­ern indus­tri­al econ­o­my accom­pa­nied by oth­er changes such as the intro­duc­tion of chain saws. In terms of bio­di­ver­si­ty con­ser­va­tion, all bets are off.”

Indige­nous peo­ples have served as the Earth’s staunchest envi­ron­men­tal stew­ards in the face of 500 years of vio­lent colo­nial­ist encroach­ment. Accord­ing to Glob­al Wit­ness, more than 50 indige­nous defend­ers of the land were mur­dered in 2017 alone. The 22 per­cent of the world’s land indige­nous peo­ple occu­py holds 80 per­cent of its species, as well as swaths of for­est that rep­re­sent a last bul­wark against cli­mate change. 

To me, this sug­gests that rather than trust in indi­vid­ual clev­er­ness to mit­i­gate cli­mate change, we might draw on our remain­ing cul­tur­al diver­si­ty and turn to indige­nous peo­ples for leadership.

I’m not alone. The U.N. and even the World Bank have rec­om­mend­ed cen­ter­ing indige­nous peo­ples in cli­mate plan­ning. A 2016 report by the Oba­ma administration’s USDA sug­gest­ed that the U.S. look to its 562 trib­al nations: It is detri­men­tal for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to exclude tribes in cli­mate-change ini­tia­tives because long his­to­ries of adap­ta­tion in response to colo­nial­ism, geno­cide, forced relo­ca­tion and cli­mat­ic events have pro­vid­ed tribes with exten­sive expe­ri­ence with resis­tance, resilience and adaptation.”

What’s more, indige­nous peo­ple can offer an eth­i­cal frame­work for adap­ta­tion plans.” The report quotes Ter­ry Williams, of the Tulalip Tribes Nat­ur­al Resources Depart­ment: We were taught that we’re the care­tak­ers of the land. I tell our peo­ple that, if noth­ing else, we can set the example.”

Or, as new U.S. Rep. Deb Haa­land (D‑N.M.), of the Lagu­na Pueblo, puts it: Our cul­tur­al prac­tices take into deep regard the har­mo­ny that must exist between peo­ple and the land — if we are to sus­tain our­selves and cre­ate such a path for future generations.”

Jes­si­ca Stites is Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and edits sto­ries on labor, neolib­er­al­ism, Wall Street, immi­gra­tion, mass incar­cer­a­tion and racial jus­tice, among oth­er top­ics. Before join­ing ITT, she worked at Ms. mag­a­zine and George Lakof­f’s Rock­ridge Insti­tute. Her writ­ing has been pub­lished in the Los Ange­les Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advo­cate and Alter­Net. She is board sec­re­tary of the Chica­go Read­er and a for­mer Chica­go Sun-Times board member.

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