An Interview with Anthropologist Wade Davis
NPR's Alex Chadwick: How long have you been working on the ethnosphere project as an idea?
Wade Davis: I coined the term ethnosphere in a recent book, Light at the Edge of the World. The thought was to come up with a concept that would suggest to people that just as there is a biosphere, a biological web of life, so too there is a cultural fabric that envelops the Earth, a cultural web of life. You might think of the ethnosphere as being the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, intuitions and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. The ethnosphere is humanity's great legacy. It is the product of our dreams, the embodiment of our hopes, the symbol of all that we are and all that we have created as a wildly inquisitive and astonishingly adaptive species.
And just as the biosphere, the biological matrix of life, is today being severely compromised, so too is the ethnosphere. Only if anything at a far greater rate of loss. No biologist, for example, would dare suggest that 50 percent of all species of plant and animal are moribund or on the brink of extinction. Yet this, the most apocalyptic projection in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity. The key indicator is language loss. There are at present some 6,000 languages. But of these fully half are not being taught to children. Which means that effectively, unless something changes, these languages are already dead.
AC: Why is the loss of language so important?
WD: It's the canary in the coal mine, a concrete and extremely disturbing indicator of what is happening to cultures in general. And, of course, a language is not merely a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. It is a flash of the human spirit, the means by which the soul of each particular culture reaches into the material world. Every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an entire ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.
It's haunting to realize that half of the languages of the world are teetering on the brink of extinction. Just think about it. What could be more lonely than to be enveloped in silence, to be the last of your people to speak your native tongue, to have no way to pass on the wisdom of the elders, to anticipate the promise of the children. This tragic fate is indeed the plight of someone somewhere roughly every two weeks. For on average every fortnight a leader dies and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. What this really means is that within a generation or two, we are witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity's legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our age.
There are those of course who quite innocently ask, "Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all spoke the same language? Wouldn't it be easier for us to get along?" My answer is always to say, "Terrific idea. Let's make that universal language Yoruba, or Lakota, or Cantonese." Suddenly people get a sense of what it would mean to be unable to speak your mother tongue. I cannot imagine a world in which I could not speak English, for not only is it a beautiful language, it's my language, the expression of whom I am. But at the same time I don't want it to sweep away the other voices, the other languages of the world, like some kind of cultural nerve gas.
It's very important that we understand the root causes of this collapse of cultural diversity. There is this misconception that these other cultures, quaint and colorful though they may be, are somehow destined to fade away as if by some natural law, as if they are failed attempts at modernity, failed attempts to be us, peoples incapable of change, destined for the dustbin of history. This is simply not true.
Change is no threat to culture. All cultures through all time have constantly been engaged in a dance with new possibilities for life. Change is the one constant in human history. Nor is technology in and of itself a threat to culture. The Sioux Indians did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow anymore than an American farmer ceased being an American when he put aside the horse and buggy in favor of the automobile. It is not change or technology that threatens culture; it is power, the crude face of domination.
The ultimate tragedy, in fact, is not that archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. Now these external threats have many faces. They may be industrial as the case of the egregious forestry practices that have destroyed the subsistence base of the nomadic Penan in the rainforests of Sarawak in Borneo. In Nigeria the once fertile soils of the Ogoni in the Niger delta can no longer be farmed because of toxic effluents of the petrochemical industry. Elsewhere the calamity may be caused by epidemic disease as in the case of the Yanomami who have suffered dreadful mortality due to exotic pathogens brought into their lives by the gold miners who have recently invaded their lands. Or the agent of destruction may be ideology, as in the case of the crude domination of Tibet by the communist Chinese. But in every case these are cultures that are overwhelmed by powerful external forces beyond their capacity to adapt to. This observation is in fact a source of considerable optimism. For it implies that if humans are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be facilitators of cultural survival.
AC: When you say that this change is an aspect of power, you mean the modern world is encroaching on these people's lives as industry and business seeks to develop new technologies, new markets, use new resources?
WD: It's perhaps useful to ask what we mean when we use the term modern world. All cultures are ethnocentric, fiercely loyal to their own interpretation of reality. Indeed the names of many indigenous societies translate as 'the people,' the implication being that every other human is a non-person, a savage from beyond the realm of the civilized. The word barbarian in fact derives from the Greek barbarus, meaning one who babbles. In the ancient world if you did not speak Greek you were a barbarian. The Aztec had the same notion. Anyone who could not speak Nahuatl was a non-human.
We too are ethnocentric and we often forget that we represent not the absolute wave of history but merely a worldview, and that modernity -- whether you identify it by the monikers Westernization, globalization, or free trade -- is but an expression of our cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only wave of history. It is merely a constellation of beliefs, convictions, economic paradigms that represent one way of doing things, of going about the complex process of organizing human activities.
When we project modernity as the inevitable destiny of all human societies I think we are being disingenuous in the extreme. Indeed the Western model development has failed in so many places in good measure because it has been based on the false promise that people who follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity enjoyed by a handful of nations of the West. Even were this possible, it is not at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials throughout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would imply so severely compromising the biosphere that the Earth would be unrecognizable. Given the values that drive most decisions in the international community, this is not about to happen. In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.
Consider the key indices of the development paradigm. An increase in life expectancy suggests a drop in infant mortality, but reveals nothing of the quality of the lives led by those who survive childhood. Globalization is celebrated with iconic intensity. But what does it really mean? In Bangladesh and China, garment workers are paid pennies to sew clothes that retail in the USA for tens of dollars. Even as fundamental a skill as literacy does not necessarily realize its promise. In northern Kenya, for example, tribal youths placed by their families into parochial schools acquire a modicum of literacy, but in the process also learn to have contempt for their ancestral way of life. They enter school as nomads; they leave as clerks, only to join an economy with a 50 percent unemployment rate for high school graduates. Unable to find work, incapable of going home, they drift to the slums of Nairobi to scratch a living from the edges of a cash economy.
Without doubt, images of comfort and wealth, of technological sophistication, have a magnetic allure. Any job in the city may seem better than backbreaking labor in sun-scorched fields. Entranced by the promise of the new, people throughout the world have in many instances voluntarily and in great earnest turned their backs on the old. The consequences can be profoundly disappointing. The fate of the vast majority of those who sever their ties with their traditions will not be to attain the prosperity of the West, but to join the legions of urban poor, trapped in squalor, struggling to survive. As cultures wither away, individuals remain, often shadows of their former selves, caught in time, unable to return to the past, yet denied any real possibility of securing a place in the world whose values they seek to emulate and whose wealth they long to acquire.
This is a very dangerous and explosive situation. Anthropology suggests that when peoples and cultures are squeezed, extreme ideologies sometimes emerge, inspired by strange and unexpected beliefs. Al Qaeda, the Maoists in Nepal, the Shining Path in Peru, the Khymer Rouge of Pol Pot -- all of these malevolent groups have emerged out of chaotic conditions of disintegration and disenfranchisement that come about when disaffected populations are cast adrift from their foundations.
Culture is not decoration or artifice. It is a blanket of comfort that gives meaning to lives. It is a body of knowledge that allows the individual to avoid madness, to make sense out of the infinite sensations of consciousness, to find meaning and order in a universe that ultimately has neither. Culture is a body of laws and traditions, a moral and ethical code that insulates a people from the barbaric heart that history suggests lies just beneath the surface of all human societies and indeed all human beings. Culture alone allows us to reach as Lincoln said for the better angels of our nature.
So to lose half the known cultures in a generation is not trivial. And to have all of these individuals running around stripped raw, shadows of their former selves, free of moral or ethical constraint is to create a very dangerous world indeed.
AC: What is it that you would like the ethnosphere idea to accomplish?
WD: The writer Peter Matthiessen once said that anyone who thinks they can change the world is both wrong and dangerous. But he also suggested that we have an obligation to bear witness to the world. At the very least I want people to know what is going on, to face the reality of our times, the deep and most consequential current of history that flows beneath our lives. What can possibly be more significant than the loss in a single generation of half of humanity's intellectual and spiritual legacy?
Just before she died, anthropologist Margaret Meade spoke of her singular concern that, as we drift toward a more homogenous world, we are laying the foundations of a blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that ultimately will have no rivals. The entire imagination of humanity, she feared, might become confined within the limits of a single intellectual and spiritual modality. Her nightmare was the possibility that we might wake up one day and not even remember what had been lost.
Think of it this way. Human beings as a recognizable social species have been around for what, perhaps 600,000 years. The Neolithic revolution, which gave us agriculture, and with it surplus, hierarchy, specialization, sedentary life, occurred only 10,000 years ago. Modern industrial society is but 300 years old. This shallow history does not suggest to me that our way of life has all of the answers for all of the challenges that will confront us as a species in the coming millennia.
The myriad cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, they are unique manifestations of the human spirit. With their dreams and prayers, their myths and memories, they teach us that there are indeed other ways of being, alternative visions of life, birth, death and creation itself. When asked the meaning of being human they respond with ten thousand different voices. It is within this diversity of knowledge and practice, of intuition and interpretation, or promise and hope, that we will all rediscover the enchantment of being what we are, a conscious species aware of our place on the planet and fully capable of ensuring that all peoples in every garden find a way to flourish.
In the end this is neither a sentimental nor an academic notion. Indeed in the wake of Sept. 11 it has become an issue of survival. For the central challenge of our times, at least in a political sense, is to find a way to live in a truly multicultural world of pluralism. Not to freeze peoples or cultures out of the flow of history but rather to insure that all peoples may benefit from the products of our collective genius without their participation having to imply the eradication of their cultures.
AC: The story of the salt caravans and the people of Taoudenni and of Timbuktu, how does that fit into the ethnosphere project?
WD: The ethnosphere is just a term, an organizing principle, if you will, that hopefully will encourage people to pay attention to what I maintain is arguably the key issue of our times -- language loss and the erosion of humanity's cultural and intellectual legacy. The real question is what do we do about it? Obviously it is neither possible nor desirable to sequester indigenous peoples in a park like some kind of zoological specimen. You cannot make a national park of cultures or save a rain forest of the mind. Ultimately all you can do is attempt to change the way people throughout the world view and value the contributions of these diverse cultures, these diverse manifestations of the human heart. And how does one effect change on such a global scale?
The answer is that no one really knows. But it does happen. Consider the major shifts in awareness that have occurred over the last decades. Just 40 years ago, for example, simply getting people to stop throwing garbage out of car windows was considered a great environmental victory. No one spoke of the ozone layer or of the consequences of climate change. Rachel Carson was a lone voice in the wild. Biosphere or biodiversity were exotic terms, familiar only to a handful of scientists. Today they are part of the vernacular of schoolchildren. Environmental concerns occupy the attention of governments worldwide. Solutions may remain elusive, but no government on Earth can ignore the challenge.
Turn from the environment to other issues -- the roll and status of women, attitudes towards homosexuality, even the shift in public concern about tobacco use. We've actually seen amazing changes within our lifetimes. When I was asked to join the National Geographic as Explorer-in-Residence, I was told quite boldly that my mandate was to change the way the world thinks about culture in a decade. One of the reasons I accepted the challenge -- wildly ambitious as it is -- is because I have long believed that while polemics are rarely persuasive, and politicians are seldom catalysts of social change, stories and storytellers can change the world. As a story-telling platform, the National Geographic Society is difficult to beat. Every month the Geographic reaches a worldwide audience of more than 250 million people.
So we decided to tell the stories of the ethnosphere, to launch a series of journeys that would take our audience to places and peoples where the cultural beliefs, practices and rituals were so inherently wondrous that just to know of them is to be dazzled. So inspired we can hopefully all come to embrace the key revelation of anthropology, the idea that the world into we are born does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is just one model of reality, the consequence of one set of choices made by our particular intellectual and social lineage.
Not that there is anything wrong with our worldview. Indeed if the measure of success is technological wizardry, we most certainly come out on top. But imagine an anthropologist from afar coming to America for the first time. To be sure he would see many wondrous things. But he would also see a culture that reveres marriage, yet allows half of its marriages to end in divorce; that admires its elderly yet permits grandparents to live with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its households; that loves its children yet embraces a slogan -- 24/7 -- that implies total devotion to the workplace at the expense of family. By the age of 18, the average American youth has spent two years watching television. Technological wizardry is balanced by the embrace of an economic model of production and consumption that compromises the life supports of the planet. Extreme would be one word for a culture or civilization that does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the biochemistry of the atmosphere. In other words our way of life, brilliant and inspired in so many ways, is nevertheless not the paragon of humanity's potential.
To acknowledge this is not to denigrate our culture but rather to humbly recognize that other cultures, flawed as they too may be, nevertheless contribute to our collective heritage, the human repertoire of ideas, beliefs and adaptations that have historically allowed us as a species to thrive. To know and accept this is to sense viscerally the tragedy inherent in the loss of a language or the assimilation of a people. To lose a culture is indeed to lose something of oneself.
At the National Geographic we hope to embark over the coming years on dozens of journeys to the ethnosphere. I'd like to take people to Africa, to Benin and Togo, to the origins of Vodou, to meet a people who walk in and out of their spirit realm with ease and impunity that has always astonished the ethnographic observer. In the South Pacific I'd like to introduce the world to the greatest mariners, the Polynesian seafarers who read the stars and followed the ocean currents to create the largest culture sphere in the history of civilization, 10 million square miles, a quarter of the surface of the planet. In Mexico the Mazatec communicate by whistling, complex messages sent across broad mountain valleys, a vocabulary inspired by the wind. In the Amazon Waorani hunters smell animal urine and can identify the animal that deposited it in the rain forest. Aboriginal Dreamtime, the Naxi shaman of Yunan who carve mystical tales into rock, the Juwasi Bushmen who for generations lived in open truce with the lions of the Kalahari -- this list goes on. And of course there are these deserts of the Sahara.
We came to Mali to follow the Arab merchants who for centuries have moved across this vast sea of sand to secure this precious commodity, the salt of Taoudenni. The story intrigues me because the salt is not a mere commodity; rather it is seen as being the gold of the desert, and the culture of trade and movement that has grown around its exchange has inspired a people, even as it has obliged them to come to terms with the harsh and impossibly severe desert environment. The salt makes the journey necessary, but the journey makes the people, and the people in turn bring the desert alive with spirits and dreams, all the mystic possibilities inherent in a land where death always lies near, and life is a narrow thread woven into the fabric of destiny.
AC: The journey?
WD: The journey is many things. It is of course a physical task, a necessary element of the trade. But it is also an initiation, the measure of a man. An Arab youth cannot marry until he has at least once crossed the harsh sands from Timbuktu to Taoudenni. And the journey traditionally was also a sacrifice -- remembering that the word derives from the Latin "to make sacred" -- because to make the journey is to become one with the desert and with one's fate.
It is also a wonderful means by which we as outsiders can measure the genius of the people. Science has now proven what we have always dreamed to be true, that we are all brothers, that all human beings share the same raw mental capacity, the same acuity. But there lingers this conceit that while we have been busy inventing the Internet or placing men on the moon, these other societies have somehow been intellectually idle. Again this is simply not true. Anthropology has long taught that whether a people's mental potential goes into technical wizardry or unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth is merely a matter of cultural choice and orientation. In the Sahara, the raw potential of the human mind has been tapped in astonishing ways, some metaphysical, some boldly concrete, like the very capacity to orient oneself in a endless expanse of sand where there is no separation between horizon and sky, nothing of a human scale, no points of reference save the hallucinogenic waves of delirium that sweep over the unfettered imagination and scorch the throat with a thirst impossible to describe, impossible to bear.
Consider for a moment our old friend Baba Oumar, our guide. He will watch the stars at night, read the patterns of the wind in the lee of plants, observe the direction and texture of the dunes. But ultimately he will tell you that orientation in the desert is a gift. Only some have it; most do not. And whatever is the nature of this gift lies beyond the world of the physical. He claims never to have been lost. Sometimes though he becomes momentarily disoriented. I asked him what he did when this happened. He told me that he simply sits still and waits for a sign from Allah. He may carry an old compass, left over from the French, but his true compass lies within, and it is something of the spirit that those of us not of the desert will never know.
AC: You talk a lot about special knowledge of different people, a knowledge that people had in pre-colonial societies, indigenous people had, and have in those societies to the extent that they still exist. What is that special knowledge here in the desert along the route of the salt caravan?
WD: I'd say orientation and the very ability to survive in this environment. It's not unlike the Arctic in a certain sense. When the Europeans first went to the North they took the Inuit to be savages; the Inuit took the British to be Gods. Both were wrong but one did more to honor the human race. What the British failed to understand was the fact that there could be not a better measure of genius than the ability to survive in that impossible land on a technology limited to what you could carve from bone and slate, or forge with ice. It's like that here in the Sahara. It was astonishing yesterday, for example, when we came upon the caravan that we had first seen coming south as we approached Taoudenni.
AC: But in the process they've run out of water?
WD: Exactly. The rains that fell on us that first night also struck their camp, and the salt had to be dried before they could proceed. Thus they lost three days and by the time we ran into them they were down to their last liter or two of water. They were six young men, a hundred kilometers from the nearest well, with a valuable herd of camels and a large consignment of salt. Yet there was no sign of panic. On the contrary just as we arrived they were in the process of dispatching one of their mates with one camel to walk 15 kilometers over stony ground to reach a depression in the ground that they had simply heard about and which might conceivably yield water if you dug five feet beneath the surface.
And while they waited for their friend to return, what did they do with their last bit of water? They kindled a twig fire and brewed us tea. A simple gesture but so pregnant with meaning. On the one hand it revealed the customary law of the desert that demands that you give to any guest all that he requires. They say that should a stranger turn up at your tent, you will slaughter the last goat that provides the only milk for your children to feast your guest. The reason being, of course, that in the desert one never knows when it will be yourself who turns up in the night, hungry, dying of thirst. The simple brewing of tea reveals a world of reciprocity that reaches back for generations, bonds of loyalty and trust, never spoken about and never forgotten. And at the same time, as I watched Mohamed pour the tea, I was amazed by his quiet confidence, his certain knowledge that he would find a way to water. That more than anything revealed to me that this searing desert was for him a home.
AC: They're running out of water, they've sent a member of their group out to an ambiguous unknown destination to try to dig, hand dig 4 or 5 feet down to see if he can find water and yet when we arrive in the desert they offer to share their water.
WD: Yes, and I think you also see in this gesture the importance of the community. Even had this been the summer, when temperatures reach 140 degrees and the surface of the sand becomes too hot to touch, he still would have shared that water. Not to do so would have been to shame himself and deny all his social obligations, which itself would have implied the betrayal of his community. This is something we in the West often fail to understand. We long ago liberated the individual from the constraints of community and we did so with such finality that we forget what an astonishing innovation it represented in human affairs. It was really the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. And we forget that in most of the world the community still dominates, for without the strength of the community the individual cannot survive. In embracing the cult of the individual, we secure an irresistible sense of liberation and freedom. But it comes at a cost, as is evident in the alienation and isolation that characterizes too many lives in the West.
AC: Let me just ask you. I've shared this experience with you, I share your experience about the wonder of this people. I just could hear an American sitting back, or someone in my own family, sitting back and saying, well okay they have this special knowledge, and it applies to crossing the desert and maybe the salt trade is going to disappear in five more years, so who needs that special knowledge anymore, what difference does it make?
WD: Let me answer with a metaphor from biology. People often ask the same question about species loss. What does it matter if a single species becomes extinct? Well imagine you are getting on an airplane, and you notice that the mechanic is popping out the rivets in the wings. You ask the obvious question and the mechanic says, "No problem. We save money with each rivet and so far we've had no problems." Perhaps the loss of a single rivet makes no difference, but eventually the wings fall off.
I think it's the same thing with culture. If these caravans cease to run, and if the children of these youths no longer know how to move through this desert, will the sky fall? No. But we're not talking about the loss of a single species of life or a single cultural adaptation. We are speaking about a waterfall of destruction unprecedented in scale. Indeed two centuries from now this era will not be remembered for its wars or its technological innovations, but rather as the time when we either passively endorsed or actively supported the massive destruction of both cultural and biological diversity on the planet. It's rather amazing. Genocide, the physical extermination of a people, is universally condemned by all civilized societies. Yet ethnocide the destruction of a people's way of life is not only not sanctioned, it is often endorsed as appropriate development policy.
Let's go back to that American sitting at home, wondering why it should matter if these desert peoples lost their culture. Perhaps here in the desert there are Arab or Tuareg families asking something of the same question about the American culture. Does it matter to the Tuareg if the people of Texas lose their culture? Probably not. But I would argue that the loss of either way of life does matter to humanity as a whole. On the one hand itís a basic matter of human rights. Who is to say that the American culture matters more than that of the Tuareg? And at a more fundamental level we have to ask ourselves what kind of world do we want to live in? Most Americans will never see a painting by Monet, or hear a symphony by Mozart. But does mean that the world would not be a lesser place without these artists and their unique interpretations of reality?
AC: This project is supposed to last five years, what are you going to do?
WD: It may last 10 years.
AC: I hope it lasts longer than that. What's your current plan?
WD: Our goal as I've said is to tell the stories of the ethnosphere, to take our audience to places of such amazing cultural wonder that they will feel viscerally the value of what these peoples offer the world. And we also want to facilitate in any number of ways the ability of these peoples to tell their own stories through words, film, photography and through our Eebsite CulturesontheEdge.com. Indeed my partner Chris always speaks of turning the Internet into a virtual campfire around which we gather to share tales from all reaches of the ethnosphere.
But critically we don't want these accounts to be decorative. We are not interested in indulging fantasies of the exotic but rather in celebrating the powerful depths of culture and the lessons to be learned from such deep understanding. In a sense we would like to try to do for culture what the deep ecologists and poets did for biology. Let me give you two examples.
Think for a moment about the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Why is it that over 60,000 years they never tried to improve upon creation? To the contrary they accepted life as it was, a cosmological whole, the unchanging creation of the first dawn when the primordial ancestors through their thoughts, dreams and journeys sang the world into being. The paths taken by the Ancestors have never been forgotten. They are the Songlines, precise itineraries followed even today as the people travel across the template of the physical world.
As the Aborigines track the Songlines and chant the stories of the first dawning, they become part of the Ancestors and enter the Dreamtime, which is neither a dream nor a measure of the passage of time. It is the very realm of the Ancestors, a parallel universe where the ordinary laws of time, space and motion do not apply, where past, present and future merge into one. But for them this parallel universe is every bit as real as the realm of the physical world. And to walk the Songlines is to become part of the ongoing creation of the world, a place that both exists and is still being formed. Thus, the Aborigines are not merely attached to the Earth, they are essential to its existence. Without the land they would die. But without the people, the ongoing process of creation would cease and the Earth would wither. Through movement and sacred rituals, the people maintain access to the Dreamtime and play a dynamic and ongoing role in the world of the Ancestors. The world as we know it exists, even as it is still being formed, breathed into being by human consciousness. So how can a people possibly embrace a cult of improvement, of change, in a world that has yet to be born.
Now whether this notion is "true" or not is hardly the point. What is interesting and consequential is the manner by which the conviction or belief mediates the relationship between the human society and the natural world. In the Andes, for example, the people believe that a mountain is an Apu, a sacred being that has the power to direct the destiny of all those living within the shadow of its slopes. A young child coming of age in such a place will have a profoundly different relationship to that mountain than a kid from Montana raised to believe that a mountain is a pile of inert rock ready to be mined. Is a mountain a God or a pile of ore? Ultimately who is to say? The important point is the manner in which the belief itself mediates and defines the relationship between the human and the natural landmark, in this case a mountain.
AC: Let me just ask this. We saw these miners laboring under just horrific conditions for practically no money. I mean this is just an amazing system, but it certainly doesn't operate on any kind of principles of I'm going to work for this much money and that kind of return that we would recognize. Are there cultural practices that perhaps should go extinct, that are not worth preserving, you know, slavery, genital mutilation, all these kinds of things that are cultural practices that it's hard to say, "Okay, that's their cultural tradition, I'm for it."
WD: This is an excellent question. Anthropologists are often accused of embracing an extreme relativism as if any cultural practice can be rationalized. As if you could rationalize the heinous acts of Nazism, for example, because after all they had an ideology, they had an ethnicity, they had a language. In truth, no serious anthropologist calls for the elimination of judgment. What anthropology encourages is the suspension of judgment so that the judgments we're ethically obliged to make can be informed ones.
The story of this mine is so complex. You're right. It's hardly a pleasant place to work. But then there are many mines in America that are rather unpleasant and the working conditions in most European and American mines have until relatively recently been just as harsh, and certainly more perilous than those that confront the miners of Taoudenni. What you have is a complex system of trade and labor, with many of the miners trapped in debt. It's undoubtedly a harsh existence. But it is what it is and for most of these men it is the only source of revenue and work. So they do it, as their ancestors have done for several centuries. And around the economic activity has emerged a fascinating culture, the caravans that have moved through these deserts since camels were first domesticated two thousand years ago.
Whatever you think of this mine, you are looking at a tradition that has lasted a very long time. The arrival of motorized transport will mean the end of the caravans, and never again will trains of 50,000 animals move through the dunes. At the same time the trucks mean that the miners can sell the salt for cash, rather than having to give the camel caravans three slabs out of every four mined. Thus the miners will do better in a strictly economic sense. And the salt will be cheaper to buy in Timbuktu and points south, simply because of increased supply. But missing from such a simple economic analysis is the fact that the reason the salt of Taoudenni is so highly valued is its very scarcity. People in Mali can buy sea salt from France for half the price. But they prefer the salt of the desert and pay a premium because of an entire range of symbolic elements and meanings. The salt of the French is said to cause diseases; that of Taoudenni is known to heal. Chemically they are probably difficult to distinguish. Sodium Chloride is sodium chloride. But the Taoudenni salt has a magical resonance that has less to do with its innate properties than with the mystique of the culture of the trade, the remoteness of the mine, the stories that have been handed down over the generations. Think for a moment of the gifts of the Three Wise Men, Frankincense and Myrrh. What made these so precious as to be selected the gifts for the Christ Child? Their usefulness as resins, or the value they held because of scarcity. A bit like diamonds or black pearls. Once the camel caravans are gone, and the salt is moved by truck, the mystique will soon be dissipated, and the gold of the desert will be nothing more than crude blocks of salt.
There was one man we met Taoudenni, the only miner known to have spent a full year at the mine in its entire 800-year history. Shamed by his debts, unable to confront his family, he spent a searing summer in the pits, alone. He looked and acted like a character out of a Paul Bowles short story. His eyes were blank, distant, as if focused into some other reality. We bought his freedom for the price of a dinner in New York. Had his life been easy? To the contrary it must have been hellish, hovering in that heat, making his way in the darkness several kilometers each night to draw brackish, poisonous water from the only well. But when I met him I wanted to know what he had seen, a psychic landscape of the imagination that no other man in history had known. Did he have a nice life? No, but there was something profoundly moving, even redemptive merely to be in his presence. No one is saying that every culture or every cultural encounter has to be nice.
AC: It doesn't have to be nice to be wonderful?
WD: No. Cultural expressions can be sublime or harsh, elegant or clumsy, inspired or foolish. But in the end, the wonder lies in the fact that all are authentic expressions of the human drama. Let's step back from the desert and the salt of Taoudenni to recall the bigger picture. There is indeed a fire burning over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written language composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets, and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience. Quelling this flame, and rediscovering a new appreciation for the diversity of human spirit as brought into being by culture is arguably the central challenge of our times. Every view of the world that fades away, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life and reduces the human repertoire of adaptive responses to the common problems that confront us all. Knowledge is lost, not only of the natural world but also of realms of the spirit, intuitions about the meaning of the cosmos, insights into the very nature of existence. This is why it matters that we tell these stories, and make these journeys.