Research study: ‘older cultures’ (section of chapter 5)

Note: this is a first draft of a section of my research. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

In this early section of Chapter 5, some common features of “Older Cultures”, an appellation used by Thom Hartmann in his ‘Last hours of ancient sunlight‘ (1998: 154), will be considered for their ecologically-sensitive ideological stances and implications. Hartmann (ibid) lists the Kogi, the Ik of Uganda, the Najavo, the Hopi, the Cree, Ojibwa and the San as examples of older cultures, though this list is by no means exhaustive. He (ibid) identifies the following as important views, associated with older cultures, for consideration in light of the ecological crisis and the general state of ACID as explored in previous chapters: the first is that human beings “are part of the world”; the second, that it “is our destiny to cooperate with the rest of creation”. These are very simple ideas, but together they stand in strong opposition to the characteristics of Promethean ideology listed at the end of Chapter 4.

One paradigmatic characteristic that featured throughout chapter 4 is that of dominion over nature, and the associated domination of it – this ideological stance is quite clearly opposed to notions of ‘being part of the world’; rather, the world (i.e. nature) is something to which humans are superior in the Promethean view. Listed at the end of Chapter 4 there is also the following summary point: competition is emphasized, versus cooperation. Hartmann (ibid) paints a clearer picture of the alternative view – that of cooperation – associated with older cultures: they “are most often cooperators, not dominators” and that “the anthropological record shows that not one culture believed itself to be separate from and superior to nature”. These characteristics are explicitly Orphic.

Vetlesen (2012:38) confirms the general picture of older cultures painted above by Hartmann, and demonstrates the startlingly different interactions that older cultures (versus newer, primarily Promethean cultures) had with nature; here, drawing on the work of Berkes, he is describing the Cree, a North American aboriginal group:

…the living environment is seen as a community of beings that are supernatural as well as natural. Whereas in Western science it is assumed that humans can control animal populations, in Cree worldview, ‘human management’ of animals and people is not possible. Rather, it is the animals who control the success of the hunt. The hunter has to show respect to the animals because the hunter is dependant on game. This instils an attitude of humility. The game is not there for the taking. … The major principle is that everything caught is consumed and there is no waste. It is important that everything is eaten. Killing for fun or recreation or ‘sport’ without eating is transgression. What one kills, one keeps for eating.

The above quote needs no explanation considering the explicit difference drawn between western science and the worldview of the older culture; there was no detection of humility in the analysis (in Chapter 4) of exclusively Promethean ideologies that have dominated the western world; certainly there is endless waste produced by western culture (see Chapter 2), as opposed to the zero waste indicated in the above extract. The consequences for ecological preservation should be obvious already, but Vetlesen (2012:37) spells it out with the following; note that he uses the name ‘indigenous cosmologies’ below to denote older cultures:

Studies of indigenous cosmologies demonstrate how belief in the spirits of game animals restricted overhunting, and how shamanism functioned in the management of natural resources. Everything in the environment is considered to have life and spirit. A traditional conservation ethic can thus be defined as ‘the awareness of one’s ability to damage natural resources, coupled with a commitment to reduce or eliminate the problem’.

J. Callicott, quoted by Vetlesen (2012: 38), provides information pertaining specifically to American Indian culture that further describes the worldview of associated older cultures; he also spells out further implications for what the worldview means for ecology:

The implicit overall metaphysic of American Indian culture locates human beings in larger social, as well as physical, environment. Existence in this larger society places people in an environment in which reciprocal responsibilities and mutual obligations are taken for granted without question or reflection. All creatures, be they elemental, green, finned, winged, or legged, are children of one father and one mother. One blood flows through all; one spirit has divided itself and enlivened all things with a consciousness that is essentially the same. The world around, through immense and overwhelmingly diversified and complex, is bound together through bounds of kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity.

Sheldrake (1994: 13) quotes a Native American chief of the Wanapum tribe, whose words powerfully reinforce the point that older cultures share a deep kinship with the earth that fosters ecological equanimity. Here the chief is explaining “why he refused to till the ground”:

Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s bosom? Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest. You ask me to dig for stone! Shall I dig under her skin for her bones? Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again. You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it. And be rich like the white men! But how dare I cut off my mother’s hair?

Setreng (2012:105) provides an example of how older cultures’ worldviews further translate into physical action with the natural environment. He asks one to consider “a Sherpa house in Nepalese Himalaya”; It

always appears ‘unfinished’, a creation that never reached its ‘destined geometrical perfection’. But, from the traditional Sherpa point of view, the beauty and, intimately connected with that, the utility of the house may only be discovered if you settle down for a couple of generations, build such a house yourself, take responsibility for its daily care, live with the house instead of being its architect, repair it when (the frequent) need arises, add to it or subtract from it…”.

Record a hundred years of the development of the house at a frame a day and play it back at

normal cinematic speed. What will be revealed to you, is not a house in the Western sense, but an organic structure, its wall stones and roof materials will be moving about and changing, …the animal and human life around it will expand and contract, speed up and slow down, shift in kind and variety… This is a house that is decaying every day, a fact which is accepted by the people that are part of this ‘house-hold’. (Ibid)

The juxtaposition to the building characteristics of advanced industrial society is clearly enormous considering what was explored in Chapter 2 (section 2.5) about the construction industry. The industry is epitomised by the production and application of cement, a substance that requires massive amounts of energy to produce and transport and hence has considerable negative environmental impact. Once cement has been used, it is bound to remain in its specific shape and form for many decades as something that is supposed to be impervious to nature’s cycles. If a person were to do something similar – record a hundred years of the development of the house at a frame a day and play it back at “normal cinematic speed” – the building will not change much (despite the huge quantities of energy typically used in buildings to heat and cool buildings, as discussed in section 2.5), but instead stands out as separate to the natural cycles that surround it.

From the above, it is clear that the respect for nature inherent in older cultural paradigms is Orphic and fosters actions that are Orphic. Indeed, what comes across is the notion that respect for nature is respect for oneself; as David Abram (1996: ix) states in his Spell of the sensuous: We “are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”