Future imperfect

Updated: Apr 29 2007, 05:30am hrs
How does it matter to a person in New York if a Borneo tribe becomes extinct Ask explorer-anthropologist Wade Davis the question, and his response is going to be how will it matter to the Borneo tribe if New York doesnt exist Davis, an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society with a PhD in ethnobotany sees it as his mission to disseminate profound stories from the peripheries, especially those threatened with extinction. Of the 6,000 languages spoken today, half are not taught to children, so effectively they are already dead. What this means is that within a generation or two, we are, by definition, losing half of humanities social, cultural and intellectual legacy.

What is being lost While humans are the same everywhere, many seem to think that those not progressive enough should die out, he says. But if we can go to the moon, in Polynesia, seafarers detect the presence of distant atolls by reading the reverberation of waves. In Mexico, the Mazatec communicate across vast distances by whistling, mimicking the intonations of their tonal languagea vocabulary written on the wind. Juwasi Bushmen for generations have lived in open truce with the lions of the Kalahari. What he does point out, and with inexorable logic, is that it is a pity that it is not archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being driven out of existence by identifiable forces.

I see myself as a storytellerpartly because the stories are too important to be left to the realm of academics. As part of the effort, he has worked on National Geographics four-part series, Light at the Edge of the World. The series explores four diverse culturesthe Inuit of Canada and Greenland, the Andeans in Peru, the Buddhists in Nepal Himalayas and the Polynesians strewn across the Pacific.

The myriad cultures of the world make up an intellectual and spiritual fabric that envelopes the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological matrix that we know as the biosphere, says Davis. Growing up in Canada, I looked upon forests as spaces just made of cellulose, to be cut. Most Andeans believe the forests have spirit, they communicate. The consequences of different worldviews can make a huge difference to the future of the planet. Extensively traveled across continents, he has written a number of books, including the best-selling The Serpent and the Rainbow (1986), which helped shape global thought on the subject.

Though he says the rate of extinction of late is arguably the fastest ever on the planet since the dinosaur-era, he also sees hope in the way that individuals and even some corporations are coming together to speak up for diversity. Three decades ago, he says, it was the done thing in the US to throw garbage out of cars, and climate change was unheard of. The pace of change has been fast, but he is unwilling to commit on whether the rate of preservation matches that of destruction.

Humans are very adaptable. While conceding the point on the debate whether to slow down the rate of climate change or to learn to cope with it, he argues that we have to decide what kind world we have to live in. Perhaps these remarkable stories can help preserve some of the disappearing richness of the human experiences.