Wade Davis explains that all the many cultures of the world “as well as thousands of others that might readily have found a place in this book, make up an intellectual, social, and spiritual web of life that envelops the Earth and is every bit as important to the well-being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere. You might think of this cultural web of life as being an ethnosphere, a term perhaps best defined as the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas 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 being severely compromised with the destruction of habitat and the resulting loss of plant and [-p9] animal species, so, too, is the ethnosphere, only at a far greater rate. No biologist, for example, would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund or on the brink of extinction. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario 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. A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a body of vocabulary It is a flash of the human spirit, the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material realm. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities. Of the nearly 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, they are already dead. Every two weeks, on average, somewhere on Earth an elder 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 may witness the disappearance of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural, and intellectual legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our age.” (pp.8-9)
“To grasp fully the significance of what is at risk and what is being lost, and perhaps to find ways of ameliorating the situation, it is essential to distinguish cultural change from, in effect, cultural annihilation. One can lament the transformation of small-town U.S.A., for example, and identify any number of causes: technological innovations, such as television and air conditioning, which lured families away from the front porch and the social realm of the street; or the automobile and the network of roads and interstate highways, which changed the architecture of place. While it is true that all of these developments provoked profound changes in the cultural landscape, none challenged the fundamental existence of the United States as an idea, a nation, a sphere of life and inspiration.
Similarly, the arrival of digital technology in India, or even the flood of genetically modified seed crops into Indian agriculture, will not fundamentally threaten a nation and a culture that for 4,000 years has absorbed every conceivable intrusion, from the Moguls to the British. In Canada, recent immigrations have affected the country, mostly for the better, in little more than a decade. In Vancouver, once an Anglo bastion, 50 percent of schoolchildren today consider English their second language. Toronto hospitals provide medical [-p10] advice to patients speaking 80 different languages, and the city plays host to peoples from some 150 nations.
Such changes are not, in and of themselves, threats to culture. The Kiowa Indians did not cease being Kiowa when they gave up the bow and arrow, any more than Americans stopped being Americans when they gave up the horse and buggy and embraced the car. The notion that small, indigenous societies are frozen in time and thus fated to slip away, reduced by circumstance to the sidelines of history as the modern world moves inexorably forward, is simply wrong. No culture, however isolated, is static. Traditional cultures have survived precisely because of their ability to cope with change, the one constant in history. People disappear only when they are overwhelmed by external forces, when drastic conditions imposed on them from the outside render them incapable of adapting to new possibilities. Sadly, these are the circumstances confronting most of the world’s indigenous peoples today.” (pp.9-10)
“As cultures are lost, individuals remain, often shadows of their former selves. They find themselves 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 may long to acquire. Anthropology suggests that when peoples are squeezed, extreme ideologies frequently emerge, inspired by strange and unexpected beliefs. The Shining Path in Peru, Pol Pot and the homicidal mania of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are all examples of malevolent, atavistic movements that have sprung from conditions of chaos and disintegration, disenfranchisement and disaffection.
Culture, in other words, matters. It provides the vital constraints of tradition and comfort that allow true civilization to exist.” (p.11)
“There is a fire burning over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, human languages, ancient skills, and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and kindling in its wake a new respect for the value and importance of both biological and cultural diversity, is one of the great challenges of our age.” (p.11)
Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Eds. Wade Davis and K David Harrison with Catherine Herbert Howell (2007) Book of Peoples of the World. National Geographic: Washington DC