We try to protect the biosphere, but what about the Ethnosphere?

According to the Living Planet Report issued in 2012 by the Word Wildlife Fund Global, due to increasing deforestation, natural resource procurement, and habitat destruction, global biodiversity—plethora of plant and animals found on the planet—has decreased by 30 percent since the 1970s with tropical zones incurring a 61 percent loss. This fact is shocking but will not come as a surprise to many. What few people realize, however, is that the world is seeing an equally staggering loss of cultures, traditions, and ways of life due to the same manmade conditions, a loss that significantly decreases the chances of a sustainable future.

One way we can measure cultural destruction is to examine the loss of language. A product of a culture that evolved over many generations, language embodies a culture’s imagination and unique perspective of viewing the world into a concise, single form of expression. This means every time a language dies so does a unique conglomerate of knowledge that took hundreds of generations to develop.

When we compare the loss of language to the loss of plants and animals, we find that languages are disappearing at the same, if not, at an accelerated rate compared to the biosphere. According to the National Geographic, more than 80 percent of the world’s population speaks only one percent of the world’s languages and, by the end of this century, between 50 to 90 percent of the 6,000 to 7,000 languages currently spoken today are projected to disappear.

To predict the effect that language loss would have on cultural sustainability, we can look at parallel global biological processes to examine whether or not a mono-linguistic world would be constructive to cultural sustainability. Monoculture, for example, is the most widely accepted form of industrial agriculture for producing a single crop because of its ability to produce higher yields compared to other methods. However, according to Carbon Trade Watch, the removal of varying plant species and the introduction of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides lead to environmental degradation by depleting soil nutrients, reducing biodiversity levels, and polluting water sources. Monoculture is just one example of the negative effects that homogenizing biodiversity presents. Alternatively, biological diversity aids sustainability due to nature’s inherent ability to check and balance itself. These are well-established, scientifically-sound facts, and the parallel homogenization of language, culture, and traditions is equally damaging, while ethnodiversity holds many advantages.

Indigenous communities around the world have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of and intimate connection with the natural world. Their discoveries have formed the basis of many modern marvels. For instance, according to the Science and Development Network, up to a quarter of western medicines were first used by and derived from indigenous medicinal traditions. Today, from the Prickly Fanflower (Scaevola spinescens), a natural anti-cancer treatment of the Aboriginal Australians, to the Maya Nut Tree (Brosimum alicastrum), a species historically used by ancient Maya to sustain populations during droughts and famines, indigenous communities continue to store immense amounts of knowledge that could advance modern medicine, nutrition, and agriculture. Yet, despite the beneficial knowledge these populations posses, their cultural traditions are continually being belittled and invaluable knowledge is lost every time a language and a culture falls by the wayside.

Richard Schultes—a renowned Harvard botanist who is often sighted as the world’s greatest Amazonian explorer—has worked extensively with native populations and realized before many others the importance traditional indigenous knowledge has on the very survival of the human race. In his book 1988 Where The Gods Reign: Plants and Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, Schultes expresses much greater concern for the loss of cultures that inhabit the Amazon basin than the plants and animals themselves:

“…investigations by Colombian and foreign botanists have recognized an unbelievably rich flora [in the Amazon], and the detailed knowledge of it possessed by its native inhabitants. Advancing acculturation and civilization everywhere spell the doom of extinction of this knowledge faster even than the extinction of species themselves as a result of forest devastation.”

Protecting native communities from extinction is hugely important for the future of civilization. To reposition indigenous cultures, and the endless tap of invaluable knowledge they represent, Wade Davis—an esteemed ethnobotanist and explorer at National Geographic—has proposed a new theoretical concept of the ethnosphere to account for the various cultures around the world that make up a rich intellectual and spiritual web of life that is every bit as important as the well being of the biosphere to sustainability efforts. In his book 2009 The Way Finders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, Davis argues that the ethnosphere makes up:

 “…the sum total of inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of our consciousness.  It is the collectiveness of unique ideas, spawned from the originality of the cultural forefathers that has given rise to the ethnosphere.”

Fortunately, Wade Davis is not alone in his quest to record and document these cultures and knowledge. Other organizations, like the Rosetta Project with support of The Long Now Foundation, have stepped up efforts to record and document as many cultures and languages as possible by compiling over 100,000 pages of documents with recordings from over 2,500 languages. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has also developed a Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge to encourage researchers and policy-makers to incorporate indigenous knowledge into project proposals and implementing plans and projects.

Unfortunately, while records and policies help to document and integrate indigenous knowledge, they fall short of fully developing a system that speaks to, informs, and motivates the wider public to its benefits. Nor do they help address actual cultural homogenization. As a global community we need to take more steps to value the cultural diversity of our collective ethnosphere, prevent its further loss, and harness its benefits for a sustainable future.

Do you think that cultural diversity and the ethnosphere deserve the same prominent place in scientific discussion as biological diversity and the biosphere do? Leave a reply below.

Adam Nelson is a research and communications intern with INESAD.
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