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Francis Childe

The organisers of our forum have proposed that I speak of whether or not there can be an Asian Model of Development. Before I take up this challenge, I feel obliged to cite an old adage: ‘The sage asks questions; the fool answers them’. So rather than try to provide any definitive answer — and thereby betray my own culture’s traditional wisdom — I would like to suggest some possible points of view from which we may be able to give depth to the question of ‘endogenous models of development’, or what the United Nations has termed the ‘cultural dimension of development’. And I would like to do this by asking you to consider how the enormous global problems facing humankind on the Earth today cannot be seen apart from culture.

The concept of culture is difficult to define — a liquid in an age of solids, as it has been described. However, we would not be far wrong if we were to characterise it as everything that we create, preserve, and transmit as a group, or — in a wider context — as a species. Such a definition has the advantage of encompassing culture both in the restricted sense of the arts, and in the broader sense of a ‘whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual’. Culture, then, is something fashioned by humankind: it comprises all the expressions of our creativity, including language, science and technology, architecture, literature, music and art. It is an intimate part of the way we live, the way we think, and the way we see the world. It includes all our beliefs, attitudes, customs, and social relations. Culture transmits to us an intrinsic understanding of the way the world works, and leads us to see what is important within that world. In a word, culture represents our whole system of values, those conscious and explicit as well as those that are unconscious and implicit.

Culture seen in this light — our cultures — cannot, indeed must not, be viewed apart from the other great issues of our day, whether the destruction of the environment, the population explosion, or whatever. The global crisis facing humanity at the dawn of the 21st century is, more than anything else, a reflection of our collective values, behaviour and life-style. In short, we are, as a species, the agents of our own misfortune — and indeed, of the very Earth’s misfortune.

Is it not a curious thing that, at the very time that our existence on the planet has become a threat not just to ourselves but also to the biosphere which spawned us, we have for the first time the means, if not the wisdom, to do something about it. So while humankind’s collective presence on Earth has new-found global consequences, simultaneously there has arisen the possibility of our developing a global awareness of our situation and of the repercussions of our communal actions both for ourselves and for all elements of life in the world around us. Globalisation is a material phenomenon to be sure — global warming, for example, affects us all, no matter where we live nor from where the pollutants derive. But thanks to the power of modern communications technology and media, it also exhibits the intangible quality we call awareness of consciousness — what happens in Bosnia, or Rwanda, or even, for that matter, on the slopes of Mount Everest or the banks of the Ganges, is now immediately accessible, as perception, to people all over the world. The analogy of humankind as an infant, taking its first tentative steps, uttering its first words, becoming not only aware of itself but aware too of the world around it, immediately springs to mind and rings almost too true for comfort.

At the same time, this growing awareness of ourselves and of the world around us has had other, unforeseen, consequences. One of the most significant of these has been the rapid breakdown of old structures and control mechanisms — external in terms of political and economic structures, and internal in terms of shared values and codes of behaviour. This is accompanied by a lack — at least for the present — of coherent new structures, of new values and codes of behaviour with which to respond appropriately to the completely new situation in which we find ourselves. The result is that in many parts of the world, this uncertainty is attended by a kind of instinctive and frequently turbulent retreat into traditionalism, tribalism, and narrow ethnic or religious identities, where all the emphasis is on the difference between cultures and peoples, and none on their sameness. It is as if something old and massive is in its death throes, and something new and as yet undefined is struggling to be born in its shadow.

So the real question, or rather the first question, that we have to face may be that of the survival of human civilisation as we know it, as well as of a large part of the biosphere. As the old adage has it, ‘Nothing focuses a person’s mind so well as his (or her!) impending death’. I wonder whether we, as a species, understand that this may well be our collective situation today.

Now I would like to come back to what I said earlier: culture cannot, indeed must not, be divorced from the other great issues of our day. And I would like to illustrate this remark by examining two of the most pressing problems facing the world at the dawn of the 21st century — population and the environment — and the manner in which they relate to the culture, and cultures, of humankind.

The recent UN Summit on Population and Development held in Cairo brought home to the world as never before the scale of the human population explosion. The United Nations estimates that by the year 2050, the world’s total population will reach somewhere between 8 and 12 billion people, from its current level of about 5.5 billion. The current increase is well over 90 million persons annually, which is equivalent to the entire population of Mexico. And while it took 125 years for the world’s population to increase from 1 to 12 billion, the last increment of one billion persons was achieved in one-tenth of that time, in 13 years!

While human reproduction is clearly a biological function, there are also potent cultural imperatives at work. Everything associated with sexuality, marriage and childbearing has vital cultural and religious connotations that go far beyond the mere ‘biology’ involved. Every culture has definite teachings and norms in this regard, along with powerful inducements to behave in this way or that, and frequently also unpleasant sanctions for those who do not conform — not only in this world, but even in the next!

But in spite of this, the great majority of population programmes throughout the world have concentrated from the very beginning almost entirely on the technical aspects of family planning (provision of birth control devices, information on fertility cycles and conception, types of services, achievement of quantitative targets, etc.), while almost no attention has been given to the socio-cultural contexts in which such programmes are implemented. And yet religious beliefs, traditional relationships between men and women, family size and structure, marriage age, the status of women, taboos on the mere mention of sex (even in its clinical sense) in public or even in private, to name but a few aspects, are manifestly of crucial importance. As long and often bitter experience has taught us, family planning programmes are not merely a matter of providing contraceptive means and information: they touch the very fabric of the individual and of society and involve the most intimate physical, cultural and even spiritual levels of those concerned. In short, family planning is essentially a programme of socio-cultural change. Or, to put it another way, the population explosion is not only a biological phenomenon; it is also without doubt rooted deeply in our socio-cultural norms and behaviour.

A second illustration of the integral relationship between culture and the state of the world in our time may be found in the relation between biological and cultural diversity. Not only are cultural and biological diversity intimately linked, we may even say that they are aspects of the same phenomenon: adaptation through diversity. Nature’s response to different geographical and climatic conditions results in biological diversity, and thus a multitude of diverse species and life forms arise in adaptation to local conditions. On the other hand, homo sapiens is the only species living on the Earth today that has the potential to exploit every feasible ecological niche on the planet’s surface, and this adaptability has been reflected in humankind’s cultural diversity. In this way, not only the plants and animals but also the human cultural patterns that we find in the humid tropics are quite different from those we find in the Tundra or in the arid temperate zones. So, whereas nature produces different species (biodiversity) that adapt themselves to living in relative harmony within any given set of natural conditions, so too humankind develops different cultures (cultural diversity) that conform to local conditions using the same survival strategy of adaptation through diversification. Indeed, seen in this light, cultural diversity may well be a reflection of the very life principle itself.

Now, however, as modern industrial society (and its attendant values) has begun to exert its dominance over the most isolated parts of the globe, and over peoples and cultures that have existed for thousands of years in equilibrium with their natural environment, we are witnessing the rapid disappearance both of different life forms and of different cultures. As these distinct peoples and cultures disappear, so, too do the environments which sustained them. And as ecosystems disappear, so do the cultures which arose in them. In short, the loss of cultural diversity and of biodiversity are two aspects of the same event, or if you will, two sides of the same coin.

This linkage may go far deeper, in fact. It is precisely thanks to the enormous variety of species produced by nature that the Earth’s ecosystem is able to respond and adapt to changing conditions, thus engendering a sustainable biosphere. Genetically speaking, and to borrow an appropriate metaphor, nature has learnt never to put all her eggs in one basket. The ecosystem’s safeguard against a rapid change in external conditions therefore consists of plurality and diversity, and one of the most troubling aspects of the present accelerated loss of biodiversity is that nature — and the ecosystem as a whole — finds that its capacity to respond to the environmental changes being provoked by humankind is now being seriously compromised and diminished.

Here I would reiterate that something very similar is at work in the area of cultural diversity, and that we are now witnessing the rapid destruction of age-old cultures and traditions all over the planet to our extreme peril and that of future generations. Unlike modern industrial society, many traditional cultures existing up to the present from ages past still enable people to live in symbiosis with their natural environments. Such peoples and cultures have often been active agents in promoting the ecosystem’s health and biodiversity. And it is within these traditional cultures that many now believe the seeds of a new culture — able and willing to live in creative harmony with its constituent parts — might be found. If the unique and particular understandings of humanity’s different cultures are lost or simply reduced to the lowest common denominator, then it is clear that something precious, and perhaps even essential, for our collective survival will have been squandered. Their world-view, their values and their deeply innate respect for nature and life are the very elements that may form the basis of the profound change in attitude and behaviour that alone can engender a global culture capable of reacting responsively, and responsibly, to global change. A true, creative globalisation of culture, then, may more properly involve the induction of diversity into a common framework, where synergy (inclusion) rather than entropy (exclusion) is the operative principle. In short, it is not a question of achieving either unity or diversity, but rather of finding unity in diversity.

Humanity is at a great crossroads today. Our collective response to this conjuncture of forces and events will affect not only our own future but, as we are all beginning to realise, that of the entire biosphere. Either a new world will be born or the whole world, as we know it, may well perish. In any event, the old world cannot go on, for it carries within it the seeds of its own destruction: in other words, of its lack of sustainability.

In searching for the source of this new world or new world order, as it is sometimes called, we often have recourse to the fundamental ideals, first expressed in the 18th century, of inalienable human rights. What a powerful principle this is, and how strong has been its influence all over the world, perhaps never more so than today. But there is another side of the coin, for to claim rights without an attendant sense of responsibility — or duty, if you will — may be fulfilling individually, yet leads us only to the current collective relationship between rights — the great contribution of the West — and duties, the great understanding of the East. In a word, rights and duties are mutually dependent, just as are East and West.

And it may well be that it is only as part of such a relationship — between our unique inviolable nature as individuals and our collective responsibilities towards ourselves and all organic life on Earth — that life can have any real meaning.

Meaning implies relationship and can in no wise refer to one thing or part alone. Meaning comes from understanding the relationships of different parts to one another and to the whole. There can be no meaning for my life, or for our lives, except insofar as I, or we, relate to one another and to the whole. The very essence of meaning is this intimate, irreducible relation with the whole: the whole of myself; the whole of humankind; the whole of life on Earth. And yes, perhaps, the whole of Creation. Without this sense of relationship, our lives have no objective meaning.

Here I would like to quote President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, who alluded to this very question in an address he gave recently in the Independence Hall in Philadelphia. President Havel spoke of the awareness of our being anchored in the Earth and the Universe — the awareness that we are not here alone, nor for ourselves alone, but are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme.

This forgotten awareness is encoded in all religions. Cultures anticipate it in various forms. It is one of the things that form the basis of man’s understanding of himself, of his place in the world and ultimately of the world as such. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence.

Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence.

Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be a part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbours and thus honour their rights as well.

It has often been said that knowledge is power. And indeed it is. But power, as we see so clearly in the world today, in and of itself is not only useless, but even dangerous. Knowledge, and the power that it spawns — especially in the field of science and technology — must be counterbalanced by wisdom, the very essence of which President Havel touches on in the short passage I have just quoted. And the well-spring of this wisdom is to be found in the most ancient traditions and cultures: in Taoism and Zen, in the understandings of the Hopi and the Maya Indians, in the Vedas and the Psalms, in the very origins of human culture itself. As a Tibetan monk told us recently, ‘The state of the world today is nothing other than a reflection of our own inner world, and of our greed. If we wish to change the world, we must change ourselves’. Or, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed’.

It is this wisdom, based on a profound respect for nature, for one another, and indeed for the mystery of all creation, that we must rediscover, first in our own cultures, and then in the cultures of others. Only in this way can each and everyone of us make our own unique contribution to the emerging global culture — whose fate is far from certain, yet whose destiny we cannot but sense as being our own . . . both as a right and as a responsibility.


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