Dispelling the myth?

I spent the best part of spring and summer ’99 working on my anthropology dissertation, passionately arguing that anthropologists had been wrongly excluded from much of the earlier global conservation process. The rationale behind my several-thousand word essay was that the view of indigenous peoples as ‘outside of nature’, or ‘a blot on the landscape’, with no place in the growing world view of pristine, natural environments was wrong. There seemed to be, after all, plenty of examples of indigenous peoples living in harmony with their environments, and that humans weren’t always a destructive force.

But maybe they were.

My three years at Sussex University studying a blend of development issues and social anthropology allowed me to carefully develop my thinking and combine two of my three passions in life (the third being technology). So, it is with great irony that a decade later I find myself reading a book which squarely blames indigenous peoples for many of the the mega-fauna extinctions in their environments. And the catalyst for this destruction? Technology.

In “Techno-Cultural Evolution“, author William McDonald Wallace highlights the rise of hunter-gatherer kill-offs with the rise in the use of technologies – hunting technologies such as spears, knives and bow-and-arrows, and later guns. He also argues that “one of the reasons many people resisted the idea of human causes for the disappearance of the mega-fauna was a romantic notion”. Perhaps there was a little of this clouding my judgment all those years ago, but is it wrong to think that it’s possible for people to live in harmony with their environments? Whatever the case, we certainly seem further away from it today than we ever have been.

William McDonald Wallace also argues that today we’re seeing a new environmental awakening underway. With mega-events such as the global Live Earth ‘gathering’, we could very well see this spearheaded by increased climate change awareness. Once again, the catalyst for our troubles has been a boom in technological innovation and all the energy consumption that goes with it. It is quite astonishing how far we have come in just over a hundred years.

But are we now not in a truly ironic situation where new technologies are being rapidly developed to counteract the negative impacts of others? If things go wrong later this year in Copenhagen – where World leaders meet to discuss the follow-up to the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol – then we could see a shift from a policy of applying technology to avoid climate change to one of applying it to help us simply adapt to it.

It’s a poor second choice, and one that just goes to show that, whether you’re a small community in the 21st century about to lose your island home to rising sea levels, or a buffalo in the 19th century roaming the plains of North America, technology can’t always be seen as a good thing.

8 thoughts on “Dispelling the myth?

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  2. Taylor says:

    Purely working off your post, my first thought is, why use the assertion that ‘humanity destroys parts of nature (sometimes via ‘tech’) therefore it is separate from nature.’? Using this premise, tornadoes, floods, forest fires and hurricanes are not a part of nature, if the distinction is that simple. To me the discussion at this point is nothing to do with whether or not humanity has an effect on the ‘rest’ of nature (good or bad) but by what measurement are we using to decided WHAT makes us different. This must first be decided. Perhaps there is some VERY well researched and defended understanding in anthropology that makes this distinction already that I am unaware of. I’d be very curious to read about it if it’s in some journal ‘Nature’ or the like.

  3. kiwanja says:

    @Taylor Thanks for your thoughts! A brief response to a much longer conversation over a Tusker some day… The history of national parks and protected areas is littered with the eviction of indigenous populations. For some time humans were not viewed as ‘part of nature’ (depending on how you define it, I guess) and were victimised and disenfranchised as a result. Much of the thinking behind the evictions was that human populations ultimately destroyed and depleted their environments and any areas with humans were not ‘pristine’. My early anthropology focus was on the role of anthropologists in trying to prove this was not the case.

    The technology angle comes in because history argues that that’s what gave humans the ultimate ability to alter their landscapes in ways never before seen. You could argue that much of what has happened has been destructive and put us on the rocky path we’re on today. Other natural phenomenons such as tornadoes aren’t deliberate acts, so don’t qualify in the same way.

    When you bring religion into the equation, things get even more complicated. Darwin’s theories put man very much “in” nature biologically. I’ll see if I can dig out any papers or research when I get home

  4. afromusing says:

    Hey Ken! Been nodding along with this post 🙂
    I am of the opinion that indigenous people were living in balance with Nature (maybe not all the time, but all in all – some type of balance) I am bummed that we did not watch Milking The Rhino together when you were in Kenya…but it touches on the break in perception that occurred in indigenous peoples’ minds after colonialists suddenly told them that they are poachers and cannot hunt in certain areas.
    A friend told me of an early African conservationist by the name of Cheruiyot – I am digging up the info, it seems interesting in terms of illustrating that conservation and environmentalism is indeed part of African culture and history (in Cheruiyot’s case – Nandi culture and history). I know it is, its just that I do not feel like there is an environmental activist base made up of Africans…well there is East African Wildlife Society and other orgs, but as a current movement, i do not think there is such a thing. This is where technology comes in….bringing all conservationists together to use new media, old media, mobile phones etc to deal with the environmental issues of the day, myths that still linger from old days and chart the way forward. I came back from rural parts of western Kenya and rift valley…so much deforestation – I am hoping something can be done soon to reverse this. (for now the site to bring the enviro folks together is Ecokenya.org – will work on it more and give you an update as to progress later in the year)
    Happy new year to you and your family,
    Hugs from Kenya!

  5. Taylor says:

    Whether or not I agree with the fact that humans tend to destroy nature, I still don’t understand why this fact removes us from nature. In order to eat meat, I have to destroy a cow. In order for a lion to eat, it kills a zebra.

    Let’s go with the idea that humans destroy nature. We destroy each other through war (macro) and murder (micro). So can’t the argument be made that nature is destroying itself. If we are apart from nature, are we alien to Earth?

    For me, the big idea is still… why is the litmus test for whether or not humanity is a part of nature simply whether or not we destroy the rest of it.

    A new thought… if we are destroying nature, is it really by choice or not. There are specific things anyone can point to that show us doing bad things to nature, but even if we were as conservative as possible, could we be at equilibrium with earth? What about when we reach 10 or 20 billion people? Is it even possible? Is it a choice or necessary to have a negative impact on nature.

    I do not necessarily disagree that humanity is separate from the rest of nature (I have a big God reason for that) just trying to understand how an anthropologist would answer and more importantly, why.

  6. dan mcquillan says:

    Did you ever read any John Zerzan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zerzan)? He used to be a touch-point for activist anarcho-primitivism.

    On the other hand, Murray Bookchin’s stuff had the merit of connecting environmental struggle to the history of social movements (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murray_Bookchin).

    I guess the ‘technology question’ relates to the kinds of relationships mediated by particular technologies, both relationships between people and between people and the wider ecology.


  7. Leah J Prout says:

    Wallace’s argument is deeply flawed. Hunter gatherers were nomadic and used only simple tools that they could carry with them. Development and advancement of agriculture created the possibility of sedentary lifestyles and excess food production. Here we see the first technological and cultural booms. ie Mesopotamia, Yucatan Peninsula.
    I recommend the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy”

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