jump to navigation

On Being a “Modernized” Society August 6, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Environment, Nature, Philosophy, Saving the World, Social Media, Through the Looking Glass.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Earlier today some excellent news was announced: the former UN water advisor has condemned Botswana’s government in its denial of water to the Bushmen, just a week after the UN declared clean water and sanitation a basic human right. This is definitely a step in the right direction for the Bushmen and all people on our planet lacking access to water.

On one of the forums where this news was posted, another user and I got into a rather intense debate about the issue. He argued,

The Bushman, I’m afraid, are fighting a futile battle. Sad, but true. The best they can hope for is for some well-meaning benefactor to archive their language, customs, stories, and history. Botswana (and SADC generally) will not halt their aggressive agendas for a tiny minority with no political representation — modern state formations (to include governments and corporations) just don’t work that way….The only way the “Bushmen” as you call them will survive is to modernize like everyone else in the region. This is a sad reality. Very sad indeed. But it is reality.

In rebuttal I discussed various civil rights movements and argued that the Bushmen’s cause, far from “futile”, merely depends on making their access to water a matter of self-interest for the government. (If, say, an effective international boycott of Botswana diamonds was launched, my guess is the borehole would be opened pretty fast.)

Looking back over the debate in retrospect, though, I realize I entirely glossed over one of the most interesting aspects: his use of the word “modernize.”


What is a “modernized” culture? We who live in first world countries certainly like to think of ourselves as “modern”. In fact we take it for granted that we are, and that being modern is a good thing – so good that it’s inevitable, really, that the whole world should “modernize” as well and follow our shining example?

But what does it mean for a culture to be “modern”? If you asked people to pin it down they’d probably (after some hemming and hawing) come up with something like: “A society that makes full use of the most advanced, “cutting-edge” scientific and technological discoveries.” From which we assume, we’re a highly scientific society, and therefore we must be modern…right?


By this definition, there is really no way of life so hopelessly un-modern as our Western lifestyle. We ignore the latest scientific data about climate change, depletion of natural resources, and the carrying capacity of the globe. We reject new energy developments such as solar and hydrogen fuel-cell power in favour of  inefficient and harmful centuries-old fossil fuel technology. We fail to make adequate use of scientific findings regarding urban sprawl and mass public transport in city development, instead trusting the inefficient hundred-year-old automobile to accomplish the task. To run our vastly complex global monetary environment, we trust ourselves blindly to economic practices developed hundreds of years ago using much smaller models with no inherent limits to growth.

Our lifestyle is not modern. It does not reflect the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, data, or worldview. It fails to take into account or make full use of the latest developments in economics, statistics, environmental sciences, and technology. It is not a system that will successfully carry our world through the 21st century without total collapse and ensuing chaos. It is creaky, backward, primitive, unsophisticated, stubbornly regressive, hopelessly obsolete. We, the people of the Western world, are living an outdated lifestyle.


“Well,” you might logically argue, “if we’re not modern, than who is?” Excellent question. What sort of lifestyle would reflect our most up-to-date scientific knowledge about the planet’s limitations? What culture possesses the tools, the necessary know-how, to survive in a world where resources are not unlimited or even plentiful, but scarce? Not us. For all our technology we have not even begun to figure out how to live within the limits laid out by our new scientific worldview. Who has? The Bushmen.

The Bushmen’s lifestyle is compatible with our scientific knowledge. Ours is not. If we continue to lead our current lifestyle without adapting to our new circumstances, we will no longer be a “modern” society. We will not even be a primitive society. We will be gone, and the so-called “primitive” societies that we dismissed as “un-modern” – if we have not “modernized” them out of existence – will continue. Because they are sustainable. They will have the knowledge necessary for survival in a world where resources are no longer unlimited, or even plentiful. Drop an average Westerner in a desert where food and water are scarce, and they will die. Drop one of the San people there, and they will be at home.

That is one alternative – the unpleasant one. The other is that we learn what we can from the truly “modern” societies – those whose lifestyle respects scientific facts about our earth’s limitations – and adapt our own culture as necessary. Before it’s too late and we no longer have the option…to modernize.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

(For more reading on the Bushmen and how their survival techniques may be essential during a global water crisis, check out James G. Workman’s Heart of Dryness.)



1. Tweets that mention On Being a “Modernized” Society « The Contrapuntal Platypus -- Topsy.com - August 6, 2010

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Green Vision, Eowyn. Eowyn said: New #contrapuntalplatypus blog post:"On Being a 'Modernized' Society" http://j.mp/biwEKz #technology #bushmen #kalahari #water #environment […]

2. Danya - August 6, 2010

Interesting post that raises some really good points. However, just to take it to the next level – what kinds of practical steps might we take to “modernize,” so to speak, like the Bushmen? The discrepancy that currently exists between their lifestyle and ours is so great that we can’t simply drop everything and immediately begin acting as they do.

3. @Bsalamati - August 6, 2010

Interesting topic! But I somehow share Danya’s hesitations on feasibility of turning our lifestyle into that of the bushmen. Unfortunately, humans have become so much dependent on using certain technologies that it’s extremely impractical, if not impossible, to let go of the technological artifacts surrounding us!
But i personally, don’t think that adopting the bushmen’s lifestyle is the only solution. Scentifically speaking, there are quite a few solutions to control global warming and other environmental issues without having to completely change our lifestyle; however, the sad part is that governemnts are looking for their own benefits and it’s not likely to reach an international consensus on any solution. We first need to build a sort of international council, way more effective than the UN, to persuade all countries to let go of their short-term national interests and become more committed to global issues.

4. contrapuntalplatypus - August 6, 2010

@Bsalamati – good points. I admit to using a bit of hyperbole to make a point. 😀 Obviously there are aspects of the Bushmen’s lifestyle that are *not* “modern”. In particular, they have an extremely simple (though well-suited to their environment) level of technology, whereas we have an extremely complex one. What I meant more was that the principles and priorities on which the Bushman way of life is based (conservation, wise use of finite resources, cooperation with rather than alteration of the surrounding environment) are “modern” in that they produce a system which has long-term viability given our current scientific model of our global environment and its limitations.

I didn’t so much mean that our entire world should start living “like” the Bushmen in that we should all immediately adopt their lifestyle. For one thing this is an extremely specialized lifestyle designed to meet the challenges of a particular environment (desert) and wouldn’t be applicable to most other ecosystems. Then there’s the question of technology. It’s true that if we don’t start using our own technology more wisely, we will destroy our planet. But it would be extremely silly of us (as you point out) to throw away a potential source of solutions for many of the issues we’ve created.

Danya – You raise an extremely interesting and relevant (in fact essential) question! How *are* we to “modernize” our own society – i.e to bring it into line with our current scientific knowledge about our world? Is there a way? I sat down and began writing a response to your question but stopped when I realized it was turning into a new post longer than the original 😀 It’s a very complex problem but I think – based on the research and reading I’ve been doing lately – there are some potential ways forward. I hope to have that post up by this afternoon, so check back tonight! 🙂

5. …But How Can We Modernize? « The Contrapuntal Platypus - August 7, 2010

[…] How Can We Modernize? (…A follow-up to yesterday’s post, “On Being a ‘Modernized’ Society.) “Suppose that you are in a room studying; after a few hours you feel that the atmosphere is […]

6. kate - January 8, 2011

i’d love to read your entire posts – your ideas are definitely worth it – however, parts of your blog text are appearing in yellow on white background – or even worse, white on white – so I can’t see your words.

I’m using a MacBookPro, if that helps you make changes – or if anyone can tell me if I need to make adjustments on my end.

Black text on white background would be fine.

contrapuntalplatypus - January 8, 2011

Thanks! Sorry about the fonts, I recently switched over the backgrounds (from black to white) and hadn’t yet made all the necessary changes in the older posts. I’ll try to get those cleared up ASAP. Thanks so much for the feedback!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: