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On Being a “Modernized” Society August 6, 2010

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

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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?

Wrong.

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.

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“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.)

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