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Wade Davis on Endangered Cultures TED talk

by on October 23, 2011

In his TED talk, Wade Davis, a Canadian ethnographer, writer, photographer, biologist, anthropologist, and ethnobotanist ( takes his audience through a journey through the ethnosphere. The “ethnosphere” is the “cultural web of life…the sum total of all thoughts, dreams, myths, ideas, and intuitions brought into being by human imagination since the dawn of consciousness,” more simply, the “ethnosphere” are all remote and indigenous groups of people, including their discoveries, religions, medicines etc. that have ever existed through all time and space. He claims that just as the biosphere is being eroded, so too is the ethnosphere, not because of change or technology, but because of a power that they cannot escape, claiming that “the crude face of domination and cultures are not destined to fade away but are rather being driven out of existence by identifiable forces beyond their ability to adapt,” such as deforestation, disease, and politics. With this argument, he talks about how while the idea of genocide is universally condemned, ethnocide (destruction of people’s way of life) is celebrated as a development strategy.

He asks the question, “Do we want to live in a monochromatic world of monotony, or embrace a polychromatic world of diversity?” He answers by saying that he believes that the world deserves to exist in a diverse way and hopes that we can find a way to live in a multicultural, pluralistic world. Coming from the perspective a National Geographic writer, he concludes his talk by saying that politicians will not accomplish anything and polemics are not persuasive, however, storytelling can change the world and uses popularity of National Geographic as a example.

Wade Davis’s TED talk brought up some really interesting points and reminded me of some of our class readings and discussions. I am assuming that when he spoke about the power that indigenous cultures cannot escape, although he did not say it directly,  is referring to globalization (In the above paragraph I said that the powers are deforestation, disease, and politics etc., but I think, please tell me if you disagree, are the result of globalization and Western values). The Escobar article talks a lot about how place is very important to people because it shapes culture, and that globalization knocks down the boundaries between one place and another, making the world more monochromatic. Davis argues that a monochromatic world is problematic  because different cultures create different realities, and that cultural diversity leads to extraordinary knowledge and discovery.

Also, when he talked about how politics will not accomplish anything and that storytelling can change the world, we can easily relate this to the Cronon and Slater articles about the persuasive nature of narratives and images. Anyone who has ever picked up a National Geographic magazine knows just how persuasive the images are and how almost every National Geographic image tells a story.

Wade Davis argues that politicians do not accomplish anything, polemics are not persuasive, and that storytelling can change the world. I agree with this to an extent, but I would argue that politics and storytelling must work together in order to get things done. Politicians seem to think that they know what is best for everybody and that all people are the same, however, as seen in the Davis talk and through the articles we have read in class, it has become quite obvious that different cultures have completely different ways of being, and that it is impossible to speak on behalf of all cultures while making political decisions – it is unfair to project our culture onto others.

Some questions that I would like to pose to the class are: 1. Do you think the direction we as a species are heading in  (that of monotony as the result of globalization) is a good or bad thing? 2. Do feel like Davis’s TED talk was persuasive and do you think he had a political agenda? 3. Finally, how do you feel about the quote below, and what can we do now to stop the plight of indigenous people?


“The problem is that those of us sympathetic with the plight of indigenous people view them as quaint and colorful, but somehow reduced to margins of history as the real world [(our world)] moves on… We will be known as an era in which we stood by and either actively endorsed or passively accepted the massive destruction of both biological and cultural diversity on the planet.” -Wade Davis


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  1. In response to your first question Shane, I believe that the direction the world is headed, that of monotony, has more negative implications than positive. There is a disconnection between people and the environment around them when they do not rely on the land. Davis talked about the ways people view elements of nature. A mountain will mean different things to a person depending on what culture they are raised in. With loss of cultural diversity, people will have similar views about a mountain, one that ends in destruction and industrialization.

  2. Summer Rose W permalink

    I think Davis wanted to bring up the point about loss of culture through loss of languages and the many other things he talked about not only because he wanted the people in the audience to do something about it, but to have them think about other cultures. I bet most people in that audience do not think about people in Cambodia, or other parts of the world every day. For those that speak and understand another language, realize how there are different ways of conveying feelings in different languages. Even to only think about the great numbers of languages that are lost should make people more thoughtful which might hopefully, eventually have positive influences on the world.

  3. I have mixed feelings about globalization and the monotony that follows. My gut reaction is that making everything the same is a very bad thing and variety is a good thing. I still hold by that conviction, but creating monotony is nothing new for humans. We’ve been doing this for thousands of years. Our diet became monotonized when humans first started farming, culture could just be the last chip off the block. It’s interesting, because when John Lennon brings up the topic in “imagine” it seems so romantically nice. I also believe that if western civilization continues to pillage resources for its own sake, that it won’t be around forever. In that case, having diverse cultures means that those populations will be the survivors.

  4. Megan Powell permalink

    I found Wade Davis’s TED talk to be compelling; his perspective is a very interesting one. His approach varies from others because he seems to stand up for people’s sake, whereas the popular activist today will most likely be associated with some kind of nature conservation. Firstly, I found it interesting that he compared the deterioration of the diversity of indigenous cultures to the degradation of the earth.To me, this brings up the whole nature-culture paradigm that has been an underlying theme in nearly all of our class discussions. By comparing these two ideas in this way, Davis aims to show a similarity between the two, as if to say “You want to save this (nature), so you should want to save that too (culture).” He implies that both nature are culture have intrinsic value in similar manners. But, what I find even more interesting, is that the cultures he claims need saving are only the indigenous ones because, as he mentions, they are being stamped out by forces they cannot fend off which are thought to be, as Shane mentioned, the Western world and globalization. This further differentiation between kinds of cultures — Western and indigenous — and the earlier comparison of nature and culture, seems to actually combine indigenous cultures WITH nature, which I think is Davis’s underlying ideology. There still seems to be the distinct separation between culture and nature, but it lies between the Western world and nature, not all cultures and nature.

  5. amygraceaustin permalink

    While I don’t agree with everything he presented in this video, I would like to reflect on one thing he said…

    “Now the problem is not change. All cultures through all time have constantly been involved in a dance with new possibilities of life, and the problem is not technology itself. The Sioux Indians did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow anymore than Americans stopped being American when we gave up the horse and buggy. It is not change or technology that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere, it is power – the crude face of domination – and whenever you look around the world you discover that these are not cultures that are destined to fade away, these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to.” ~Wade Davis (TED talk)

    I can honestly say that I think he is right on with this quote! Anthropologists often fall into the trap of viewing cultures in a vacuum of consistency. In reality, accommodation and change have been forces at work within cultures since the dawn of time. This debate often arises among anthropologists who discuss the implications of globalization. Globalization is often seen as a destructive force which threatens the integrity of cultures. Davis, however, proposes that the treat instead comes from imbalances of power. The Aymara people of the Bolivian highlands choosing to take on modern agricultural practices does not threaten their cultural significance, however power structures in place with discriminate against them and take away their agency is a form of oppression that threatens cultural preservation.

    Neo-liberal, neo-colonial and Western hegemonic powers threaten the sanctity of various cultures on a daily basis. However, Davis’ talk does not go so far as to address the political reasons behind the phenomena that he illustrates. The reasons these cultures are unable to adapt is because of the power structures working against them. That is what the world needs to pay more attention to – policy makers and bystanders alike.

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