Globalization – The Battle Against the Bland
Regular readers of this blog know that as well as drinking ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon (the main theme of this blog), I work as the Intercultural Education Director of a Peruvian non-profit. An important aim of the non-profit is to help strengthen traditional Shipibo culture. (I have written before about about the complexities and challenges of this work). The Shipibo people are one of the indigenous Amazonian cultures that has developed the ceremonial and healing uses of ayahuasca over centuries, possibly millennia, as well as holding extensive knowledge of many medicinal plants.
The Shipibos have a rich culture and sophisticated cosmovision. This culture is under threat from many sources: large-scale extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas which degrade and contaminate the natural environment; illegal logging and over-fishing which further erode lifestyles traditionally based on an abundance of natural resources; aggressive missionary activity which devalues and demonizes the traditional culture; ever-growing inclusion in the global money economy; migration to the cities; the influence of Western telecommunications and mass media; corruption, racism and discrimination.
The forces arrayed against not just the Shipibo but indigenous cultures all over the world are formidable. This once led me to suggest, half in jest, that we should add the words, “Fighting a Losing Battle,” to the strap-line on our website which says: “A Grassroots Alliance Protecting the Amazon by Supporting its People and Traditions”. This is not to be unduly pessimistic but to recognize the scale of the challenge involved. Besides, its definitely a battle worth fighting.
Whilst back in my home country of England the past few weeks, I have read a fascinating book by Paul Kingsnorth called “Real England,” subtitled “The Battle Against the Bland”. This book, published in 2008, documents the ways in which multiple aspects of traditional English culture are being destroyed by the economic, cultural and political processes of globalization.
What is particularly interesting for me in this book is to see the same processes at work in my native country destroying its local cultural identities as those that are operating – maybe in a less unchecked and more extreme way – in the Peruvian Amazon.
Kingsnorth’s thesis is that a powerful alliance of the State and big business in England is leading to increasing and ruthless standardization and corporatization. Everything is reduced to a monetary value. Quality is turned into quantity. This is done in the name of efficiency, growth, wealth creation, and progress – the same philosophy that is used all over the world to justify economic development. What this results in is the loss of the particular, the local, the idiosyncratic (we could add the soulful) – all the things that give a place, a town, a landscape its specific, irreducible identity.
This thesis links very well with an earlier blog I wrote about Martin Prechtel’s work. Martin Prechtel argues that what we are seeing all over the world – but most acutely with indigenous people – is a loss of what he calls the ‘indigenous soul’. What we do to our environment we do to ourselves. As our surroundings become more similar, as every High Street has the same shops, every pub sells the same few brands of beer, every corner has a Starbucks, every supermarket sells the same varieties of apple, so there is a consequent and corresponding internal soul loss. To quote Martin Prechtel:
“When I divine the earth bodies of many people of today, their worlds look like a post-war country, bombed-out, dry, flowerless and tired.”
Kingsnorth’s book shows how growing corporatization, which reduces everything to the same level of blandness, can be seen operating in many diverse areas ranging from:
- the take-over of local, rural pubs by what are known as PubCos (business which own and lease pubs) which then often lead to their closure in the drive to maximize profits;
- the turning over of the English waterway system, which has always been a refuge of the unconventional, to the leisure and property development industry;
- the loss of traditional town centers with distinctive, local independent shops due to the influence and power of the big supermarket chains;
- the growth of agribusiness in the countryside, which both destroys small farmers’ livelihoods and brings vast environmental damage in its wake;
- the privatization of public spaces in cities as old markets are replaced by shopping centers and luxury flat development; the loss of traditional customs and livelihoods in villages, which, coupled with the rise in house prices by people buying property as second homes or as a financial investment, leads to the loss of entire villages as local people can no longer afford to live in the communities they grew up in;
- the disappearance of traditional orchards with their huge variety of fruit – one of the people in the book has traced 5700 types of English apple – which have been an important part of the landscape and surrounding ecology for centuries.
In many ways, Kingsnorth presents an unrelenting, depressing picture – he is determined to avoid a false and upbeat optimism that all this can be easily changed. His more recent project, ‘Dark Mountain’, launched five years ago in a pamphlet co-written with Dougald Hine entitled ‘Uncivilization’ faces the magnitude and depth of the environmental and cultural disaster that is happening all around us – from the small villages of England to the indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon – but refuses to offer false hope.
One of the best internet videos I have seen recently is a video of Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine talking about the Dark Mountain project five years on. One of the most telling lines in the video is when they say that climate change is not a problem to be resolved using the traditional rational Western mindset but represents a profound challenge to this culture and the stories it tells itself of growth and progress – as does La Madre Ayahuasca too.
In the concluding chapter of his book, however, Kingsnorth does find reason for optimism. He says:
“There is no reason, in other words, that the currently accelerating homogenization of our landscapes and cultures needs to continue. Inevitable and unstoppable as it can often seem, it can be changed if enough people want to change it. And one thing I have learned in my travels is that people do care. Most people don’t want to live in nation of clone towns, mega-malls, privatized streets, gated communities, ex-farms, and eight lane motorways strung with revolving bill-boards. They don’t want to do the things that endless growth requires of them. They don’t want to lose distinctiveness, peculiarity and difference. They have an appreciation of character and place, culture and history. They value it. They want it to remain. Not everyone, but a hell of a lot of people; enough of them to change the way things are going, if they really want to.
The question is: do they want it enough?
Exactly the same question can be posed to the Shipibo as they face the loss of their traditional culture: people no longer know or sing the traditional songs; the language is still used but many words are falling out of use; the healing knowledge of medicinal plants which has always been an oral tradition is not being passed on to the young people – as one Shipibo I know says, “Every time an elder dies it represents the loss of a walking encyclopedia”; ayahuasca ceremonies are being corrupted through the growth of ayahausca tourism; traditional skills such as fishing and building houses using only local natural materials are disappearing; and perhaps, most tragically, many indigenous leaders (usually male), like politicians all over the world, use their positions of power and access to resources for their own benefit.