Designer tribalism and the good life

happiness-measurement-not-accurate A study has been making the rounds this week that ranks countries based on their happiness levels in conjunction with environmental sustainability. The FT sings Costa Rica’s praises based on its “beautiful countryside, a great diversity of species and has long since got rid of its army. The merger of its energy and environment ministries has reversed deforestation and helped it produce 99 per cent of its energy from renewable sources. It has also scored highly, relative to other developing countries, in surveys of poverty, press freedom and democracy.”

The score is calculated based on life satisfaction and life expectancy.  It is then sliced and diced along with the country’s ecological footprint.  Unsurprisingly, very few western countries, nor ones deemed “developed”, topped the list.  The ranking mechanisms sound relatively harmless until one consider that countries like Jamaica, Colombia, Honduras and Egypt rank far ahead of those in the western hemisphere.  Are we really to believe that those living in those poverty-ridden countries plagued with problems ranging from water sanitation, illiteracy, to drug and gang violence and political instability, provide better standard of livings to its citizens than, say, Finland?

If that was the case, then we should rewind to the pre-industrial revolution era, where we still tend fields and walk in circles around our huts.  This is the kind of environmental fetishism that I object to. It fundamentally questions the merits of human progress, and to our detriment, mistakenly romanticizes primitivism. This Roger Kimball article from the New Criterion is great in tearing down the ignorance and naivety that drives a significant segment of western environmentalists and developmental workers.

What Sandall calls romantic primitivism puts a premium on quaintness, which it then embroiders with the rhetoric of authenticity. There are two casualties of this process. One is an intellectual casualty: it becomes increasingly difficult to tell the truth about the achievements and liabilities of other cultures. The other casualty is a moral, social, and political one. Who suffers from the expression of romantic primitivism? Not the Lauren Huttons and Claude Lévi-Strausses of the world. On the contrary, the people who suffer are the objects of the romantic primitive’s compassion, “respect,” and pretended emulation. Sandall asks:

Should American Indians and New Zealand Maoris and Australian Aborigines be urged to preserve their traditional cultures at all costs? Should they be told that assimilation is wrong? And is it wise to leave them entirely to their own devices?

When it comes to the question of native communities and forms of self-governance, assimilation versus forced integration is still a frequently debated issues in Canadian, and Australia/New Zealander societies. While the official approach favoured “reconciliation”, the general public – or at least the ones I have been exposed to in western Canada, feel that the problem was created by the government in yielding too much. In order to deal with the guilt of colonization, the government has struck a number of deals with the natives that have been extremely counter-productive to bettering their lives. Land issues, tax breaks, free education and other hand-outs have made the entire native population reliant on government assistance and subsidies, while confined in the reserves. Quoting Kimball again:

If your traditional way of life has no alphabet, no writing, no books, and no libraries, and yet you are continually told that you have a culture which is “rich,” “complex,” and “sophisticated,” how can you realistically see your place in the scheme of things? If all such hyperbole were true, who would need books or writing?

It is part of the ethos of designer tribalism to foist all of one’s own attitudes and longings onto the apparently blank canvas of whatever primitive populace happens to be in vogue at the moment. To some extent, this is simply a matter of ignorance.

[picture via: bloddroppe]

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