Civilization as Pollution

Ecuador's flag
South America » Ecuador » South » Loja
November 2nd 2011
Published: November 1st 2011
Edit Blog Post

The idea that civilization, or its Trojan horse, globalization, corrupts and ultimately destroys indigenous culture and all its inherent goodness was a common belief amongst the tourists visiting Saraguro. As one tourist put it, the indigenous people of Saraguro face “a struggle to maintain their culture, values and traditions and not be bulldozed or washed away by outside forces.” Another tourist worried about “…them being able to engage in the broader world that has been dropped down upon them

Phrases such as “bulldozed,” “washed away” or having the world “dropped down upon them” imply a sense of destruction or imminent doom, and highlight the perception that the indigenous Saraguros live in a precarious state at risk from “outside forces” or the “broader world”, which hang over them like the Sword of Damocles. Their isolation from the sands of time has left their culture pure and authentic; any cultural hybridity or even historical change – least not change from the corruption of modernity from the west - will see them wither away. Some anthropologists, as Marshall Sahlins explains, have echoed these sentiments in what he calls “despondency theory”, which sees indigenous people as passive victims of western domination and their inevitable collapse due to modernization and global capitalism.

Some tourists even felt that they themselves, in some way as carriers or harbingers of modernity or civilization, merely by their presence, were polluting:

"I wish they are not gonna be touched, but it’s not gonna be possible, civilization is always gonna touch…I think I feel guilty just being here, what’s my impact? It doesn’t matter how quiet I am or what I do, just me being here…. "

The indigenous Other in this instance is seen as a passive recipient who needs to be protected from too much contact with outsiders who by merely being there will lead to a corruption of their hosts. Most tourists agreed civilization would “touch them” eventually, and for some that factor in itself was their primary motivation for them choosing to come here now, before the culture was irreparably altered or “lost”.

Globalization, civilization or modernity, and by proxy the tourist, are seen as the polluting factor, which should be prevented as much as possible from coming into contact with the culture of the indigenous Saraguros. Something untouched is virginal, and once it is touched by our hand, the hand of western civilization, it loses its purity.
The Garden of Eden is the destination of a voyage to the dawn of creation itself, where “our primitive ancestors”, who have not eaten of the tree of knowledge that is “modern civilization”, can be found. (Bruner and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1994:438)

In our first meeting, Sulley, who had grown up in Ghana, had said, “Looking at these people we can see our beginnings.” Herod’s Golden Age enjoyed an "everlasting spring" where there were no seasons; therefore there was no time, no past, no history and no beginning. When explorers stumble upon previously “uncontacted” tribes they believe they are seeing people living in the past, living museum pieces; yet in the present they live in the beginning, their history beginning on contact. By visiting people who have come into minimal contact with western civilization it is believed one can attain glimpses of what life was like in the past. For this to be possible their culture needs to be static, lived in an everlasting spring with change only occurring or beginning on contact with us.

Saraguro’s perceived geographical isolation in the Andes, and its “distance” from civilization, engendered belief that the people had been less exposed to modernity, to the now, or perhaps more accurately, our now. This geographical distance, or isolation, allows the indigenous Saraguros to maintain connections to the past. The strand connecting them has yet to be severed, rendering them static. An Italian volunteer working in a community tourism project in Muisne, on the Pacific Coast, explained:
"Today they live like their grandfathers. Always in the mountains the community is more closed and the change is very slow… in the coast there are more tourists and it is more commercial so the culture is more of a mixture. Here it is more closed and more authentic and real."

But this begs the question: What is it that the tourist wants to protect about their indigenous culture? Should all cultures be protected or isolated from each other to prevent them from washing each other away? As Plato’s Laws suggested, in the 4th Century BC Greeks should be limited in their association with foreigners and in their propensity to travel, as people have a tendency of mimicking and inheriting the cultures with whom they come into contact. Why were none of the tourists I met worried about their own respective cultures (or western civilization) being bulldozed by that of the Saraguros? Of course for tourists, or anyone for that matter, to want to maintain or protect something, it must have some redeeming characteristics in the eye of the protector.

Generosity and anti-materialism; communalism and community

Indigenous people viewed as anti-capitalist and living in a culture of little greed or envy was a popular assumption made by many of the tourists I spoke to whilst in Saraguro. Yīng, a Chinese travel writer, believed that “indigenous people live very simple but you can feel they are very happy they don’t have too much money but they enjoy their life.” A French lady who had travelled widely with the express intention of visiting indigenous communities felt indigenous people had a much weaker attachment to money than “us”, and by way of example she said they would “give you things without expecting anything in return.” This view of “our” attachment to money may be attributed to contemporary conceptions of capitalism and consumerism and the perceived greed these provoke in those living in western civilization. The Noble Savage becomes a moral corrective to the excesses of Western life:

"I think they are envious but they don’t know how … go from defining ourselves as, ‘I have a bigger house and a better car and more education’ to now all of a sudden I’m gonna worry about my neighbor and we’re all gonna have the exact same house. I don’t know without a catastrophe how you’d actually go back?"

The notion of an anti-capitalist communal lifestyle gone awry, or lost, and only retrievable in the past or without a catastrophe, begs the question: “Go back” to when? As has been demonstrated, a similar nostalgic yearning stretches back down through the ages. For example, Miguel de Cervantes, in Don Quixote, (1605), attributes similar traits to those living in the Golden Age:
"Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden, not because in that fortunate age the gold so coveted in this our iron one was gained without toil, but because they that lived in it knew not the two words 'mine' and 'thine'! (Cervantes 1605, Part I, Chapter XI)"

Another common assumption amongst tourists visiting Saraguro was that the indigenous people lived more in “community.”
"There is more community in this indigenous place than where we come from - there isn’t that notion of ‘I’, there is more the notion of ‘we’ the community. I get the sense that they are happy and, ‘we are each our brother’s keepers’ is alive in this society, I can sense that….This is a life where you know you can count on others when you need them and I think this is an enviable situation. This must be the way most societies used to be; even Ghana, in Accra, you can’t depend on other people to help you out."

Again the reference to how things “used to be” and that ability to be able to count on others as an “enviable situation”, and that “even Ghana”, a place which Sulley presumably believes hasn’t been touched by the hand of modernity as much as his present hometown of Calgary, one cannot depend on others.

The idea of indigenous people and community was echoed by John-Pierre, a retired tourist from France, who had travelled extensively throughout his life, visiting many indigenous communities throughout the world, including ones in Indonesia, Mali, Morocco and Peru; believing that, in general, indigenous people were more communal, and that in France “we have lost this.” When I asked him if he knew of anywhere in Europe where they had a similar communal ethos, he said, “No, not anymore.”
One could garner from this that Europeans once lived like that, as though this communal phase was commonplace and perhaps even universal, once upon a time. Yet a nostalgic yearning still remains:
If you really talk to a non-indigenous, truthfully, they will tell you that all the show is just show, if they had their way they would want all this to be away and to live their life as an indigenous person; where they don’t have to worry about material things. But they don’t know how to let go. When you strip it down they all want simple lives and they all want - and I know I want it - is community. People are tired and unsatisfied, none of our friends are happy. How many rich people with all the money they have do stupid things; because they are still not satisfied, not happy with all the means they’ve got? The ‘individual theme’ amongst non-indigenous people is what the problem is, and I have a strong feeling that if they could do it all over again they would want “we” instead of “I”.

Sulley believes that the people in Canada - if we were able to tap into their core needs and desires, or indeed, if they were true to themselves - all desire to live in community, to live “simple lives”. The evidence of this can be seen in their unhappiness with their current lifestyles and all its superficial excesses. The way to rectify this unhappiness is to live without material possessions and eliminate the individualism that permeates western culture. And the way to achieve this is to live like an indigenous person, which would mean having to “do it all over again”; again this notion of going back and starting over from a new beginning. They are us in the past. When I asked Aldo, an Italian volunteer working in Ecuador what he believed the tourist’s primary motivations were for visiting Saraguro, he offered:
"They want to live in the community. We in Europe and USA we have lost the tradition. they can find what they’ve lost. Our society doesn’t have a relationship."

The Ignoble Savage

The modern Indian is like an inverted clone conjured from the specifications of what deep down its creators themselves would wish to be. This “Hyperreal Indian” comes to exist as if in a fourth dimension, a fictional hologram exalted to stand on a pedestal of our imaginations.
Assigned the absurd role of guardian of humanity’s reserves of both natural resources and moral purity, Indians become charged with the “white man’s burden” in reverse, whether they want it or not.

(Ramos 1998:72)

Ramos argues that for all its sympathetic and benign inclinations the motivation conceals paternalism and intolerance; when the Hyperreal Indian doesn’t live up to these noble attributes, he unwittingly falls from the pedestal he was placed upon. In the process of falling from grace, he becomes all that is left for him in his creators’ imagination: the ignoble savage.

For Paula, an Italian tourist, indigenous people had become just that. On telling her a little about the community tourism project in Saraguro, she said she didn’t really believe in these types of ecotourism projects, because in her experience they were just the same as any other forms of tourism. The locals needed to be trained more generally to respect the environment, she said, because it was no use having ecotourism if the locals “polluted and disrespected the environment through their ignorance.” She said on many occasions she had carried around garbage in her bag all day because she couldn’t find a bin anywhere, and then would get upset by “locals tossing theirs wherever they pleased.”

I asked Paula what she felt, in general, was the difference between indigenous and non-indigenous people. She said that in her experience, she felt that they were generally much simpler and un-educated. By way of an explanation she described how the indigenous people she had met would ask the same questions to her over and over; pertaining to where she was from, what she earned, and how many brothers and sisters she had etc. As such, her conversations with indigenous people never really developed beyond this level, which left her “disappointed and frustrated.” She said it was the same sometimes in India with the “more traditional people.” I asked if she ever tried to steer the conversation into other areas, and she said she had, but “it was difficult since they didn’t seem to understand simple concepts such as development and freedom.”

This idea of “traditional people” providing limited conversational depth was also held by the Chinese travel writer, Yīng, who said that “in China, the difference is that the indigenous traditional people don’t like to talk too much about their political situation. In South America they are prepared to share…but in China they are very traditional thinking.”
I asked Paula if she admired anything about the cultures of the indigenous people she had encountered during her travels, and she said she used to have a mythical view of how indigenous people around the world lived, but that now it had gone.

She spoke of her disenchantment with her time spent in Japan, a country she had long associated with “Zen and spirituality”; yet she found urban sprawl similar to that in “Third World Asia” with “ugly electrical wires everywhere.” She spoke of her disgust at how people’s spirituality had close ties to consumerism and a desire to succeed financially . She was further disenchanted by Cambodia and Laos, and in India she worked in a nunnery for three months where all her illusions with spirituality and the east, she said, were finally shattered.
More recent revisionist attacks on the idea of “uncontacted tribes living in harmony with nature” have also seeped into the popular press, and with those come the very real danger of overshooting the mark. If the widely believed myth of the “ecologically noble savage” is attacked by revisionists, the noble savage may literally have nowhere left to go. He will fall from grace and doubtless lose the backing of conservationists to the extent that his (our) environment will not be entrusted to his hands since upon proving himself to be an unworthy guardian, he has denied indigenous groups their legitimate claims.

In spite of whatever questions we may have concerning their ‘primitiveness’ or original degree of isolation . . . they are an indigenous minority people whose rights and lands should be protected. (Headland 1992:222–23)

In reality, conservationists, politicians, the popular media or general public may not handle the shift in perception with quite such even-handedness, particularly when it is the endangered environments that the indigenous people inhabit that environmentalists are primarily interested in protecting, or eco-tourists interested in seeing.
Once the indigenous people are no longer seen as ecological guardians living in harmony with nature, but rather as a threat from within, the danger is that the “pristine” or “endangered” areas in which they live could be made into national parks. The people may be forced to live under restrictive “sustainable” conditions, which are deemed by conservationists to be ecologically sound, in the interests of protecting the environment over and above the wishes of the inhabitants. Or they could be removed wholesale if the environment they inhabit is deemed more valuable to us, than those who currently inhabit it. That is, of course, if the loggers and miners don’t use the new evidence to support their own claims at the resources first or the state to use the land for transport such as highways or oil pipelines. It also further limits the choices that indigenous people themselves can make, for if they play the role of ecological guardian they will becomes icons of environmental and political movements. On the other hand, if they choose to sell their “sacred” or “aboriginal” land to the highest bidder or open it to resource extraction and development they are publicly pilloried by the very same groups.

Paula once held a mythical view of indigenous people, presumably built on the romanticized view of “ecologically noble savages,” whereas nowadays, through personal experiences, she believed that they “polluted and disrespected the environment through their ignorance.” For Paula the “simple life” of indigenous people sought by other tourists, and once herself, is now translated as them being “uneducated” and “ignorant”, leaving her frustrated. She showed further disgust at how people’s spirituality was linked to consumerist desires and financial success. This seemed to be particularly painful for her to accept as it destroyed two myths simultaneously: indigenous people maintain a spirituality lacking in the west, and the notion that they are anti-capitalist.

After spending the better part of an afternoon with Paula I believe she felt the “Noble Savage” was still out there somewhere, but she had grown pessimistic and weary in her search, as everywhere she looked for him, he had succumbed to the evil influence of western civilization and all its ills. In the next blog I will explore how Paula’s, and many other tourists’ desire to seek out authenticity in indigenous cultures, is intimately tied to the dream of visiting those living in locations beyond, or before, the contaminations of civilization.

The true noble savage arises from a combination of disillusion about the here and now with illusion about the there and then.

(Fairchild 1961:127)


2nd November 2011

Interesting topic
I am wondering if thinking our culture pollutes another one doesn't imply a perhaps subconscience view of the superiority of our culture towards the other. Even those who talk negatively about this contamination clearly think that the recieving culture is incapable of resisting our own 'great' culture. As for community feelings, there is plenty of that even in western countries. Go to the country side and you will find it still alive and well, or go to certain streets in cities and you will find a certain 'my neighbourhood' feeling might exist amongs those that live there. I don't see the need to go back to a pastoral past where people lived a subsistence life and the average life expectancy was 40 years lower then it is now, to seek a mythical community feeling. Cultural contamination or more positive exchange, will happen sooner or later even in the most remote communities, it always has and always will. Most likely even the Saraguro peoples were contaminated by another culture a long time ago. Their dress suggest at least a hint of Spanish influence, and if they are all Catholic (since you didn't mention their religion I don't know) it would show a clear cultural contamination in bygone days. Before the Spanish I am guessing their would have been a local contamination by perhaps the Inca's from Peru and so the story goes on. So why make such a big deal of it now? As I said an interesting topic, and as always well written.
2nd November 2011

Civilization as Evolution
I see civilization as more of an evolution. We are curious beings. Our curiosity makes us learn, hence leads us the truth, knowledge and self-development. We've eaten the apple from the Tree of Knowledge, so there is no turning back. We can't stay in the primitive state and keep evolving. We can only learn from the past - to live in harmony with nature and not destroy it to satisfy our need for luxury and material possessions more often in excess. We can use science and technology to live an eco-friendly "sustainable" way of life. We need to "think" globally for the betterment of the human race and our planet instead of only thinking oneself and servicing self-interest. My motto: Learn to CARE and make a POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION to the larger COMMUNITY. Care and love for our planet and all of its inhabitants.
6th November 2011

Consumerism and Community
I do believe that consumerism does detract from spirituality, but it is not necessarily a destructive factor. The definition of rampant consumerism is relative, for people in "modern" societies, it is the lastest smart phone, plasma TV or newest car. However, rest assured that consumerism exists in other parts of the world, though the objects of that desire may be more modest by our standards. The wish is certainly there to obtain more, but the means is not. Break the communication barrier and these same people are keen to also possess goods which can make life easier and more pleasurable. Agree with Ralf re a sense of community, it still exists in "modern" societies. Just take a look at the incredible response of fellow Australians to help strangers impacted by the floods in Queensland earlier this year. This community support is also practiced in "traditional" societies, but not exclusively so. What has been termed as "social capital" is absent in both "modern" and "traditional" societies across the world, and other factors such as education and parenting have far more impact on this sense of community than economic development or wealth.

Tot: 0.123s; Tpl: 0.036s; cc: 15; qc: 30; dbt: 0.0299s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 4; ; mem: 1.5mb