Paul Ehrlich: The Culture Gaps | Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior

by P&P

Since the agricultural revolution there have been increasing culture gaps in societies, as specialization increased and people were trained into discrete occupations. No longer did any individual possess the vast majority of the non-genetic information (culture) possessed corporately by his or her society. In the past few centuries those gaps widened at lightening speed, resulting in the failure of individuals living in industrial societies to be familiar with even one thousandth of a percent of their society’s culture. That has resulted in a culture maladapted to the biophysical realities Earth.

In hunter-gatherer groups virtually all members possessed the same non-genetic information. The exceptions were few – perhaps a hunter with a favorite productive spot for placing rabbit snares, a group of women who knew the medicinal properties of a certain plant, a canoe-builder who had a special way of lashing on an outrigger support, a shaman whose mentor had taught him a secret incantation. One might guess that all adults stored most of the group’s significant culture.

Contrast that with an American today. Even the most educated can’t possibly store more than a tiny part of the group’s culture. Given the correct pile of parts, few of us would know how to assemble a computer, let alone be able to describe the processes by which the parts were manufactured, the provenance of the materials they embodied, or the methods by which those materials had been gathered and processed. How many people in even the most advanced society, would be able to describe how the climate works, the significance of the second law of thermodynamics, how biodiversity is related to ecosystem services, why population growth increases the threat of novel pandemics, all of which are necessary to understand to be a responsible citizen in a world threatened by a collapse of civilization.

Obviously all of us can’t be familiar with more than a small fraction of our culture, and there is no need for all of us to be able to assemble computers. But there is a small but special portion of our culture, that if widely understood, could greatly increase the odds reaching the goals of the MAHB. That portion includes what is known of human evolution, which provides essential background on human behavior. It also includes understanding what humanity is doing to undermine its own life-support systems, and the likely consequences of those activities. If we don’t change how we treat each other and those vital systems, society almost certainly will collapse. And how will people have the understanding and incentives to make the required changes to avoid that and reach sustainability unless we find ways to close the most critical parts of the culture gap.

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