“Cultures Are No Museum Specimens”
by Luisa Maffi — 03.04.2012
Excerpt: Should we care about biological and cultural diversity even if its decline does not affect us? Martin Eiermann talked with the anthropologist and linguist Luisa Maffi about the value of diversity, ecological resilience and an environmentalist’s commitment to humanism.
The European: Anthropologists warn that up to half of the world’s languages might disappear within the next generation. But that doesn’t mean that we will become speechless: Other languages and cultural contexts will take their place. So why should we care?
Maffi: That question is often asked by people whose culture and language are not threatened. It is difficult to understand the significance of the decline of cultural diversity unless you are affected by it. When your culture carries prestige and is widespread, it is easy to assume that others would want to join it. So we have to turn things on their head and look at cultural diversity from the perspective of minorities: What does it mean for them to lose their culture and their language? And what does it mean for us globally?
The European: Most of our lives will be completely undisturbed by the loss of languages or cultural heritage elsewhere. What are the global consequences?
Maffi: As humans, we have evolved to differentiate ourselves culturally and linguistically from each other. The role of cultural diversification is similar to the evolution of complex ecosystems in nature: It gives resilience to human society as a whole, just as biodiversity gives resilience to ecosystems. Today, we are converging more and more as diverse cultures assimilate into the dominant model of Western society. As a consequence, the pool of perspectives on human life is being drained. In the past, new solutions to societal and environmental problems could come from non-Western cultures, but that opportunity is diminishing. In the words of the linguist Peter Mühlhäusler, we are developing cultural blind spots. That reality is staring us in the face but we are caught in denial.