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How Indigenous Cultures Can Save the Modern World

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Think about this: Anthropologists and linguists say that every two weeks a unique language disappears with its last surviving speaker. As we celebrated our entrance into the 21st century, about half of the world's 7,000 human languages were not being spoken or taught to younger generations.

Can you imagine this happening to your own language -- to your own people or culture? But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Along with language, also disappearing are the arts, crafts, vocational skills, folklore, and customs of many traditional and indigenous peoples. National Geographic Society's Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis calls this the "erosion of the ethnosphere."

I run a nonprofit called the Vanishing Cultures Project. My partner and I are journalists and we work to document ancient lifestyles and empower indigenous communities globally. We started our project because we realized that cultural diversity around the world is diminishing at a frightening rate. And that's bad news for everybody, because the modern world needs the perspectives and wisdom of indigenous and traditional peoples now more than ever. In the 21st century, sustainability is no longer a buzzword but a necessity, and there are some valuable lessons to take away from understanding how indigenous peoples live.

Last year, my partner and I traveled to Nepal to document the lives of the Loba, an ethnically Tibetan civilization living in the rain shadow of the Himalayas. They're a hardy people, cultivating farms in a desert-like mountain landscape, crafting medicines from local plants, and herding their animals through peaks and valleys in the thin, high-altitude air. They are a people who have adapted seamlessly to their unique natural habitat. Even their social structure is based on the smart use of extremely limited natural resources--they are one of the few cultures in the world, for example, that encourages polyandry. If one woman marries multiple brothers, the family plot of land will not be divided among sons but, rather, will be kept whole and intact, providing for yet another generation.

The practice has also kept the community's population at a supportable level, since the surrounding environment can provide for only so many. It's an extreme kind of resourcefulness, but in today's world where a population explosion and diminishing natural resources are very real problems, the Loba stand as one indigenous culture that has tackled and solved similar problems.

It's this kind of free thinking and diversity in perspectives that our world needs to stay healthy, vibrant, and robust. Diversity is beautiful for its own sake, but it also serves a very real function: it informs and challenges the mainstream, and it offers alternatives for improvement.

Today, the world seems to be on a runaway train fueled by consumption and production. As indigenous languages and lifestyles become obsolete at an alarming rate, modernization is transforming the landscape of the planet, globalization is altering our cultural attitudes, and digital communications are changing our conceptions of time and space. It's all moving so fast it feels rather reckless, but what are the alternatives? We're married to progress at all costs, and yet we find ourselves with strange new problems. Energy use, land use, agricultural practices, the population explosion, climate change, cultural erosion, pollution, even international relations seem to be standing on shaky legs. How sustainably are we living in our hyper-connected, mechanized, digital lives? Most indigenous cultures around the world were able to live sustainably for centuries, even millennia. Will we be able to do the same?

As Wade Davis said, "All these peoples' cultures teach us of other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in the earth. And this is an idea, if you really think about, that can only fill you with hope."

Even in these industrialized, modern times, the lifestyles and traditions of the past are precious to us. At the Vanishing Cultures Project, our hope is to help indigenous people protect not only their language and culture, but also retain ownership of their own future, and for the world to acknowledge the contributions these communities can make to humanity as a whole.

You can watch Wade Davis speak about global diversity at HYPERLINK "http://www.ted.com/talks/wade_davis_on_endangered_cultures.html" TED Talks.

Follow Nina Wegner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VC_Project