04/07/2014 08:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Third World Wisdom Is Vital for Redeveloping a Sustainable Civilization

To clean their mouths in the morning, peoples around the world break a small twig from the branch of certain types of trees, chew the tip of the twig into a bristle, brush their teeth, and then discard the twig. It is a pleasant, time-tested, and remarkably effective oral hygiene habit. Yet, many in the First World would view this practice as primitive. But consider that the "civilized" world produces and uses upwards of 4 billion plastic toothbrushes per year--all of which add to a growing problem of accumulating toxic waste, because plastic does not ever biodegrade.

It is ironic that some of the simplest and most profound solutions for sustainability are found in cultures that have historically been labeled as backward by Western civilization. I am not necessarily advocating that everyone start brushing their teeth with twigs, but to respect the brilliance of this practice, and to perhaps learn from it, is an important first step.

Today's First World cultures have amassed wealth by spending a long time developing tools for speed, extraction, and demolition. Contrastingly, the remaining traditional societies of the Third World have spent a much longer time developing methods for living in sustainable and abundant harmony with nature. This is not to say that no positive advancements have emerged from the First World, nor that only good has come forth from the Third World. To be sure, many of the technological inventions and democratic institutions of the West have improved the quality of human life. Yet too often, "progress" in the First World means faster resource extraction, devastating waste streams, and appalling social inequality. The unprecedented environmental devastation and socioeconomic injustice that the world faces today are the results of the expansion of an unsustainable First World civilization across the planet. We have taken far too much from Nature, and it is now overwhelmingly clear that we can no longer continue to consume at this rate.

In trying to find alternatives to the wasteful practices that we have become accustomed to, the traditional cultures of the Third World present us with time-tested and practical wisdom. In spheres like farming, water management, animal husbandry, building, diet, healthcare, and hygiene, the First World has a lot to learn from the Third World's age-old practices.

Knowledge and wisdom are distinct concepts. Whereas knowledge may be only theoretical in nature, wisdom is experientially verified to be effective. Ancestral wisdom is made up of practices that our ancestors experienced to be so important and effective that they wished to pass them forward to us. The unique greatness of human beings stems from this ability to pass wisdom to future generations. This is an ability that the human animal alone possesses. Unfortunately, the First World has been robbed of much of its ancestral wisdom inheritance. From their beginnings, the capitalistic forces of the West have sought to transform independent and self-sufficient societies into dependent consumerist ones. Before European elites colonized the world, they colonized their own populations. Generations of market-driven capitalism in the First World have supplanted Western ancestral wisdom with advertisement claims made by powerful corporations. And so, a person may now be unaware that ginger and lemon can help with a sore throat, yet he is constantly bombarded with the claim that sugary syrup in a plastic bottle will help. The corrosion of ancestral wisdom in the First World (and now in the developed parts of the Third World) can be addressed by looking to traditional cultures for reminders and inspiration.

Take agriculture as another example. Traditional cultures have developed systems of farming that maintain a natural equilibrium with nature--the nutrients harvested from the soil are balanced by organic waste that is fed back into the soil. These systems are permacultures: they can exist permanently so long as God's grace permits. By contrast, generations of expansion by agribusiness in the First World have displaced sustainable farming wisdom with advertised knowledge. This has produced a modern-day class of agribusiness-dependent consumeristic farmers across the world. These farmers buy patented seeds, they buy special fertilizers and pesticides, and they buy machinery and fuel. Nothing that they buy is naturally renewable because that would mean that they would stop buying--and so they continue buying and continue creating waste. This system depletes the natural soil biology and can only be carried out up to certain point, after which the soil is completely lifeless. Today, entire regions of previously rich agricultural land have been brought to ruin using these unsustainable practices. For the sake of itself and the natural world at large, the First World must begin to mimic the sustainable farming practices of the traditional Third World cultures.

In the end, the best human civilization possible can only emerge from a synthesis of so-called First and Third World cultures. The First World civilizations have developed technology and science, which have grown from a wonderful cultural sense of appreciation for adventure, risk, and innovation. However, from a social and ecological standpoint, the activities of the First World have been disastrous. The Third World has been adept at developing and preserving sustainable and balanced communities that are rich with accumulated wisdom. Yet, very often this focus on tradition has degenerated into hierarchy, ritual, and stagnation. Nature's signal to us is clearer than ever: we must change our habits and become a society that lives in lasting harmony with this Earth. By synthesizing the best aspects of the distinct human civilizations around the world, we can go beyond simply being able to last--we can thrive. Let nothing be arrogantly disregarded as primitive or backward. Indeed, at this time, looking backward may be the best way for us to move forward.


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