I am just finishing Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss. The book is a memoir of the anthropologist's years of travel in Brazil's Mato Grosso during the 1930s when he was doing the field work that is the basis for much of current anthropological theory. Lévi-Strauss opened new vistas on the nature of human society through a study of several tribal groups residing in the brushland and jungles of Brazil. The inspiring message from his investigations was the amount of compassion, humanity and humor which he found among small groups of people living out their lifetimes in circumstances of extreme material poverty. In most cases, the people he visited lived much of the year from hunting and gathering, and they possessed nothing which could not be carried with them on their backs. In spite of that limitation, they generously shared what little they had with each other, and even with pets like small monkeys and birds which rode on their shoulders during their seasonal wanderings.
The terrible message from Lévi-Strauss' field work was that most of the traditional cultures of the Mato Grosso and the Amazon which had survived for thousands of years were in the final stages of extermination. By that time only about ten percent of the aboriginal population extant at the arrival of the Europeans was in existance. Introduced diseases and genocidal warfare killed a large portion of the native population, but most of the decimation can probably be attributed primarily to the cultural disruption caused by the overwhelming intrusion of an advanced industrial society. Most traditional subsistance economies simply could not withstand the powerful technology and land-grabbing greed of the invaders.
There were examples of survival and rebound among some Native American groups with larger populations and traditions of resiliance and adaptability which permitted them to effectively resist the onslaught. By the time Lévi-Strauss got around to writing his book in the 1950s some populations were growing again like the central Andean Quechua speakers and the Diné of the Four Corners region in the U.S. Those people found ways to meld traditional life styles with the demands of industrial-based economies. Such survival came with a great price, of course, directly by sacrifice in the process of rebellion and more passively in peripheral losses to societal dysfunction like addiction, depression and suicide. The struggle evolved through decades and centuries and the ulltimate outcome in terms of cultural integrity really has no guarantee.
A half century after the publication of Tristes Tropiques there is another message in the book for the present. The cultural disruption which decimated Native American populations is still operating on many other groups around the world, but on a massively larger scale than that which affected the Americas in the past. Millions of people now in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East have been displaced by war and economic collapse over the course of a few decades. Displaced people stream in great columns toward hoped-for safe havens, but humanitarian assistance falls far short of needs, and the biggest share of the response by the advanced nations has been through the exercise of police and military power. The main focus of such power exercises is an attempt to control the inevitable extremist ideologues which parasitize human suffering. That seems clearly a battle which cannot be won while the greater societal disaster goes unaddressed and often unacknowledged.
Also unacknowledged is the urgency of Humanity's current crises. Population pressure, environmental degradation, nuclear weapons proliferation and nuclear storage vulnerabilities are all close to a tipping point. The pace of change in those critical issues seems to have become exponential, and the latitude for mistaken, short-sighted policies has been reduced to near zero. We clearly cannot afford to put people into positions of national and international leadership who lack the understanding and priorities needed to meet those great challenges.