The Ever-Diminishing Ethnosphere
According to The Encyclopedia of World Problems & Human Potential, there are currently about 15,000 different cultures around the world. That might seem like a lot, but when you consider how endangered so many cultures are then the problem becomes more clear. Most of the 15,000 cultures in the world are represented by a single population of hundreds if not simply dozens of indigenous people. Just as one example, since 1900, 90 of Brazil’s 270 Native American tribes have completely disappeared, and more than two-thirds of the remaining tribes have populations of fewer than 1,000. Everywhere you look it seems that ethnic cleansing is being practiced in some form or another. In 2010, there were killings of hundreds of ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan during the riots. In 2011, the black Libyan tribe of Tawergha town was de-populated. In 2012, about 90,000 people were displaced during the sectarian violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists. In 2013, ethnic violence in South Sudan led to more than 700,000 people being internally displaced. The list just goes on and on. In fact, as you read this, Israelis are killing Palestinians, and Turks are killing Kurds in an effort to prevent them from having a homeland. To make matters worse, that’s only a couple of the dozens of persecuted minority groups around the world seeking safe haven. It’s unspeakably sad because these kinds of conflicts should be ancient history, but they are very much current events. As if that isn’t bad enough, iconoclastic terrorists like the members of ISIS do everything in their power to try and erase the past by destroying priceless artifacts and eliminating memes.
The systematic destruction of people’s heritage and livelihoods takes on a number of different forms. For instance, nomadic pastoralists increasingly lose their grazing lands, as more and more capitalist governments try to settle them as farmers or stock rangers. This then becomes corporatized, so people get ignored and profits take precedence in society. This is all part of the McDonaldization of Earth, which is drastically altering our relationship with the natural world, and each other. Widespread decadence is leading to a rapid reduction of traditions, as more and more customs are being replaced all around the world. Think of an Amish kid using a smartphone to develop an online persona, or a South American shaman in jeans and a T-shirt reading The Bible. Better yet, consider isolated tribes that are not literate. With no written records of their history, they are the most vulnerable. The problem of cultural loss is particularly severe in societies based on an oral tradition. There are about 6,000 spoken languages in the world, at the moment. However, about 2,000 of those languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers. Plus, according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, there are about 3,000 endangered languages worldwide. On top of that, the problem is quite nuanced. For instance, although there are more than 60,000 Inuit people inhabiting the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, Inuit Sign Language is a critically endangered language isolate. Similarly, the dozens of words for snow that are part of their vocabulary are quickly becoming obsolete as a result of global warming. Simply put, their way of life is being irrevocably altered, and there is very little that can be done about it.
This is no trivial matter. Language is the epistemic tool that people use to understand the world and their place in it. Consider the fact that the Awa tribe in the Amazon who have no words for time, including day, month, year, past, present, or future. As such, they live in the present moment, seeing the world in a rather unique sort of way. This is why more people need to learn dying languages to help preserve the ever-diminishing ethnosphere of Earthlings. You see, as a result of globalization, ethnicities are all converging on an international culture in which everyone will eventually use the same letters and numbers to communicate with. Can you imagine what it would be like if English, Mandarin, or Spanish was the only language on Earth? Undoubtedly, the few gains that would come from us having a universal language would be severely overshadowed by all of the losses. Currently, about 40% of the world’s population speaks only one of the top eight languages in use. This is extremely important because everyone’s internal dialogue is based on the vocabulary of their worldview, and this determines whatever they do. As an extreme example of what I mean, the Piraha people of the Amazon rainforest speak a language with no extant relatives, few phonemes, no true numbers, no way of talking about history, and no recursive embedding. Think about how much different your life would be without words for defined numbers. Rather than saying there is a certain number of something, the natives simply use words like “many” or “few” to describe quantities. These kinds of linguistic distinctions make their lives quite unique from ours, but still very much an important part of the human condition. Ultimately, the point that I’m getting at is that these ethnocides are already well underway through the industrial-scale homogenization of humanity. That’s why we must do everything we can to foster integration, not assimilation, thus preserving as much of the rapidly diminishing diversity as possible. The thing is that the longer we wait, the less there will be…