Globalisation and the erosion of culture
Guyana and the wider world
Nature's own erosion and extinction
Erosion of culture
by Dr Clive Thomas
July 1, 2001
It is important to bear in mind that the erosion of the environment and the extinction of species associated with human activity referred to in the recent articles in this series also occur through nature, without any human intervention. This erosion and extinction are very much a part of nature as we know it. Over time, many well?known species have come and gone as a result of natural phenomena like the Ice Age, or inter?galatic meteors striking the earth. Indeed, it would astonish many readers to learn that it has been estimated that at present only 5?10 percent of all the species that have ever lived are alive today! This is by any measuring rod, a phenomenal rate of natural extinction.
Some scientists believe however, that the impact of people and their activities on the earth=s ecosystems have become so enormous that it now matches in scale, the impact of nature itself. Consider the report that on a per capita basis, as much as 20 tonnes of material per person is Amoved@ each year on earth. This material would include fuels, soils, minerals, plants etc. The rate of this movement has been accelerating in the period of globalisation. If true, this is a global total that rivals the movement of material as a result of the impact of volcanoes, earthquakes, river sedimentation, and the movement of the earth=s tectonic plates.
Alas, however, in this period of globalisation, we do not only face the erosion of our environment, but as Pat Mooney and the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) have repeatedly reminded us and again in the recent issue of Development Dialogue, we face also the erosion of our culture, values, and confidence in life itself. The fraying of the web of life protrayed in these articles, is therefore, nothing less than the wasting of our potential and the dismantling of all our human achievements.
Let us consider the erosion of culture. This can be traced in a number of ways, but perhaps the best way is through language, since this is the fundamental basis of all cultures. Without language we cannot communicate. And, if we cannot communicate, we cannot fulfil our potential as social beings.
A century ago it was estimated that there were 10,000 languages worldwide. Each language supported and reflected its own culture and way of life. Today, that number has been drastically reduced by one?third. There are now only about 6,700 surviving languages. What is worse, is that of these surviving languages only one?half is being taught to children. The implications of this are catastrophic. Simply put, it means that humanity faces the risks of extinction of one?half of its known languages, in a period of time as brief as a generation. From a global perspective this is a very grave predicament.
I cannot over?stress the fact that without language, we do not have advanced forms of communication. The loss of language is a loss of culture and the continued fraying of the web of life. What can be more frightening therefore, than the prospect held out in a 1995 UNESCO study, which suggests that 90 percent of all the languages spoken in 1999 will disappear, within a hundred years?
Many of the languages spoken are by small groups of persons. Indeed one?half of all the languages spoken on earth are now spoken by fewer than 10,000 persons. Further, about one?half of that amount is spoken by fewer than 1,000 persons. In our region, South America, it is estimated that one?third of the land area is occupied by people who speak no indigenous language. This loss of language is mainly the product of genocide.
As we have noted repeatedly, globalisation has been associated with marked inequalities on consumption, income, wealth, and many other economic indicators, both between and within countries. Sadly, this process of inequalisation is also reflected in languages. As languages disappear, we find that a smaller and a smaller number become more dominant worldwide. Thus, of the 6,700 languages existing today, just 300 are spoken by 95 percent of the world=s population. The leading ten languages are the mother languages of almost half the earth=s population. English alone, can in some way be spoken/understood by one?quarter of the world=s population.
As said before, a loss of language is a loss of local culture. It is therefore a reversal for humanity as a whole. With every loss of language we lose ideas, art, concepts, knowledge of our environment, and experiences. We cannot as a species afford these losses.
When examined from a broader standpoint, the simultaneous extinction of languages and the consolidation of a few of them into greater and greater prominence is a disturbing phenomenon. Above all it buttresses the deep structures of inequality, so evident in the period of globalization. In this regard another report from UNESCO is equally disturbing. It has pointed out that 90 of the 140 authors whose works had the most translations in 1994, were English. This was up from 64, when a similar estimate has made in 1980.
Most of the translated authors do not seem to me to represent the highest levels of cultural attainment, at least in English. Among the top ten most popular translations, are pulp fiction writers whose names are well?known to Guyana, Agatha Christie (number 1), Danielle Steele (number 2), Barbara Cartland (number 7) and Enid Blyton (number 9).
One might be inclined to argue that there are positive developments occurring perhaps through the expansion of technology as an aid to communication. Indeed, the Internet has opened vast new opportunities for communication and contact. There is no doubt that technology promises a great deal. Unfortunately, however, 80 percent of the information on the Internet is in English. In the face of the fact that only one?twelfth of the world=s population speak English as a first language, we easily see the unequal distribution of the gains from of technology in this period of globalisation.
The erosion of our culture through language, like the erosion of our environment, is accelerating. Underlying both phenomena is the erosion of justice and equity as fundamental principles, to guide us all. This is the same lesson we found when we looked at the impact of globalisation on trade, production, investment, finance, consumption, wealth and all the other major economic variables. This is the heart of the real doomsday threat.
Nature's own erosion and extinction
Erosion of culture