| Jan 26, 2006

Feature Article - January 26, 2006

Feature Article

January 26, 2006

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Legends, myths, and fundamental beliefs

Commentary by Gray Merriam


In her recent book Dancing at the Dead Sea, Globe and Mail environmental columnist, Alanna Mitchell, repeatedly arrives at the conclusion that the key to understanding why we do not respond to clearly critical issues, such as environmental crises, is because of societal and cultural legends1. Some legends, some myths and some fundamental belief systems are so deeply embedded in the consciousness and the cultural perspective that these beliefs act as part of the control system that stabilizes our social behaviour. Legends, myths and belief systems moderate changes in our social and technological responses to challenges that we sense some insurance of continuity a braking system preventing sudden, radical changes a stabilizing influence.

We disparage many examples by considering them to be taboos from primitive cultures. As if we don’t think that way. But many such culturally embedded myths have serious environmental consequences. The Malagasy culture visited by Mitchell believes that humans can’t influence plant growth, including trees. Only special gods can do so. The Malagasy extend that myth to say that those gods look after everything about trees. So if a Malagasy can’t easily find a tree for firewood because he has already cut too many, he tells himself that he simply must keep walking and he will find one. Following that myth the Malagasy have almost totally denuded their home island Madagascar. Aid agencies now fear that the people will perish simply for lack of fuel for cooking. When relief workers showed them that humans could grow plants, they rejected the knowledge in favour of the long-standing belief that only special gods could do that. The belief had become so deeply embedded in their culture that they viewed knowledge of plant cultivation as some sort of challenge to their culture rather than a possible salvation from an outcome that actively threatens their very culture.

But our western culture and our intellects are too sophisticated to fall prey to such traps. Oh? What makes us believe that natural resources are endless in Canada and -- that we humans are superior to all other living beings and should be able to take everything we desire, regardless? How long have we held to the myth that Canada has so much fresh water that we need not worry about either polluting it or allowing it to be exported for profit? Why do we believe that growth or increase is good for everything from gross economic flow to population size to size of a university to number of trucks on our highways? What makes us believe that stock market numbers should control our economic system? -- that diamonds are valuable? -- that our agricultural methods will benefit Africa? -- that our particular religions and other beliefs should have been incorporated into the culture of First Nations?

As Alanna Mitchell illustrates with several detailed examples from a global array of environmental ‘hot spots’, the stabilizing influence of legends, myths and beliefs can prevent human social response to our impacts until it is too late. How beliefs can have such power and how we can benefit from the stabilizing influence of them without being lulled into inaction by them may be a fundamental issue in deciding the future of the human condition.

At first glance, the difference between legends, myths and belief systems and the real truth may appear to be simply more knowledge. It is not that easy. If it were, many damaging beliefs would have been taken care of long ago. Certainly the difference, and thus the power to transform myths, lies in more knowledge. But how we humans think and the evolutionary history of our thinking and how our thoughts get incorporated into our cultures is critical here. New knowledge can simply be denied. Moving beyond denial requires more than just more knowledge.

To be incorporated into our culture so that a whole culture changes its thinking, new knowledge may have to be incorporated into new, updated legends. It has been pointed out that few people are able or interested in assessing the possible truth or consequences of some new piece of scientific or social knowledge until that knowledge is made part of the reality the actual life of those persons. It seems possible that we need to review and update our long-standing legends, myths and belief systems. Or we may need to weave new ones that are more appropriate to today’s realities.

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