Mark Bidwell [0:38]
Hi, this is Mark Bidwell, and welcome to the latest edition of the OutsideVoices Podcast. My guest today is Wade Davis, who’s an author, an explorer, and an anthropologist. And some of his books include “The Wayfinders,” the subtitle of which is “Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the modern World,” a book called “One River,” which was reviewed by Sting, and he wrote on the back of it “further evidence that the rainforests of the world hold something of vital importance to mankind. Read this book.” And most recently “Magdelena” which was retweeted by the President of Colombia, urging every single Colombian to read this book, it’s a book of optimism. Now Wade is someone who I’ve wanted to have on the podcast for a number of years, and every time I went to Vancouver, I’ve been going there every quarter for the last four years, because I’m on the board of a company that’s based there. But every time I went over there, we did our best to connect, and unfortunately, our calendars always conspired against us. So it’s great to be able to finally have him on the program. Now, Wade is probably the most well known anthropologist in the world today. His work has received a huge boost recently from an article he wrote in Rolling Stone Magazine about the decline of America brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. And he talks about some ongoing work he’s planning with Rolling Stone going forward. The other very well known anthropologist is Gillian Tett who has also appeared on the podcast. She’s US Managing Editor of the Financial Times. And as well as being a great writer, Wade is also a great storyteller. And this interview that follows is almost an hour in duration, and illustrates just quite how compelling a storyteller Wade is. So I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Wade Davis.
Mark Bidwell [2:36]
Wade, great to have you on the program. You have in my mind, arguably the best job in the world – Explorer in Residence for the National Geographic Society. So how do you answer the question that you might be asked at a dinner party, what do you do?
Wade Davis [2:49]
Well, Mark, I should clarify that I was really fortunate to be the Explorer in Residence at the Geographic for about 13 years, but then I moved back to British Columbia, and I’m now a Professor of Anthropology at the university here. But the answer to that is I always say storyteller, and I mean, that not in a glib way. Very early on in my career, I had the strongest sense from two mentors, first of all, in tropical biology, plant exploration, the legendary Richard Evans Schultes.
Mark Bidwell [3:18]
Whose book I have behind actually, “The Lost Amazon”, yes.
Wade Davis [3:21]
Right. And of course, I wrote his biography, the book “One River.” But he was one of the first to draw attention to both the extraordinary ethnobotanical knowledge of indigenous people in the Amazon, but also the rate at which that knowledge was being eroded through various forces. And, of course, in the anthropological arena, I was really blessed to have as my tutor and real mentor, David Maybury Lewis, the great humanist, the great americanist, who also founded Cultural Survival. And David in particular, has a very strong sense of the legacy and anthropology of activism. It’s an interesting thing, Mark, very quickly, but if you think about it, consider the certainties of your grandfather’s generation, about the role of men, role of women, the place of race and culture, etc. Not one of those certitudes would you embrace today, right? In fact, many of them you’d find to be morally repugnant. And we always say, well that’s because of the women’s movement or the movement that took women in the kitchen to the boardroom, people of color from the woodshed to the White House, gay people from the closet to the altar, but something before those movements could be born. Something had to shatter that orthodoxy. Remember that 1911 the superiority of the white male was so accepted that there was not a word for racism as we define it in the Oxford English Dictionary. There was not a word for colonialism, there’s not a word for homosexuality. And what actually shattered it was a small group of contrarians who gathered around Franz Boas, anthropologist. Many women – Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Gloria, Zora Neale Hurston, who had the audacity to say that race was a social construct, that family could be whatever envelops children with love, that the world in which you were born is just a model of reality, that there’s no evolutionary hierarchy of culture leading up to the civilized, the strand of line. So, Ruth Benedict said very simply, and she was a great acolyte of Franz Boas, the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences. So in that sense, I very much came out of that tradition, and really felt that the lessons of both anthropology and conservation biology were so essential that it was really almost criminal to keep them shackled within the circumference of the ivory tower of the university, that I felt that scholars had an obligation to share their insights with the public at large. But it’s interesting, Mark, in the immediate wake of 9/11 I was living in Washington, DC, when the American Anthropological Association had their annual meeting, and 4000 anthropologists arrived in the city a month after the tragedy in the wake of this incredible crisis. The entire gathering earned a single line in the Washington Post, in the gossip session, basically saying the nutcases are in town again. You didn’t know who was more remised: the government for not listening to the one profession that could have answered the question on the lips of all Americans then, why do they hate us, we just might have kept us out of the debacle of Iraq and Afghanistan; or even worse, the profession for having no means whatsoever, and no inclination to share considerable wisdom and insights with the public at large. I’ve always felt that that’s been a real shortcoming of academic anthropology. Academic anthropologists today are so tied up in neurotic knots that they mostly speak about themselves, while the world senses it’s burning down.
Mark Bidwell [6:47]
One of my previous guests Gillian Tett who I think you know, she’s US Managing Editor of the Financial Times, she’s one of the few people who’s recognisable in the mainstream media as an anthropologist, who’s actually crossed over into business, for example. Anthropologists are used quite a lot in business, but not in that position.
Wade Davis [7:03]
Mark, it’s so fascinating that you say that, because I don’t know where it was, it was at Forbes or Fortune, but several years ago, to the embarrassment of the academic discipline, one of these major business magazines ranked anthropology the worst possible undergraduate major if you wanted to get a job. What nonsense that four years of studying the nature of human behaviour would be bad preparation for life in whatever vocation, from the clergy to the corporate world.
Mark Bidwell [7:28]
I’d actually made the case that a leader getting into a company to turn it around has to use a number of tools that anthropologists use. They need to be able to observe without judgment, they need to be able to speak multiple languages, they need to be able to suspend their mental model.
Wade Davis [7:44]
I love even your use of language. You just picked out of the blue the word suspend.
Wade Davis [7:50]
Anthropologists are sometimes accused of two things – loving every culture but their own, which I think there’s some truth to that. A lot of anthropologists of my generation suffered from Baudelaire’s malady, or of home. We grew up in an era where we found things around us problematic – the way women were treated, gay people were treated people of colour were treated, the environment, the war in Vietnam, whatever. We saw it, outside of our own culture, a realm of authenticity that we longed for. But the other thing is anthropologists are somehow accused of embracing extreme relativism, as if every trait of human behaviour has to be defended simply because it exists, as if you could defend the heinous acts of the Nazis for example, because they had their own twisted ideology, their own language, their own whatever. No. Anthropology, and this is one of David’s great lines, never calls for the elimination of judgment, it only calls for the suspension of judgment, so the very judgments we’re ethically and morally obliged to make as human beings can be informed ones.
Wade Davis [8:53]
I think no one would hesitate to condemn the Nazis. When you think of a cultural trait like extreme female mutilation or circumcision, that’s a trait that we can comfortably say can end up on the dustbin of history. Again, it’s important, anthropology is not about freezing people in time. It’s not about preserving anything. It’s about asking ourselves what kind of world we want to live in, how do we find a way to generate a multicultural, pluralistic world, in which all cultures have the benefit of the finest elements of modernity and science, but critically without that engagement, demanding depth of who they are as a people. And the reason for that is not just human rights, and certainly not nostalgia or romanticism, it’s actually geopolitical stability. Culture is not trivial, it’s not decorative. It’s not the songs we sing the prayers we utter, let alone the clothes we wear. Ultimately, culture is a body of ethical and moral values that every society places around each individual human being to keep at bay the barbaric heart the history sadly teaches us, lies within all humans. It’s culture that allows us to make order of the universe, to find meaning in the random, to be, as Lincoln said, the better angels of our nature, or at least to create aspirations that cause us to have ideals.
Wade Davis [10:14]
That’s why, myths are not just old stories. They’re fundamentally moral charters about how people should aspire to be. And we’re seeing this all around us. The whole Trump phenomena is all about what happens when fundamental elements of a collective social contract are violated. Until Trump, yes, of course, every politician bends the truth, that’s the nature of the beast, but to not be able to recognise the truth, to distort it to the extent that if you believe that it’s true. As against what Patrick Moynihan famously said, you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts. But when you enter a world where individuals feel entitled to their own facts, you’re on very shaky ground and you begin to feel the whole thing falling apart. And you suddenly realise how tenuous our implicit social agreements are that allow us to come together. And what we’re seeing, of course, in America in general, is what happens when the cult of the individual is celebrated with such iconic intensity, that they almost cease believing in the very notion of community or society. A day before Steve Bannon was arrested I was a guest on his podcast, and I had written provocatively in a Rolling Stone piece that it seems like in America people don’t even believe in the notion of society, which, of course, is an illusion of psychotic proportions, because that’s what we are, we are social species. I was being kind of provocative, but the first comment from the host was – look, I don’t know what this is all about , Dr. Davis, I don’t even believe in society. Wow, there you are.
Mark Bidwell [12:00]
And of course, American society, I think in your book you refer to there being 14,000 societies around the world, or communities, or indigenous groupings, if you like, and that is one of them. But maybe we can just go back, it’s obviously one that many of us are connected with when toy turn on TV, it’s all over the place. But one of the first books I read of yours, “The Wayfinders,” the subtitle is “Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.’ So maybe we can just unpack that a little bit more.
Wade Davis [12:26]
That book grew out of something called the CBC Massey lectures, which is a very wonderful tradition in Canada, where once each year they pick a public intellectual, and you give five different lectures in five different cities before live audiences, and they’re edited into a book, but also they’re broadcasts three times a year on national radio. It’s an incredible, generous platform, and it was actually an editor who put on that subtitle. I was not keen on the subtitle, only in the sense that it suggested that these cultures we’re talking about are somehow vestigial. These are not delicate, frail cultures, quaint and colorful but destined to fade away. On the contrary, these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces, whether those forces are ideological, ubiquitous cult of modernity, the Marxist mania, Beijing, whatever, or industrial. But, that’s actually not the mystical observation, because if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can be the facilitators of cultural survival.
Wade Davis [13:26]
I think the key thing to step back from, is that cultural myopia has been the curse of humanity since the dawn of consciousness, the idea that my world is the real world and everybody else somehow failed attempt to be me. When Heraclitus, 500 years before Christ, came back to Athens and had the audacity to say that something interesting was going on over in the Tigris Euphrates basin, in the Persian Empire, Plato wanted him banned from Athens for the audacity to suggest that anything else interesting can go on anywhere, but there. And most indigenous names translate the people, the implication being the blokes over the hill are savages. That kind of cultural myopia is something we can’t afford anymore in an interconnected world.
Wade Davis [14:13]
Of course, we too are myopic, and we see ourselves as not a way but the way. The great lesson of anthropology comes actually from genetics, in the sense that Boaz’s great intuition was that the world in which you were born was just one model of reality, the consequences of one particular set of depth of choices that your lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago. That was just kind of an intuition, an idea that ethnography seemed to support, but then genetics comes along, and shows us within the last generation that the genetic endowment of humanity is complete continuum. We’re all cut to the same genetic cloth. It shows that race is a total fiction, has no basis in biology whatsoever, but the important corollary of that is, if we’re cut from the same genetic cloth by definition, all human populations share the same raw genius, the same mental acuity, the same human potential. And critically, it’s obvious that whether that’s placed in the technological wizardry, the great achievement of the West, or invested by contrast in the complex task of unraveling the mystic memories of a myth, is simply a matter of choice or cultural orientation. There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. What this means is the other peoples of the world aren’t failed attempts of being you. In fact, every culture is a unique answer to a fundamental question – what does it mean to be human and alive? When the peoples of the world answer that question, they do so in the 7000 different voices of humanity. Those multiple questions become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us as a collective species. If Ruth Benedict said the purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human differences, in a sense, the great lesson of anthropology is that every culture indeed has something to say, and each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine. That is the clarion call of anthropology.
Mark Bidwell [16:12]
The language is so fundamental here. I was reading about the Penan in Sarawak who have six different words for wheat, and no word for thank you, because it’s expected that you reciprocate with one.
Wade Davis [16:26]
What’s so fascinating with the language issue are two things – how long this haunting consensus lingered in academic linguistics without anybody screaming about it. I first came upon a paper written in 1992 by a wonderful anthropologist, recently deceased, Michel Krauss, which is called The Loss of Human Languages at Risk or something. And he cited a statistic that simply blew my mind. Even as an anthropologist, I didn’t know that half the languages of the world weren’t being taught to schoolchildren. And I began to ask people, and I couldn’t find anyone who challenged that fundamental statistic. If that statistic was true, it meant by definition that half of humanity’s intellectual, social, ecological spiritual knowledge was at risk. I couldn’t believe that the linguists weren’t screaming about it, because the language of course isn’t just vocabulary and grammar. It’s a flash to the human spirit, is a vehicle through which the soul of every culture comes into the material world. I wrote in that book you mentioned, that every language is an old growth forest of the mind, a watershed of thought and ecosystem of social and spiritual possibilities. And the reason, it turns out, that linguists were not screaming os two words, Noam Chomsky, Chomsky was a darling of the new left during Vietnam, and that burnish has already remarkable credentials as a linguist, who in a very brilliant insight had challenged orthodox thinking when he questioned the obvious. The language acquisition had been seen as behavioural, like, Johnny gets a chocolate if he says “mommy,” and Chomsky said the obvious, that language acquisition is incredibly complex, it happens everywhere, in every culture, in every language at roughly the same age, walk one, talk two, and we had to be hardwired somehow for that acquisition. He posited that there was some kind of universal grammar or some cognitive structure like an organ, but not a physical organ, but a cognitive organ. The only way we could study that organ was through theoretical analysis of structure of language. Michael, before he died, told me on the phone that he used the analogy of biology – if a geneticist wants to study the origin of life, they study DNA, and they don’t care if the DNA comes from a fruit fly or a panda bear, because it’s fundamentally structurally the same. So why get a panda bear where you can easily use fruit flies. And the geneticists would say, we know conservation is important, but we’ll leave that for the conservation biologists. In a sense, Chomsky, with his incredibly dominant theoretical team, if you will, his academic cohorts, were saying that the only thing we’re studying is the pursuit of the holy grail of the universal language, and how that universal grammar is expressed in any one culture is really not that interesting. And that if you run around the world to try to compile dictionaries and grammars of dying languages, was kind of a waste of time, because this is going to die anyway. Now, it’s hard to believe that that was as simple as that, but it is the case. In fact, if you gave me, Mark, all the money in the world, I could not document the threatened languages on Earth, because there are not enough field linguists trained and disciplined to do that kind of work. What happened around the year 2000, the emperor got no clothes, and the whole new generation of linguists came on saying, wait a minute. One thing I can lay claim to in my academic life, is that one of the reasons that the consequences of Chomsky’s theories were not challenged was his sheer authority within the discipline. It took someone like me who had no card in the game to come along in 1998 and really from the bully pulpit of the National Geographic, which amplified my voice, obviously considerably, I started screaming, what the hell are you talking about? When I would go and speak to audiences about some of the themes we mentioned earlier, the erosion of cultural diversity, occasionally people couldn’t quite grok it. But when you say to someone, how would you feel to be enveloped in silence, to have no means or ability to pass on the wisdom of your ancestry, or to anticipate the promise of your descendants, how would you feel to be the last person capable of speaking your mother tongue? Well, that happens to someone on the planet every two weeks. Audiences would just gasp, because it brought it home to them in a very intimate way. Then, happily, my voice was joined by a whole bunch of other voices, which were just waiting to burst forth. I’m not trying to take credit for this movement, but beginning in the first decade, people like David Kristol, and my good friend David Harris and Greg Anderson, and a host of the new generation of field linguists, and then the tsunami of books and films and also programs for the revitalisation have burst forth. And Chomsky, people still respect his fundamental academic contributions, but they realise it’s a great lesson in how we should always be cautious and somewhat suspect of entrenched academic orthodoxies.
Mark Bidwell [21:26]
I think you meant to make the point that biosphere, we all know how much it’s eroding and reducing, but the atmosphere is even worse.
Wade Davis [21:35]
In an earlier book, I think it was called “Light at the Edge of the World,” I coined the term ethnosphere as an organising principle, obviously thinking about the biosphere. And again, as a storyteller, my job is to find ways to communicate what may be obscure, find ways to bring obscure information to light in a way that’s intriguing to people, but I always try to find analogies that can resonate with people. Everybody was so concerned about the erosion of biodiversity, a term that incidentally didn’t even exist, and so it was coined by my friend Tom Lovejoy in the 1970s, and Ed Wilson. Now it’s part of the vernacular schoolchildren, so people were aware of that. And yet the reality was that no biologists would suggest that 50% of all forms of organic life are moribund. Yet the amazing thing is that, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approached what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity. Let’s go back to your first question Penan of Borneo.
Wade Davis [22:40]
The fascinating thing about working with different cultures is that each opens a window, a vast vista on the human potential. We have to ask ourselves about nomadic societies, because at one point, we were all wanderers on a pristine planet. Nomads don’t wander, they’re actually very defined seasonal rounds that bring them back again and again to the same resources upon which their lives depend. But they just haven’t succumbed to the cult of the seed and settled down in situ. But of course, farmers don’t either, they continue on the road to frontier, but that’s another issue. But in a nomadic society, if you think about it, there’s not only no incentive to accumulate material wealth, there’s a disincentive to do so, because in the case of the Penan, everything has to be carried on your back. So it begs the obvious question, how do you measure wealth in a society where material accumulation has no meaning, and where everybody can essentially make everything from the raw resources of the forest? Well, in the Penan culture, wealth is defined explicitly as a strength of social relations between people, because if those relations fray, everybody suffers.
Wade Davis [23:47]
If you and I, and your brother, with our wives and children or a small band in the forest, which is how often it’s in these nomadic societies, if suddenly I don’t get along with the Bidwells and I have to leave, that means by definition, that night, my children have a two thirds less chance of eating. So in these nomadic societies, from the Inuit to the Penan and Borneo, and all the Athabaskan hunting societies are like this, there’s an amazing subtle prohibition on confrontation. There are no swear words in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. You don’t express disapproval vocally, you actually express your disapproval in silence, because all of the pressure is to maintain the social solidarity of the group. It brings to mind what we’ve gone through in North America with COVID. I’ve been trying to gently explain to my American friends why it is that Canada has done so much better. In a city like Vancouver, we’re a concentrated metropolitan area, we’re an Asian city, we had dozens of flights coming in from China, three hours up the road from Seattle where the pandemic landed in North America. Yet, on July 30th of this summer, in numbers that now seem modest, but then were just beyond the imaginings, when close to 60,000 new cases were announced in United States, in all of our hospitals in British Columbia we only had five cases of COVID. So what was going on here? And part of what was going on here was the fact that we believe in our institutions, you would never have a Canadian politician run against Ottawa, Ottawa is expression of us, that would be a psychotic gesture. We don’t see patriotism as flagged, wrapped, chauvinistic exhortations, or can’t. We see patriotism as a more unmuted sense of community. We don’t see wealth as the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but rather, ultimately, the strength of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that link all of us, in some sense, in common purpose. That’s all expressed most perfectly, of course, in our health care system, in which the focus is always on the health of the collective, certainly not the individual, sometimes to its detriment, but certainly not on the private investor who used every hospital bed as if it’s a rental property. And all of this came to the fore, not that we were a perfect society, not that we’re untouched by COVID, but what the Americans in particular failed to understand, for example, about universal health care, is that it’s not about medicine. I’s not about healthcare at all. It’s about social solidarity. It’s about fairness, about sending a message that everybody counts.
Wade Davis [26:32]
The chasm in the American public right now, the polarisation, in its foundation, is people feeling they’ve been left out for one reason or another. The social contract in the post World War Two era, where America in the wake of the war allowed for this treaty between capital and labor, that gave us the middle class, that allowed the working man with limited education to have a good job, earn enough to buy a house, buy a car, put his kids through school, etc, that was shattered with globalisation. At the same time, as they celebrated the individual with iconic intensity, personal mobility, the community began to shred. Suddenly, before you knew it, divorce rates were above 50%. Suddenly, only 6% of American homes had grandparents beneath the same roof as grandchildren. Those grandchildren by the age of 18 were spending three full years watching a glass screen, video monitor or TV or laptop, contributing to obesity epidemic so severe that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were calling it a national security issue. Suddenly, before you knew it, America was consuming two thirds of the world’s antidepressant drugs, and the highest cause of death for those under 15 in America, was no longer car accidents, it became opiate abuse and addiction. You saw this erosion at a time when the chasm between those who had and those who had nothing only widened and deepened. In the 1950s, for example, my father in law was the CEO of Bell and Howell company, which had about 12,000 employees, and his salary would have been about 20 times that of a college staffer. Now that chasm would be 500 times. Marginal tax rates on the wealthy in the 1950s were 91%. That didn’t mean that people paid all of that, but it sent a signal that the wealthy were expected to pay. Today, the top 1% control $30 trillion of assets personally, and the lower half of the society has more debt than assets. The top three richest Americans have more wealth than the poorest 160 million. That is simply not sustainable in a nation that aspires to be a democratic state.
Mark Bidwell [28:49]
But I think you’re an optimist. In your most recent book, “Magdalena: River Dreams,” you described it as as an antidote to despair, given Colombia’s recent history. What are you optimistic about? And what can we learn from how other cultures or communities have actually dealt with what is essentially, for the first time in mankind’s history, a shared problem which has never happened before?
Wade Davis [29:14]
But that’s a very interesting point.
Wade Davis [29:16]
Climate change, for example, has become humanity’s problem. But it’s important to remember it wasn’t caused by humanity. It was caused by a very narrow subset of humanity that for 300 years only has consumed the ancient sunlight of the world. Back to this issue of cultural myopia, we tend to think of ourselves as a real way and everybody else a failed attempt of being us. But actually, we’re like any other culture or a product of our history. And in our history, you can identify an inflection point before the Enlightenment, and into the Enlightenment in the 18th century, going back, of course, ultimately to Aristotle, but certainly in the end of the Renaissance, where we were trying to liberate ourselves from notoriety of absolute faith, the medieval church. When Descartes famously said that all that exists is mind and material, and its for matter, in a single gesture he de-animated the world. Science would make a housecleaning of belief. We tossed out all notions of myth, magic, mysticism and metaphor. Now that gave us the opening to invent the scientific method, which has brought us great illumination. Allopathic medicine is probably the greatest achievement of human endeavour. But at the same time, we forget that metaphor was in fact the means by which most human societies interacted with the world. Once we de-animated the world, once we said that the flight of the bird had no meaning, once we said the world was just a stage set, upon which only the human drama unfolded, that plants and animals, for example, were just props in that stage, that was focused only on us, the consequences became grave. Because if you view the world as being inert, a mountain is just a pile of rock, a forest is just board, feet and cellulose, you’re gonna have a very different attitude toward it than if you’re raised in the mountains of Peru and believe that a mountain is Apu deity that will direct your destiny, or in the forest of British Columbia, where the Kwakwaka’wakw believe that the forest are the home of Buk’Wus and Crooked-Beak of Heaven. Now, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s to say, but the belief system mediates the relationship between the natural world and human populations with profoundly different consequences for the way of life and for the ecological footprint.
Wade Davis [31:23]
If you really look around the world through the ethnographic lens, you discover that the vast majority, let’s put it that way, of societies, their relationship with the natural world is based not on an extractive model, or an exploitative model, but rather on reciprocity. And it’s manifest in ritual and sacred rites in a million ways. But the fundamental idea is very simple. The earth owes its bounty to people, and people in turn owe their fidelity to the Earth. You see this expressed in so many ways. Human beings in this model are not the problem, they’re the solution, because only through the human consciousness can the wonder of the earth come into being.
Wade Davis [32:01]
And you see that in, for example, beliefs of the Inuit in the Arctic, where they sincerely believe that you have to treat the animals properly. If a young boy kills the seal, and fails to drip fresh water into its mouth, he will never get another animal. But at the same time, they believe that the animals, if they are not hunted, will suffer. And you see, this played out a time and time again. The Older brothers of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Columbia, teh Wiwa, the Kogi, the Arhuacos, who literally maintain that their prayers and rituals maintain the cosmic balance of the world, or the Barasana and the Makuna of the Northwest Amazon, who literally believe that plants and animals are but people in another dimension of reality. Again, the triumph of secular materialism may be the conceit of modernity, but its power and its ubiquity should not imply that it’s the norm. It, in fact, is the anomaly. This isn’t suggest, and this gets back to the subtitle of that book, because that was a question, why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world, that I was forced by the editors to answer, and I did so implicitly throughout the book; but in the end of the day, I answered with two words: climate change. Not to suggest that we go back to some pre-industrial past or critically, that any human population be isolated and kept from the benefits of the modern scientific tradition. Quite to the contrary, the point is the very existence of these multiple interpretations of reality, the very existence of these other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other ways of orienting yourself in social ecological spiritual space through human history, puts the absolute lie to those of us in our own culture who say that we cannot change or imply that we cannot change. As we know, all of us, that we must change the fundamental way in which we inhabit this finite planet. And again, you you asked initially about optimism. Well, I’m optimistic. A – I am a father. B – I believe pessimism is an indulgence, just as I think that despair is an insult to the imagination, orthodoxy, the enemy of invention. Look, when I was a kid, just getting people to stop throwing garbage out of a car window was a great environmental victory. Nobody spoke about the biosphere. That’s a term familiar to schoolchildren. I often speak to my daughters who are 30, 31. And they look back on a television show, for example, like Mad Men, which depicted an office space in the 1950s, and they literally will not believe me that women were treated in that way. But they were. My mother was such a brilliant woman. Were she to be alive today should be running a corporation or serving on the bench to be a neurosurgeon, I don’t know. But her life was absolutely crushed by this glass ceiling that was so low, that women had three options, secretarial, nursing and teaching. Incidentally, that’s why people totally misunderstand the erosion of quality of the public schools because we, basically, had great public schools, because the women subsidised that in the 1950s. My teachers were all women who are today running corporations, or are in the Congress. Because that was all they could do. We could create these institutional wage levels that were obscenely low. So as wages for every other profession rose, teachers remained essentially stagnant. And even though Benjamin Franklin and Monroe, and Madison, and Jefferson all said, education was the most important foundation of democracy, far more important than the electoral vote, because without an educated electorate you could not have democracy. That’s why we created the North America this amazing system of public education, which was a jewel of the world, which we’ve allowed to erode, because we’ve continued to pay teachers as if it’s a subordinate or a secondary vocation. And that’s all because for so long we coasted, we surfed on the backs of women when it came to education. My father was a very wise man, he was not a religious man, but he believed in good and evil. He’d say to you know, there’s two options, good and evil, take your pick, son, get on with it. What he was really saying is, we have this idea in the Christian tradition. Evil is this entity that we can eliminate. As a cleric in the Middle Ages asked the heretical question – if God’s all powerful, why does he allow evil to exist in the universe, he would be burned at stake. But in the eastern traditions, when a disciple asked Lord Krishna that very question, if God is all powerful, why does he tolerate evil in the universe, Lord Krishna winked and he said to thicken the plot. In other words, in eastern religion, in the Buddhist tradition in particular, people have no illusions that evil is going to go away. That’s the first noble truth, all life is suffering. And it was to deal with that condition that the Buddha set out on his journey of transformation. If you realise that, you realise you’ll never vanquish evil, but you have to make a choice, what side are you going to be on. One of the things I think happens in our Judaeo Christian tradition is that people have all these expectations to win that environmental battles, defeat that heinous politician, to end war or whatever, to find a world at peace. Because of that illusion they’re constantly disappointed. Eventually disappointment can lead to bitterness, negativity, cynicism, and even despair. But if you have no expectations of winning, if you realise that as on the path of the pilgrim, the goal is not a destination, but a state of mind, then win or lose doesn’t really matter. What matters is the engagement, the effort. So my wife is a devout Buddhist and I’ve taken vows of it, but I’m not a practicing Buddhist. But I’ve absorbed that insight very dramatically in my life. This gets back to your three questions that are so interesting that you posed.
Mark Bidwell [38:04]
Yeah, I know we’re a bit tight on time. So the first one, what have you changed your mind about recently?
Wade Davis [38:12]
Well, I think I’m in the process of trying to ask myself whether I can change my mind in thinking about whether or not the American voice will be heard in the next century. I’ve gone from being certain that it will not and that the hinge of history has simply opened to the Asian century, to being in part cognisant of the implications for that, if and when a nation like China with its attitude towards democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, treatment of ethnicities, treatment of the environment becomes ascendant, we’re going all long for the best years of the American Century, if you will. Watching carefully, in fact I may be embarking for Rolling Stone on a short journey to America, to try to find seeds of hope in this moment that will show that the original vision of America, distilled not in a perfect society, but in aspirational terms, pretty damn good. And, a society of such extraordinary entrepreneurial capacity that in World War Two, a nation that was demilitarised in 1940 with a smaller armies in Portugal or Bulgaria, could within three years of 18 million men and women in uniform, a single company Ford Motor Company would end up producing more industrial output than Italy, one factory in crisis, Detroit Arsenal, producing more tanks than the entire German Third Reich, producing Liberty ships by the hour – the record was four days, 19 hours and 17 minutes, B24s with 1.5 million parts on assembly line by the hour. For every five pounds of equipment, the Japanese got to a soldier, we got two tonnes across 8000 miles of see; a country that, without a thought was able to send half a million trucks to the Russians, half a million jeeps to the Russians, a million miles of wiring to the Russians, 35 million uniforms. Russian blood beat the Nazis, but those armies marched that to Berlin on boots made in America, 14 million pairs altogether. This country that that has so much going for it, and for me, America has always been not the land of Donald Trump, which represents as basis elements. And the states has always gone back and forth. Let’s remember Joseph McCarthy, his reign of terror was such that even Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War Two, as President of the United States did not dare take him on in 1953, the year I was born.
Mark Bidwell [40:41]
He joined Charlie Chaplin into Switzerland as it happens.
Wade Davis [40:46]
The slightest hint of communist affiliation meant the end of life, the end of the career in whatever vocation from Hollywood to the State Department. It was a horror, and it all came crashing down in an instant, when that largely forgotten Senator said, on camera, “Have you no decency?” And then the artifice, and within months, the alcohol sodden troll from Wisconsin is dead. So the America remains the land of Abraham Lincoln, it remains the land of Walt Whitman, it remains the land of the Grateful Dead. And that’s a country that I fell in love with.
Mark Bidwell [41:20]
The examples you use, World War Two against an enemy. If we take the view that the enemy now is climate change, for example, do you see that those levels of resources are a source of optimism, that those resources can be pointed out?
Wade Davis [41:35]
It’s interesting, whenever you hear people who question the legitimacy of efforts to mitigate climate change, it’s always economic. My understanding, I’m no authority, but the largest figure I’ve ever of what it would take in terms of global GDP is something around 4% or 5%. In World War Two Americans spent up to 40% of GDP to defy the enemy. The problem of climate change is not as simple as that, of course, you have multiple countries, multiple contributions, multiple impacts, but ultimately, history is a river, the depth of which and the direction and the current of which we never really understand, we’re floating on surface. But when Dr. King said that the arc of history moves towards righteousness, I really think it does in some way, because in the end of the day, righteousness implies living conditions that are best for the majority. So it’s not some magic formula or some even mystical intervention. It’s just that, at the end of the day, freedom is fair and better. In that sense, I always will be optimistic.
Mark Bidwell [42:42]
Okay. Second question. Where do you go to get fresh perspectives, this diversity to help you solve your problems and make decisions?
Wade Davis [42:50]
I almost on a daily basis find inspiration in the world around me. I’m always, as a storyteller, hunting for the next story to tell. Hemingway said that anyone who says that writing is easy is either a bad writer or a liar, and there’s some truth to that. I’ve certainly found always, that some sense of wrong to be righted, or an injustice to be addressed is a really important driver of literary process. So for example, this new book of mine, “Magdalena,” it’s a biography of the country of Colombia, told through the metaphor of its Mississippi, its main river, the Magdalena, which runs 1000 miles south to north, which like the Mississippi is about a quarter of commerce, but also a fountain of culture. I have a great love of Colombia, but was the first country that set me free when I was 14, I became an honorary citizen in 2016 thanks to Nobel laureate, an ex-president Juan Emmanuel Santos, and Columbia has just gotten a bad rep. Look, 50 years of war, 240,000 dead, 7 million internally displaced, yet at no time were the combatants more than 200,00-300,000 in a country of 50 million, and that war, three-way war would not have lasted a week without the profits of the drug trade. The paramilitaries who were responsible for 80% of those deaths might never come into being without the drug trade. At the height of the Escobar’s cartel, he was putting 80 tons of cocaine into the United States alone every month, generating $70,000,000 of profit. The accountants back in Medellin were budgeting $1,000 a week for elastic bands. All of that was driven by consumption of people using cocaine in bars and boardrooms across the world, governments who facilitated the trade by making it illegal while doing nothing to seriously limit the transactions or the distribution of the drugs. The DEA frankly has no interest whatsoever in winning the war on drugs. They’d all be out of work, and they no longer have the $60 billion a year pot to divvy up. Every DEA I’ve ever run into energetically feels to me just like the cartel people that I knew in Medellin in 1974, they’re cut absolutely from the same cloth.
Mark Bidwell [45:12]
Except they have a badge, that’s the only difference, right?
Wade Davis [45:14]
Yeah. that’s it. I actually had an encounter with a guy like that once. We spent two years in South America with Tim Plumb and studying coca, the divine leaf of mortality for the US Department of Agriculture, and amongst the things we did in the 1970s, the first nutritional study of the plant, and we showed that coca was to cocaine what potatoes are to vodka, or peach to the prussic acid found in the pit of a peach. The leaf itself was full of vitamins, of more calcium than any other plant, which made it perfect for a diet that lacked a dairy product. And of course, enzymes enhance the body’s ability to digest carbohydrate at high elevation, which made it perfectly that of the Andes, and all of that research was ignored by the government. And when we came back to Harvard, Tim told me there was a job at the USDA he wanted me to apply for, but if I took the job, he’d kill me. I thought, well, that’s interesting. So I went to the job interview. First thing I noticed was the guy was a drug addict, I couldn’t get in the room for the cigarette smoke. Secondly, I noticed that his walls were covered with images of seeds paraphernalia, like going into the office of an anti-pornographer and having pornography on the walls. I’m looking at this guy and all he wants me to do is go back to the coca fields, find the pests that predate on coca, bring them back here so they can manipulate them to reintroduce them to destroy more plants. And I’m looking at this guy with his gold chains and his gold knobs and thinking where the hell have I met you before? I hadn’t met him ever before, but he was the cartel, I had met him 1000 times in the streets of Medellin. So in other words, part of what the book “Magdalena: River Dreams” is trying to say that, despite having absorbed this conflict, completely fuelled – look, the FARC in the last year before the peace in 2016 were down to 6000 Qadri in a nation of 50 million, mostly teenagers in search of the meal. And yet that year, the FARC made $600 million through extortion and drug trafficking. Well, you give me the Boy Scouts of Geneva and $600 million, and I can wreak havoc in Switzerland. Meanwhile, it’s through all these terrible years, Colombia has maintained its civil society and democracy, agreeing that cities created millions of acres of national parks, start restitution with indigenous people and paved the way for an economic and cultural renaissance, as two generations of young people forced to flee the conflict are returning the skill sets in every conceivable vocation. It’s just so ironic that the United States, which is the ultimate cause of their misery, how would Americans feel if Canadians had patterns of drug consumption and prohibition, and distribution such that 85 million Americans were forced to flee their homes? Well, that’s proportionately what happened in Colombia. And yet, despite that, Colombia is, compared the United States’ attitude at the Mexican frontier, where children are torn away from families, put in cages, there are 545 kids in those jail cells right now, and the government of the United States cannot find their parents. Well, compare that with what the Colombians have done with the Venezuelans, the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of Latin America. 1.8 million Venezuelans pouring in to Colombia, and they haven’t been rejected. They’ve been accepted, welcomed, they’ve been housed, fed, schooled, given health care. What an amazing gesture at a time when Colombia itself needs every penny it’s got to implement the terms of the peace agreement upon which the futures of the country hinges. The truth is that Colombia is not a place of drugs and violence. It’s a land of “color y de cariño,” with a greatest natural diversity, biodiversity and ecological geographical diversity, the greatest cultural diversity in the Americas. It’s the most interesting country in Latin America without doubt. The book, in a way is, as my friend Hector Abad, and Hector’s one of Colombia’s great writers, and the murder of his father was one of the handful of killings that shook an entire nation, and made Hector famously and publicly embittered, people torn between his past and the future, and between Colombia and the rest of the world, whatever. So when he says in the back shack of Magdalena, that only way could make me love Colombia again, is a very powerful endorsement.
Mark Bidwell [49:31]
We’ll put that in the show notes for this, and we’ll promote that book because it’s your most recent book. Final question Wade, very quickly, what’s been your most significant failure or low and what did you learn from it, and how have you applied that learning?
Wade Davis [49:45]
My first big splash was a zombie investigation in the 1980s. The whole thing began innocently enough, and it just spun out of control. Initially it was sponsored By two very prominent scientists, there was a patron, a foundation. Bizarrely, the scientist died during routine heart surgery, and the patron had a debilitating stroke. I ended up funding the research with a book advance, and then I wrote a book, and I taught myself to write, and quite unexpectedly, the book burst out and became a bestseller and before you knew it, Doonesbury was doing a three week parody of the book, I was on television shows, everything from Time Magazine to National Enquirer, the documentaries 20/20 BBC, and eventually even movie rights. I think it’s the only PhD thesis that ever became a Hollywood feature film. It just became overwhelming. Then critics began to challenge me, one particularly envious person was distorting the truth completely and making false accusations. It literally was a situation where I went from being a completely unknown graduate student to being the darling of the world, described, kind of idiotically, as a real life, Indiana Jones. I think I was the first to be called that because the movies had just come out, and then suddenly, in some quarters, pilloried for things I hadn’t done and so on. It was very intense when I was very young. At the same time, the whole project generated incredible opportunities for me, financial and also an ability to become a public intellectual, and not go into the academic world and so on. I say all that because the greatest advice I ever got was from an old mentor of mine, Charles Fisher, who was a great professor, a kind of Jewish Buddhist sage who taught meditation at Brandeis, and he was a brilliant sociologist. And Charlie was always one of my best friends and a real uncle, a real father figure and a brother figure in a sense. We were driving around Boston one day, and Charlie just turned to me and he said at the height of all this frenzy that I had no control of, things were being said in my favour that were wrong, things were set against me that were equally wrong. It was just out of control. And Charlie just said to me – Wade, do you want to be a zombieologists? It was so brilliant, because he was really saying – Do you want to spend the rest of your life circling the wagons, defending your theory, running around graveyards in Haiti, and digging up corpses or whatever, and I laughed, I said “No, uncle Charlie, I don’t.” It was such a brilliant bit of advice, because what he was really saying is, look, you spent four years on this subject, you’ve written two books, you said everything you’ve got to say about it, you never set out to be a Haitian expert, you’ve made a real contribution, and don’t get hung up, don’t get attached to it. Let it go and move on with your life. I followed that advice and immediately, by chance, became engaged in an environmental battle in Sarawak in Borneo, fighting for the wellbeing of the nomadic Penan, and that would produce two books. The point is, there was the real lesson there – move on. My life is always like that.
Wade Davis [53:03]
People will always hold you back, Mark, because they’re comfortable with where you are. When I was a kid, like why do you want to go to Harvard? What’s wrong with our colleges here in British Columbia? Wait a minute, you’re supposed to be a lawyer, what’s this anthropology thing? Wait a minute, you’re going to do botany? You’ve never studied biology in your life. Wait, you’re one of the most precocious ethnobotanists and field workers and plant explorers of your generation, and you’re going to do what, Voodoo? Wait a minute, you just wrote the two most best selling books, and your PhD has sold 15,000 copies, your other book half a million copies, Hollywood, you’re goin to leave now? Wait a minute, you’ve worked for three years trying to save this rain forest, and you’re going to disappear to write a book, about a man we’ve ever heard of? It just goes on like that. Who are you to write a book on Everest and the Great War? And then the book comes out and wins the Samuel Johnson prize for the top work of literary nonfiction in the English language. Life’s like that. I always say to young people, it’s as simple as if you have long hair and you cut it, you’re gonna piss somebody off. You have to always be the architect of your life. At the end of the day, only you count in that sense of the word. Life is not linear. It’s made up of a series of moments when you’ve got to make a choice. And you’ve got to own those decisions. And bitterness in old age comes to those who look back on a life of decisions imposed upon them. Content are those who look back on a life in which they’ve controlled their own destiny, if only by owning those decisions, not that those decisions have necessarily been the right ones. That gives you a sense of self. So I always say to young people, above all, be patient, never compromise, and give your destiny time to find you.
Mark Bidwell [54:42]
Wonderful. Well, let’s end on that note. Wade, we’ve been trying to get this together for some time. It’s been wonderful. Where can people get in touch with you? We’ll put this in the show notes.
Wade Davis [54:50]
www.daviswade.com. You can Google my name. I’ve made 30 or 40 films, got 23 books out there. They can be I found both on my website and on the internet. And Magdalena: “River of Dreams.” I hope people turn to the book. It’s really a beautiful story of a beautiful place, and critically, it’s important for the peace of Colombia.
Mark Bidwell [55:15]
Thank you very, very much for your time. Really appreciate it, and I’ll look you up next time I’m in Vancouver.
Wade Davis [55:22]
Wonderful, Mark. God bless you. Take care.
Mark Bidwell [55:24]
Thank you very much. Goodbye.
My guest today is Wade Davis, an author and anthropologist, who was until recently Explorer in Residence for the National Geographic Society and is currently Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Some of his books include “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World,” “One River,” about which Sting wrote in his review “Read this book”, and most recently “Magdelena” which was described by the President of Colombia as essential reading for every adult Colombian.
Wade Davis is probably the most well known anthropologist in the world today. His work has received a huge boost recently from an article he wrote in The Rolling Stone Magazine about the decline of America brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, and we talk about the ongoing work he’s planning with The Rolling Stone going forward. As well as being a great writer, this interview illustrates just how compelling a storyteller Wade Davis is.
What is Covered
- What tools anthropologists can bring to the world leaders in order to re-establish geopolitical stability and deal with the climate crisis
- Redefining the notion of wealth in contemporary society by finding inspiration in the reciprocal relationship to nature of indigenous communities
- Why Colombia is one of the hot spots of cultural and natural diversity, as well as resilience in a globalised world
Key Learnings and Takeaways
- The key thing to step back from is cultural myopia, and the idea that my world is the real world and everybody else is a failed attempt to be me; we can’t afford that anymore in an interconnected world.
- In a society like the Penan culture, where material accumulation has no meaning, and where everybody can essentially make everything from the raw resources of the forest, wealth is defined explicitly as a strength of social relations between people.
- Colombia is not a place of drugs and violence; it’s a land with the greatest biodiversity, geographical diversity and cultural diversity in the Americas.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Episode
- Connect with Wade Davis
- Magdalena: River of Dreams by Wade Davis
- The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World by Wade Davis
- One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forests by Wade Davis
- Colliding with the Unexpected with Gillian Tett on OutsideVoices Podcast