01 November 2008
This weekend holds the Dia de Muertos, a cultural tradition commemorated in México and throughout Latin America.
Dia de Muertos is a Latin American tradition that pre-dates the first arrival of the Spanish to the Americas. Some anthropologists suggest the tradition is hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. For many Mayan of the Yucatan, this Dia de Muertos weekend will be an annual occasion to take the bones of ancestors out of their crypts, to sweep the past year’s collection of dust out of the boxes and off of the bones, and to lay new cloth in the old bone boxes before returning the bones to the boxes and the boxes back to the crypts. This Mayan ritual, as with Dia de Muertos commemorations in general, is enacted in large part as a sign of respect for and connexion to the past.
Of course, ancestor worship is not solely a Latin American cultural phenomenon. It is also an old and important cultural tradition still practiced throughout Asia (albeit, practiced at different times of the year).
Culture can be a complicated subject to discuss. For culture is not simply things that humans look at as we walk past altars on display in Zocalos, or an activity we observe performed on theatrical stages, or objects which we view in art galleries, or even images that we fleetingly glimpse at out of the windows of tour buses we may travel on throughout foreign and exotic lands.
Culture is primarily about identity. In large measure, the culture(s) that human beings are part of help define our very essence as individual human beings.
There are continental cultures. These are ones where people identify at one level as an inhabitant and member of a specific continent and that continent’s geographic community. Continental cultural identities include a person identifying as South American or Australian or African or Asian or American or European.
There are national cultures, ones where people identify as a member of a specific country and its geographic territory. These can include Ethiopian, Nepalese, Tahitian, Lao, Lithuanian, Paraguayan, or any one of the 195 countries currently counted on Earth.
There are also indigenous cultures, ones where the people who inhabit a defined geographic area have the earliest historic connexion to that area (whether this historic connexion is through birth or migration). Indigenous cultures include the Ahousat people of Vancouver Island, Canada, the Huaorani peoples of the Amazon, the Chontal of Tabasco, México, the Maori peoples of New Zealand, the Kuna peoples of Panama, the Tau peoples of Taiwan, and the Inuit of the USA and Canada Arctic, amongst almost countless other indigenous peoples across Earth.
Even peoples like the English, French, Welsh, Germans, Italians, Belgians, Norwegians, Russians and other European identities can be called indigenous cultures. That is because while they each represent a national culture, they are also peoples with the earliest historic connexion to their geographic area.
It is at the indigenous level where culture takes on some of its deepest meanings for human beings, as it is at this level that culture then includes things that impact us humans in our daily lives. Indigenous cultures touch on things like: communication methods (whether verbal or non-verbal languages); the clothing and jewellery we wear; the food we eat; the eating utensils we use (whether chopsticks, our hands, or knives & forks & spoons); religious beliefs; social rituals and customs (including things like body markings, social hierarchies and social mobility, ancestor worship, and warrior societies), governance styles and approaches, urban development and building styles, economic development patterns, and much, much more.
For a country like the USA, the more would entail the cultural implication found in the famous quote of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, who said that “The business of America is business.” In other words, Coolidge said that, at the indigenous level of the newcomers to the New World’s USA, the American cultural identity is one that is connected to business activity.
So you may ask: What does this discussion mean for Sustainable Development?
Well, human cultures – human societies – on Earth are widely spread out and richly diverse in many, even countless, ways.
And Sustainable Development acknowledges that, for its successful advancement, it must take in to account local dynamics, local differences, and local realities in each of the social, environmental and economic spheres. Culture, including cultural differences, would come under the social aspect of Sustainable Development.
So if human beings can find real, tangible (i.e. solid), ways for living with and alongside our species’ cultural diversity, we would then be in a better position to advance the social component of Sustainable Development.
Social advancement in Sustainable Development would then place humans in a better position to achieve one of the stated Aims in the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations, that being:
“to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours.”
I personally believe that one of the best ways for humans to achieve a common place, one where we daily live with and alongside cultural diversity, is by our learning to accept, embrace, support and even celebrate cultural diversity and cultural differences.
The “one size fits all” approach to cultural identity (which is a more traditionally nationalistic approach) seems not only contrary to sustainable development, it also seems to me to be unrealistic and even undesirable.
Human life becomes eminently more alive and joyful when the Maltese of Malta can be Maltese and the Flemish of Belgium can be Flemish and the Chamula of Chiapas, México can be the Chamula and the Gitskan of Canada can be the Gitskan. And when each and every other cultural identity is fully welcomed and encouraged to be its own cultural self (no matter how any other cultural identity may collectively choose to define its sense of cultural self).
In one simple sense, all that is required for humans to accept, embrace, support and celebrate cultural diversity is for us to come from an initial place of respect within our own individual selves. Then from that personal, individual, place of respect what we next need to develop is an understood and agreed respect for other selves… no matter how different or strange any other self may appear to us. For remember, normal to us can often be strange to another. And strange to us can often be normal to another. So if all human beings grounded ourselves in mutual respect, then even the seemingly strange to us can be celebrated for its normalcy to others.
So here’s the question:
If you were to develop a Sustainability Strategy for your city (municipality), what “specific” goals & objectives would you develop and implement to ensure that cultural diversity was encouraged, accepted, embraced, supported and celebrated in your city?