Culture: the stories we tell

As I sit here in the library availing myself of the free wi-fi and the wonderful benefits of tax dollars well-spent, I have been pondering the argument I have been trying (and not very successfully conveying) about my problems with culture.  I am going to use this post to think out loud about the argument I am trying to put in my thesis about the problematic nature of culture and its repeated trumping of nature.

Culture is the story we tell ourselves.  They are the stories of bringing an evergreen bough into the house in winter to symbolise that despite the death outside in the depths of winter, life persists and spring will come again.  It is a moon with a rabbit and a beautiful woman on it.  It is three young sisters turned into stone for their own protection.  Yes, they are comforting to those who know them and interesting to those who do not and they were at one time necessary but these are not truths, they are stories told to teach us lessons, give us hope, provide meaning…they are myriad in their uses but basically, they were ways of making sense of huge abstract ideas which were then unknowable and unknown by science.  They were also used to form belief systems and systems of control which are often one and the same.   Culture has become shorthand for othering because in a globalised world, culture is now providing division not unity.

All of these stories and basically all culture came from  distinct regions and these stories united people and kept people together.  They come from a time where the earth was flat and monsters existed and retribution from spirit(s) holy or otherwise was possible and inevitable.

All of these stories from all the cultures all around the world have the same three things in common:

They all come from a patriarchal perspective

They all come from the time period 40,000 years ago – 1900

They all come from a relatively stable world population of approximately 2 billion people


All world culture stems from known human time.  The human population of the world was  for a very long time, geographically isolated and thus culturally isolated.  Land bridges and seafaring helped to shift populations out of Africa to spread around the world.  Human cultural stories range from 40,000  years ago to about the 1930s all during a human population timeline of about 2 billion people.  To put this in perspective, while the human population of the planet has remained relatively stable for about 40,0000 years, it has now more than tripled in my mother’s lifetime.  She is 74 years old.   It has grown from 2 billion to almost 8 in 74 years.  Unprecedented in the history of humans on Earth.

Yes, culture was an essential tool for human survival in the pre-globalised world.  The stories kept children safe, gave meaning and purpose and controlled masses with fear and rules.  It kept us from sailing off the edge of the map and it averted any existential crisis.  It kept communities together in a geographically isolated world.

Now, in a globalised world of both multiculturalism and cultural imperialism, instantaneous and non-stop information, these cultural stories no longer unify, they separate and divide and add to the hyperseparation Val Plumwood so beautifully warned us of.  This continual separation of culture between groups of humans is also fuelling the separation of human animals from the natural world we evolved from and are a part of.  Culture is continuously held up as a sacrosanct norm which must never, ever be criticised or diminished.  And it is done so as felled rainforests logs pile up for palm oil, beef and sugar cane and coconuts, and as oceans are emptied of sharks for soup and savannahs are cleared of elephants and rhinos for boner pills.  Why on Earth do we think this is acceptable?  Why do we continue to hold up our rights to do things over the planet’s right to continue its evolutionary work of keeping itself and all living things alive?

As long as we hold human mastery over nature and certain forms of culture over others we will keep killing, destroying and denuding the very systems we depend on.  Until the power of the sun as an energy source becomes a universal cultural norm, coal oil and gas will continue to kill us.  Until the evolutionary integrity of our biospheric others and their ecological services are acknowledged and honoured and their lives are respected as equal to ours, we will continue to extinguish them and relegate them to the confines of extinction.

Culture must be seen for what it is – stories.  Yes, stories are important.  As a story-teller, I hold them dear.  But I don’t want to hear stories that contribute to the continued mastery of this planet by us.  I want to hear stories that unify us through the only things that truly DO unify us; the systems of this planet.  We all rely on the sun’s rays to keep us alive, to melt the glaciers that provide our fresh water, to feed the plants we human animals and our biospheric others rely on to live.

This story belongs to ALL of us and in this age of the anthropocene, it seems to be the only story worth telling because it is the only story which is universally true and that is something we can ALL believe.



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