The first thing we see as we travel around the world is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.
—Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss
Lévi-Strauss made this exclamation while he was describing the increasingly pervasive influence of Western culture on the rest of the world. It is worth quoting the preceding sentences:
Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe.
Lévi-Strauss wrote this in 1955, and it has only gotten more true. Of increasing concern is the damage we have done to the natural world. We have polluted the air, changed the climate, and succeeded in imperiling our own survival with our machines. We have hunted species to extinction, we have introduced other invasive species to wreak havoc, and we have disrupted whole ecosystems. Truly, it is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which we have altered the globe—all too often causing problems for other species.
When is the last time you went somewhere truly natural? Have you ever? I don’t mean a park, a nature reserve, or a forest. I mean places where you can’t see any signs of human tampering. The closest I have ever come to this has been in Canada, when I have paddled a row-boat to the side of a lake, and walked into the pine forest. But even there, without any humans around for miles, I could still hear jet skis and speed boats humming in the distance. And even if I couldn’t hear or see any signs of human activity, the very forest has been altered already by human activity. Both moose and bear are hunted in those parts.
Ironically enough, this environmental damage—damage that now poses a grave danger to us—has been caused by our miraculous technology, the same technology that allows us to lead such comfortable lives. Our addiction to convenience will someday cause us a very great inconvenience.
But Lévi-Strauss was not primarily interested in the environment. Rather, he was thinking about culture. He was bemoaning the emergence of a global culture, primarily Western in origin: a culture that would soon swallow up all the traditional cultures that anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss were interested in studying. To quote Lévi-Strauss once more: “Mankind has opted for monoculture; it is in the process of creating a mass civilization, as beetroot is grown in the mass.”
To an enormous extent, this has already happened. I know this very well. Once, while I was studying in Turkana, a remote part of Kenya, I walked into a store. On the radio was Rihanna; on the shelves were products I recognized: Oreos, Pringles, Coca Cola.
Here in Spain, English is slowly taking over. There are English slogans in advertisements, there are hundreds and hundreds of English language academies, and more and more public schools are bilingual. And Spain is comparatively behind in this regard, partly because Spaniards already speak an international language. If you go to Portugal or Germany, for example, where American movies and shows are consumed in the original language, seemingly everyone can speak English, or at least understand it. Western culture is taking over the globe, and American culture is taking over the West.
It would be unreasonable to regard this is an unambiguously bad thing. At the very least, it has the potential to make the world more peaceful. When we become more similar; when we eat the same foods, watch the same shows, and wear the same clothes; when we speak the same language and have the same values; when, in short, we are all part of the same culture, it will be more difficult to persuade people to dress up in uniforms and kill each other. Well, I hope so at least. And besides, there’s nothing necessarily nefarious about this process. People have voted with their wallets, and voluntarily opted into this mass culture. Every time somebody watches an American show or wear Western clothes, they are reinforcing this process, regardless of their ideological beliefs.
Even so, I find something terribly sad about this growing uniformity of the world. There are no wild places anymore, and even foreign cultures are less foreign. Many people, myself included, are still afflicted with Wanderlust; but where can we wander to? Travel is cheaper than ever; for that reason, more people than ever are traveling; for that reason, traveling is no longer an escape. This is why I loved studying anthropology, and why I loved reading Lévi-Strauss, with his tales of adventure and hunter-gatherers in the rainforest. Such things promised a more substantial escape, at least in imagination.
To quote Lévi-Strauss once again, “I can understand the mad passion for travel books and their deceptiveness. They create the illusion of something which no longer exists but still should exist, if we were to have any hope of avoiding the overwhelming conclusion that the history of the last twenty thousand years is irrevocable.”