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Wade Davis

Death and Life in the Ethnosphere

Date Recorded: Feb 6th, 2006
Recorded At: University of Alberta’s Revolutionary Speakers’ Series in Edmonton
Recorded By: CJSR 88FM
Duration: 1:00:00  

Topic Background

Of the estimated 6000 languages spoken around the world, over half are not being taught to children. For anthropologists, language loss of this kind is a prime indicator of cultures becoming moribund, and cultural diversity being in a precipitous decline. Culture has been defined as the ever-changing values, traditions, relationships, and worldview shared by a group of people bound together by a common history, geographic location, language, social class, and religion. Cultural diversity is represented by the variety of these groups of people in any given city and across the world.

By analogy with biodiversity, which is thought to be essential to the long-term survival of life on earth, it can be argued that cultural diversity may be vital for the long-term survival of humanity; and that the conservation of indigenous cultures may be as important to humankind as the conservation of species and ecosystems is to life in general.

In his recent book, Light at the Edge of the World, Wade Davis coins the term “ethnosphere” to describe the cultural web of life threatened by the last 300 years of power struggles and industrial and technological development. In his theorising on the declining ethnosphere, he ponders the question, “Do we want to live in a monchromatic world of monotony, or a polychromatic world of diversity?” Davis is an ethnobotanist—he explores the science of how plants are used in various cultures, and uses this conduit to paint rich portraits of the diverse manifestations of the human imagination.

Speaker Biography

Wade Davis is an anthropologist, botanical explorer, and author who received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany from Harvard University. He spent more than three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, living among 15 indigenous groups in eight Latin American nations while making some 6,000 botanical collections.

Davis has worked as a guide, park ranger, and forestry engineer in Western Canada. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork among several indigenous societies of northern Canada, in Haiti, Tibet, Venezuela and Northern Kenya. His books include Passage of Darkness (1988) and The Serpent and the Rainbow , Shadows in the Sun (1998) and Light at the Edge of the World (2001).

A research associate of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, Davis is also a board member of the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecotrust, Future Generations, and Cultural Survival—all nongovernmental organizations dedicated to conservation-based development and the protection of cultural and biological diversity.

He is currently an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

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