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Revolution or Renaissance

D. Paul Schafer

Part II - The age of culture

5. Signs of a Cultural Age

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Culture in the future is the crux of the future.
—Eleonora Barbieri Masini (1991), Vol. I, p. 6

1If there were signs that an economic age was dawning towards the end of the eighteenth century, there are signs that a cultural age is dawning today. While these signs cannot be traced to a single year, such as 1776, or a specific event, such as the publication of The Wealth of Nations, as was the case with the economic age, they are signs nonetheless that a cultural age is slowly but surely taking shape in the world.

2One sign is the holistic transformation that is going on in the world today. Another is the environmental movement. Still others are the encounter with human needs; the quest for quality of life; the struggle for equality; the necessity of identity; and the focus on creativity. Since these signs may hold the key to the ways in which living, development, and human affairs are dealt with in the future, it is important to identify these signs and interpret them correctly. This is achieved most effectively by analysing each sign separately and showing how it is intimately connected to culture or deeply rooted in culture. When this process has been completed for all the signs, it is possible to understand why culture is emerging as a crucial force in the world, as well as why it contains valuable clues and ideas about the future.

The Holistic Transformation

3After two hundred years and more of preoccupation with specialization and a specific part of the whole, namely economics and economies, there are strong indications that attention is being shifted to the whole, and to the complex relationships that exist between the parts and the whole. This holistic transformation is extremely important because focusing attention on the whole is the most pressing requirement for a cultural age.

4While the holistic transformation is going on in many areas, it is perhaps most conspicuous in the field of medicine. After several centuries of focusing on the individual parts of the human body, more attention is being focused by some medical practitioners on the human body as a whole (see, for example, Weil). In their view, medical knowledge confirms that the human body is a whole composed of many interrelated parts, all of which constantly affect one another and interact with one another. They believe that it is impossible to deal with many types of illnesses and diseases, psychological as well as physiological, without dealing with the human body as a whole. Their goal is to focus attention on primary causes rather than secondary symptoms, primary causes that they say can be attended to properly only by dealing with the human body in holistic rather than partial or specialized terms. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is growing interest in “holistic medicine,” naturopathy and homeopathy. All these approaches emphasize the need to understand how all the various parts of the body combine to form the total person. Their view is that the key to good health lies in achieving harmony and balance between the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and intellectual parts of the body.

5A holistic transformation is also going on in education. After many years of preoccupation with individual subjects and specific disciplines, some educators have concluded that a holistic rather than specialized approach is needed in order to help students to understand the complex connections and relationships among the different disciplines, and to come to grips with the underlying threads and unifying themes that link all the disciplines together. These developments are manifested in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies as well as in “holistic education” (see, for example, Miller, as well as the collection edited by Bloom).

6Then there is development, which has long been dealt with in fragmented, compartmentalized, partial and partisan ways, with the focus on economic, commercial, technological, corporate or financial development. Now development is being dealt with in a more all-encompassing and all-inclusive way. It is now generally accepted that development is also social, political, environmental, artistic, scientific, recreational and spiritual, and that there is a holistic quality to development that cannot be denied. This was confirmed in 1982, when delegates at the Second World Conference on Cultural Policies, in Mexico City, defined development (UNESCO 1994, p. 7) in the following terms:

a complex, comprehensive and multidimensional process which extends beyond mere economic growth to incorporate all dimensions of life and all the energies of a community, all of whose members are called upon to make a contribution and expect to share in the benefits.

7This much more all-encompassing concept of development has been manifested in the policies and practices of many international organizations, as well as numerous governments and other political institutions throughout the world, following from the recognition that development should be dealt with comprehensively and inclusively, and in a spirit of egalitarianism.

8The holistic transformation is also affecting some areas of science, and the ways in which some scientists view the cosmos, the world, human beings, and evolution. The Human Genome Project has been presented as an example of what can result when, after many years of breaking the human body up into specialized parts in order to study the parts in detail, efforts are made to reconnect them in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of the human body as a whole. This is producing a blueprint or code that sheds a great deal of light on how DNA forms human beings as members of a complex and dynamic species.

9The emphasis on interpreting the world as a whole composed of many interacting and interdependent parts also influences political thinking and action. It is not possible to understand developments taking place in one part of the world without understanding those taking place in other parts of the world, and in the world as a whole. The world was long seen as, and indeed effectively was, a smorgasbord of separate and individual parts, but today it is a dynamic whole in a way that it never was before, due largely to globalization, and to the numerous developments in trade, transportation, technology, communications, and computerization.

10What is true of the world is also true of the universe, following the phenomenal developments in quantum physics, quantum mechanics, and cosmology from the early twentieth century onwards. Albert Einstein was only the first of the many physicists who have attempted to expound a post-Newtonian “theory of everything” that would uncover the underlying laws that explain how the universe functions as a dynamic whole, largely by linking the subatomic and the cosmic realms of matter, and attempting to make sense of everything from quarks to supermassive black holes. At present, the laws governing quantum mechanics describe the behaviour of elementary particles, while separate laws governing relativity describe the behaviour of vast forces such as black holes, but physicists hope that eventually it will be possible to unify them.

11While it is necessary to be aware of the myriad parts that comprise a given whole, regardless of whether we are discussing individuals, families, institutions, communities, ethnic groups, regions, countries, the world, the world system, the natural environment or the universe, it is equally necessary to understand that the parts are always bound together in specific combinations and arrangements to form those wholes. Despite the long-established practice of breaking wholes down into parts in order to study the parts in detail, the fact remains that all these entities are wholes, and not just random assortments of disconnected and unrelated parts. They represent the basic building blocks of a cultural age because they relate fundamentally to what the human condition is all about.

12Anyone who doubts this need only reflect on the character of his or her life. While much attention has been paid to birth, adolescence, adulthood and death, work and leisure, education and training, spiritual and religious life, recreation, survival, and other component parts of people’s lives, every person’s life is a whole comprised of many parts. Failure to recognize this and to deal with its consequences can cause serious problems, making it difficult for people to meld the parts of their lives together to form a coherent and comprehensive whole. What is true of individuals is also true of the other wholes we have mentioned here. Every family, for example, needs to be understood as a whole, as a set of separate and different individuals, and as a set of relationships among them.

13The holistic transformation is coming at a very propitious time in history. Preoccupation with specialization and the parts of the whole has caused humanity to lose sight of the whole, and wholes, and of the underlying interrelatedness and interconnectedness of things. This is most apparent in the case of the natural environment and its intimate relationship with human beings, but it is equally apparent in all the other cases mentioned here. When attention is focused on the parts of the whole rather than the whole, the whole is lost sight of. In contrast, the holistic transformation focuses attention on “the big picture,” and with it, the intimate relationships among its component parts. Understanding and coming to grips with these relationships is of vital importance if the world is to be a better and safer place for all, if the environmental crisis is to be addressed successfully, if sensible and sustainable decisions are to be made about the future course of planetary civilization, and if basic inequalities, injustices, and excesses are to be dealt with effectively.

14Another benefit of the holistic transformation is the ability to see things in context rather than in isolation. This is imperative in the modern world, where the preoccupation with specialization and the parts of the whole has caused a situation where decisions are often made without sufficient consideration of the context in which things are located. The most obvious example of this is, again, the environmental crisis and the failure to realize that all human activities take place in an environmental context, but it is equally true with respect to the inability to realize that all commercial, economic, and technological activities take place in a broader, deeper, and more fundamental cultural container.

15A third benefit of the holistic transformation is that it focuses attention on the total ways of life of people and countries, and, with this, on the worldviews, values, and value systems that people and countries use in different parts of the world to link all the activities in which they are engaged together to form wholes that are greater than the parts and the sum of the parts. This is essential if cultural understanding is to be enhanced in the world, and people and countries everywhere in the world are to live in peace and harmony rather than conflict and confrontation.

16What makes the holistic transformation especially relevant to the dawning of a cultural age is the fact that cultural scholars have been concerned with holism ever since Edward Burnett Tylor, one of the world’s first anthropologists, broke with the long tradition of defining culture in terms of the parts and started defining culture in terms of the whole. This occurred in 1871, when Tylor defined culture formally (Tylor, Vol. I, p. 1) as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Since that time, as the US anthropologist Marvin Harris put it (1968, p. 63): “Many cultural anthropologists have proposed that the distinctive feature of the anthropological approach is its holistic framework, that is, the point of view which attempts to describe the parts of a system by reference to the whole.” The holistic transformation is deeply rooted in the work of anthropologists, as well as the work of sociologists and cultural historians, who have been writing from a holistic perspective for more than one hundred years. Culture, more than any subject, holds the key to capitalizing on the holistic transformation and realizing its full potential.

The Environmental Movement

17If the holistic transformation is one sign that a cultural age is slowly but surely developing, the environmental movement is another. Growing awareness of the present and prospective state of the natural environment is causing people and countries in every part of the world to realize that human needs are not fulfilled in a vacuum, but in very specific ecological settings. Failure to recognize this, and to come to grips with its implications, could have serious consequences.

18The environmental movement is the result of numerous developments throughout the world over the past forty years. One outstanding contributory factor was the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972. Another was the publication of the first State of the World Report by the Worldwatch Institute in 1984. Still others were the publication of Our Common Future by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987; the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989; the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992; the Kyoto Protocol of 1997; and the activities of organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club. More recently, the environmental movement has received a major boost in public consciousness from Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth and the publication of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report: Climate Change 2007: the Physical Science Basis. The roots of the movement, however, can be traced back to such publications as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864), and the creation of the Sierra Club in 1892.

19It was Rachel Carson, however, who first riveted public attention on the natural environment and the damage that people were doing to it in her book Silent Spring (1962). Carson argued that human beings were destroying the natural environment at a rapid rate through insensitivity to its fragility and to their own interdependence with it. Carson contended that it is not possible to release pollutants and chemicals such as DDT into one part of the natural environment without them eventually ending up in other parts of the natural environment. What was particularly disturbing for Carson was the fact that much of the damage being done seemed to be irreversible. For example, pesticides designed to kill some insects may seep into the soil and kill other insects, as well as other species, without ever disappearing. The result, she argued, was the steady deterioration of the environment.

20The environmental movement has been gathering momentum ever since. It is divided into three main groups at present. In the first place, there are those who believe that the emphasis should be on regulation, control, and protection in order to curb emissions, prohibit pollution, reduce the spread of toxic substances, prevent or reduce global warming, and clean up the environment. It is this group that often finds itself pitted against people who contend that the environmental movement is depriving them of their jobs, incomes, and sources of livelihood. Second, there are those who believe that the emphasis should be placed on “sustainable development,” development that takes the natural environment, other species, and future generations fully into account in all planning and decision-making. This was the approach taken by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland in its report. Third, there are those who believe that the emphasis should be on what they call “deep ecology,” or treating the environment as a spiritual reality and mystical experience. They assert that it will not be possible to address the environmental crisis successfully until people evolve an entirely new understanding of the environment and their relationship with it. This is the stance taken by many environmental, spiritual and religious leaders such as Arne Naess, Fritjof Capra, George Sessions, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and James Lovelock.

21As a result of the lobbying efforts and activities of these three groups, as well as countless other people, institutions, and groups throughout the world, a great deal of progress has been made in addressing environmental concerns. Nevertheless, environmental problems continue to grow at an astounding rate. Pollutants and toxic substances continue to be released, causing unprecedented damage, and environmental destruction continues at an unacceptable pace, as do global warming and other ecological disasters. It follows from this that a new environmental reality is imperative if the environmental crisis is to be addressed successfully, especially now that the world’s population is six billion and growing rapidly in absolute if not relative terms, renewable and non-renewable resources are being consumed and contaminated at disturbing rates, and the carrying capacity of the Earth remains severely limited. Not only is this one of the most pressing priorities for a cultural age, it will also fundamentally change the way we understand and deal with development and the human condition.

22Just as the holistic transformation is intimately connected with culture, so too is the environmental movement. Concern with the intimate relationship between the natural environment and human cultures can be traced back to the German poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose writings helped to launch the unending debate over the respective roles of “nature” and “nurture” in human development. Similar themes have been explored in the pioneering work of contemporary cultural anthropologists and ecologists such as Julian Steward and Gregory Bateson. Clearly, cultures that ignore the environmental consequences of their activities run the risk of overextending themselves and collapsing entirely. This has happened numerous times throughout history. While environmental clean-ups are imperative after the fact, and while every precaution must be taken to protect the natural environment whenever and wherever possible, ultimately it will be through changes in cultures that the environmental crisis will be solved, if it is to be solved at all. Without fundamental changes in the ways in which people perceive the natural environment, interact with it, and live their lives, the environmental crisis will broaden, deepen, and intensify. It is by no means coincidental in this regard that the World Commission on Culture and Development followed closely on the heels of the World Commission on Environment and Development.

23In particular, cultural changes may well come through the shift from a mechanistic view of the world and the universe to an organic view as a result of the environmental movement and the holistic transformation. The mechanistic view was expressed most succinctly by one of the fictional speakers in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (See Spiegel, p. 222):

Look around the world: contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions, to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration all men, who have ever contemplated them.

24The mechanistic view had a profound effect on scientific and economic thinking from the seventeenth century down to the first half of the twentieth century. Economies were seen and treated as mechanistic systems in which the challenge was to understand how they functioned as systems, and how a change in one part of the system affected other parts of the system and the system as a whole. This view, which dominated the thinking of many of the classical, neoclassical, Marxian, and Keynesian economists alike, has started to give way to a more “organic” view of economics in recent years. The environmental movement and the holistic transformation have together had a major influence on this trend.

The Encounter with Human Needs

25Over the past fifty years or so a great deal of attention has been focused on the ways in which human needs are understood, defined, and dealt with. In this encounter with human needs it is possible to detect an intimate connection with culture, since the fulfilment of human needs is what culture is all about.

26Indeed, more than eighty years ago, the cultural anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski identified seven “basic human needs” following his intensive studies of many cultures throughout the world, most famously that of the Trobriand Islanders of eastern New Guinea. These needs he identified as nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement, and human growth. In retrospect, it is clear that Malinowski’s pioneering work on this subject did a great deal to pave the way for subsequent scholars to address the question of human needs.

27Nevertheless, it continued to be commonplace to view human needs in economic terms, until numerous problems were encountered with this approach. In sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean in particular it was revealed that people have many “non-economic" needs, such as for fresh water, clean air, medical facilities and health care, educational opportunities and recreation, which must also be satisfied if they are to survive and function effectively in society. In the developed world, meanwhile, it was discovered that even when people’s economic needs have been satisfied, they can still have a great deal of difficulty functioning in society if their religious, aesthetic, social and spiritual needs are not met. It was this problem that gave rise to the notion of “maldevelopment,” sometimes expressed as “spiritual poverty in the midst of plenty.”

28The combined effect of these discoveries was that developmental theorists and practitioners started to look at human needs in a much more concentrated and detailed way in the latter part of the twentieth century. This resulted in a more systematic, comprehensive and egalitarian approach to human needs than had been taken previously. As a result, it is now generally accepted that people have a broad spectrum of needs that must be satisfied if they are to function effectively in society, live creative, constructive and fulfilling lives, and survive. These needs give rise to a complex constellation of social, scientific, economic, artistic, educational, spiritual, technological, political, environmental, commercial, and health requirements. How these requirements are dealt with in specific situations and particular parts of the world constitutes the essence of culture, cultures, and cultural development. What does it mean, for example, to satisfy people’s economic needs if there is so much violence, terrorism, and conflict that people’s lives can be ended at any time and without notice? What does it mean to satisfy people’s economic needs if their psychological, social and spiritual problems are so acute that life takes on negative rather than positive connotations? Problems such as these gave rise to attempts to identify and define a set of “basic human needs” that all people in the world share in common, regardless of age, gender, education, class, economic, social or political circumstances, or geographical location. Initially, basic human needs were defined primarily in economic terms, but they are now defined in a more comprehensive, integrated and egalitarian way.

29One of the first people to tackle the problem of human needs in a sustained, systematic and sophisticated way was the Pakistani developmental theorist and practitioner Mahbub ul Haq. He did so by taking a holistic and “people-centred” approach to human needs. According to ul Haq, the challenge of development is to enlarge the realm of choice in as many different directions and areas as possible. In his seminal publication Reflections on Human Development (1995) ul Haq wrote (p. 14):

The basic purpose of development is to enlarge people’s choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time. People often value achievements that do not show up at all, or not immediately, in income or growth figures: greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and a sense of participation in community activities. The objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy, and creative lives.

30Mahbub ul Haq’s efforts led him to focus on four key factors in the fulfilment and development of human needs: equity, sustainability, productivity, and empowerment. This led him to create the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative to gross national product (GNP) for measuring overall standards of living. Whereas GNP is based on exclusively economic indicators, the HDI includes longevity and knowledge in addition to income. For the purposes of the HDI longevity is defined in terms of life expectancy at birth, and knowledge is defined in terms of adult literacy and mean years of schooling. Today the HDI is used by more and more international organizations to assess standards of living and rank countries according to their ability to satisfy people’s needs.

31Along with these initiatives have come attempts to define more precisely what is meant by “basic human needs.” The peace activist and social theorist Johan Galtung has proposed the following set of basic human needs as a working hypothesis (see Coate and Rosati, p. 136): security or survival needs (individual and collective protection against crime, violence, terrorism, and so forth); welfare or sufficiency needs (water, air, food, sleep, protection against climate and disease, and so forth); identity or “closeness” needs (self-expression, self-actuation, roots, support systems, partnerships with nature, purpose in life, and so forth); and freedom or “choice” needs (choice of location, occupation, way of life, and so forth). For Galtung these needs form a constellation rather than a pyramid, hierarchy or ladder, with the economic needs spread out across the lowest rung. He does not deny that there is a “rock bottom of material needs” that is necessary for survival, but he is strongly opposed to using this as a device for asserting the priority of economic needs over all other needs, since this makes it possible for economic needs to dominate all other needs and yield excessive economic, commercial, technological, and materialistic practices. While Galtung’s views on this subject are not consistent with the economic model of development, they are consistent with historical experience and most of the contemporary evidence. Although Galtung accepts the fact that human beings have crucial economic, technological, commercial, financial and material needs that must be met, and that these needs occupy an important position in the total spectrum of human needs, he contends that people have a diversity of needs that must be attended to if they are to survive and function effectively in society. Many of these needs must be addressed simultaneously rather than sequentially, which explains why it is essential to take a holistic, comprehensive and egalitarian approach to human needs rather than a partial, piecemeal, and partisan approach.

32This is the principal lesson to be learned from the encounter with human needs in general and basic human needs in particular. It is a lesson that has profound implications for a cultural age because it means that much more attention will have to be paid to inclusiveness and equality in the fulfilment of human needs. Concern for human needs and matters of human welfare are imperative in a cultural age. Moreover, it is impossible to define culture in holistic terms, as Tylor and countless others have, without taking a comprehensive, egalitarian and integrated approach to human needs. Viewed from this perspective, economic, commercial, technological, and material opportunities must be carefully blended with, and complemented and counterbalanced by, social, aesthetic, educational and spiritual opportunities if human welfare is to be assured.

The Quest for Quality of Life

33It is impossible to deal with human needs in all their diverse forms and manifestations without encountering the quest for quality of life, though the question of what quality of life is has confounded philosophers, and many others, in every part of the world from the beginning of human history. Clearly, there can be no quality of life without sufficient food, clothing, shelter, and security to ensure survival. However, from these needs onwards, quality of life takes on many different meanings. For some people, it means producing a great deal of income and wealth. For others, it means possessing a great deal of power. For still others it means acquiring many material possessions. For others again, it means having numerous artistic, educational and recreational possibilities. It all depends on what brings people real fulfilment and happiness in life.

34Just as the historical encounter with human needs sheds a great deal of light on the nature and meaning of human needs in general, and basic human needs in particular, so it sheds a great deal of light on the quality of life. While income, power, material possessions, and creative possibilities are important determinants of quality of life, so are health, freedom, security, independence, spirituality, and the like. As wealthy, powerful and materially well-to-do people are discovering, income, power, and material possessions do not guarantee quality of life if physical health is lacking, freedom is non-existent, security is absent or spiritual fulfilment is unattainable. Nor do they guarantee quality of life if the environment is so polluted and disease is so prevalent that medical problems run rampant.

35Mahbub ul Haq was surely right when he said that the challenge is to enlarge the realm of choice in as many directions and areas as possible. However, more is required if quality of life is to be achieved. There must be a great deal of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding with respect to how all the diverse facets of life are blended together to form a comprehensive, coherent and meaningful whole. For people who are unable to weave all the diverse fragments of life together in this sense, life may take on negative rather than positive connotations. The key lies in achieving a harmonious balance between the material and non-material, or the quantitative and qualitative, dimensions of life. In parts of the world where there are major deficiencies in the quantitative or material dimensions of life, such as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, historical and contemporary experience indicates that there are so few quantitative and material resources that a reasonable quality of life is denied to the large majority of people. In parts of the world where there is abundance in the quantitative or material dimensions of life, especially North America, western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, historical and contemporary experience suggests that too many quantitative and material possibilities may produce a great deal of stress, anxiety, alienation, frustration, and lack of fulfilment. This is because many of these possibilities bring only fleeting rather than lasting happiness, thereby making it impossible to achieve real happiness and satisfaction in life.

36Just as it is possible to detect a fundamental connection between culture and the holistic transformation, the environmental movement, and the encounter with human needs, so it is possible to detect a fundamental connection between culture and quality of life. Culture has been concerned with quality of life for hundreds of years, as evidenced by the greatest artistic, scholarly, and scientific accomplishments, and the entire cultural heritage of humankind. In fact, many would contend that realization of a better quality of life is what culture is most concerned with, since it is concerned with elevating and enriching people’s lives well beyond their basic physiological, biological and material requirements. For people who share this conviction, culture is the thing that separates human beings from other species, since it is directed towards the realization of higher and higher forms of accomplishment. It is culture that makes it possible for people to achieve a judicious blending of the quantitative or material dimensions of life with its qualitative or spiritual dimensions, largely by focusing on the whole, as well as on the need to achieve balanced and synergistic relationships between the parts and the whole. This is why people in the cultural field have been concerned with the education and development of the whole person ever since the British poet and social critic Matthew Arnold made the case, in 1869, for the “harmonious expansion of all the powers that comprise human nature.”

37What is true of people is also true of countries and cultures. Countries and cultures that are unable to provide their citizens with opportunities to attend to the harmonious development of all the powers that comprise human nature are unable to provide the means that are required to ensure a reasonable quality of life and to enable people to realize their full potential. These necessitate the full complement of resources, not just economic and material resources.

The Struggle for Equality

38After hundreds of years of colonialism the countries of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East are endeavouring to achieve equality with Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. This is having a powerful effect on development policies and practices everywhere in the world, as it is fuelling demands for a level playing field for all countries. Much the same process is going on within countries. Marginalized peoples and ethnic minorities, such as aboriginals in North America, South America, Australia, and New Zealand, blacks in the United States or “Untouchables” in India are demanding equality of treatment by mainstream peoples and ethnic majorities, condemning the historical and contemporary injustices that have caused their inferior status in political and constitutional arrangements, territorial assignments, social legislation, economic development, and human affairs. Although much more needs to be achieved in this area, as in most other areas of crucial importance to the realization of equality throughout the world, some important gains have been realized in recent years, largely as a result of the efforts of marginalized peoples and ethnic minorities themselves.

39Of all the areas where the struggle for equality is manifesting itself throughout the world, none is more conspicuous than the area of gender equality. It has taken women more than one hundred years of cajoling, infighting, lobbying, and protesting to achieve a certain measure of equality with men, and then only in highly selected parts of the world. While specific advances were realized in this domain in the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, largely as a result of the women’s suffrage movement, most gains have been realized only in the past thirty or forty years. Much remains to be accomplished in order to secure gender equality in income, employment, education, legal rights, the elimination of physical and sexual abuse, and medical and reproductive rights, but some important gains have been recorded in recent years through the pioneering achievements of women’s organizations, and of individual women such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Michele Landsberg, and Shirin Ebadi.

40In much the same way that women have been battling for equality with men, so physically and mentally challenged people, seniors, and children have been battling for equality as well. Here also some important gains have been realized in recent years, despite the fact that much remains to be accomplished. There is an emerging consciousness throughout the world that physically and mentally challenged people should be able to look after their own affairs, and can make valuable contributions to society; that seniors should not be subjected to physical abuse, mental cruelty or income manipulation, and must be accorded the freedom and independence they need to live fulfilling lives; and that children should not be exploited for economic, social, sexual or commercial purposes. As is the case with women and the women’s movement, many of the gains that have been recorded in recent years result from persistent efforts on the part of these groups themselves as they struggle to improve their economic, financial, and social circumstances and fight for equal treatment under the law.

41It is impossible to discuss the struggle for equality without recognizing the need for a reasonable measure of income, employment and educational equality throughout the world. Income equality will be realized only when people, countries, and governments in every part of the world make a much stronger commitment to eliminating disparities in the production and distribution of income, employment, education, wealth, and resources among the diverse people and countries of the world. This is of crucial importance if humanity is to go fruitfully into the future, since it is in this area, perhaps more than any other, that resentment and hostility are building up.

42While equality in all areas of human life is imperative, it is important to point out that some impressive gains have been recorded in the struggle to create equality by governments and international institutions. For example, in 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Based on the principle that all people are equal regardless of race, colour, age, gender, creed, ethnic origin, education or geographical location, the Declaration focuses on the need for public and private commitment to equality for all citizens. Similar rhetoric has been reproduced in the human rights legislation of many individual countries.

43There is an intimate connection between culture and the struggle for equality. It is in the domain of culture that the historical and contemporary struggle for equality is most easily recognized, as well as most readily understood. Many cultural organizations throughout the world are formally committed to racial, income and gender equality, and are working diligently to do something concrete and constructive about it. Many anthropologists, sociologists, and cultural scholars have argued that every country, culture, and group of people in the world possesses a value, dignity and importance in its own right, which cannot be denied and must never be taken for granted. It is this, in their view, that makes all countries, cultures, and groups of people in the world equal. From this perspective, countries, cultures, and groups of people are not to be categorized as either civilized or primitive, sophisticated or backward, but merely as different, because they perceive the world differently, act in the world differently, and value things in the world differently. This outlook helps to counter the idea that some countries, cultures or groups of people are superior to others or more advanced than others.

44As a result of such developments the struggle for equality is more conspicuous throughout the world than ever before, though much remains to be accomplished through the formulation, implementation, and enforcement of equity legislation; the elimination of unfair trading practices, and of exploitative commercial and financial policies; the termination of human rights abuses, and of social and economic injustices; and the recognition of the rights of women, children, and minorities. The indications that things are moving in a favourable direction augur well for the future.

The Necessity of Identity

45It is impossible to deal with the struggle for equality without also dealing with the necessity of identity. People cannot live without identity, either as individuals or as members of groups, communities, regions, countries, cultures or civilizations. Identity is deeply etched in human consciousness and the collective imagination everywhere in the world.

46There can be no identity without sharing certain similarities, since identity is achieved by recognizing the common bonds that connect people together. At the same time, there can be no identity without maintaining specific differences, for too much sameness can obliterate identity by destroying its distinctive character. Identity is thus achieved and sustained by walking a tightrope between similarity and difference. This is a balancing act fraught with difficulties. A slip in the direction of too many similarities can cause people to rebel, if only to protect themselves from the numbing effects of uniformity. A slip in the direction of too many differences can be equally dangerous, since people mistrust and fear what they are unable to understand. This makes finding the right mixture of sameness and distinctiveness, or unity in diversity, one of the greatest challenges of all.

47It is within this context that it is possible to understand why people and countries in every part of the world are expressing the need for identity as never before. People know what is in their best interests and what is not, regardless of what powerful institutions say or powerful leaders and countries do. Take globalization, for example. It is by no means coincidental that the trend towards globalization has brought with it a commensurate trend towards the assertion of identities. The more globalization takes place, the more people lose control over their domestic and international affairs, and institute countervailing measures aimed at restoring such control, through the quest for sovereignty or autonomy, or the resurfacing of interest in neighbourhoods, communities or regions.

48People know that globalization, like colonialism, can be a thin disguise for the advancing of the interests of some people, institutions, classes, and countries at the expense of others, rather than a device for promoting and protecting their interests, improving their standards of living, and addressing their needs. Adam Smith recognized this more than two hundred years ago when he wrote that “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or some contrivance to raise prices.”

49Whenever self-interest works against people, groups or countries rather than for them, they tend to try everything in their power to assert and protect their identity. This has been shown in countries and regions as diverse as the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Spain, Ireland, Peru, Mexico, East Timor, and the Middle East, as well as in reactions among some sections of the public to the liberalization of trade, and to the actions of multinational corporations and international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund or the World Trade Organization.

50It would be a mistake to assume that globalization is the only factor causing these reactions, but it has been a major contributory factor to the extent that it has contributed to the erosion of people’s identities, customs, and values, as well as a breakdown in their social systems, political processes, geographical boundaries, and often entire cultures.

51Developments in communications and politics are also contributory factors, as they tend to undermine people’s sense of identity and belonging, which is tied up with the maintenance of the very differences being stamped out by the standardization of media products, the emergence of larger and larger trading blocs such as the European Union, and the concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands. This is causing a loss of identity for an increased proportion of the world’s population, as well as a growing sense of frustration, powerlessness, and alienation. Ghettoization, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, nationalism, and racism are the inevitable consequences. The more power is globalized, centralized, standardized, and homogenized, the more people demand control over the political processes and the economic policies affecting their lives. The protests against globalization in Seattle, Washington, Quebec City, Genoa, Cancun, and elsewhere have been seen by many observers as expressions of this demand. The problem, of course, is that the assertion of identity is often manifested in negative rather than positive ways.

52Like many other major developments in the world, the necessity of identity is deeply rooted in culture. Identity is concerned with the preservation and sharing of people’s most cherished values and customs, which have been built up over generations and have come to seem indispensable.

The Focus on Creativity

53Humanity looks to creativity to provide the theoretical ideas, insights, and ideals, as well as the practical methods, tools, and techniques, that are needed to come to grips with the world’s most complex and difficult problems. It is to creativity, therefore, that humanity must look for answers to the host of demanding and debilitating problems that have loomed up on the global horizon in recent years.

54The focus on creativity is occurring in many different areas. In the first place, it is occurring in the arts, sciences and humanities, with the constant search for new, better and more innovative ways of doing things. In the second place, it is occurring in community, regional, national and international development, where politicians, planners, policy-makers, and governments are searching for “convergent possibilities” and “clustering effects” that will have favourable effects. This search is taking them deep into the realm of the arts, social change, urban development, advertising, the mass media, microenterprises, and the communications industries, where creative developments often have a catalytic effect on all aspects of social life, as Richard Florida points out in his book The Rise of the Creative Class. Finally, it is occurring as people attempt to find more fulfilment and happiness in their lives. This is largely because consumerism and materialism are not delivering the satisfaction and meaning in life that many people are hoping to achieve.

55There is, of course, an intimate connection between culture and creativity, which has provided the impetus required to fuel the development of cultures and civilizations, and to propel them to higher and higher levels of accomplishment. The world would not enjoy the incredible diversity of cultures and civilizations it does today without the capacity of creativity to trigger dynamic developments in the arts, sciences, education, economics, politics, education, technology, and all other areas of life.

Culture as a Crucial Force

56Many developments indicate that culture is emerging as a crucial force in the world. The most important development by far is the increased attention being accorded to culture by more and more people and countries throughout the world, regardless of whether this results from the growing realization that reality has more to do with culture than anything else, from recognition of the fact that the world is comprised primarily of many different cultures and civilizations, from increasing intercultural interaction, mixing, and borrowing, from globalization, or from increased interest in cultural diversity.

57Another major development is the involvement of most of the world’s governments in a variety of cultural concerns, ranging from the preservation of cultural heritage to citizens’ participation in cultural life. A third was the creation of the World Decade for Culture and Development by UNESCO in 1989, and of the World Commission on Culture and Development by the United Nations in 1993. Both these initiatives were designed to examine the vital role that culture plays in global development and human affairs, and to promote a systematic and sustainable approach to cultural policy.

58A related development is the establishment of many courses and institutions in the field of cultural studies. As the world becomes more involved in a variety of cultural issues and people become more culture-conscious, there is a need to broaden, deepen, and intensify knowledge and understanding of culture and cultures in general, and of the reasons for differences between cultures in particular. It is impossible to understand such developments as changes in communications, technology, and society, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the terrorist attacks on the United States, conflicts in the Middle East, hostilities between developed and developing countries, or the tensions in the Balkans, Chechnya, India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, China, Tibet, and Taiwan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Spain, Catalonia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere in the world without understanding a great deal more about cultures and the ways in which they function.

59A final development in this area is the realization that, like economics, religion, politics, technology, and other powerful forces, culture plays both positive and negative roles. On the one hand, it can play a unifying role when it unites people through the sharing of values, customs, and identities. On the other hand, it can play a divisive role when people are separated from one another as a result of cultural differences. When this happens there can be deep divisions, which will have to be understood and dealt with effectively if cultural conflicts are to be minimized or avoided in the future.

60While these developments confirm that culture is playing a crucial role in the world, they do not explain why more and more people, countries, governments, organizations, and educational institutions are looking to culture to play that role. In the first place, the development dream has turned sour and many feel that culture possesses the capacity to set things right, largely by providing a more effective framework than the economic framework, situating development issues, problems, and possibilities in context, and providing a more effective means of achieving balance and harmony between economics and the environment, consumption and conservation, competition and cooperation, people and technology, scientism and humanism, and materialism and spiritualism. Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, former Secretary General of the United Nations, summed this up best when he said in a speech in 1994:

Today, rethinking development is necessary on a world scale... It was believed, not so long ago, that the economy was the base, the infrastructure. That is wrong: the historians of the “long history” have shown that the decisive element is culture... Without a large cultural transformation, development is doomed to the destiny of ghost towns.

61In the second place, it is through culture that it may be possible to come to grips with the world’s most demanding, debilitating and difficult problems: the environmental crisis, pollution, poverty, homelessness, hunger, unemployment, the gap between rich and poor nations, and between rich and poor people, ethnic tensions, violence and terrorism, the dehumanization of life, and the constant threat of nuclear, biological or chemical warfare. This is because culture possesses the capacity to address these problems in a sustained, systematic, equitable and integrated way, rather than in a piecemeal, partisan, inequitable, and fragmented way.

62In the third place, culture has a great deal to contribute to human wellbeing because it places a much higher priority on the human dimension in development than on products, profits, consumption or the market.

63In the fourth place, culture possesses the potential to make a substantial contribution to the realization of peace and harmony. This is particularly important at the contact points between different cultures, although it requires the establishment of numerous safeguards to ensure that cultures are used in constructive rather than destructive ways, as forces for liberation and fulfilment rather than for enslavement and oppression.

64In the fifth place, it is through culture that strong connections can be made among the diverse peoples and countries of the world. This will not happen, however, without a great deal more emphasis on cultural education and international cultural relations, which can help people to understand their own culture as well as the cultures of others. With this can come a greater sense of appreciation and sensitivity for the strengths, and the shortcomings, of all the various cultures, as well as increased tolerance and understanding of cultural values and practices that are different from one’s own.

65In the sixth place, culture is concerned with the ultimate ends and ideals of humanity, as well as the values that may be needed to achieve them. Unlike economics, which focuses on a specific part of the whole, culture focuses on the whole, the complex relationships that exist between the parts and the whole, and particularly the need to realize balanced, egalitarian and harmonious relationships between the parts and the whole. This is why the Canadian cultural scholar Fernand Dumont wrote (in Ostry, p. 160): “I have always considered a collective project as something mainly cultural. The economy is not an end in itself: culture is.” The social critic Jane Jacobs reinforced the view when she wrote (Jacobs, p. 147): “Like language, economic life permits us to develop cultures and multitudes of purposes, and in my opinion, that’s its function which is most meaningful for us.”

66Finally, and most importantly, culture is central to human existence because it is concerned with human needs in all their diverse forms. While economic needs form a very important component of this because they are concerned with people’s material requirements and the ever-recurrent problem of physical survival, they are part and parcel of a much larger and more comprehensive process. This is why more and more people throughout the world are coming to the conclusion that it is culture that is the real foundation of human existence. Without a much better understanding of this, it will not be possible to deal effectively with humanity’s greatest opportunities and fundamental problems. Ultimately it is culture that possesses the potential to unlock the secrets of creativity and sustainability, and to realize a renaissance in global development and human affairs.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2008

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