Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thoughts on Reading "The Age of Culture" by Paul Schafer

I suppose I most fundamentally think of the world in terms of three elements:

  • People: The seven billion humans, all probably descended from a small band that lived some 200,000 years ago. Evolved from previous manlike species, all people share most of their DNA. We tend to start out pretty similar biologically.
  • The Natural World: If you will, this is the realm of things studied by the natural sciences.
  • The Social World -- the things studied by the social sciences.
I like to think of "culture" in the anthropological sense -- the complete pattern that characterizes the social world of a specific society. (See the defination at the end of this post.) Of course, my tripart view of reality is a product of my culture. Moreover:

  • A person's culture affects his/her body and mind. Thus the brain of someone speaking Japanese is actually wired differently than that of someone speaking English, and the bodies the children of Irish can identify me at a distance as a Yank (and have done so) in spite of the fact that my father was born in Ireland. 
  • So too, we live in landscapes that are to greater or lesser extent artifacts of our cultures.

We think of a person's behavior as determined by nature, nurture and the situation faced. In that construct, one's "nature" is determined by one's genetic heritage, and "nurture" by the way the potential in that nature has been helped to develop in one's youth. Identical twins raised identically in the same household will of course behave differently, say if one lives as a monk in the desert and the other as an artist in a well watered city.

I like the analogous idea that the nature of a culture is determined in part by its heritage of memes. But it is also determined by the way that those memes have been nurtured within the culture, and the environment in which that culture exists.  Thus the meme of farming has been very widely shared among cultures, but farming has developed distinct institutional frameworks in different cutures, is done differently in different cultures, as it is done differently in different climates with different soils and different demands from consumers.

Cultures evolve. Our culture is not like that of our ancestors in the 19th century, and more distant still from those in previous centuries. Just think how language has changed. Moreover, future cultural patterns are contingent on those of today and yesterday. Radio and television technology have swept the world, but programming is culture specific.

Much of culture in implicit. It is around as all the time but as invisible as the air we breath. Consequently efforts to influence the evolution of culture tend to be partial; often unrecognized aspects of culture interfere with efforts to reform political, economic and other institutions. Moreover, the ability to guide cultural evolution seems itself to be an aspect of culture (e. g. Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 by Noel Perrin).

We tend to be ethnocentric, assuming that other cultures function as ours does, or even that where we recognize cultural differences, our own culture is assumed to be superior (albeit without evidence of that superiority). This is not to say that all culture should be accepted as good and desirable. There are cultures that foster crime and violence, cultures where human rights of  large numbers of people are not respected, and indeed, most cultures have their own Jerimiahs, revealing the sins of their own peoples.

Cultures include the set of values held by people within the culture; these values change as part of cultural change. Only 150 years ago many people in the south of the United States went to war to protect the institution of slavery which they defended as good for the slaves and good for the masters; their values we can hardly fathom today. We tend to be tempocentric, assuming that the values of our time will also be those of other (future times) or that the values of our time are superior to those that will be held in our evolved culture in the future.

The Age of Culture

I am reading The Age of Culture by D. Paul Schafer. The author starts from a recognition that current patterns of international development are marked by major problems. They are not sustainable. Conflict is everywhere and threatens to worsen.  A large portion of the seven billion people living today are living in poverty. The worst aspects of that poverty are sickness  disability, and early death, but lack of choice, lack of power, lack of voice are also to be fought. On the other hand, a tiny fraction of the world's people are hugely wealthy and  rapidly accumulating more wealth. (Schafer perhaps fails to recognize the progress that has been made in improving the lives of the poor, as shown by the degree of success in achieving the Millennium Development Goals.)

He perceives that we need to move toward a new order in which people are enabled to live a good life, rich in development of the body, mind, taste, and -- if you will -- soul, but not demanding of excessive material possessions and with a limited and sustainable environmental footprint. In one of the meanings of the word, Schafer seeks a world in which people everywhere would be cultured.

Schafer lives in Canada and I live in the USA, both multicultural societies. Yet our countries are relatively homogeneous cultural when compared to say India or Nigeria. Schafer points out that in multicultural societies, cultures rub against one another, changing and being changed in the process, and such multiculturalism is itself a culture. As the world globalizes, it is increasingly useful to recognize all 7 billion of us living in a huge global culture.

Cultural Ages

For thousands of years, before history, people lived in relatively small bands as hunter-gatherers. Schafer refers to theirs as a Hunter Culture, and I see similarities across many such cultures. The range over which a band might move would be limited. While they transformed their local environments, as compared with today the Hunter Culture had a limited footprint. Thus, for example, the rate at which other species were becoming extinct was much lower than today, forests still dominated more of the earth and the oceans were relatively untouched.

I think of the 20th century as marking the end of an Age of Imperial Culture. While the Spanish Empire fell earlier, the 20th century saw the fall of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, British, Belgian, Dutch, French, Japanese and Soviet empires. These empires had been built around the advantages that the metropolitan power enjoyed by its early lead in the Industrial Revolutions -- what Jared Diamond termed Guns, Germs and Steel, plus fossil fuels in steam and internal combustion engines, the telegraph and telephone, etc. World War I, World War II and the Cold War contributed to the end of that epoch.

Schafer suggests that we currently live in an "economic age" but that we should strive to transform society so that people in the future may live in an "age of culture." He was trained as an economist and worked as an economist early in his career before moving into arts administration. I was trained as an engineer and worked as an engineer before moving into science administration. Perhaps that is why I tend to think of our current culture as having been importantly formed by centuries of technological innovation. I also think that since mankind has seen the world from space and learned to use computers to better deal with the diversity of ecosystems, our global culture is becoming much more aware of the planet on which we live and the complex ways in which our environment functions. Yet clearly, ours is an age in which governments, corporations and markets are key institutions, and economists play an important role in studying those institutions and helping define societies policies with respect to those institutions.

The current epoch is characterized by a concentration of wealth. Forbes magazine estimates that there are 1645 billionaires in the world today with an aggregate net worth of 6.4 trillion U.S. dollars. This may be compared with estimated total global wealth in 2013 of 241 trillion U,S. dollars. Thus 0.00002 percent of the world's population has 2.65 percent of the world's wealth. On the other hand, according to the World Bank1.22 billion people lived on less than $1.25 a day in 2010, and 2.4 billion people lived on less than US $2 a day. Multinational corporations unknown in previous ages, owned by the relatively wealthy and managed by a bureaucratic elite, have largely escaped the control of national governments. Commerce has become global in many commodities.

This is an epoch dependent on fossil fuels, and they are being depleted. The ecological footprint of this cultural epoch is creating global warming, melting ice caps and glaciers, raising sea level and flooding coastal zones, creating mass extinction of other species, destroying forests and top soil, polluting surface water, ground  water and coastal zones, expanding deserts, and generally making the earth less livable for the species.

Maslow's Needs Hierarchy

Source (and license information)

Schafer maintains that mankind should consciously change global culture seeking to achieve an Age of Culture. Here he seems to be using a definition in part similar to this from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
a :  enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic trainingb :  acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
I think he and I share a critique of the current epoch that can be explained in terms of the Maslow Needs Hierarchy.  Today a billion people are barely meeting their physiological needs and billions more are not meeting their safety needs, while a small fraction of the world's population is accumulating great wealth, enjoying most of the fruits of an unsustainable use of natural resources.

Since the higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy do not require resource intensive production of goods and services, a shift in societies' processes could focus more on their achievement while diminishing mankind's global ecological footprint. Production of goods and services would be modified to make the use of natural resources sustainable. The new social system would share the wealth and income of the world more evenly, allowing the poor to satisfy physiological and security needs more fully, and to begin to fulfill higher order needs.

Schafer feels that our current culture fails to act with sufficient attention to the whole person, the whole of society, and the whole global environment with which people and society interact. He sees our priorities as biased towards the "economic" -- increase in income and wealth, and not adequately taking into account sustainability nor the higher aspirations of mankind.

In achieving his age of culture, Schafer then proposes a model of development, as shown in the following diagram:

The Cultural Model of Development

He devotes a chapter in the book to "The Cultural Personality", focusing on the characteristics of people who will inhabit his desired Age of Culture. He is especially interested that they have a holistic view, working to develop their potential to the fullest. I very much like this focus. Let us ask what it is in their culture that makes people who they are; what is it in people that makes their culture what it is. Perhaps we call the latter "personality". I note that Orhan Pamuk in his great book Istanbul: Memories and the City suggests that his city has a special feeling shared by its inhabitants, a feeling which has changed with time, and that other cities too have what we might call personality traits shared by their inhabitants. So it seems logical that to move culture in desired directions, people's personalities must change over time in supportive fashion.

D. Paul Schafer in his book is concerned with the extent of specialization in our current culture. On the one hand, I feel that it would be great if people could be less single minded about work and money to spend more time on family, learning about others and improving their minds and spirits. On the other hand, trying to get Mozart to paint or write, or to get Shakespeare to play more music and dance more seems unwise. A good economist, a good engineer, or a good scientist needs thousands of hours of work to learn his/her profession, and needs to practice it to maintain the skill. I think specialization is  here to stay in that sense.

Schafer also devotes a chapter to "The Culturescape: Self-Awareness and Communities". It seems clear that people in the next century or two will live primarily in cities and towns. Indeed, finding ways to make urban living sustainable will be high on any agenda for human welfare. Making towns and cities livable, in the sense of places that not only allow people to fulfill their physiological and safety needs, but increasingly to fulfill higher order needs seems an obvious goal, but one that is clearly going to be difficult to achieve. We need not look back to the horrific cities of Dicken's England or Civil War New York; we can focus on the enormous slums in Africa, Asia and Latin America.


UNESCO was founded in the aftermath of World War II to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men. In the terms used above, it was an explicit effort created by the allies to change world culture in such a way that wars would be less frequent and less brutal. Indeed, UNESCO has created a project promoting the culture of peace, and there was an International Year of the Culture of Peace. Federico Mayor, the former Director General of UNESCO (who wrote an introduction to Schafer's book) has on leaving his post at UNESCO created a Foundation for the Culture of Peace.

More fundamentally, the "C" in UNESCO is for Culture. It has used its convening power to bring leaders together from all over the world to discuss culture, it has been a laboratory and clearinghouse for ideas about culture. It has fostered the creation of international agreements about the protection of cultural artifacts and heritage and created programs for the protection of world heritage sites and intangible cultural heritage, as well as the promotion of cultural expression. Importantly, it has sought to promote dialog among cultures to increase mutual understanding and decrease conflict.

Author Schafer's thinking has been significantly influenced by UNESCO (as has my own). Moreover, UNESCO is the logical place for the ideas in this book to be discussed and further developed.


Schafer and I are both native English speakers from North America, of the same age, with somewhat similar life experiences. Our values seem quite similar, yet they may be different in many ways from the values of people in a century or two -- the people who will be living in the age for which Schafer wishes to influence culture. There is an inescapable contradiction in the fact that their future culture will be contingent on the decisions made now with our current value system, but they will have to live in that future with their own values.

The question is most pertinent in Schafer's final chapter, "Culture and Spirituality: Key to Life and Living in the Twenty-First Century". Schafer suggests that he attains spiritual states through the arts, through experience with nature, and through physical exercises. Others, especially devotees to some religions, might find this chapter offensive. Remember that one of the divisions between some of the Reformation Protestant Churches and the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church was just over whether and how music, paintings, and sculpture were to promote religious spirituality. While I find visiting UNESCO's natural World Heritage sites (e.g. Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Everglades) to refresh my spirit, I recognize other people don't share those experiences. Perhaps most importantly, as Michael Brown implies in Who Owns Native Culture?, indigenous people have all too often had their cultural preferences, and even their spiritual beliefs, run over by people from dominant economic and political groups.

Culture is complex and implicit. In my opinion, many development efforts have gone awry having been bitten by cultural memes that had not been recognized or interactions among memes, people and environment that were too complex to predict. As Robbie Burns wrote:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' menGang aft agley,An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,For promis'd joy!
Governments and large organizations in the private and non-profit sectors are key institutions today, and they are responsive to people with wealth and political influence. While participatory democracy is more prevalent today than ever before, people are influenced by the media, educational institutions, political parties and other institutions -- all of which are led by people "with skin in the game". It is not clear how cultural change can be guided to achieve the ends Schafer desires when the change is likely to often be detrimental to the perceived interests of the people with influence.

Final Comment

It is clearly not possible to do justice in a short post such as this to ideas that Paul Schafer has expressed at book length. Indeed,  I am sure that I have not fully digested his thought myself. Read the book for yourself.

I will leave you with a video in which 75 people of Cuban culture together play that quintessential Cuban song, Guantanamera. People proud of their Cuban heritage can differ violently over issues of politics and economics, but they can come together to make music. Perhaps cultural expression is a tool to move toward a culture of peace.

From the Merriam-Webster dicttionary, a definition of culture
a :  the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b :  the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
c :  the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
d :  the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

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