The triumph of secular materialism is the conceit of modernity. But what are the features of this life? An anthropologist from a distant land visiting America, for example, would note many wondrous things. But he would no doubt be puzzled to learn that 20 percent of the people control 80 percent of the wealth, that the average child has by the age of eighteen spent a full two years passively watching television. Observing that over half of our marriages end in divorce and that only 6 percent of our elders live with a relative, he might question the values of a society that so readily break the bonds of marriage and abandons its aged, even as its men and women exhaust themselves in jobs that only reinforce their isolation from their families. Certainly a slang term such as 24/7 , implying as it does the willingness of an employee to be available for work at all times, seems excessive, though it would explain the fact that the average American father spends only eighteen minutes a day in direct communication with his child. And what of our propensity to compromise the very life supports of our planet? Extreme would be one word for a civilization that contaminates with is waste the air, water, and soil; that drives plants and animals to extinction; that dams the rivers, tears down the ancient forests, rips holes in the protective halo of the heavens and does little to curtail industrial processes that threatens to transform the bio-chemistry of the very atmosphere.
Once we look through the anthropological lens and see, perhaps for the first time, that all cultures have unique attributes that reflect choices made over generations, it becomes absolutely clear that there is no universal progression in the lives and destiny of human beings. No trajectory of progress. Were societies to be ranked on the basis of technological prowess, the Western scientific experiment, radiant and brilliant, would no doubt come out on top. But if the criteria of excellence shifted, for example, to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, with a true reverence and appreciation for the Earth, the Western paradigm would fail. If the imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longing, then our dogmatic conclusions would again be found wanting.
Viewed from this broader perspective, the notion that indigenous societies are archaic, that their very presence represents some impediment, is transparently wrong. As David Maybury-Lewis has written, indigenous people do not stand in the way of progress; rather, they contribute to it if given the chance. Their cultural survival does not undermine the nation state; it serves to enrich it, if the state is willing to embrace diversity. And most important of all, these cultures do not represent failed attempts at modernity, marginal peoples who somehow missed the technological train to the future. On the contrary, these peoples, with their dreams and prayers, their myths and memories, teach us that there are indeed other ways of being, alternative visions of life, birth, death and creation itself. When asked the meaning of being human, they respond with then thousand different voices. It is within the diversity of knowledge and practice, of intuition and interpretation, of promise and hope, that we will all rediscover the enchantment of being what we are, a conscious species aware of our place on the planet and fully capable not only of doing no harm but of ensuring that all creatures in every garden find a way to flourish.