Humans hold a paradoxical view of culture (by “culture” I mean the encompassing sphere of human thought: the arts, political systems, religion, economics, and so on). On one hand, we tend to view both history and the future through the eyes of our current culture; as if culture has not changed for some very long time and is unlikely to change for some time more. Such a myopic view robs us of history’s wisdom and binds us to a pre-packaged determined future. Concurrently, we also view past and future culture as something vastly different than the current human experience. Our forebearers (noting even the separation of one generation to the next) lived lives so different than our own that their experiences and accumulated knowledge are invalid for the present. Future generations will encounter a world so changed from this one that we may not even speculate their circumstances. Of course, neither of these views is entirely satisfactory; but both are necessary to address our current situation and plan for the future.
This paragraph, in its draft form, began “From an environmental viewpoint . . .” However, that is not the viewpoint that I, as a person, can fully comprehend. I can only hope to come from a human viewpoint—a human who is part of an environment. Each of us is part of a cultural environment and, though we tend to deny this with a thousand decaying whispers, part of the natural world. I cannot take responsibility for the Earth’s actions; she is, of herself, a most responsible organism. I can (and must) take responsibility for my own. Without recognition of this personal responsibility, there can be no health. No health of persons. No health of society. No health of the larger whole we call The Environment. The Earth will attempt to maintain what we call The Environment till her last recourse is exhausted. It is up to me to see what my place is, in context of the past and future, for the maintenance of the whole.
My role is largely influenced by culture. What does my culture say about an individual’s responsibility to the larger whole? This has obvious political and economic implications; however, I think we will, in short order, begin to move past these structures (a future we cannot fully speculate). We’ve done too much damage to both the cultural and natural environments to sustain our past and current systems of governance and economy. Humankind, though we have had many thousands of years to consider this, has not yet found the way by which we should live and relate to one another. We have, at various times, nearly discovered how to relate to the Earth; but this relationship has, for too long, been abandoned in favour of self-absorption.
Culture is no more or less than a collective decision by a group of people to live and continue to live a certain way in a certain place (and people can only take responsibility if they are “in a place.” One cannot take responsibility for an abstraction or “nowhere”). Culture is not immutable; the history of ideas does not necessarily determine the future of human thought. We have yet the opportunity to recover wisdom from the past and take knowledge from the present to determine a future that will benefit all. This is, in fact, the only choice we have that does not end terminally for everyone. If we do not take on this individual responsibility, the cultures will splinter. The Earth, no matter her best efforts, cannot maintain the prolonged negligence of so many irresponsible people. She has provided the necessary components to sustain life. We’ve had an unwritten but obvious agreement that she will continue operating as with such designs as long as we do no harm to the process. If, from the neglect of stewardship, we lay waste to life it will be our decision that breaks the deal.
A culture is as alive as the people who live it; it will continue on till a collective decision is made to cease (or till such time as it is no longer sustainable). Culture can change. It does evolve for the betterment of those living it. The culture of Germany today is far different that what presented itself in the 1930’s. Though we now consume the foundations of life and the lives of those after us, there is nothing keeping us from positive change. Culture is not wholly a language, religion, music, or dress; these things change and grow over time. Changing culture does not mean abandonment of these things; it should mean the enrichment of our better parts. We should not fear the oncoming change (even drastic change) if that change means the resolution of these current ills and the maintenance of life itself.
Finally, culture was never one thing and can never be tomorrow what it was yesterday any more than our children will live the life of our grandparents. We return to the paradox. The present is the future; we cannot put the future off till tomorrow. We must reshape culture to become what it must be beyond this day. If we do not, the opportunities for a common future of life and good humanity will fade; the trust we pass on to the future will be spent. We have no other future than one made now.