Artifice and Agency

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Planet of Slums

Did you guys find it? Here's a link, I think.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Going Native

In the first chapter of Biomimicry, Janine Benyus states that the purpose both of the book and the movement it describes is “to learn from nature, so that we might fit in, at last and for good, on the Earth from which we sprang” (9). In Chapter 5 she addresses this premise in terms of “healing ourselves”, or looking to the natural world for cures to human diseases. In this vein, Benyus spends a significant part of the chapter discussing “folk remedies” of “native cultures”. This discussion presents a number of problems, especially in terms Benyus’ larger goals for the book.

The first question that needs to be asked is how “native” and “indigenous” is being defined. It is difficult to discuss or locate truly “original” inhabitants, as it is judging what migration patterns are “natural” or not. For Benyus “wild communities” range from “tribes in Africa” to “natives in the Amazon”. Both descriptions are troublesome, as they are enormous geographic areas with a vast amount of cultures and societies, all of which have distinct languages and practices. The picture that Benyus conjures is one of animistic hunter-gatherers who live in “the wild”; it is the image of the savage.
Benyus may glorify indigenous populations for their having “lived close to the Earth”, but even if we can forgive such an essentialist move, it still perpetuates a marked distinction from the ‘civilized world’. This inevitably undermines Benyus’ larger argument about the feasibility of “living with the earth”, in that it distances and lauds over people who are supposedly doing just that.

There is also the issue of Benyus’ emphasis on the field of ethnobotany. The term’s emphasis on “ethnic” implies a cultural otherness of the groups the botanists study. There is also the issue of pilfering a culture’s knowledge for profit. Using “indigenous shamans” for bioprospecting doesn’t just stop with the recognition of a plant’s healing properties. It involves logging, mining, and overall devastation of the places the plants are found, places where people live. Benyus neither acknowledges nor resolves this issue.

There is also a very interesting moment on the bottom of page 177. Benyus advocates for the “use” of “native cultures as rapid-assessment teams already on the ground” (177), blatantly objectifying members of ‘indigenous’ societies in personifying them as tools that are manipulated to serve our own society’s interests. Benyus goes on to describe the dangers of “‘civilization’ encroach[ing]” on such “native cultures” (177). Benyus places civilization in quotations, seemingly undermining any privileged distinction. However, her description of encroachment suggests that “native cultures” are pristine, untouched entities. The quotations’ sole function is simply to signify the belief that Western European culture is not civilized; it still perpetuates the notion of a fundamental separation.

Benyus also creates a relationship between animals and members of indigenous cultures that is problematic for a few reasons. The first is the fact that she literally equates the two, stating “all are local experts, passing knowledge from mother to offspring, and living in floristically diverse areas” (178). In doing this she risks dehumanizing the people she describes. They also undergo similar patronizing at the hands of Benyus. She refers to “natives” “outclass[ing]” ethnobotanists with their “uncanny knowledge”, signifying good-hearted surprise. Benyus uses similar rhetoric when describing various animal practices. Such patronizing further privileges Western European culture.

The issue of Benyus’ treatment of indigenous cultures and animals gets at the heart of the issue of Chapter 5: prospecting is not mimicry. It’s the opposite. Instead of learning from “Nature”, it uses it. Prospecting transforms living entities into resources, depriving them of their status as dynamic, sentient entities.