tales from the ethnosphere

I really mean it when I say that storytelling can change the world,” Wade Davis tells me over the telephone. Despite myself, I’m surprised by his statement. I think of Davis as a man of action, and storytelling strikes me as a rather subtle and hands-off approach to social change. How can telling stories compare to direct actions, like documenting rare species of rain forest plants, or raising money for an indigenous group to defend their human rights, or serving in an organization that supports environmentally sensitive economic development? In fact, Davis has done all of these things at one point or another in his career. Yet when I ask him what title best describes his work, he responds: “I define myself as a storyteller.”


An Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society, Davis’ job is to travel to places around the world “where the cultural practices, beliefs, adaptations are so inherently wondrous, merely to know about them is to be dazzled.” His twenty-five years of journeys among indigenous cultures have given him a rare and encompassing view of humanity. Few of us will ever meet in person the mountain people of Chinchero, Peru; the nomadic Ariaal of Kenya; the Penan of the Borneo rain forest; or the river-dwelling culture of the Winikina-Warao in Venezuela. But by sharing the stories of these places and people, Davis invites us along on the journey. We too can bear witness to the diverse ways that our “wildly imaginative and astonishingly adaptive species” manifests itself through culture.

In his latest book, Light at the Edge of the World, Davis coined the term “ethnosphere” to describe his unique vision. He defines the ethnosphere “as the sum total of all thoughts, dreams, ideas, beliefs, myths, intuitions and inspirations, brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness. It’s a symbol of all that we’ve accomplished and all that we can accomplish,” he tells me. “The ethnosphere is humanity’s great legacy.”

The passion in Davis’ voice is undeniable. His respect for indigenous people, and his sense that sacredness underpins human evolution, are evident in the words he uses. “Distinct cultures represent unique visions of life itself, morally inspired and inherently right,” he says. “It seems to me such an obvious thing that diversity is not just a foundation of stability; it’s an article of faith. It’s a fundamental indicator of the way God wanted the world to be.

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to experience these worlds of wonder, to delve into literature, and to acquire a certain amount of understanding of the processes that are going on in these societies,” he tells me. “And in return, I think that my role is to tell the stories of the ethnosphere, to tell the drama of who we are.”

Now in his late forties, Wade Davis grew up in an era where “conformity was melting away into experimentation.” He was raised in a suburb of Montréal, Canada’s most bilingual city, at a point in Québec history when an invisible border literally ran down main streets, dividing the French and English worlds. As a child he was intrigued that “right across this invisible line that was never spoken about but never forgotten, there was another language, another religion, another culture, another way of doing things. I kept looking across that divide,” he says, “curious about the Other.” He crossed the taboo line as a teenager, on the coattails of his older sister who had fallen in love with a Québecois man, and he discovered a culture that was alive with warmth and a sense of community that was lacking in the society he came from.

The summer Davis was fourteen, he became suddenly and completely immersed in the life of a Colombian village. A schoolteacher had brought him and a handful of other Canadian boys to South America for a cultural exchange. Unlike the other students, who stayed with wealthy families in the city, Davis was inadvertently billeted with a modest family in the mountains where he saw no other foreigners for weeks. “Life in Colombia was real, visceral, full, potent with possibilities,” he remembers. “It turned out that the other Canadians felt strongly homesick, but I felt as if I had finally found home.”

Davis’ early encounters with foreign cultures and landscapes planted a seed of curiosity that has grown throughout his life. He went on to study anthropology and biology, receiving a Ph.D. in ethnobotany – the study of the cultural use of plants – from Harvard University. But his academic training merely provided a vehicle through which he could live out his life’s abiding passion. By learning first-hand how other people view the world, he has sought to “rediscover and celebrate the enchantment of being human.”

His early work as an ethnobotanist took Davis back to South America. He spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes, living among fifteen indigenous groups. Later, in the early 1980s, he went to Haiti to find the herbal preparation used in creating zombies. In the course of doing so, he became intimate with the mystic culture of Voudon, subject of his internationally best-selling book The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Davis has since journeyed into landscapes as diverse as the high Arctic, the north African desert, the wild valleys of British Columbia, and the mountains of Tibet. A prolific and award-winning writer, Davis’ nine books and several television documentaries bring alive for audiences the biological and cultural wonders that he has encountered first-hand.

Wade Davis never set out to become an explorer. “I doubt there was a human being alive that was more confused and uncertain of his destiny than I was in my twenties,” he tells me. “But the trait that was my saving grace was an almost visceral, reflexive incapacity to compromise on myself.

“People ask me, How do you become an explorer? And I sometimes say, If you really knew, you’d go right to law school! Because it wasn’t easy. But the key ingredients were following my own heart, taking risks, cultivating a comfort level with risk, and always having one word in my vocabulary for new experiences, which was yes.”


Many people know that the biosphere – the planet’s interconnected web of land, water, climate, plants and animals – is threatened by pollutants and the destruction of natural habitat. But there is far less awareness that the ethnosphere is also being eroded, and at an even faster rate. Davis explains, “No biologist would dare suggest that 50 percent of all species is on the brink of extinction, because it simply is not true. It would be the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, and yet it scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.”

The loss of languages is an indicator of how much and how quickly the ethnosphere is being degraded. “A language is not just vocabulary and grammar,” Davis says. “It’s a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of a culture comes into the material world.” When a language is no longer spoken amongst people, it is very difficult for that culture to keep alive its unique wisdom and way of life. Today 6000 languages are spoken worldwide but fully half are not being taught to children. This means that “within a generation or two we’re losing half of humanity’s intellectual, social and spiritual legacy.”

It strikes me that the erosion of cultural diversity is coinciding with a time when humankind could use all the good ideas it can get. It seems logical that in order to learn how to live sensitively on the Earth and in harmony with each other, we need many minds, many perspectives, many pools of experience. Indigenous people have a particular knowledge of the place where they live. If heeded, this knowledge could go a long way towards addressing the social and environmental challenges we face.

One major threat to global diversity is the idea that North America’s culture and economy are the standard to which the world should aspire. “If someone turned the anthropological lens on our own society,” Davis suggests, “you’d see many wondrous things. If the measure of success was technological wizardry, we’d come out on top. But if you looked at social structure, you’d see a culture that says it reveres marriage but allows half of them to end in divorce. A culture that says it loves its elderly but where grandparents live with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its homes. A culture that says it loves its children, but embraces an obscene slogan – ‘24/7’ – implying total dedication to the workplace, and then wonders why the average American kid, by the age of eighteen, has spent two full years passively watching television.”

Davis cites an observation made by E.O. Wilson that for the entire world’s population to achieve North America’s level of natural resource consumption, it would require the resources of four planet Earths. “We are many wondrous things,” Davis says of North Americans, “but the paragon of humanity’s potential we most certainly are not. We’re just one possibility, one facet of the imagination. But we project our social and economic systems to the rest of the world as if they are the inevitable fate of humankind.”

Davis does not believe that indigenous people should be denied access to technological innovation, nor that endangered cultures should be treated as endangered species, sequestered into parks. Instead he envisions “a truly multicultural, pluralistic world in which every society of the Earth has access to the products of human ingenuity, without the engagement in modernity needing to imply the eradication of culture.”


As I was writing this article, I felt a wave of despair and hopelessness rising. It is a very sad prospect that entire peoples are facing extinction through the loss of their land, languages and unique ways of life. Davis recognizes that the challenges are great, but he insists that “it’s no time to be pessimistic.” While the struggles of many indigenous groups are grave, people will continue to find ways to cope with the pressures placed upon them, and to resist losing that which is most precious. Rather than look away, as I wanted to do, Davis encourages us to look clearly at the facts.

“It’s neither change nor technology that threatens the integrity of culture,” he explains. “It’s always power – the crude face of domination. And wherever you look around the world you see that these aren’t frail societies destined to fade away. Quite to the contrary, they’re dynamic, living people who are being driven out of existence by identifiable forces, whether those forces are ideological in the case of the Chinese treatment of the Tibetans; whether they’re industrial in the case of the egregious deforestation of the homeland of the Penan in Borneo; or whether they’re the consequences of contact and disease entities sweeping over people in the case of the Yanomami since the arrival of gold miners.”

“The key point,” he continues, “is actually an optimistic observation be-cause it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be the facilitators of cultural survival. It’s a matter of choices. And choices happen on a nation state basis when enough people within the nation believe that the orientation should shift.”

Davis and his team use their access to the National Geographic’s huge audience – 250 million people worldwide every month – to educate and hopefully influence people’s choices by increasing their awareness of other cultures. The most successful approach, they have found, is not to devastate people with statistics or seemingly hopeless situations. Instead they entice audiences into cultures so intricate and fascinating that just to learn about them “is to remember that the human imagination is vast, fluid and infinite in its capacity for social and spiritual invention.”

“We don’t believe that polemics are persuasive or that politicians will lead the way,” Davis explains. “But we do believe that storytelling can change the world.” He hopes that by hearing the stories of the ethnosphere, more people will realize “that the world in which you were born is just one model of reality. These other cultures aren’t failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

I am beginning to understand why storytelling, which at first seemed to me a subtle approach to social change, is actually a very effective tool. The power of a story seems to lie in the impact it can have on our minds, opening us to perspectives that we may not have gained through our own lives.

Davis points out that, while “none of us knows how change actually happens,” there is plenty of evidence that societies are transforming, and quickly. “We’re terribly impatient,” he says, “but in fact social change happens at an incredible rate. Forty years ago, just getting people to stop throwing garbage out of a car window was considered a great environmental victory. Nobody spoke of the biosphere or biodiversity – these were terms that were limited to the vocabulary of scientists. Now they’re part of the vernacular of schoolchildren. We’re already seeing a turnaround in terms of respect for indigenous people. Look at the creation of Nunavut, a landmark in self-government for the Inuit.

“Or look at the role of women,” Davis continues, “the opportunities that were available for your grandmother, your mother, you, your daughter. It’s a lightning change! Look at attitudes toward homosexuality, perhaps the most dramatic turnaround of all. In Canada, they’ve just an-nounced a remarkable policy of allowing same-sex marriages. Do you realize what that represents in terms of a shift in perceptions about a phenomenon that has been severely tabooed by the society for generations?

“I really believe that I can’t shift the current of history,” Davis says. “But I’m going to make a stand, and I’m going to at least use the tools made available to me to try to tell these stories. People feel helpless, as if one person can make no difference, but the only difference is made one person at a time.”

Wade Davis believes that each individual has “an obligation to bear witness to the world,” to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open to other people’s realities. By bearing witness, we cultivate a climate – in our minds, communities and societies – that supports the social change process. Each time we become receptive to other worldviews, we are actually changing our minds, a little at a time.

Juniper Glass is ascent's managing editor.

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