Monday, June 04, 2007

The Noble Savage

All societies have their myths and one of the most prevalent in the West is the myth of the noble savage. It is as old as Tacitus who praised the free Germans over the civilised but decadent Romans. In the sixteenth century, Frenchman Michael de Montaigne wrote a famous essay favourably comparing New World cannibals to his own countrymen. Today, the myth is as powerful as ever with quaint ideas that Australian aborigines are uniquely attuned to the natural world (ideas that the aborigines, who have good lawyers and want their land back, do much to promote). The pop star Sting gave a huge chunk of virgin rain forest to some Amazonian Indians fondly imagining that they would turn it into some latter-day Eden.

It’s all codswallop, of course, and goes to demonstrate that even the most secular of societies has articles of faith ungrounded in evidence. The aborigines deforested vast amounts of Australia, reducing it to desert, while also wiping out almost all that continent’s large animals. Native Americans did the same thing and, incidentally, very nearly killed off the Buffalo too. As for Sting’s donation, the beneficiaries promptly took up logging and mining on an industrial scale.

Anyone who wants to be disabused of the noble savage myth should read the second chapter of Jared Diamond’s latest opus Collapse. There he recounts how the denizens of Easter Island destroyed every last tree until they could not even built the canoes they needed to escape. Environmental destruction is not a crime unique to Western civilisation. We may be very good at it, but unlike so many people through history, at least we recognise what we are doing.

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