Indigenous tribes are speaking out about connections twixt coronavirus emergency and the climate emergency. Says Levi Sucre Romero, a BriBri indigenous leaders from Costa Rica who is coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests: “The coronavirus is now telling the world what we have been saying for thousands of years—that if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, then we will face this and worse future threats.”*
Loss of habitat brings wild animals into closer contact with humans and domesticated animals and this in turn enable diseases like coronavirus to jump the animal-human barrier and spread through human-to-human contact.
Mina Setra, a Dayak Pompaking indigenous leaders representing 17 million indigenous peoples across Indonesia says: “If only the world [had] worked to strengthen the rights of Indigenous peoples—who have learned to live in nature with biodiversity and protect animal and plant species—we would see fewer epidemics such as the one that we are currently facing.”
While I don’t usually cite anthropologists in the same essay as Native peoples (who bear many scars from anthropological invasions and misunderstandings of their stories and are rightly critical of many anthropologists), Margaret Mead was an exception–and a woman which no doubt has much to do with her interacting differently than male anthropologists with indigenous peoples.
In his book, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life, Doctor Ira Byock tells this story: “Anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.
But instead Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.
‘A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts,’ Mead said. We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.’
Consider also Mahatma Gandhi’s response when he was asked one day: “What do you think of Western civilization?” Pausing a moment, he responded: “I think it would be a good idea.”
Is Mother Earth telling us a similar message? Are indigenous peoples telling us the same?
In recent videos I have shared the very fine poem by Brother Richard Hendrick, a Capuchin Franciscan living in Ireland. It is called “Lockdown” and was posted on a Facebook post on Friday, March 13. His original post has received more than19k positive reactions and has been shared more than 34k times.
See Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion.
Banner Image: Rest in Peace Posters of Dr Li Wenliang, who warned authorities about the coronovirus outbreak seen at Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia. Hosier Lane is known for its street art. Photo by Adli Wahid on Unsplash.
Queries for Contemplation
Do you agree with Margaret Mead that “helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts”?
What are the lessons from that? How do the current crises open the door to a more authentic civilization?
Do you agree with Mahatma Gandhi that Western civilization has not yet begun? Why? Or why not?