A reader writes:
You are right to find the old man a tragic figure; in fact, I would disdain one who could look upon that old man's fate with indifference or even contempt. The anthropologist Wade Davis has long been making a case that these traditional cultures being crushed and annihilated by modernity are in fact repositories of human knowledge that we're fools to discard.
Check out his TED talk about it:
In his amazing book "The Wayfinders," Davis makes the case that cherishing traditional cultures like that old Vanuatu chief's is not mere sentimentality, but actually is of practical benefit to us.
I'm sure it is, because throwing stuff away without due thought for its existing purposes or what could replace it is always asking for trouble. But my point is not about the usefulness or otherwise of the old leader's knowledge or wisdom or accumulated disposition. It is just that the kind of change you see as those young children greet a Western SUV for the first time is, to me at least, an instance of loss, and loss is inherently sad. Yes, a new car represents an amazing discovery but only at the expense of an irrecoverable loss. It is, history has shown us, an irresistible choice. The improvement of our material estate is not something one should even pretend to lament absolutely. Just get strep throat and have no access to anti-biotics.
But human society is not just material well-being. It is a form of communal, mortal living, and what makes it make sense is its internal coherence not its utility. That coherence will be mysterious, but if it has evolved over centuries or even millennia, it contains something incalculably important: a storage of human knowledge about how to live and die, which, in the end, is all we have.
When I think of a conservative disposition, this is what it comes down to. Sadness that reaches outward from love.
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