Globalisation impacts not only biological but also cultural diversity – Fellows’ seminar by Thomas Hylland Eriksen

4 April 2022

“There has been an escalating loss of diversity in important domains since the latter half of the twentieth century. This concerns both human culture and the environment,” said Thomas Hylland Eriksen of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, Norway.

STIAS Fellow Thomas Hylland Eriksen during his seminar on 31 March 2022

Describing his book project as “a drama in at least three acts” STIAS fellow Eriksen focused mainly on the first – “the tragic act” for his seminar presentation.

The book aims to show how progress, development and prosperity is producing its own undoing owing to environmental destruction and climate change but also that the loss of ecological diversity is paralleled by and connected to loss in cultural diversity. Eriksen will highlight how global modernity reduces ecological diversity and cultural variation, and the measures taken to counter this.

“This is about the world,” he said, “but it’s a big place – still round, bumpy and not flat – although there are some flattening processes.”

Formative experiences

Tracing his own interest in the field, Eriksen described opposition to the building of a hydro-electric dam in Alta in Northern Norway in 1979 when he was 17. This led to divisive and animated demonstrations by environmental groups, intellectuals and indigenous people who opposed the dam because it disrupted reindeer migration pathways.

“Describing it as his “first politically engaged issue” Eriksen helped to organise a demonstration in his home town – “a march against bureaucrats and technocrats in favour of indigenous people”.

“It was a formative experience and this project is a continuation of that via many detours.”

Although the dam was built, the protests raised issues around indigenous rights and voices, clashes of scale where local interests are in opposition to national, technology versus ecology, the fact that a map is not territory and models not reality, and different understandings of quality of life. “It raised issues that are still with us today but are now much more urgent.”

The experience also introduced Eriksen to the idea of the academic as engaged citizen and that the “best research always has an existential, emotional and personal dimension”.

Turning to his project he pointed out that since the beginning of the fossil fuel revolution, the human population has increased eightfold, while energy consumption has grown by a factor of 30. There has been an average decline in animal populations of 68%, 60% of the global population is livestock, 36% humans and only 4% wild animals, while 70% of birds are chicken and poultry, and only 30% wild.

Post Word War II change accelerated further from the pivotal early 1990s which marked the end of Cold War, the development of the internet and mobile phones, the establishment of the Word Trade Organisation, the end of apartheid and the rise in neoliberalism. From then there has been accumulation upon accumulation in all areas of human activity with accelerated effects on the environment.

“In the 21st century the Anthropocene effects are a game changer,” he said. “There is an urgent need for an ecological perspective on humanity and this has implications for biological and cultural diversity. This is clear across all disciplines.”

Increasingly homogenised

Alongside the loss in ecological diversity has been cultural homogenisation of which language is one aspect.

“90% of languages are endangered and a language is lost every two weeks,” said Eriksen.

He referred to the McDonaldisation of society – a concept highlighted by American sociologist George Ritzer – as well as the United Colours of Benetton effect – which highlights “superficial diversity based on fundamental similarities – only the icing on the cake is different”.

He used the example of global cement production which has increased by four times in this period as both descriptor and metaphor for homogenisation.

Eriksen believes such homogenisation is a legacy of nationalism, state building, economic deregulation and technological development.

“When successful, state power and nation-building produce cultural similarity and comparability,” he explained. “The modern state aims to make populations legible through population statistics and manageable through a variety of official institutions, media, standardised education and labour markets. Despite its appearance, modern ethnicity does not express cultural difference, but amounts to a shared language for speaking about cultural difference.”

“Economic globalisation aims to make everything comparable with everything else, translating and reducing nature into resources (or ‘ecosystem services’) and people into producers and consumers. The common denominator is profitability, and economies of scale ensure accelerated standardisation.”

“The current decade is that of the mega-mine, the smartphone and the shipping container which, wherever you are in the world, are all the same,” he continued.

“Smartphones are inherently reductionist,” he added. “If something is not on the screen it is unmarked, invisible and if it can’t be ‘appified’ you are out of business.”

“The benefits of global modernity are many, but contemporary overheated globalisation has severe unintended side-effects. Standardisation entails a loss of flexibility, defined as uncommitted potential for change. In order to understand this process, it’s necessary to view ecology and culture through a common lens. Although evolution has led to increased semiotic freedom (diversity, flexibility) until the present age in both domains, the process is now rapidly being reversed owing to Anthropocene effects.”

The book will also analyse some of the proposed solutions including rewilding and the promotion of indigenous biocultural diversity.

“But,” as Eriksen pointed out, “many of these treat the causes rather than the symptoms. You can’t look at a single species or culture – you need to look at the whole.”

Ending his presentation with a quote from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, he said that for him Darwin’s main insight is “that all life is connected with everything else”.

In discussion, he highlighted that we mustn’t forget the benefits of globalisation and also that there are parts of the world still not substantially affected “but many communities are also overrun by globalisation – what is good for the country is not necessarily good for communities. Not all benefit, nor do they have a choice. Too few reap the benefits but many pay the bill.”

“There is general acceptance that biodiversity is affected, culture is more complex. Cultural loss – kinship, land rights, ways of thinking – these are threatened but could be recovered if we decide to do things otherwise, unlike biological diversity loss which is more irreversible. We should probably consider cultural autonomy rather than just diversity – it’s about the right to defend yours.”

“Take language for example – there are arguments that there is more diversity not less if you consider creolisation. Language loss has also been compared to species extinction – but languages could come back if they are recorded. It also may not be in an individual’s interest to speak a language only known by 300 people. Language death is a symptom of the diversity problem. It is necessary not to look at individual languages, or species, but the entire ecosystem and social context, if diversity is to prevail.”

“New forms of diversity can also emerge as a result of globalisation – there is the possibility of creativity at the crossroads,” he said.

Asked about education he said: “Standardised education is suited to one kind of society. Education should be about teaching enlightened engagement in the world. It needs more diversity, schools should be teaching different things depending on where they are located. Globalisation of knowledge means that more and more people know more and more about less and less.”

Asked also about the role of global conflicts since 1991 he said: “Homogenisation and stability relies on peace, agreement and a shared matrix of humanity – it could collapse if the global system stops working and we stop talking.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu





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