POLYCULTURES AND MONOCULTURES OF THE MIND

In a celebrated essay on the value and efficacy of peasant knowledge written several years ago, Vandana Shiva articulated the concept of the “monocultures of the mind.”25 In my view, this concept possesses the merit of explaining with a powerful metaphor how the design of rural landscapes reflected a state of mind (and a state of being, I may add) and provided a mirror that feeds back in the human mind. The image summarized the grand illusion of the industrial era: that the land could be completely redesigned to fulfill its grand promise to provide for all the needs and wants of the human as the conqueror of the natural world.

The hope was that scientific and technological ingenuity could remove all constraints and limits and that there would come a day when humans would live in a world where material goods would flow in such abundance that the realm of necessity would give way to the realm of freedom. This ideal, a child of the industrial revolution, was shared right, center, and left by all sectors of the ideological spectrum. Happiness and freedom were equated with unlimited access to possessions. The assembly line, with its straight lines, would make the world predictable, calculable, controllable, and fully quantifiable. The controversial question was just how to distribute and share the bounty. Revolutions and counterrevolutions were fought about it, but those provided the consensus of the times: happiness was a question of abundance, not of sufficiency, stability, security, or meaning, because all that would be obtained by homus economicus endless ingenuity.

Shiva’s monoculture of the mind speaks of the north’s particular cultural project and its underlying dominant mode of investigating and shaping reality, a mode of understanding and meaning which led to the system of monoculture in agriculture and food production. This mode of understanding and designing served to displace the ecologically sounder indigenous peasant’s age-old experiences of truly sustainable food cultivation, forest management, and animal husbandry. This increasingly accelerating process of technological innovation for control has produced large amounts of material goods and particular types of food that ended up threatening both the collective health of the people and that of the ecosystems that sustained them.

We do not need to revisit here the impressive body of evidence that has demonstrated the manner by which the monoculture has failed in all fundamental respects.26 The purpose here is rather to reflect on what it has done to us educationally, as a representation of the unity of mind and nature, that is to say, the ecology of the mind of which G. Bateson wrote and that others have expanded on to speak of ecologies of the heart, meaning the relationships between humans and nature.27

Shiva also writes and speaks about the disappearance of local knowledge, made to disappear first by simply not seeing it and negating its very existence. While negating the existence of the others (systems of knowledge and meaning grounded in place), the dominant, expansionist model would present itself as universally valid (as “human nature”), in a state of denial or just blinded to the fact that it was also a local system, socially based on a “particular culture, class and gender. It is not universal in any epistemological sense. It is merely the globalized version of a very local and parochial tradition. Emerging from a dominating and colonizing culture, modern knowledge systems are themselves colonizing.”28 And, if local knowledge appears through this globalizing vision, “it is made to disappear by denying it the status of a systematic knowledge, and assigning it the adjectives ‘primitive’ and ‘unscientific.’ Correspondingly, the Western system is assumed to be uniquely ‘scientific’ and universal.”29 However, in Shiva’s account, this has less to do with knowledge and more to do with power. The knowledge system that claims universal validity does so as the result of an expanding sociocultural system. “Positivism, verificationism, falsificationism were all based on the assumption that unlike traditional locally-based views of the world, which are socially constructed, modern scientific knowledge was thought to be determined without social mediation.”30

The appeal of the metaphor of the monoculture of the mind strongly resonates in my view in that it explains how a system of knowledge that proclaims its ultimate superiority (monoculture) lacks the mechanisms of internal control that alternative explanations of reality can provide (like the suppression by chemical fertilizers and pesticides of the diversity of living organisms prevents those organisms from performing ecological services needed for the stability of the system). I like to equate this with the experiences of an observer inside a dark forest armed with a powerful, highly focused flashlight that confuses the whole of reality with the narrow bit illuminated by the beam of light. The more focused the view, the narrower the vision it provides, and the darker becomes its own background, to the point that the fragment of the world that can be seen becomes the only totality, the world as a whole.

Paradoxically, in the eloquence of her own criticism of the hegemonic discourse that she describes, Shiva makes one important error: In her narrative, she becomes oblivious to the fact that scientific discourse is not monolithic, nor has it ever been. Although the basic traits of her argumentation are appealing and fundamentally appropriate, what is missing and marginalized in her own narrative are all the streams of thought that have critiqued Western science from within, starting with but not limited to the claims of superiority of positivism, materialism, and mechanicism.31 Ironically, a significant component of her own critique of the dominant paradigm of Western science is provided by arguments, ideas, and insights that have their own origins not only in the traditions of local knowledge of peasant and indigenous communities from around the world but also from Western scholarship. However, in our view, the greatest merit of her work, like that of many Western scholars, resides in the value and significance she assigns to knowledge grounded in place.

Thus, what follows from Shiva’s discussion are the insights that can be derived from systems of knowledge that anywhere (and everywhere) have led to (even partially) sustainable livelihoods. In the end, hers is an argument that highlights the inseparability of cultural diversity and biological diversity. What may generate alternatives capable of guiding us to move out of the crisis of this civilization, again, in my interpretation of her work, are the myriads of flashlights, the diversity of local knowledge bases, which, when combined, give us one essential insight: the understanding that by attempting to replicate the complexity, diversity, and resilience of the natural world we can find the path toward cultural adaptation to the fundamental challenges faced by humanity today.

I have interpreted the mind and nature unit, which Bateson speaks of in his argument for ecology of the mind, as a challenge to create learning experiences and settings that cultivate what I call “polycultures of the mind”—that is, knowledge that attempts to mimic and to assimilate the complexity and uncertainty of life, accompanied by a learning process, which inspires the opening of the collective mind, through viable and feasible learning outcomes.

 
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