Cultural lag, a lethal drag

We’ve adapted to all the new hi-tech toys of the 21st century, but aren’t so quick to accept scientific evidence that we’re cooking the planet and endangering humanity, says CLIVE DOUCET

Globe & Mail, Monday, May 23, 2005 Page A13Key

Cultural lag is the term first coined by anthropologists to describe the gap between an invention and society’s ability to actually use it. It took about 50 years for the typewriter to displace the pen, and initially women were thought much too feeble to manipulate it. It was a man’s machine.

When electricity first came to my father’s Cape Breton village in the 1930s, it was viewed with distrust and adopted by few. Why would you pay a monthly charge for something that you didn’t need? Houses were lighted by kerosene lamps, stoves and water heated with wood, cows milked by hand. The electricity lines languished at the entrance to the village and people’s lives went on as before. Gardens were planted. Crops harvested. Houses managed.

It was the radio that seduced people, not the electric light bulb. The radio brought music, comedy and plays to the house and women began to want one to keep them company. For men it began to seem like a good idea to get the weather forecast in the evening and know what foolishness the politicians were up to. In this way, electricity finally entered Cape Breton homes — like the Sunday suit men had for church, not essential but stylish to have.

Today, conventional wisdom has it that cultural lag has all but disappeared. It did not take decades for society to adopt the BlackBerry. I can’t go skiing with my son-in-law without him briskly “blackberrying” the office in the few minutes we stand in the tow line.

But cultural lag is not just about machinery and inventions, it is also about ideas. For example, the division of church and state is a cultural innovation that took centuries to accomplish. It’s been a long and rocky road. The battle to separate state and church began in the West, more than 350 years ago, with the Edict of Nantes in France under Henry IV. On the other side of the English Channel, the same battle raged between those preaching toleration and those prepared to hang their friends for espousing the wrong religion. Samuel Pepys, the great diarist and naval administrator, though a practising Protestant from a Protestant family, was thrown into the Tower of London on suspicion of being a “papist” because he had hired a Catholic. In the 1940s, a sign hung at Toronto City Hall read “Catholics Need Not Apply.”

In 2005, we have the Christian sharia raising its head in the United States, partly in response to its Muslim cousin, but mostly because a substantial part of the population never adopted the new cultural thought that church and state should be separated. Many people continue to believe there should be religion in public schools, the Ten Commandments carved into the plinths of government buildings, and that civil law should reflect religious law. That’s cultural lag, not decades but centuries old.

If we are still struggling to accept an idea, fundamental to democracy but centuries old, how do we find a place for an entirely new concept about how society should be managed? Scientists tell us our carbon-based economy is cooking the planet and endangering the human species. This is not a religious vision, nor a political one. It’s a vision of ourselves as biological creatures, subject to biological laws, not human laws.

This is an entirely new way of regarding humanity; one where we are not the dominant species and have “dominion” over others — but rather one where we are nothing more than co-habitants of the planet; where we must share the resources we use and curtail our waste such that it does not impede the life systems of others.

This idea is as new as the typewriter and as strange as electricity was at the beginning of the last century. When I advance the idea at council that we don’t need 100 kilometres of new roads each year in my city, that instead we need a moratorium on new roads until we get our electric light-rail system in place, for some of my colleagues it is as if I have become as unreliable as Samuel Pepys was for hiring a Catholic.

How long will this cultural lag between our methods of production and humanity’s biological sustainability endure? How can we develop the same speed and success in adapting our economies to biological imperatives as we have with machines like the BlackBerry and the Ipod?

Sustainability needs to become the measure for economic achievement and public investment. For, unfortunately, the science of climate change indicates humanity doesn’t have centuries to stumble towards closing the gap.

Clive Doucet is a poet and city councillor in Ottawa. His most recent book was Lost and Found in Acadie. He was the 2005 winner of the Gallon Award for the Canadian Eco-Councillor of the year.

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