When I started this blog, we knew we were fortunate to be able to take this trip with family, but we weren't looking at the larger picture. This trip has given us a deep appreciation of how fortunate we are to have been born into this time and place, and not just because our appliances fit the electrical outlets in our homes. In all of these countries except Australia and Africa, we were given plastic bottled water any time we needed water, not because it was convenient, but because that was the only way to ensure the water was clean. In India, we traveled along city streets covered in trash and visited a village without basic sanitation; in comparison, the US has had basic sanitation for most of the last 100 years and our “littering” problem has been largely handled through a combination of laws and public services. In other countries, it was clear that people could not say aloud what they felt, either about religion or about politics; in at least one country, our internet was heavily censored, and the only US news we could access was CNN… no Facebook, no New York Times, no CaringBridge, no Google, no Cheetahmama. We take our freedom of speech for granted. In some countries, 5 year old children hawked postcards or dragged a plastic bottle as a toy or dug through the trash for food. Ten year old girls carried their 2 year old siblings on their hips. Really, how fortunate we are to live in a country that functions well enough under a rule of law, where we are reasonably free to pursue our interests and ideas, where we have the freedom to express ourselves, and where we can be enlightened by education.
Ironically, civilization today faces the same issues that have plagued many civilizations across the last 2000 years, from the Nabataeans to the Moche to the Rapa Nui to the Khmer to the Moguls, and they offer us cautionary tales. Defeat through war. Human-caused environmental devastation. Climate and geologic disasters leading to the destruction of water and food supplies. Decimation by plagues of disease.
Most of these civilizations spent enormous funds and energy in the name of the dead and the hope of an afterlife: pyramids, giant statues, golden Buddhas, intricate carvings, stone inlay, columns, temples, jewelry, pottery. On the one hand, a civilization’s choice as to how it spends its wealth defines its culture… likely, they had their own musical instruments, their own painting, their own dances as well, though lost to time. On the other hand, I wonder if their cultures could have lasted longer if they had spent their community resources otherwise. What monuments are we building today that are preceding us into a downfall?
The successful assimilation of peoples of other cultures and religions has clearly led to greater prosperity, and failed attempts have led to war. If other cultures have been able to do it, how hard is it to create a free-enough society that both celebrates cultural diversity and enables assimilation? What did they do right that we can copy?
In Australia and Samoa and on Easter Island, we were witness to the loss of biodiversity. I am sold that the world is better off with greater biodiversity, and yet I can't help wondering if we could just eliminate the mosquito—just one species of insect whose sole purpose seems to be spreading bacteria and viruses to any creature with thin skin and blood.
Against the long arc of world history, the history of the United States looks short and fragile. As one of our experts said, “300 years ago, you were all British.” Even as we also squander resources, we have a substantial advantage over these ancient cultures: we have accumulated a wealth of history and science, we know more than any of these civilizations. We are therefore better able to predict what will happen, and adjust course, if only we will pay attention.