The Ethics Of… Going Native

Say what you want about today’s modern world, but there’s no denying that it’s pretty hectic. With a globalised economy, instant communications, information overload, higher and higher education standards and more complex jobs to match, sometimes it hardly seems worth it. Sure we live longer and have more stuff, but what’s the point if we’re constantly stressed, overworked and struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of society? And keep up you must! Slack off for even a moment and you’ll be overtaken by everyone else who kept their nose to the grindstone, and generally bought themselves success at the cost of their happiness.

Wouldn’t it just be easier if we could go back to our roots? Drop off the grid, move to a forest and live off the land like people are meant to do? Or maybe travel to some remote monastery or ashram to learn wisdom long-forgotten by the modern consumerist world? Wouldn’t it be great just to get away and leave it all behind?

It’s a fantasy I’m sure most of us have indulged in from time to time, especially when the daily grind gets a bit too much. Drop everything, quit work, pack a bag and just take off… somewhere. Where exactly we’d abandon civilization for depends a lot on what each of us finds appealing – maybe an Alaskan log cabin, maybe an Indian Ashram, maybe Pacific Island or maybe some Kung Fu school in deepest China – but the essential point remains the same: somewhere where life is simpler, easier and more real.

It’s no coincidence that this exact theme is one of our most popular tropes in entertainment. Dances with Wolves is perhaps the most well-known example, where a civilized white man finds true happiness with a noble native American tribe and their deep connection to the land. More recent films like The Last Samurai and Avatar are basically the same story in a different setting – civilized man who should have it all, is taught by a wise group of indigenous people that real happiness can only be found when you abandon civilization and go back to nature. Sure these sort of films tend to get sneered at a bit for being unoriginal, but the fact that this same simple story is so consistently popular just shows how strongly we like it.

The trend is also strong in non-fiction as well, with hundreds of adventurers detailing how they abandoned the confines of modern life and rediscovered their humanity out in the wilds. Two of the most popular examples in recent years have been Eat, Pray, Love where a recent divorcee seeks happiness in India and Indonesia, and Into The Wild where a young guy meets a tragic end after adventuring into the Alaskan wilderness. Both books sold a ton of copies and spawned hit movies as millions of us shelled out our hard earned cash to imagine just what it would be like if we followed suit, abandoned so-called civilization and risking it all to pursue the sort of truths that only those who live close to the earth can know.

And some of us did! Following these inspiring examples, thousands of us escape every year to seek out wise indigenous peoples to learn from such as Australian Aboriginals, native Americans, African tribal groups, Chinese monks and Indian mystics. Others seek happiness by pitting themselves against the elements, following Chris McCandless’ example and moving to some of the harshest places in the world to pit themselves against the elements. And for those that can’t make such a dramatic break with society, there’s the hundreds of thousands of books, courses, retreats and seminars available that can give you a taste of these experiences and wisdom… for a small fee of course.

You get what you pay for, buddy.

What a wonderful thing it is that, in our breakneck, consumerist, dog-eat-dog modern world that causes so much suffering for so many, there are these outlets for the human spirit that allow us to escape, refuel and rediscover what is truly important.

Too bad they’re all such a colossal load of shit then, hey?

Ok, ok, so perhaps ‘colossal load of shit’ isn’t exactly the sort of precise language you’d expect from an ethicist, but sometime the rude words are also the most accurate words, and this is very much the case right here.

‘But where is all this animosity coming from?’ some of you might be wondering. After all this is the same blog that places the pursuit of truth above pretty much everything else in life, so how on earth could I be opposed to people looking to ancient traditions and the wilderness itself for precisely those truths? And for those that know me and the absurd number of mountains I’ve flung myself at, criticising someone for going back to the wilderness must appear the rankest sort of hypocrisy. Clearly then, I need to clarify a couple of things:

Am I opposed to exercise?

Very much no, and the wilderness is one of the greatest places to get a workout. Furthermore I agree that such treks can be a great way to relax, unwind and reflect, and can in turn help us learn about ourselves. As I suggested just now, such adventures have been a big part of my development to date.

Am I opposed to the study of culture and/or indigenous knowledge?

Definitely not. History is the context of modern society, and when it comes to ethics, context is king. If we are going to learn how best to live and treat each other, then we must understand our history and how we got to where we are now. Indigenous culture is a big part of that history, and a very worthy topic of study.

Right then… so what’s the problem here?

The problem here is that incredibly fine line between ‘is’ and ‘should’, or to be more clear, the point where ‘this is something that I find valuable’ turns into ‘this is something that is right’.

We’ve all seen it happen. Someone we know hits a rough patch, and rather than power through it, drops everything, floats around aimlessly for a bit, comes across an appealing new idea and latches on to it with a zealotry that it truly terrifying to behold. Maybe someone went through a nasty divorce, discovers a fancy new exercise program and suddenly turns into a frenzied gym-nut who exclusively eats one specific brand of protein powder. Maybe someone suffers a terrible run of bad luck and comes across some sort of New Age pseudo-science philosophy bullshit like The Secret and turns into a prophet overnight, completely committed to spreading the word of their new-found faith. Or maybe after 30 years behind a desk in a job they hate, they read Eat, Pray, Love or Into The Wild, and decide that civilization is for chumps and plunge head first into a third world country in pursuit of themselves.

And that, right there, is where things develop the potential to get damned ugly.

First of all, let’s have a look at the ‘back to nature’, Into The Wild angle of all this. Everyone has their own specific idea of what this might involve, but the essential concept is to get off the grid, abandon civilization and live off whatever patch of land you take a fancy to. The idea is that the simplicity of such a life is far better for us than the stress, depravity and slothfulness of modern life, and that by putting ourselves into the unrestrained wilderness we can truly grow through the challenge. Many also love the environmental angle of this – by cutting life down to just the bare essentials we will no longer be pillaging the earth! Great stuff, right?

Yeah, no.

Let’s talk practicalities here. Do you have any idea how many calories it takes to keep a human being alive and healthy? And how many calories you can reasonably expect to gather as part of a hunter/gatherer lifestyle? Do you even know whether it’s possible for the location you’ve chosen? Do you know if the water sources are reliable and/or safe? Are there any dangerous animals in the area, diseases in the soil, or natural hazards, and if so, how will you manage them? And should anything go wrong, how are you going to survive these problems when you’ve specifically chosen a location that’s nowhere near civilization?

Now these are all practical problems rather than issues of principle, and so they can be managed. You can research how to stay alive, what’s safe to eat, how to ensure clean water, how to protect yourself and everything else you need to survive. You can use equipment to hunt more effectively, set up a small farm to supplement your diet, dam a river for water and bring a bunch of medical equipment to keep yourself health. And you know what you’ve just done there? Created a tiny civilization. In the middle of one of the last remaining patches of wilderness humanity hadn’t already taken a dump on. You arsehole.

How’s the serenity!

But no, you’d never fall for that trap, would you? The whole point was to escape civilization and live simply, so you’d take the risk and live in harmony with nature, right? Well congratulations for truly embracing the spirit of Into The Wild! I hope it’s worth it when you inevitably die like the author did. Or get rescued by civilization, which I hope we all agree, isn’t so much ‘going back to nature’ as much as it is ‘mooching off the emergency services for the sake of your existential crisis’.

So in an effort to leave civilization and rediscover yourself in the wilderness, you’re either going to wreck the shit out of that wilderness to keep yourself alive (something civilization at least does efficiently), or you’re going to stuff around getting yourself into situations you are in no way equipped to deal with, before either dying pointlessly or desperately calling for the civilization you rejected to pull your arse out of the fire. Nice one.

Everyone who reads Into The Wild should also listen to what the locals thought about his expedition. ‘Pointless, selfish, elaborate form of suicide’ basically sums it up.

But what about the Eat, Pray, Love notion of learning the ancient wisdom of many of the world’s indigenous cultures? That at least is very practical, since many nations actively encourage tourists to visit their great cultural institutions, and many of those same institutions welcome those who wish to live and learn with them. What’s so wrong about going to another country to garner what wisdom they have to share with us?

And yeah, you’d be right – provided you can scrape together the necessary cash, there’s certainly no practical barriers stopping you from going and seeking this sort of experience. No, the problem with this sort of quest is that all its going to net you is a head full of vaguely racist bullshit.

‘Racist!’ I hear you exclaim ‘How could seeking wisdom in other cultures ever be racist? Surely it shows a deep respect that is the exact opposite of racism!’. And don’t get me wrong here, I have no doubt that anyone embarking on an Eat, Pray, Love tour is indeed doing it with the best of intentions. But let me run a few phrases by you and see if they sound familiar:

“They don’t have much, but they’re so happy!”

“They live such simple and rich lives, it’s really wonderful.”

“The culture is so fascinating and wise! They know things that we have forgotten during our progress.”

If you’ve ever known someone who did a trip to learn the great wisdom of India, south east Asia, Africa or any other developing nation then phrases like these are definitely going to ring a bell. And you know what they all have in common? They’re totally, completely, disgustingly ignorant.

If you decided to follow in the footsteps of Eat, Pray, Love and flew to Indonesia to seek wisdom, then I pity you, because while you might pick up a valuable idea here and there, there’s only one overwhelming conclusion you should come away with: this place is seriously fucked up, and really REALLY needs to change. I spent a year living and working in Indonesia and don’t even imagine this is pessimism talking here; the country as a whole is a fucking disaster on legs. More than 11 times the population of Australia on less than 15% of the landmass, widespread pollution, crippling wealth inequality, rampant corruption, unchecked looting of natural resources, the list goes on and every single part of this is obvious from the second you land in the damn plane. Even in tourist-friendly places like Bali the vice is obvious to anyone whose head isn’t firmly planted up their own arse.

So what do I expect you to do about it? Nothing! I’m not saying you shouldn’t go there (tourism is an extremely important source of income for the locals), nor am I suggesting you personally should try to fix these problems (good luck with that). But if you managed to visit Indonesia and walk away saying any of those asinine phrases up there then you either think that crippling social problems are a great idea, or else suffered a case of self-delusion so phenomenal that it staggers belief.

I seriously guarantee you that there is a person dying of an easily treatable disease within one kilometre of this scene.

But just because there are problems in these nations doesn’t mean there can’t also be wisdom, right? And sure, you’d be correct. But to be completely and brutally honest, ancient wisdom has a tendency to be precisely that: ancient. As in old. As in outdated and kind of irrelevant to modern circumstances. I plan to get stuck into quite a few of these ideologies one-by-one next month but suffice to say for the moment that while Buddhism might indeed sound like a lovely philosophy and way to live one’s life, it’s nowhere near as nice and fluffy when put into practice – and the same goes for just about every other bit of ‘wisdom’ you’ll pick up on your journeys. All of which is likely why you’ll never actually implement any of it once you come home.

‘But maybe I won’t come home! Maybe I’ll stay in this wonderful land and truly embrace the local culture that I’ve grown to love! What do you say to that Mr Cynic?’

Well I’d say enjoy crippling poverty, a pointless career, a total lack of the resources you’re used to and a premature death. Because that’s pretty much what the average citizen of the nation you’ve fallen in love with has to look forward to.

Oh wait, what’s that? You don’t actually plan on living below the poverty line in a developing nation? You’ll probably keep your original citizenship and fly back if you ever run into any serious medical, financial or security problems? Well congrats, you’re now effectively an aristocrat taking advantage of a poor nation for the sake of your lifestyle. Forgive me for saying so, but picking and choosing doesn’t sound much like ‘embracing the local culture’ to me.

“Your ability to smile in desperate poverty has touched my heart and made me truly reconsider what’s important in life… Welp, time to head back to my hotel. I’m booked in for a massage!”

(please note I’ve never met this man and he’s probably nothing like that)

But despite all these failings, do you know what’s an even bigger, principle-based problem with both these escapist fantasies? It’s not just that they’re idiotically impractical or insultingly superficial. It that they’re flat out cowardly.

Yeah you heard me, cowardly. Ask yourself a question: why is it that these escapes appeal so much? Why is it that you want to remove yourself from society and/or civilization in the first place? Because it has problems, right? It’s stressful, it’s hard, it’s unjust or you’re not getting what you want out of life. And fair enough too! Life in the modern world can indeed be all these things. But instead of confronting these problems and striving to overcome them for the benefit of everyone who they affect, what are you doing? Running, that’s what. Turning tail and fleeing into the wilderness or some poorer country, hiding from your problems under the pretense of ‘finding yourself’.

Well I’ve got some news for you bud; you’re not finding yourself out there in the wild, you’re running from yourself. It’s one thing to take some time off, or to travel to learn new things and expand your mind – these are things to be celebrated. But when the intention of your trip is to escape civilization or bury yourself so deeply in a foreign land that you manage to ignore how messed up it is, then the intention here isn’t wisdom, but simply ignorance.

You want to grow? To discover yourself and discover deep wisdom about the world? Then you have to earn it. Pit yourself against the woes of the world, dedicate yourself to understanding not what you’d like to believe, but to what is actually true. And if you find those facts distressing then good! Because it is only by confronting things we do not agree with that we can grow our minds, and it is only by challenging these problems that we can grow our character.

It is a long-standing question in philosophy; ‘What does it mean to live a good life?’ Well today I am happy to furnish you with an answer:


4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Going Native

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