When you hear the word “culture”, what pops into your mind?  Is it the image of an imposing stone museum, a trip to the theatre, or perhaps a street festival celebrating the food and music from another part of the world? Perhaps you connect culture to the history and heritage of a people – encompassing the stories, trials and tribulations that have defined that particular group over a long period of time. Do you believe that culture and religion are closely related, both fostering conscious respect for the timeless mysteries of life itself?  Does a simple natural environment – like the rolling hills of Scotland, or the mountains of Tibet – evoke an entire cultural legacy?  For many, the living culture has become increasingly urban and pluralistic (multi-cultural). Whatever your association with the word, ‘culture’ is a complex notion, with deep roots.

What are the roots of culture?  Like all roots, they are found in the earth – the natural environment.  Roots collect nutrients that nourish, while they promote growth and well being of something living.  At its most basic level, culture encompasses the many ways that human beings relate and adapt to the world in which they live – which means our work, food, relationships, passions, fears, spiritual attitudes and more.  From the dawn of humanity, much of life has been a mystery.  As people grappled with the powerful, yet unknown forces that shape weather, seasons, growth, life, death and so on, cultural expression was born to acknowledge and better relate to the forces of Nature.  Rituals, beliefs, music, art, theatre were some of the forms of cultural expression that connected people to the natural world. 

For most of human history, culture has been a local affair.  How people fed, clothed and housed themselves was primary – and this was very much a function of the local natural environment.  Not very long ago, eating foods that happened to be ‘in season’, was a central part of every culture.  But over the past several decades, urban markets and transportation technologies have made it possible for virtually all foods to be available all year round.  Gone are the days of looking forward to ‘raspberry season’, or biting into the first corn of the year.  Fresh produce now is always available – and there is really no imperative to notice, for example, that the fresh asparagus in a grocery store in Canada has traveled thousands of kilometres from where it was grown… in Peru.  Factory farming of food and other agricultural commodities, like cotton, have also taken a toll on the health and biodiversity of countless ecosystems and human communities. And while the percentage of food grown locally in most cities continues to decline, there is a fierce battle between suburban development and agricultural land – with local farmers losing out.  There is little balance in our increasingly globalized culture.

In the past, being able to use the resources at hand, as well as understanding the opportunities and threats posed by climate and local ecosystems, were essential for a community to perpetuate itself.  So too was the ability to pass along the wisdom that had been accumulated through the generations – how to stand on the shoulders of ancestors – while gaining insights into how to address the shifting needs of individuals and groups. To this end, stories, myths, images and songs helped human communities to thrive in their natural environments. But as life in industrialized societies relied every more heavily on impersonal systems of governance, travel and communication and business focused on its belief in ‘economies of scale’ and the value of ‘maximizing profit’, something odd happened to culture.  Slowly, culture became a niche within the entertainment economy. Theatres, museums, commercial radio stations and professional sport all became “cultural industries” and were subjected to similar rules and frameworks by which other businesses were governed.  And the role of human “wisdom”, which has always been closely linked to insights of older members of community as a result of their experiences, slowly began to yield to new types of specialized “expertise”.  To be fair, expertise that has emerged in all areas has provided great insights into increasingly small focuses, such as medical and scientific knowledge.  But expertise, by its nature, is not holistic.  And as human life has globalized, there is a growing need for holistic perspectives that can address the environmental and human crises that are threatening the health of the planet. 

In a world of globalized systems, human beings are taking advantage of the miraculous power that technology has provided.  A significant gap has been created though.  Our global reach is not balanced with an awareness of the far-reaching impacts of our lust for stuff – impacts on both the natural environment and on other human realities.   Human beings all now live in a globalized ‘culture of unsustainability’. You might well ask how do we foster a ‘culture of sustainability’?  Whatever the answer, it will include redeveloping a more functional and conscious relationship with the natural environment.

Pluralization and urbanization of population is the new normal.  In Toronto, Canada, there are over 140 languages and dialects spoken. Half of the city’s residents were not born in Canada.  Over 46% of Toronto’s population reported themselves as being part of a visible minority. (City of Toronto)

Although ‘industrialized countries’ have an abundance of food, 1 billion people on the planet are chronically hungry, while another 2 billion suffer from many types of malnutrition. Add in those in ‘developed’ nations who are obese, and the majority of the human race, about 4 billion out of 6.8 billion, isn't eating well. (Agriculture Online)

Loss of Languages: Number of languages in the world -- 5,000 to 10,000 – expected to be cut in half by the end of this century. (Wm Haviland, et al)

Stats + Figures


Translator: Douglas Worts (Toronto, Canada), Culture and Sustainability Specialist, WorldViews Consulting

Architecture   Cities   Consumption   Culture   Development   Energy   Finance   Food   Governance   Health  

Human Rights   Manufacturing   Population   Poverty   Tourism   Transportation   ETP Community   Translation Team

© 2010 Environmental Translation Project   |   Privacy   |   About Us   |   Contact Us

Culture + The Environment