“I am not free to think as I wish. I can only live in relation to the dead of my race. They, and my country’s soil, tell me how I should live.” These are the stirring and thought-provoking words of Maurice Barres. He was a late nineteenth century French politician, novelist and agitator who keenly felt the blood of his ancestors in his love of the Alsace-Lorraine region of north eastern France.
Of course, Barres was a deplorable anti-Semite, an intractable nationalist, an appalling bigot and is generally to be completely ignored. But, like all the most charismatic and terrifying people, he had one hell of a way with words. So, on this occasion, was he right or wrong?
In today’s global rotating sushi bar of choice and second-by-second information revolutions it seems easy to lose sight of the differences between the peoples of our planet, between you and me. I, like others, have a tendency to glance backwards into our bloodlines to find a clue as to what we’ve been getting wrong. We don’t always find what we’re looking for.
In many cases we are easily seduced by a world that was less on edge and, let’s face it, had a lot fewer people in it; in our predecessors time the planet hadn’t yet reached its carrying capacity. But just as often, we find wholesale historical ecological destruction and human tragedy that fits uncomfortably with the view we’ve constructed around our own family histories.
The opposite situation exists in our time. Some languages, traditions, rites and knowledge have already been reduced to an entry on Wikipedia and the things we talk about everyday are having real effects on real people. "I don't know what global warming is, but what I do know is that this lake is dying and we are all dying with it." So says Muhammadu Bello, a fisherman on the rapidly shrinking Lake Chad. But we do know what it is because the equal and opposite reaction of dying local cultures is awareness that they’re dying. And with that comes a chance to put it right.
Berres was partly right but not in the way he wanted to be. We are free to think as we wish but the dead of my race (or even its older members) do tell me how I should live, their worst mistakes providing the lessons required. We cannot make the same mistakes. “One planet, one experiment.”