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Usha Alexander
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Thanks for your post, Justin. Indeed, we moderns, most of us, have no concept at all of how much knowledge has been lost about the natural world along with peoples and lifeways that were more essentially integrated with it. Some who do have an inkling, and wish to profit from it, are rapidly trying to gather dying knowledge of local pharmacologies from rain forest tribes and others, but even that is just the tip of what in most cases is or once was an incredible naturalistic lore, which allowed a culture to survive. No modern urbanite (I daresay, not even your average botanist) could begin to do what ancients in Melanesia did with the banana, or in the Americas with maize, beginning with recognizing in their wild states their potential as sources of abundant food. Tracking and hunting game without guns, navigating the seas for thousands of miles without instruments, pairing dietary proteins, detoxifying tubers for consumption, people somehow recognized and solved countless such puzzles only by knowing their environments with an intimacy that is almost beyond our ability to imagine. If you ever have the opportunity to witness a premodern people thriving in their environment—even a group that's in the process of assimilation, but still retains some bulk of its knowledge—you may find that some of the things they're able to do can appear almost like magic to those of us who don't know what they know and can't see what they see. Why would anyone imagine that a people would happily give this up, at least so long as they have a viable group and land? And how could we ask them to? "Really, it’s no contest, and many of the Amazonians I know, especially of the younger generation, are eager to immerse themselves in Western society." —Yes, no doubt, these are the ones who would be most likely to introduce themselves to Mr. Terborgh. But do they represent their collective society? And do they really have an informed understanding of what is at stake, what costs will be incurred in the transition? No such group has ever been assimilated without wastage and poverty, nor has any nomadic group ever voluntarily settled down; at best, whole generations are lost to substance abuse, depression, and other kinds of social decay.