Category Archives: Human futures

The Decline of Rural and Small-Town America and its Social Implications

Photo credit: Creative Commons Zero–CCO

Last fall I spent several weeks in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where I had lived for more than three decades prior to my relocation to a new job in Santa Fe four years ago.  Berkshire County is the farthest west and most rural county of Massachusetts.  For New Yorkers and Bostonians, the Berkshires are known for their fields, forests, and outstanding cultural amenities, including the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, the Clark Art Institute and Williams College in Williamstown, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

These are all wealthy, world-class institutions, yet under the glitz lies a darker reality.  As a recent article in the Boston Globe points out, poverty in Berkshire County has risen by nearly a third since 2000.  The median age is rising as younger people leave for places with better job prospects, meaning that the population will continue to be older and sicker and poorer in the coming years.  I caught a glimpse of this in a visit to Berkshire Mall in Lanesboro, the only major shopping center within 30 miles of Williamstown.  Having been away for awhile, I was shocked by the mall’s post-apocalyptic vibe now that most of its anchor stores have packed up and left.  The county’s economic decline helps to explain why the value of the house that my wife and I still own in Williamstown has declined by as much as 20 percent in the past five years.

To some extent the hollowing out of a place that I love has been under way for decades.  In common with many once-prosperous smaller towns and villages in the northeast, the factories began to close nearly a century ago, a process that accelerated in the middle of the twentieth century.  In the Berkshires, manufacturers of textiles, shoes, furniture, plastics, and electronics moved south, then offshore.  Despite this change, in the 1980s and 90s, real estate prices rose dramatically.  The Great Recession put a stop to that, and the economic arc has trended down ever since.


Journalists and to a lesser extent social scientists have now begun to take notice of this situation and assess its implications.   (For examples, see this and this.)   What caught the eye of many of them was the impact that rural and small-town voters had on the election of Donald Trump in 2016.  According to the Washington Post, rural counties favored Trump by 26 points, whereas urban ones voted for Hillary Clinton by a 32 point margin.  (Berkshire County was an exception to that pattern, favoring Clinton 67.5% to 27%, a majority consistent with Massachusetts as a whole.)

So far, I haven’t seen much ethnography focused on dying towns and rural areas.  Notable exceptions include Christina Walley’s Exit Zero (which documents the travail of a deindustrializing urban neighborhood rather than a rural one) and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s much celebrated Strangers in Their Own Land.  Reaching back to a time before the current political kerfuffle are books like Katie Stewart’s memorable A Space on the Side of the Road (1996).  There are doubtless other insightful works with which I’m not familiar.  Still, it’s hard not to get the sense that most ethnographers prefer to embed with embattled urban minorities—African Americans, Latinos, heroin addicts, LGBTQ youth—rather than with alienated and often angry white people hunkered down in blighted communities.  There is little question, though, that their sense of economic and social abandonment is a major factor in our nation’s current political malaise.  People who feel that they have nothing to lose aren’t likely to put much stock in the niceties of civil debate and dignified leadership.


For an upbeat view of a small American town that has managed to maintain its vitality despite the social and economic headwinds, don’t miss Larissa MacFarquhar’s article on Orange City, Iowa (“Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On,” published in the New Yorker in November 2017).  As MacFarquhar points out, Orange City is about as politically conservative a place as one can find in the US, yet it doesn’t seem to have embraced the bonkers anti-government and anti-immigrant ideology that has gained traction in other parts of the country.  Therein lies a ray of hope.


Addendum, 2/19/2018.  Just happened upon a new book by sociologist Robert Wuthnow that addresses the sense of abandonment that afflicts much of rural America.  Wuthnow is one of the most prolific and reliably insightful sociologists of America working today.  A book not to be missed for anyone interested in this issue.

An Amazonian religion in New Mexico’s high desert

udv-psicodelico
Image from https://vimeo.com/66879503

Back in the early 1990s, when I was doing fieldwork for a book that eventually became The Channeling Zone, I was invited to an ayahuasca healing session in Santa Fe.   I had seen enough ayahuasca consumed in northeastern Peru to think that the prospect of full-on emesis and purgation in the house of some stranger was singularly unappealing, so I decided to take a pass.

Now I have regrets, mostly because the sacramental use of ayahuasca is on the cusp of becoming a permanent part of the colorful religious landscape of northern New Mexico.  After years of litigation, it now seems likely that União do Vegetal (UDV)–or more formally, O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal–will build a temple in Arroyo Hondo, just outside Santa Fe.  UDV has thus far successfully fought a series of legal battles that have established the legality of the sacramental use of ayahuasca and prevailed against NIMBY lawsuits from neighboring property owners.  UDV claims to have other centers is the states of Colorado, California, Texas, Florida, and Washington as well as in several countries beyond Brazil, where it originated.

Aside from concerns about the legality of ayahuasca use in the US or local objections to the construction of a UDV church, the spread of this new religion raises challenging questions about whether its practices represent a harmful form of cultural appropriation.  The unauthorized use of the knowledge and cultural productions of other ethnic groups, especially indigenous ones, remains a serious problem worldwide, even if accusations of cultural appropriation sometimes descend to silliness that trivializes real injustice.   The growth in what has been called “ayahuasca tourism” in Amazonian countries has come in for its share of criticism, some of it convincing.

But it is harder to see how the global diffusion of a religion that uses ayahuasca for sacramental purposes could have a significant prejudicial effect on the Amazonian peoples whose knowledge led to the discovery of the relevant plant species and their incorporation of their visionary properties into a range of religious traditions.  There might be short-term environmental impacts if global demand for Banisteriopsis and Psychotria extracts exceed supply.  Presumably, however, practitioners of UDV are already attempting to cultivate these plants in their home countries.

It’s true that the situation contains an element of unfairness: the Amazonian creators of ayahuasca-focused spirituality derive little or no benefit from the global spread of a new religion based on their knowledge.  In some cases, the purveyors of this new religion are conspicuously wealthy.  Does this matter?  The ethics strike me as ambiguous when considered in light of the accelerating movement of images, ideas, and technologies around the globe.  Could something good come from it?  Equally hard to say.   I’d welcome a careful, non-tendentious assessment of the impact of a global religious movement that draws on Amazonian understandings.


Some relevant sources:

Controversy Brews Over Church’s Hallucinogenic Tea Ritual, “National Public Radio, April 2013.

UDV documents related to its Supreme Court case and other issues.

Brian Sheets, “Papers or Plastic: The Difficulty in Protecting Native Spiritual Identity,”  Lewis and Clark Law Review, 2013.  [Contains no direct discussion of the UDV but reviews the legal status of efforts to control the appropriation of Native American religions in the United States.   Relevant concluding passage:  “While it is difficult to try to define what constitutes appropriation from sincere religious beliefs and then try to protect Native culture from its dilution and misrepresentation, at least one thing is clear: destructive acts that bring the repute of Native culture and religion down need con- sequences. And whether that is to be formed in a court of law or public opinion, the difficulty arises from culture-clash that is still in the process of being resolved” (p. 634).


Crowd-sourcing works!  Within hours of uploading this post I heard from a number of friends from the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA, natch) who suggested additional sources.  Probably the most significant is a series of books edited by Bia Labate (Beatriz Caiuby Labate) and others, a complete list of which can be accessed at her website.  She is co-editing yet another relevant work, The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies, with Clancy Cavnar and Alex Gearin, due out in mid-2016.

With a special tip of the sombrero to Josh Homan and Glenn H. Shepard.

“Uncontacted? “Voluntarily Isolated”? “Sovereign”?

bowmanA lively debate has erupted on the listserve of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA, registered members only) and elsewhere.  It builds on long-simmering tensions involving Amazonian indigenous groups living on the border between Peru and Brazil. In press reports, these peoples are almost always referred to as “uncontacted” because they lack most items of industrial technology, change the the location of their settlements frequently (if they have stable settlements at all), and mostly avoid contact with outsiders. In a few instances they have had violent encounters with more settled indigenous peoples as well as non-indigenous outsiders.

The most recent debate was sparked by the publication of an editorial by Robert S. Walker and Kim R. Hill in the June 5, 2015 issue of Science under the title “Protecting Isolated Tribes.” It was published in association with a longer cover story addressing the same topic. Walker and Hill focus largely on the known vulnerability of such populations to Western epidemic diseases to which they presumably have had little prior exposure. The authors advocate the initiation of systematic contact focused on providing vaccinations and, when needed, appropriate medical support to protect isolated indigenous communities from the high mortality that will almost certainly afflict them when epidemics arrive.

Their editorial provoked a critical response from Stephen Corry of Survival International. Corry argues that the kind of “protection” proposed by Walker and Hill misses the point: that the risk faced by these populations is primarily the loss of territory in which they can continue their way of life. Their land and livelihood are being taken from them by the expanding Amazonian frontier, which includes miners, road-builders, loggers, and farmers. Corry feels that indigenous peoples deserve protected lands in which they can live any way that suits them. “It’s time to stand in resistance against those who just can’t abide that there are some who choose a different path to ours, who don’t subscribe to our values and who don’t make us richer unless we steal their land,” he writes.

The choice, then, comes down to humane—some would say “paternalistic”—interventionism (“Intrude in their lives to save them from catastrophic epidemics”) versus Corry’s insistence on honoring indigenous sovereignty and a people’s right to remain free and independent on their own terms.

Although the latter position has a powerful moral resonance, it is undermined by two major flaws. First, there’s little reason to believe that the lands currently occupied by such groups represent their ancestral territory. The evidence suggests that these are refuge communities that moved into zones vacated by previous indigenous occupants. Second, and more importantly, the relevant nation-states have exhibited neither the political will nor the ability to defend such communities from invasion. Is this just? Absolutely not. But I wouldn’t bet a nickel on the likelihood that Peru and Brazil will do what needs to be done to seal off these indigenous territories to protect their isolated occupants from outsiders.

The SALSA debate most recently focused on whether these populations should be called “uncontacted,”“voluntarily isolated,” or perhaps something else altogether. “Uncontacted” turns out to be improbable: they most likely have had some prior contact with outsiders, probably hostile. To call them “groups in voluntary isolation,” in contrast, suits the current push to acknowledge agency, a people’s ability to make their own decisions, however constrained by circumstance. Both options strike me as having romantic undercurrents. “Uncontacted” implies that these people are the last vestiges of societies uncontaminated by capitalism, processed foods, and Sponge Bob. “Peoples in voluntary isolation” suggests that they have made a conscious choice to maintain their traditional ways and collective independence at any cost even though there are reasons to believe that these are communities on the run, however resolute and resourceful they may appear to be.

Experts with considerable knowledge of frontier realities have checked in on both sides of the debate. From my vantage in the high desert of New Mexico, I can only encourage readers to explore the issues on their own. Whether we like it or not, this is a human last-stand: resisting the final step toward a fully interconnected world.


For more on the ethical and practical dilemmas presented by uncontacted/voluntarily isolated peoples in Amazonia, listen to the podcast interview of Professor Jonathan Hill (Southern Illinois University) on BBC radio, beginning at about the 7 minute mark.  [A tip of the snap-brim fedora to Glenn H. Shepard’s blog for the BBC link.]


August 10, 2015.  See this article in the New York Times, which does a decent job of assessing the situation:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/09/opinion/sunday/do-the-amazons-last-isolated-tribes-have-a-future.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

September 21, 2015.  Indigenous groups issue a statement on this contact issue:  http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/10909

Reflections on Nick Bostrom’s Lecture, “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future?” 7 June 2015, Santa Fe

superintellAs part of a series of occasional lectures that we’re calling Dispatches from the Edge, on June 7 the School for Advanced Research sponsored a public lecture by Professor Nick Bostrom (Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, UK), “Can We Reshape Humanity’s Deep Future? Possibilities & Risks of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Human Enhancement, and Other Emerging Technologies.”  Bostrom’s talk was a snapshot of his research on existential risk, large-scale events or processes that could lead either to complete extinction of humanity or some form of “permanent stagnation.” bostrom-podium-6588

Bostrom opened his lecture with a thumbnail history of our species: our emergence as bipedal primates living in small, mobile groups of foragers; the role of the agricultural revolution in supporting larger populations and fostering the emergence of social hierarchy; beginning roughly 250 years ago, the transition to industrial economies and their acceleration of technological innovation; and finally, the digital revolution, which along with the rise of new genetic technologies makes possible (and in Bostrom’s view, inevitable), the emergence of “superintelligence,” cognitive assets that surpass those of contemporary human beings.

Although Bostrom couldn’t rule out the possibility that existential risks can arise from natural phenomena such as supervolcanos or asteroid collisions, he argued that in light of the absence of near-extinction events during the last 100,000 years, the odds of such natural catastrophes presenting a significant existential risk are low.  Far more salient, he argued, is anthropogenic risk, the possibility that our own technological activities will prove uncontrollable and ultimately lethal to humankind.

Superintelligence could conceivably emerge in human form through systematic use of enhancement technologies that would increase human IQ to levels significantly in excess of current norms.  But Bostrom leans toward machine AI as the more likely site of superintelligence, perhaps emerging as early as 2050. In this scenario, AI agents approaching human cognitive levels launch a self-perpetuating process that would quickly bring them to a point at which they could assert their own survival priorities over those of their human creators.  As the situation was described by Elon Musk in a Washington Post interview, “If there was a very deep digital superintelligence that was created that could go into rapid recursive self-improvement in a non-algorithmic way … it could reprogram itself to be smarter and iterate very quickly and do that 24 hours a day on millions of computers . . . .”

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