A Lost Tribe Weighs In

Jay turned onto Eastbound I40 and headed out of Albuquerque through Tijeras canyon. He enjoyed the drive through Tijeras, Edgewood, and past Moriarty, but somewhere between Tucumcari and Santa Rosa, the lyrics about losing the only person who apparently mattered to the singer, no longer sufficed to keep Jay’s mind alert enough to safely remain behind the wheel.

He had just pulled off the highway for a rest break when he remembered that Richard had given him a CD, with the remark that it would be bound to keep him awake through Oklahoma and beyond. Not that he considered Richard’s taste in CD’s likely to be the same as his own, but anything that gave him a break from Country Western music and his own thoughts would be welcome.

Opening the case, he was surprised to see that the disk was not a commercially produced CD and in fact—according to Richard’s hand-written label—it appeared to be more of a lecture than a concert.

Well, if it was anything like Richard’s rants, sleep would not be possible as long as it was playing. He slipped the disk out of its case, popped it into the CD player, and then pulled back onto the highway.

A subdued murmuring—as in a concert hall before the conductor walks out onto the stage—filled the car. After a few moments, this was replaced by silence. Then a man’s voice, expressing a surprisingly quarrelsome tone for the start of a lecture, came out of the speakers.

A: “I don’t see what’s so special about the Kogi. They’re just a primitive tribe that has been sidelined by time.”
After an unhurried pause, a second, more humorous sounding voice responded.

B: “Lots of things are special about the Kogi.”

A: “Name one significant characteristic of the Kogi that makes their so-called ‘warning’ more than a footnote to the ecological alarms that Western environmentalists have been sounding for decades. And what research do the Kogi have to back up their pronouncements?”

B: “Let’s look at that. The Kogi live on a mountain more than four miles high which is a microcosm of the entire planet. This mountain has a foot print smaller than Rhode Island but within its borders all the climates and elevations of the entire planet are represented. The Kogi are at least as qualified to read the litmus strip of our planet’s condition as any medical specialist is qualified to diagnose their patient’s health. There are no seasons on the equator, but the rapid rise from the coast to an elevation of four miles transforms the Kogi’s world from the tropics of Columbian coastal jungle to the snow-capped heights of their mountain top. Compressed within those 27 horizontal miles is the steep vertical world that the Kogi have inhabited for at least six centuries. When they noticed that their mountain’s snowcap is shrinking, that their high meadows are drying out for lack of rain, and that the rivers which used to flow into the sea now bottom out into stagnant coastal pools choked with mine tailings, the Kogi became unique witnesses to the fundamental degradation that has descended upon our planet. They have no need to create charts of annual rainfall and seasonal temperatures, any more than a farmer needs to call in experts to know that his crops are failing.

The Kogi live on the land in the way that Native Americans lived on the land–at one with Mother Earth—before Europeans arrived on their shores. The difference between other Native Americans and the Kogi is that the Kogi found a way to retreat beyond the reach of their “younger Brother’s” encroachments and his careless wounding of our Mother in the name of technological progress. Another difference is that they are so utterly disinterested in our modern world that they are immune to its seductions. They have reached out to us now because the evidence has become irrefutable: our actions are causing great harm to the Mother whom they are sworn to protect.”

A: “That all sounds like just one thing, namely that the effects of global climate change have shown up in the Kogi’s microcosm, just as they have worldwide. That is hardly surprising, is it? It merely adds further evidence to add alongside the fact that there are fewer polar bears and Monarch butterflies, that average temperatures are rising, and that glaciers are shrinking in Tibet and at the poles. The entire scientific community, except for a handful of pretend scientists on the payroll of oil companies, agrees that the world’s climate is changing and that human activity is almost certainly a contributing cause. I don’t dispute the Kogi’s alarm. But why assign some special status, some oracular inside-scoop about changing climate to a tiny tribe in Central America who don’t have any tradition of scientific research and whose way of life has been frozen for centuries? The fact that an isolated native community corroborates the global evidence that has been apparent to any thinking person for decades certainly provides a useful footnote to the conclusions of western science. I don’t doubt their integrity or the kind of knowledge that those who live in harmony with the natural world possess, but how is that going to help us fix our global problems? To fix global problems, we need the power and reach of science.”

B: “Ah, science. Yes, science certainly has many virtues. It gives us methods for exploring our ideas about the planet, for testing hypotheses, and for deducing laws about how things work. There is no doubt that science has expanded our knowledge about the cosmos and given us many impressive tools that have the potential to improve the conditions of life.”

A: “Tools? Excuse me? You can’t just admit that life has improved because of technology and through the understanding that science has given us?”

B: “You could ask the same question about religion. In fact let me ask you. Do you think that religions have improved the quality of life on our planet?”

A: “Please! Scientists don’t blow themselves up in markets. Scientists don’t tell people that the world arose a few thousand years ago and has not evolved since. It wasn’t scientists who robbed and dispossessed the original inhabitants of the Americas—including your Kogi. Scientists inquire into the way things are. Religious fanatics launch inquisitions. No scientist has ever tortured someone because they didn’t genuflect to the local fear-rooted belief system. And it wasn’t a scientist who arrived in the new world and promptly stole it from the people who already lived here—like the conquistadors who drove the Kogi into their mountain hideaway.”

B: “I’ll take that as a vote for science over religion. And I’m inclined to agree with you. However let me follow-up on your assertion that scientists inquire, while religious bigots conduct inquisitions. I agree that the Christian Inquisition was not only brutal, cruel and ignorant, but that it had no respect for the power of open inquiry to enrich human knowledge. However that does not prove that scientific inquiry does not also have its own limitations.”

A: “Do tell me. I’m all ears.”

B: “Science examines the objective world and reports its findings to the investigator who is asking the questions. But science seems incapable of looking at the subjective assumptions of the scientist. In other words, while science produces a lot of facts and comes to a lot of conclusions that can enrich the body of knowledge available to us, it has nothing to say about the one who is investigating or about how that knowledge will be used. This issue is serious enough simply on the level of morality (such as should we make nuclear weapons, and should we arm the rebels, the junta, or neither with the weapons of mass destruction that science and technology have provided?). But there is a deeper ramification to the fact that science has nothing to say about the one who is asking the questions. In our modern, technological society, time is accelerating, space is crowded with too many objects, and “knowledge” has been corralled into data base feedlots, or copyrighted for sale on the open market. The capacity of knowledge to enrich our understanding of life on Planet Earth is an incidental side-effect at best.

Science is unable to question the nature of time and rarely explores how our minds know. Its view of space has evolved in the past century, but still falls short of investigating the relationship between space and the objects of interest that space allows.

Science is not free of responsibility for our modern world–in which there is never enough time, space is cluttered with things that constantly, unnecessarily replace earlier versions of themselves, and problems abound that are so complex that only experts can try to solve them. This sets in motion a vicious cycle: where solutions inevitably spawn more complex problems.”

A: “I had no idea you were so hostile to scientific progress. Are you really suggesting that we should turn our back on the capacity of science to solve problems and to explore the nature of phenomena?”

B: “No. I am not suggesting that. I am suggesting that we pause long enough to recognize that important decisions are being made in panic. After the robber barons of Goldman Sacks took down the economy, who was asked to fix the situation? A top executive of Goldman Sacks! The short term effects of GMO’s have never been independently investigated, let alone their long term effects on people and the land. Many people assume that the FDA would never approve them if they were not safe. But who runs the FDA–the Federal agency charged with keeping the food supply safe? The lawyers and executives of Manger Corp–the very corporation responsible for the massive introduction of Genetically Modified foods into the American diet– control the FDA. Science can certainly contribute to building a better world, but it is most definitely not technology that will remedy the effects of too much technology. In fact the panicky application of technology is the main tool used in our society’s efforts to solve problems that were caused by previous applications of technology. We are always in a panic because technology does not leave time or room for ordinary human beings to consider where and when technology might be a useful tool.”

A: “I don’t think we’ll solve this issue today. But before I leave, let me ask again. What do you think the Kogi can do about the global disasters that seem to be increasing across the planet? What can a small group of people who have deliberately isolated themselves within their non-scientific society possibly teach the rest of us?”

B: “The Kogi may live in isolation from the madly accelerating, technology-driven society of our modern world, but they have not isolated themselves from Earth as a living organism–as our modern society has. Their knowledge of what is happening to our planet is direct and intimate. It also exemplifies a kind of science that is concerned with human actions viewed together with their consequences. They may not have a medical degree like the doctor who keeps upping the dose of a drug he believes can cure the patient’s illness–but which is actually weakening the patient’s ability to cure himself.

Whose knowledge is more scientific: the doctor who hardly knows the patient, or the caregiver who spends every hour with that patient? When you add to their intimate understanding of the Earth the Kogi’s belief that they are caring for their own mother, then they may indeed possess a deeper understanding of what is being lost than the knowledge accessible to purely scientific inquiry.”

The CD ended soon after that but for the next 100 miles Jay continued to think about what he had heard. Even after he had pulled into the parking lot outside his condo, had done a load of laundry and glanced with distaste at the Manger Corp papers he needed to discuss at a staff meeting the next morning, circular arguments about technology and life on Planet Earth kept chasing their own tails around and around, until finally—as much to quiet the anxiety he seemed unable to quell about his job, his sister’s family, and his own future—he logged onto the internet and Googled “Kogi Columbia” and for the next two hours read about the Kogi tribe, their mountain, Sierra Nevada, in Columbia, and their vision of themselves as “Elder Brother” trying to warn “Younger Brother” that his mining operations and clear-cutting of forests are stabbing deep into the heart of Mother Earth. “Et tu, my young child?” cried out loud and clear from what he read.

Jay finished by watching a documentary film, “Aluna”–on Netflix streaming–about the Kogi’s first excursion off their mountain in 600 years. He watched in amazement at the footage of the Kogi pilgrimage, undertaken to heal the land and to give a last chance message to “Younger Brother”. They laid hundreds of miles of gold thread, manufactured in England, along a coast that was visibly ravaged by stagnant slag-clogged pools from mining operations; a coastline which a generation ago had sparkled with clear streams tumbling down to the sea.

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