“The uncertainty we feel is not a curse. It is not a confusion on the road out of Eden. It is just the human condition. We are intelligent mammals, fitted by evolution — by God, if you prefer – to pursue personal ends through cooperation…
“Our lives are therefore an insoluable problem, a dynamic process in search of an indefinable goal…
“Humanity is the species forced by its basic nature to make moral choices and seek fulfillment in a changing world by any means it can devise.”
—Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life
I never really thought of myself as any sort of swine before living in Madagascar but spent much of my time there reconsidering. My work, in the southeastern Malagasy village of Tsimelahy, was to help people pursue their own life-improving goals, with sustainability and conservation of the local ecosystem as my only unalienable prerequisites. The transitional forest of Parc National Andohahela surrounds Tsimelahy’s tiny population of subsistence farmers. A ten-minute walk from the village to the closest park entrance and hiking trail made the development of income-generating ecotourism projects a no-brainer. Locals could fill an obvious niche making crafts for sale or offering snacks and meals to the tourists, generating income without over-harvesting the area’s natural resources. In theory, villagers may become even more motivated to conserve the forest since it draws visitors with cash to spare. I began working with a group of neighbor women who were open to making items such as necklaces from local seeds and other crafts to sell at the visitor’s hut at the park entrance.
That this approach seemed obvious to me but had not previously occurred to—or at least had not been enacted by—my Malagasy neighbors got me thinking about the fundamental cultural and societal differences implied. Simply by growing up in America, I have absorbed basic small business principles and the capitalist ideals they are based on. This is not something I have ever considered central to my identity. If anything, people who knew me at home would say I had anti-capitalist, tree-hugger leanings, and I would have agreed. But compared with a village full of people living in an actual collective culture, I might as well be the lovechild of Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan. Realizing this, I became very uncomfortable with the possibility that touting my capitalist ways might negatively impact the village’s community structure. Yet no one hesitated to tell me immediately upon my arrival in Tsimelahy what they wanted most: my bike, my camera, my lotion, my clothes. My food, my alarm clock, my pens. My stuff. All of it. It would have been pretty hypocritical to stand there in my Chacos telling them materialism is bad and that we should focus on more lofty goals, like planting trees.
A few years ago, a friend of mine traveled to Cuba with her mother, and they returned to the States affectionately referring to each other as “capitalist pigs.” Castro probably did not intend his anti-American propaganda as a term of endearment. But most of my neighbors in Madagascar thought my most redeeming quality was that I came from a place with material things, I had material things, and they thought I would give them material things. My family and friends in America, on the other hand, thought it was noble of me to forego material comforts while living in rural Madagascar. If I could bottle and sell this irony, the proceeds could feed the villagers of Tsimelahy for decades. But only a capitalist pig would come up with that idea.
In a country where (according to World Bank estimates) more than two-thirds of the population lives on less than US$1.00 per day, it is tempting to try just about anything to make things better in Madagascar. But would it be unethical to cooperate with the materialistic goals of the people in my village, suspecting the result might be a breakdown in the communal values that help them survive? Is it even possible to introduce capitalist, individualist principles such as those related to small business income generation into a collective culture without destroying it from the inside out? By teaching capitalist behaviors, do I endorse the disintegration of a communal culture in favor of an individualistic one? Is there a way for any crushingly poor country to develop without significant changes in its culture and social structure? Is individualism actually bad? Is collectivism actually good? Does it hold people back or does it hold together desperate communities with no other choices? Can it support alternate avenues for development? Why did I think I was capable of tackling such monumental work and questions? Who am I, and where is the nearest hole I can crawl into to hide?
One blistering February afternoon in Tsimelahy, it was too hot to torture myself with questions and confusion any longer. I sat hiding from the sun on the concrete floor of my wood-frame house, doors flung wide to invite in any hint of a breeze, and started playing Solitaire to help my mind clear. Before I finished the first hand, ten of the village kids had crept into my house and arranged themselves around me in a circle. They poked each other’s protruding ribs, giggling and whispering not to disturb me. When I finished my game, one of the ringleaders grinned and announced that they all wanted to play, too. So I taught them Go Fish.