We tend to look to the “great ones” for wisdom about how to face particularly challenging situations. From changing diapers to favorite recipes to schooling systems to health care. We usually don’t know what to do when the world requires us to think afresh about what we want. The world shifts, the old system doesn’t work as well, and we go to the “great ones,” who we usually look for in the “great places,” large mountain peaks in a very small group of places. Global destinations.
What if the wisdom you needed was already in your own back yard? What if you didn’t need to travel great distances to get advice that you then would have to customize to your own context? For example, what worked for an educational system in Europe 100 years ago, or in a political system in Greece 2,400 years ago, or in an agricultural system in Egypt 5,100 years ago, or in an existing banking system in Bangladesh, or in a family down the street, will not work in the exact same way for you, here, with me.
My colleagues and I are finding that people everywhere are figuring out new ways to do things, within a very similar context to our own, every day. They have figured it out. They are local “great ones.” They are everywhere.
UCLA professor Jared Diamond has observed a similar phenomenon across the globe, which he describes in his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? “Traditional societies are far more diverse in many of their cultural practices than are modern industrial societies…Yet psychologists base most of their generalizations about human nature on studies of our own narrow and atypical slice of human diversity…Traditional societies in effect represent thousands of natural experiments in how to construct a human society. They have come up with thousands of solutions to human problems, solutions different from those adopted by our own..socities…Perhaps we could benefit by selectively adopting some of those traditional practices…[While] we should also not go to the opposite extreme of romaniticizing..traditional practices..we can consider ourselves blessed to have discarded…[they] may not only suggest to use some better living practices, but may also help us appreciate some advantages of our own society that we take for granted” (8-9).
There is much to learn from the wisdom all around us, if only we could find it, understand it, and integrate it. That is what the Global Initiative to map the social topography of human agreements is attempting to do: to help you see where the wisdom is in your own community, the local peaks.