Dontcha Wish YOUR Culture Was This “Natural?”

I came across this interview with photographer Jimmy Nelson recently.  It’s such a great example of a non-violent war that I had to share…

In the article, Mr. Nelson says lots of pretty things about living simply and “naturally,” but I noticed some serious confusion in his worldview.

First, here are some of his quotes which probably appeal to many of us:

-“These tribes are some of the world’s last traditional cultures… If [they disappear] the world will go upside-down, because these tribes give us the balance of culture, of knowledge, and of the world’s last natural environments…”

– “[The children] are all fed by the breast. They feed them until they’re 4 or 5 years old… It builds their whole immune system. And there’s no structure to it. It’s just when they’re hungry, they eat. There’s none of this, “They should eat, they shouldn’t eat, it’s now bedtime, we’re going to have to wean them off.”  …they’re never left alone. If the parents are working, the other brothers and sisters carry the babies. They’re always sleeping between the parents, or the brothers and sisters, and from when the day begins, they’re attached to another human being.”

– “I think we dissociate ourselves too much from our children. In the tribes, there isn’t really a separation of child and adult, or old person, or teenager. The children are as important as the old people, but they have different strengths and weaknesses. Everybody works together as a community, as a unit, because you need each other to function and survive.” 

You probably know a parent who shares these philosophies about “natural parenting.” So, I want to clarify, I don’t necessarily have a problem with the Attachment Style, per se.

I only want to point out that our use of terms like “roots” and “natural” aren’t really as clear-cut as we like to believe.  And, if we’re not careful, we could end up with a very big bias against our own culture–much like Jimmy Nelson has.

Despite Mr. Nelson’s claim that he just wants to preserve the beauty of tribal communities, there’s a downside to his hearty praise for everything the bushmen do. The more he talks, the more he reveals his hatred for what industrialized cultures represent.  (You know? The societies that invented his camera?)

Just read this fairly harsh jab at Western culture:

[Edward Curtis] spent 30 years traveling around America, photographing the last Indians. Everybody laughed at him. Everybody said, “This is a waste of time. These people are dirty. They’re covered in leather, and they’ve got feathers in their hair, and they sing silly songs. It’s far more important we get rid of them, or they get rid of their cultures, and we move on.” One hundred years later, look at America. In my opinion, it’s one of the most culturally impoverished and socially sick places on the planet. They all have the biggest cars, but also the biggest bellies and the biggest guns. That, I would argue, is because they’ve lost their cultural roots. Who am I? Where am I from?      


I think Mr. Nelson is taking advantage of the fact that American culture does NOT condone scalping people for saying untrue/offensive things. Since we believe in free speech and individuality, most Americans will allow him to be as misinformed about our history as he wants to be…

However, I find it pretty obnoxious that he can only see the beauty of the people in his pictures–at the expense of the people whose technology and education allows him to be a photographer in the first place.

Have the bushmen ever produced a generation of kids that gets to study other cultures?

Uh, no.

Do the bushmen even stand the chance of learning to read? Flying around the world? To participate in an interview or write a blog about how “impoverished” and “socially sick” the Americans are?

No, no, and nope.

In fact, Mr. Nelson admits, they won’t even survive unless they’re born “fit” enough.

It’s thanks to western progress–and, yes, wealth–that a sickly or disabled person in our country also has a reasonable opportunity to learn, travel, and contribute with us. Westerners get a shot at enjoying life with a loved one that tribal Africans would have to watch die.

Isn’t that something?!

Again, I don’t mean there’s nothing to learn from indigenous people.  I can appreciate the warnings against materialism and the goal of reconnecting with neighbors, etc. etc.

But all the talk about physical contact all day long–thinking of nothing except what to eat for dinner–and then sleeping in a big pile with friends and strangers alike, and I just can’t help thinking: “That’s because they don’t have any other options!!!!” 

I know I’m not supposed to say “our way of life is better,” but going out to a restaurant and then cuddling under an electric blanket certainly isn’t worse.

These tribes aren’t living “naturally” because they know these deep secrets we’ve since forgotten.  They hold their babies all day and eat/sleep/bathe together, because there’s nothing else to do!

And this becomes a problem when we believe we need to make our own culture look more like theirs.

See, what most liberally-educated people like Mr. Nelson mean by “natural” isn’t always clear and consistent… The word doesn’t strictly mean “the way things are done in nature,” because sometimes Nature does things we don’t like.

What Nelson means by “natural” is just another way to say “anything I find good,” which also usually means “the opposite of how we do it in the West.” 

Do you enjoy cars and sports and Twinkies?

That’s not natural.

Do you make use of all four bedrooms in your home by giving Baby her own?

Then you really need to try cuddling with Bob and Betty on a dirt floor.

Does your culture give structure to children–setting goals and delivering consequences when they cross the lines?

Then, you probably should let them sleep with their boy/girlfriend instead…    Oh, wait, if you didn’t read the original article, this is the quote I’m referencing:

now with three [teenaged] children, we all still sleep in the same bed. We’ve got two mattresses together. My two eldest daughters have boyfriends, so when the boyfriends visit, they go to their own room. If there are no girlfriends or boyfriends, we all sleep in the same bed…”

Yes, you read that correctly.  They have a separate bedroom for their teens to use only if they are having sex with their boyfriends.  The rest of the time, they sleep with Mom and Dad.

Of course, somebody like me wonders, “Why not sleep with your teenaged daughters and their boyfriends all together?”

Then, maybe someone from another country can come take pictures of the family orgy, to show that it’s “natural” and “beautiful?”


Anyway, this type of moral confusion is precisely why we can’t compare different cultures based solely on “closeness to nature.”  We can’t decide whether a people group is doing things right/wrong on their amount of material possessions alone.

(And, despite what Mr. Nelson seems to believe, even if a child rides around on a parent’s back their entire lives, they’re still not having all of their needs met.)

There are pros and cons to all living styles, but every society needs the Gospel. 

Interestingly, there are a few areas that the Bible warns our “natural” instincts or tendencies are NOT good for us.  So, we have to be careful before praising everything that’s done by a tribal community, just because they don’t have “big bellies and big guns.”

We must, must have a standard for good, healthy living, other than subconsciously believing we need to do whatever people who live in huts are doing.

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