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Warming Up? Why The Best New Thinkers Are From The Third World

We may be witnessing the demise of the Western idea that climate determines how we think. Could it change the very way we look at the world, and ourselves?

The world's intellectual motor is rising from the south.
The world's intellectual motor is rising from the south.
Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

BOGOTA — The British magazine Prospect recently compiled its list of the world's most influential thinkers. Notably, three of the top five are from India, one is from China and the fifth from Latin America.

It's official. The world's intellectual center has moved from Europe and the United States to what we used to call the "Third World."

The history of this denomination was never clear. In my book Si Latinoamérica gobernase el mundo (If Latin America Governed the World), I suggested that the three-part division of the world during the Cold War era was really a belated, imperial and Christian version of the ancient, Aristotelian distinction between Asia, Europe and Greece.

Aristotle would have been inspired by the Platonic explanation of the relationship between soul and body, which ties the ability to think, and to do so constantly, to climate and the region in which one lives. In this ancient psycho-geography, excessively cold or hot climates prevented their inhabitants from using reason, and made them more erratic and less efficient.

The picture of the three parts of the world — cold, temperate and hot — and its impact on people's abilities in time became the framework in which continental hierarchies and their populations took shape, both in terms of their nature and their economic, legal and political capabilities.

A new way of thinking?

But the Prospect list may be a modest symptom of a fairly significant event: the beginning of the end of a picture of the world that has been dominant for some 2,000 years, and without which religion, gepolitics, the economy, international law and the global divisions in modern science and philosophy would be inexplicable.

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Topping the Prospect list, Indian economist Amartya Sen — Photo: NIH

If this is true, we face one of the most important transformations in history. Indeed, our understanding of what it is to be human may be entering into transition.

I have invited the Pensar Institute at Bogotá"s Javeriana University, alongside our friends in Brazil, the United Kingdom, India and the U.S., to join forces in order to observe this phenomenon and consider its implications. We have called this project "Transitions."

If, as Amartya Sen has said, tolerance of the intolerable derives from fallacious reasoning rather than humanity's supposedly selfish nature, then one should examine how the fallacy itself emerged from a worldview that says only one part of humanity is equipped to reason.

What if economic inequality were also explained in terms of such selfish prejudices born from this vision? Instead of selfishness, we might reason on the basis of compassion, as suggested by Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis), the fifth person on Prospect"s list of thinkers.

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Migrant Lives

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

An orchid rehabilitation project is turning a small Mexican community into a tourist magnet — and attracting far-flung locals back to their hometown.

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

Marcos Aguilar Pérez takes care of orchids rescued from the rainforest in his backyard in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
Adriana Alcázar González

MAPASTEPEC — Sweat cascades down Candelaria Salas Gómez’s forehead as she separates the bulbs of one of the orchids she and the other members of the Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group have rescued from the rainforest. The group houses and protects over 1,000 orchids recovered from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, after powerful storms.

“When the storms and heavy rains end, we climb to the vicinity of the mountains and collect the orchids that have fallen from the trees. We bring them to Santa Rita, care for them, and build their strength to reintegrate them into the reserve later,” says Salas Gómez, 32, as she attaches an orchid to a clay base to help it recover.

Like magnets, the orchids of Santa Rita have exerted a pull on those who have migrated from the area due to lack of opportunity. After years away from home, Salas Gómez was one of those who returned, attracted by the community venture to rescue these flowers and exhibit them as a tourist attraction, which provides residents with an adequate income.

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