Cultures are curious things. On one hand, culture is the liquid in which we spend our lives swimming. All of our experiences are conducted through the fluid of the culture around us, and even our hopes, dreams and ideas are colored by the intervention of our cultural backgrounds. In this way, cultures are one of the most important factors in the human experience. But culture is fluid in another way: it’s constantly flowing and shifting. If our cultures dictate how we go about living, it’s strange to realize that something so vital to our experience is always changing. The way we view the world — and our lives today — is vastly different than how people 100 years ago did. It’s even far different than how people thought of culture 20 years ago. Nothing humans create changes faster than culture.

As the emergent product of human interaction, many aspects of the human population become encoded in the culture, including religion, politics, food, art, music, language, and so on. Culture is malleable because everybody helps create it. Cultures are not codified: they arise and adapt organically. With that, it’s cultural adaptation that we’ll talk about here. One of the few dependable traits of life is that things change, constantly. The way people live, work, and play, and more basically, the way they survive, changes almost daily. As new technologies, discoveries and ideas are discovered, a healthy culture will change. A doomed culture will cling stubbornly to the practices of the past.

Herein, a contradiction: how can a culture both adapt AND remain the same? The trick is understanding a culture well enough to identify what makes it special and what makes it successful for the people living within it. After all, if cultural practices cease to provide an advantage to its adherents, they’ll not be observed, and those cultural practices will die. An understanding of culture, then, is vital to a healthy, fluid culture. We must study the way we interact; we must study why we do things the way we do. We need to understand which practices are founded in our past ignorance and which contain ancient encoded wisdom. Culture isn’t about any particular tradition: it’s about a sense of continuity with the past, and a sense of identity in the present. To increase understanding, we need to study what we do, we must determine why we do it, and we have to discuss whether it’s advantageous to preserve any particular practice.

New Orleans has an ongoing cultural debate, and though it often gets tiresome, it’s an essential debate. Too many places leave their cultural traditions to the whims of outside forces. In America, these outside forces often take the form of corporations selling goods or entertainment. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it transfers cultural power from the people practicing the culture to entities which seek to profit from it. Profit is not the function of culture.

And so we must try to balance preservation with adaptation; another analogy serves the point well, a building. Cultures have foundations, and they have structure. The structure can be changed on a whim to suit needs. Cultures across the world have been observed adapting to scarcity or plenty, attack or power. What’s important isn’t that the structure of the culture remain unchanged, but that the foundation of that culture remain in place. After all, cultures develop differently in different places for a reason. All human communities have different needs based upon their geographic and historical positions. What matters is that cultures adapt deliberately, and that the people who cherish them take an active role in shaping their course.

Culture is a collaborative effort that needs ongoing maintenance. As times change, so too must the cultures. The only way to prevent total loss of past culture is to study and understand why it came to be so. When viewed in this light, some practices may seem unnecessary, but others will turn out to be incredibly important. Who decides? The people who practice the culture. That’s why, despite struggling in virtually every area of civic life, New Orleans still sets a great example for cultural maintenance. The people of this city not only care about their culture and its direction, but they practice and develop it. By learning, practicing, and discussing, culture can move forward, and for a culture to adapt, it takes the voice of every person who swims within it.