This morning, instead of studying for my Digital Rhetorics group exam this Thursday, I read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael in a self-indulgent attempt to stop my cold.
Ishmael is a strange sort of book. Very insisting and assertive. The story is actually most of all the socratic dialogue between the main character (who also narrates the story) and a 1000 pound gorilla named Ishmael. The narrator gets in touch with the gorilla through a personals ad asking:
Teacher seeks pupil. Must have earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.
Thus the basic premise of the discussion: How to save the world – which naturally intrigued me. Ishmael, a sort of new age guru who, even though he chastises mankind for needing prophets to tell them what to do, tells the the rather dense narrator what needs to be done. But in the sort of “discover-it-for-yourself” kind of way that a proper dialogue offers.
So, I’m not happy with the form and the tone of the book, which is very much “holier than thou” (being preached to by a gorilla on the state of the planet!). But that said, some good points do emerge. Just like Jared Diamond, Ishmael argues that Western civilization and invention is based on agriculture. But he uses this point to state that Western civilisation used agriculture to initiate their obsession with growth. Constant growth, of population, of food supply, of technology.
This obsession continues today and will continue until we have complete control over every aspect of the planet and can secure our growth and dominance, or until we wreck the planet completely trying to obtain this total control.
Ishmael looks towards what we call “primitive cultures” for inspiration on how to live without a constant need for growth. He argues that if we live as if “man belongs to Earth” rather than “Earth belongs to man” – we will achieve sustainability. Of course, this will require that we to some degree accept acts of god – famines, earthquakes, locust swarms, tsunamis etc. – and accept that we cannot control our way out of these problems.
In short: we are too many people on the planet, and any attempts to keep this population alive or even let it grow, will only increase the problem.
In short, if we are to learn from primitive man, we should learn to live like him to some degree, and in order to that, we would have to accept that there’s going to be a lot fewer of us.
Relinquishing control would mean that we won’t do everything in our power to keep alive as many human beings as we can. That means giving up our Western ethics in order to accept that we cannot be all-powerful.
As Ishmael puts it. People could accept not being the centre of the universe, they could even accept having evolving from random prehistoric slime – but they won’t ever accept that they have to follow the same basic principle of life: That all life have equal rights to the planet. That all life depend on the variation of all the other species.
In short: To stop regarding mankind as the final step on the evolutionary ladder, where we in our own self-absorption have put ourselves, and accept that we are not really all that different from all the other forms of life on the planet. Only our self-centered thinking says otherwise.
It is an interesting argument, and it is one which cannot be rebutted without somehow arguing that mankind does deserve better than everybody else. That may well be the problem. Of course we feel that we deserve better. More and more growth. Even though only a fifth of the world’s population have central heating, iPods, Internet and fast food – everybody else are sure to be wanting it, too.
The global capitalist economy is based on continuous growth, based on unlimited natural resources. Resources which are obviously not unlimited. Ishmael states the problem plainly, but as so many others, he fails to bring any solutions. We need a change of consciousness, he says. But that won’t be enough. Everything about the way that we have organized ourselves, economically, culturally, socially and politically is centered on growth – you can’t change that easily. Not without a better solution than to let people starve.