Category Archives: Literature

Literature

Does design equal quality ?

Following the INDEX conference, I got to thinking a bit more about how the designers posited design as an unquestionable good to be used to solve the many problems of the 21st century.

But what is good design? How do you know when you’ve found it?

Well, this summer I read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and he discusses that exact question with regards to technology: What makes good technology? What is quality – not only in design and technology – but in all fields of use and application of such? And how do we come to appreciate it?

Pirsig’s book was a big “cult classic” in the 1970s, and some consider it to be the most widely read philosophy book ever. It seeks to find the answers to the questions above both in Western philosophy, represented by the logic of the motorcycle, and in Eastern mysticism, represented through the Zen Buddhism also mentioned in the title.

But today I suspect that only a few members of my generation have come across the book, and even less have been convinced by Pirsig’s style of narration.

For while I really liked some of his insights, I was frustrated by the way they’d been hidden within a 400 page auto-biographical narrative which at times confused rather than illuminated the main points around the nature of quality and the influence of technology on our lives.

So I set out to remix the book to highlight the questions of technology, quality, and design and the interrelations between them. I found an on-line version of the book and turned 400 pages into around 60, which I have gently formatted and made available in html.

I find the way we relate to technology and design fascinating, and I hope that this remix will help to show some of the ways we think and imagine technology and quality. Please have a read and add your comments.

Robert Pirsig’s critique of anthropology

In Robert Pirsig‘s book, Lila (1991), the main character – a thinly veiled author alter ego named Phædrus – tries to write a book about the influence of native American values on broad American culture. Inspired by an anthropologist colleague at the university in Montana where he used to teach, Phædrus seeks to frame the book within the field of anthropology.

Yet he is stopped in his tracks when he realizes that “the whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked in such a way that everything he had to say about Indians would be totally unacceptable.”

Phædrus imagined that the professionals’ refutation of his book would go something like this:

A thesis of this sort is colorful and interesting but it cannot be considered useful to anthropology without empirical support. Anthropology tries to be a science of man, not a collection of gossip and intuitions about man. It is not anthropology when someone with no training or experience spends one night on a reservation in a teepee full of Indians taking a hallucinogenic drug.

To pretend he has discovered something that hundreds of carefully trained methodical workers who have spent a lifetime in the field have missed, exhibits a certain ‘overconfidence’ that the discipline of anthropology tries to restrain.

It should be mentioned that such theses are not at all unusual in anthropology. In fact, during the early history of anthropology, they dominated the field. It was not until the beginning of this century, when Franz Boas and his co-workers started to ask seriously, ‘Which of this material is science and which is not?’ that speculative intuitive rubbish unsupported by any real facts was methodically weeded out of the field.

Every anthropologist at one time or another arrives at speculative theses about the cultures that he studies. It is part of the fascination that keeps him interested in the field. But every anthropologist is trained to keep these theses to himself until he is sure, from a study of actual facts and proofs, that he knows what he talking about.

Phædrus concludes that this state of affairs was brought about with the German mathematician and physicist Franz Boas’ superimposing of the criteria of the physical sciences upon cultural anthropology. In this way, Boas could show that not only were the theories of the so-called armchair anthropologists unsupported by science but that any anthropological theory was unsupported by science since it could not be proved by the rigorous methods of Boas’ own field of physics.

From this, Phædrus launches into a long critique of anthropological theory:

Patterns of culture do not operate in accordance with the laws of physics. How are you going to prove in terms of the laws of physics that a certain attitude exists within a culture? What is an attitude in terms of the laws of molecular interaction? What is a cultural value? How are you going to show scientifically that a certain culture has certain values?

You can’t.

Science has no values. Not officially. The whole field of anthropology was rigged and stacked so that nobody could prove anything of a general nature about anybody. No matter what you said, it could be shot down any time by any damn fool on the basis that it wasn’t scientific.
What theory existed was marked by bitter quarrels over differences that were not anthropological at all. They were almost never quarrels about accuracy of observation. They were quarrels about abstract meanings. It seemed almost as though the moment anyone said anything theoretical it was a signal for the commencement of an enormous dog fight over differences that could not be resolved with any amount of anthropological information.

The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages.

The result has been theoretical chaos.

Phædrus liked a description he read in a book called Theory in Anthropology by Robert Manners and David Kaplan of Brandeis University:

“Scattered throughout the anthropological litterature are a number of hunches, insights, hypotheses, and generalizations. They tend to remain scattered, inchoate, and unrelated to one another, so that they often get lost or are forgotten. The tendency has been for each generation of anthropologists to start afresh.

Theory building in cultural anthropology comes to resemble slash-and-burn agriculture where the natives return sporadically to old fields grown over by bush and slash and burn and plant for a few years.”

Phædrus could see the slash and burn everywhere he looked. Some anthropologists were saying a culture is the essence of anthropology. Some were saying there isn’t any such thing as a culture. Some were saying it’s all history, some said it’s all structure. Some said it’s all function. Some said it was all values. Some, following Boas’ scientific purity, said there were no values at all.

[…]

What many were trying to do, evidently, was get out of all these metaphysical quarrels by condemning all theory, by agreeing not to even talk about such theoretical reductionist things as what savages do in general. they restricted themselves to what their particular savages happened to do on Wednesday. That was scientifically safe all right – and scientifically useless.

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote, “The very term ‘universal’ has a negative connotation in this field because it suggests the search for broad generalization that has virtually been declared unscientific by twentieth-century academic, particularistic American anthropology.”

Phædrus guessed anthropologists thought they had kept the field ‘scientifically pure’ by this method, but the purity was so constrictive it had all but strangled the field. If you can’t generalize from data there’s nothing else you can do with it either.

A science without generalization is no science at all. Imagine someone telling Einstein, “You can’t say ‘Emc2.’ It’s too general, too reductionist. We just want the facts of physics, not all this high-flown theory.”

Cuckoo. Yet that’s what they were saying in anthropology.

Data without generalization is just gossip. And as Phædrus continued on and on that seemed to be the status of what he was reading. It filled shelf after shelf with volumes after dusty volume about this savage and that savage, but as far as he could see, anthropology, the ‘science of man,’ had had almost no guiding effect on man’s activities in this scientific century.

Whacko science. They were trying to lift themselves by the bootstraps. You can’t have Box ‘A’ contain within itself Box ‘B’, which in turn contains Box ‘A’. That’s whacko. Yet here’s a ‘science’ which contains ‘man’ which contains ‘science’ which contains ‘man’ which contains ‘science’ – on and on.

[…]

That was the problem. The whole field of cultural anthropology is a house built on intellectual quicksand. As soon as you try to build the data into anything of theoretical weight it sinks and collapses. The field that one might have expected to be one of the most useful and productive of the sciences had gone under, not because the people in it were no good, or the subject was unimportant, but because the structure of scientific principles that it tries to rest on is inadequate to support it.

Certainly, Pirsig is simplifying the whole field of anthropology a good deal, and he is not taking into account the rather immense bout of epistemological insecurity that hit the whole discipline in the post-modern 1980s, which certainly meant leaving behind the ideal of selfless objectivity.

But the post modern turn within anthropology certainly didn’t help to make the discipline better at dealing with generalizations. And here Pirsig’s points certainly strikes home – at least for me. I remember starting out with anthropology and being frustrated again and again by the lack of daring in people’s conclusions. All of the hunches and novel ideas and unexpected connections were hidden away and forgotten under masses of data.

How can we get such wild ideas to the fore? How can we get a sense of daring and intuition back into anthropology and, perhaps, give it some of that guiding effect on the 21st century which it didn’t have on the 20th?

Nothing human is alien to you.

Listen. Are you listening? You’re not listening. I am talking to those of you in this class who might be interested in writing.

Every moment of your life, you’re writing. Even in your dreams you’re writing. When you walk the halls in this school you meet various people and you write furiously in your head. There’s the principal. You have to make a decision, a greeting decision. Will you nod? Will you smile? Will you say, Good morning, Mr. Baumel? or will you simply say, Hi? You see someone you dislike . Furious writing again in your head. Decision to be made. Turn your head away? Stare as you pass? Nod? Hiss a Hi? See someone you like and you say, Hi, in a warm melting way, a Hi that conjures up splash of oars, soaring violins, eyes shining in the moonlight.

There are so many different ways of saying Hi. Hiss it, trill it, bark it, sing it, bellow it. laugh it, cough it. A simple stroll in the hallway calls for paragraphs, sentences in your head, decisions galore.

I’ll do this as a male because women, for me, still remain the great mystery. I could tell you stories. Are you listening? There’s a girl in this school that you’ve fallen in love with. You know she’s broken up with someone else so the field is clear. You’d like to go out with her.

Oh, the writing now sizzles in your head. You might be one of those cool characters who could saunter up to Helen of Troy and ask her what she’s doing after the siege, that you know a nice lamb-and-ouzo place in the ruins of Ilium. The cool character, the charmer, doesn’t have to prepare much of a script. The rest of us are writing.

You call her to see if she’ll go out with you on Saturday night. You’re nervous. Rejection will lead you to the edge of the cliff, the overdose.

You tell her, on the phone, you’re in her physics class.

She says, doubtfully, Oh, yeah.

You ask if she’s busy Saturday night.

She’s busy. She has something planned, but you suspect she’s lying. A girl cannot admit she has nothing to do on Saturday night. It would be un-American. She has to out on the act. God, what would the world say?

You, writing in your head, ask about the following Saturday night and all the other Saturdays stretching into infinity. You’ll settle for anything, you poor little schmuck, anything as long as you can see her before you start collecting Social Security.

She plays her little game, tells you call her again next week and she’ll see. Yeah, she’ll see.

She sits at home on Saturday night watching TV with her mother and Aunt Edna, who never shuts up.

You sit home Saturday night with your mother and father , who never say anything. You go to bed and dream that next week, oh, God, next week, she might say yes and if she does you have it all planned, that cute little Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue with the red and white checked tablecloth and the Chianti bottles holding those dripping white candles.

Dreaming, wishing, planning: it’s all writing, but the difference between you and the man on the street is that you’re looking at it, friends, getting it set in your head, realizing the significance of the insignificant, getting it on paper.

You might be in the throes of love or grief but you are ruthless in observation. You are your material. you are writers and one thing is certain: no matter what happens on Saturday night, or any other night, you’ll never be bored again. Never. Nothing human is alien to you.

Hold you applause and pass up your home work.

Mr. McCourt, you’re lucky. You had that miserable childhood so you have something to write about. What are we gonna write about? All we do is get born, go to school, go on vacation, go to college, fall in love or something, graduate and go into some kind of profession, get married, have the two point three kids you’re always talking about, send the kids to school, get divorced like fifty percent of the population, get fat, get the first heart attack, retire, die.

Jonathan, that is the most miserable scenario of American life I’ve heard in a high school classroom. But you’ve supplied the ingredients for the great American novel. You’ve encapsulated the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

They said I must be joking.

From Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” (2005)

Summer books

Summer time to me means time to read books. The kind of fun, fascinating books that my studies don’t always include. And I’ve read a fair few books this summer, presented here in chronological order as I’ve read them:

Robert M Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
I liked this. There is just so much interesting insight in this book. But I thought that there were too many themes going on all at once, and the actual points on zen and motorcycle maintenance were drowned out by metaphysical considerations. I’d like to remix parts of the book and make a long essay that contains those points in a more clear cut fashion.

Charlie Stross: The Atrocity Archives
A guilty pleasure. It’s not really a very good book. But as a fast-paced science fiction horror story, it’s good fun. Recommended for anyone who can’t resist the prospect of fictional dimension-hopping Cthulhu-worshipping nazis.

Bill Bryson: The life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid
This is the first I’ve read by Bill Bryson, but it’s actually really funny. Some of his observations about growing up in 1950s America illuminate the mindset of the baby boomer generation quite cleverly, and it’s an easy, friendly, good-humoured read which will remind you of all those long summers you spent doing absolutely nothing as a kid.

David Graeber: Towards an Anthropology of Value
A serious exploration of the concept of value. I really liked the first, theoretical half which does well to define value and explore its role in various societies, and, having just read “Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, those points seemed even more relevant. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is a tour de force of ethnographic presentations which do not build on the first chapters as well as I had hoped, and rather appeared as separate essays thrown in, but without following the exact same project that was hinted at initially.

Stieg Larsson: Mænd, der hader kvinder
This was recommended to me by my mother, since one the characters is a hacker. But there is very, very little hacking in it. Most of all, it is a fairly typical crime fiction novel where the main characters appear to be unable to do wrong, and if they do. They are simply victims of deliberately unfortunate circumstances.

Eric von Hippel: Democratizing Innovation
This was a fairly short book. And having done fieldwork in open source communities, I knew much of what von Hippel is talking about already. But it is good book to read to get an idea of how to present user-based innovation to others in various businesses. Which hopefully will be relevant to me in my job hunt.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow sun
Beautifully written, and well told story of Biafra. Slightly too long, I think, but perhaps it feels that because of all of the suffering which unfolds in the later chapters. People don’t seem to stay happy for long. Adichie seems to be channeling the stories, feelings and memories of her whole family, and because of this, it becomes a very earnest and alive description of African life. If you plan to read it, make sure to get hold of an African cook book to try out some of the West African dishes mentioned in the book, such as Chin Chin, Jollof rice and much more.

Frank McCourt: Teacher Man
A high school teacher’s memoirs of 30 years as a teacher in New York high schools. A personal, witty and very, very well-written book. With some bits of interesting insight on teaching. For instance:

In all my years at Stuyvesant only one parent, a mother, asked if her son was enjoying school. I said yes. He seemed to be enjoying himself. She smiled, stood up, said, Thank you, and left. One parent in all those years.

That’s all the books so far. I suspect people will note the absence of Harry Potter on this list, but I don’t really like the Harry Potter books. I suspect it’s because I grew up reading the books which inspired J.K. Rowling, such as The Wizard of Earth Sea, Narnia, and Lord of the Rings, and when I read the first Harry Potter book, I just found it slightly shallow and unimaginative compared to those, older books. I’ve seen little to change my mind since, despite my brother and sister continuing to rave about the books.

Kurt Vonnegut R.I.P.

I just saw today that Kurt Vonnegut, writer and misunderstood anthropologist has passed away, aged 84.

So it goes.

(as a lot of obituaries no doubt will be saying referring to Vonnegut’s own writings)

I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve read from Vonnegut’s pen, both sharply sarcastic and quietly wise. If you haven’t done so, I would recommend you read a bit of it now to commemorate. If you’re around Copenhagen and interested in borrowing a Vonnegut book, let me know.

Afghan kites

My friend Marie-Louise left for Afghanistan recently to spend a little over four months there working for a development NGO called DACAAR. I helped her set up a blog which she has named Eyes Out There for her to tell the world about her travels.

Since I won’t be going to Afghanistan any time soon, I settled for the next thing (well, apart from actually going out meeting Afghanis), and read the Kite Runner by Khaled Husseini.

It is a heart-breaking novel in more ways than one, and last night, I found myself unable to put it down, reading the last 250 pages in one sitting. The story has strong allegorical traits describing not only the story of two boys growing up and growing apart, but also a country being torn apart first from the outside and then from the inside – in a way much like the protagonists it portrays.

Not only does the book teach a lot of wondrous details about Afghanistan and the way of life and some of the reasons behind the differences in that torn country, but it also manages to combine it with a lot of heart and humanity. I found the end to be somewhat predictable, but given the nature of Husseini’s topic, clichés seem inescapable as he calmly acknowledges:

I always thought that cliches got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on. But the aptness of the cliched saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliche.

And indeed, much of the plot of the book seems to be based on the story of Rostam and Sohrab from the ancient Persian book of Kings, the Shahnameh. I suppose that it is true that these days, all of the great stories have already been told, and all stories easily look like variations on the same theme of the human condition. But as long as they’re as well written and earnest as this one, I for one won’t mind.

Fiction and gender

Two British literature experts have been conducting a study comparing the favourite fiction books of men and women. Many of the interviewed had some professional connection to literature.

Apparently, they were much surprised by their findings which showed that men preferred angsty existentialist books while women preferred books of passionate struggle. The top 5 lists of each gender were as follows:

Men’s favourites:
(note: Marquez and Tolkien are in joint fourth place)

1. Albert Camus ?? The Outsider
2. J.D. Salinger ?? Catcher in the Rye
3. Kurt Vonnegut ?? Slaughterhouse Five
4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez ?? One Hundred Years of Solitude
J.R.R. Tolkien ?? The Hobbit
5. Joseph Heller ?? Catch 22

Women’s favourites:
1.Charlotte Bronte ?? Jane Eyre
2.Emily Bronte ?? Wuthering Heights
3. Margaret Atwood ?? The Handmaid??s Tale
4.George Eliot ?? Middlemarch
5.Jane Austen ?? Pride and Prejudice
Toni Morrison ?? Beloved

What I notice is not so much the theme of these books but rather the simple fact that men prefer books with a male protagonist while women prefer books with a female protagonist.

Big surprise.

My guess is that people prefer books with a protagonist and situations that they easily can relate to. That this is now proved as be gender stereotypical shouldn’t really surprise anybody.

The new tower of Babel

Having been ill for a couple of days this week has left me completely zonked. This resulted in a rather bizarre case of insomnia which brought me through Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 last night. Uh, Spoiler alert!

Babel-17 reminds me a lot of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Both books use the idea of languages that function as programming languages on the human mind – both supposedly heavily inspired by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Also, both books share the annoying trait of having main characters who simply can do no wrong. The protagonist of “Babel-17”, the galaxy-renowned poet, linguist, cryptographer, space captain extraordinaire Rydra Wong is at 26 able to routinely translate stuff into Basque and a dozen other languages, shoot bad guys and reprogram herself with the mental programming language code-named Babel-17.

The central character of “Snow Crash” is called Hiro Protagonist (har, har) and is a master computer hacker, greatest swordsman on the planet, one of the inventors of the current instance of the internet as well as being suave and cool.

It’s just too much. Much better are the other characters, the curious young skater girl Y.T. in “Snow Crash” and Rydra Wong’s crew in “Babel-17” who all seem much more human and worthwhile compared to the demi-godly abilities and attitudes of the protagonists.

Anyway, the central idea of a symbolically precise language focused on exact expression of statements is obviously inspired from computer programming languages which also have been linked to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis from time to time.

There are thousands of computer programming languages – some of which have been used for almost 50 years and have as organic and vital a history of use as most living languages. Some people do think of these plentiful ways of interacting with the computer as a new tower of Babel – it would indeed be true Science Fiction if they managed to combine that into something biological that would “run” on people.

I guess most anthropologists have given up hope of finding those secret underlying patterns that shape the common human life experience. That was actually the main goal of most anthropologists up until and including the structuralists. Nowadays, I guess we feel lucky if we touch upon something that may have wider application than just those narrow fields of study that we have submerged ourselves in independently of each other.

Game Game

I guess it was just a matter of time before the growing field of ludology began using games themselves as a way to explore its boundaries.

Finnish ludologist Aki Järvinen has made a game about games which he obviously had to call Game Game. He says that it is the same kind of meta-referential use of its own medium as in Scott McCloud’s famed Understanding Comics (which I incidentally can only recommend).

I wish that more people would see the rhetorical and educational potential in these new forms of media. It is obvious to use the comic book format to show the limits and poetics of the comic book, but it isn’t until you see stylistic experiments such as Matt Madden’s that that potential is realized.

I’d like to use some of these methods as a way to explain philosophical concepts. How would you produce philosophy or social theory in other forms than text? Could you make philosophy-on-film or on self-help tapes? I fondly remember how the old Danish children’s science program on Danish TV, called Vitek explained Einstein’s theory of relativity by using the “people conveyor belts” at the airport.

(by alternately putting the camera on or off one belt, and the presenter on the other, how can you tell whether it is the camera or the presenter that is moving – and relative to what? It is a wonderfully visual way to illustrate a difficult concept)

It reminds me of Fight Club where the narrator finds a bunch of educational articles about body parts and organs in Reader’s Digest, all written in the first person:

“I am Joe’s Lungs. Without me, Joe could
not take in oxygen to feed his red
blood cells.”

Later on, the narrator uses this form to express states of mind and ideas – submerging his ego in a statement such as “I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.”

Could you make films with philosophical concepts as the main characters? “I am Jack’s Kierkegaardian Anxiety“? “I am Jacks Heideggerian Being-in-the-world“?

Probably not – or at least not in any ordinary sense of making film. But maybe you could do it through video games, comic books or cartoons which offer markedly different ways in which you can be visual and engaging.

I am reminded of Timothy Asch’s anthropological film “Ax Fight” which is basically the same short fight seen three times. First, as it were. With lots of shouting and incomprehensible stuff going on for the un-initiated. Second with interpretation, stopping up and explaining the scene with kinship digrams, hierarchies and motivations. Third, the entire scene again, now interpreted and “making sense” to the viewer.

One of my old pet projects was to make a film (or a text) like that as an experiment of anthropological style. 99 different ways to interpret the same scene. All depending on what you wanted to focus on. Is it kinship? Economy? Religion? Inter-tribal relations? Or gender roles? Are you going for the structuralist view or the functionalist angle? Or the ethnoscientific or the evolutionist?

Combining these would easily offer such a broad variety of interpretations that it would probably be slightly disheartening for the aspiring anthropologist. But much closer to the actual nature of anthropological work, all the same.

Gorilla Thinking

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.