Ishmael – Part I
Yesterday’s Earth Day post drew some interesting comments and left a burning question in my mind. If “going green” isn’t enough to slow the global climate change and stave off apocalypse, what can we do?
I want to tell you about a novel I read recently. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, explains why human beings are such poor stewards of our planet. We have destroyed our world because we believe ourselves to be gods. We change our surroundings to suit us and we kill anything that gets in our way.
Quinn is a radical Neo-Tribalist, and he lays out the philosophy and the reasons for Neo-Tribalism in a Socratic dialogue between a telepathic gorilla and a man. Neo-Tribalism is a theory based on the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the “Noble Savage” guy) and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (the god of structural anthropology), among others. The idea is that modern culture will result in annihilation of the human race. Overpopulation and abuse of resources, coupled with the idea that mankind has a right to use up the planet as it sees fit is what modern man does, and is it not sustainable. We will survive only if as a species we return to a hunter-gatherer existence, living in harmony with the planet and the other species on it.
Quinn’s novel Ishmael contains more than ecological philosophy, though. It is a dialogue between man and ape. It is social philosophy. It is religion. It is profound. It shifts paradigms. It moves the cheese. This book has changed lives.
The human protagonist in Ishmael responds to a newspaper ad: “Teacher Seeks Pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in Person.” When he applies for the pupil position, the man must grapple with the surreal discovery that the teacher is a telepathic silver-back gorilla who calls himself Ishmael.
Finally, in answer to Ishmael’s question of why he seeks a teacher, the man admits that he wants to understand “how things came to be this way.” The man feels that something is wrong with the world, that there is a Great Lie being told, but he can neither identify what is wrong nor identify the lie.
Ishmael begins teaching the man about his own species and his own cultural biases. First, the man must understand that many of the things he believes to be true are part of a mythology. The most important myth to recognize is the myth that the world was made for Man to do with as he pleases.
Ishmael divides mankind generally into two groups: Takers and Leavers. Takers are those who take from the world and from the other creatures around them. Takers take all they want, which is more than what they need. They believe the myth that the world exists for their kind, and they brook no argument otherwise. We are Takers.
Leavers are the people we call primitive. They do not farm, they do not take more from the world than they need to survive. They are hunters and gatherers. Very few Leavers continue to exist, because the Takers plant the Myth wherever they go and convert the Leavers to Takers.
Once the man understands that the notion that humans are the pinnacle of creation is a myth, he is better equipped to understand “how things came to be this way.”The great lie is that man can do as he pleases to change the earth. The lie is based on the myth.
Ishmael’s student comes to understand that Man, in his guise of Taker, is the only creature on the planet to believe the myth and the lie. Other species compete within the ecosystem; man changes the ecosystem to suit himself without regard to the consequences for other creatures or even, ultimately, for himself. Leavers and the rest of the species on the planet compete for survival, but they do not “wage war” against the planet or other species to do so. Takers wage constant war against the earth and against the species Takers perceive to be competition. The competition may be the way a river flows, the existence of an insect, or plants Takers consider to be weeds in their gardens.
To live sustainably, Quinn argues, “you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food.” By killing our competition (the pests that invade our crops, the wolves that hunt our sheep, the swamps where we want to build our cities, the Leavers whose way of life is alien to ours) we Takers wage war against the world.
Think about this. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about this amazing book and its philosophy.
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