How to Save the World

That’s a dramatic title for a post.  It’s what hooked me into reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure in Mind and Spirit.  The back of the book features the three-line personal ad that begins the story:  “Teacher Seeks Pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person.”  Given its serious subject matter, the book might be one of the top ten most important books on the planet.  The book isn’t so much a “how-to” book on saving the world but tries to point out what underlies our drive to destroy the world, which we’ve been doing steadily since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and which has become more intense and wide-spread since the industrial revolution.

Quinn re-interprets the core stories of Genesis while weaving in anthropological and historical analysis of “primitive” vs. “civilized” societies (or what he renames “Leavers” vs. “Takers”).   For three million years all was well with hunting and gathering until the agricultural revolution.  At this point, the Takers began to break the “law of life,” which fosters life for all:  they began to exterminate competitors, destroy competitors’ food (to make room for their own via agriculture) and deny competitors access to food.  This obsessive need to control our food supply originates in a fear of not being in control of our own destiny, of trusting in higher powers.  In breaking the laws of life, we end up co-opting the role of the gods by deciding who lives and who dies (i.e. the fruit of the tree of knowledge).

In other words, for the Takers the world belongs to man, whereas for the Leavers, man belongs to the world.

Quinn ends with an insightful observation, one that can be viewed in conservative reactions to environmentalist critique of our culture of consumption:

people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty.  They need more than a vision of doom.  They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them. (243-44)

This new (or, rather, old–i.e. Leaver) vision of the destiny of humankind involves humans being the first to reach sentience and therefore the first to learn that we have a choice:  thwart the gods and die or be Father to all future species evolving to sentience after us.  In this story, “Man’s place is to be the first without being the last.  Man’s place is to figure out how it’s possible to do that–and then to make some room for all the rest who are capable of becoming what he’s become” (243).

So Quinn strikes at the mythic roots of our war with nature and tries to re-orient our species by providing the key to breaking out of our captivity to “a civilizational system that compels us to go on destroying the world in order to live” (25).  My hope is that the Albatross contributes in some small way to the change of consciousness that Quinn’s book points toward.