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Reflections on Ishmael

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  • Richard Reese
    I just finished reading Daniel Quinn’s *Ishmael* this morning, for the third or fourth time. Prior to my first reading, in 1994, I had already learned a
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 3, 2011
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      I just finished reading Daniel Quinn’s *Ishmael* this morning, for the third
      or fourth time. Prior to my first reading, in 1994, I had already learned a
      good deal about the problems of agriculture and civilization, so
      *Ishmael*didn’t make my head explode.
      But when you’re wandering far out on the wild frontier, and thinking far
      outside the box, it’s reassuring to discover others on the same path. “Hey!
      I’m not crazy!” That’s always a thrill.

      Every time I read the book, I’m impressed by the depth of Quinn’s knowledge
      and thinking. It’s jam-packed with descriptions of many serious problems,
      yet it succeeds at remaining an inspiring piece of work. He doesn’t serve
      us a complete collection of solutions, but he points us in the right
      direction, and describes the powerful monsters that we must confront and
      overcome. It’s sort of like the course outline for Save the World 101.

      *Ishmael* is over 20 years old now. Quinn finished it in 1990. In 1991, it
      won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship. It was published in 1992. Amazon.com
      ranks the sales of every book it carries — over three million titles now. I’ve
      been tracking the rankings for *Ishmael* over the years. It was #616 in
      2002, #663 in 2007, and #1,507 in 2011 (rankings are updated daily, and
      these numbers are U.S. only). It is a tremendously successful book. I
      suspect that it might be the world’s best-selling book on environmental
      issues, if *Silent Spring* doesn’t hold that honor.

      In 1994, I was on a quest to find the elusive silver bullet solution to the
      Earth Crisis. The problems were obvious, and so were the solutions, but
      humankind seemed not to care at all, and things were continuously getting
      worse. This was insane! I imagined that a brilliant remedy lie buried
      beneath a rock somewhere, and if I searched hard enough, I’d find it — the
      Holy Grail.

      *Ishmael* did not give me what I wanted, because what I wanted did not
      exist. In fact, the solution was far more complicated than simply buying
      “green” products, demanding government action, or rounding up and punishing
      eco-villains. The solution involved inspiring almost all of humankind to
      make radical changes in the way they think, breed, eat, work, travel,
      communicate, dress, and so on. It’s not a trivial undertaking, by any

      Quinn wrestled with this predicament for 13 years, as the process of
      creating *Ishmael* meandered through its various versions, in search of
      strength and coherence. Thankfully, he does not serve us magical thinking
      or false hope. He never suggests that the Technology Fairy will rescue us
      via astonishing miraculous inventions.

      Our only hope is to change minds. But, is this enough? “Of course it’s
      not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all.” Before
      you can address behaviors, you must first address beliefs and values. Is it
      possible that changing minds can succeed in bringing humankind back into
      balance with the living planet? Well, it’s as “improbable as hell but not
      unimaginable” — the BS-free bottom line. Since we have nothing to lose, and
      nothing better to do with our lives, it’s worth a try. Nothing is more
      embarrassing than self-extinction.

      During *Ishmael’s* 20 years on the planet, environmental awareness has grown
      exponentially. The class of 2011 is far better informed than my class of
      1970, which was tragically swept away by the consumer stampede, devoting
      their entire lives to mindless hoarding. *Ishmael* first appeared when
      there were five billion in the world. Now, we’re months away from seven
      billion. Storm clouds are growing. The road ahead is flashing and rumbling
      with danger. Many believe that we’re gradually moving closer to the
      mythical “tipping point,” when ever-expanding human consciousness will make
      a sharp shift toward enlightenment and compassion, humankind will move into
      a bold new era, a beautiful paradise for all living things!

      But it now seems likely that the tipping point lies on the other side of
      turbulent times, and that’s OK. Seven billion people simply can’t fit into
      paradise, even if we switch to LED lights, ride bicycles, and feast on tofu
      and bean sprouts three times a day. The path to a genuinely sustainable
      future must pass through the collapse of industrial civilization. There are
      no clever ways to sneak around this troublesome obstacle. Collapse is a
      necessary component of the healing process, and it will be a powerful force
      for changing minds. When the lights go out, we’ll remember what really
      matters. We’ll quickly develop a profound hunger to become intimately aware
      of the place where we live, and the edible opportunities that it offers.

      On the other side of collapse we’ll come to a crucial fork in the path. In
      the 10,000 year history of civilization, there have been many collapses. In
      almost every case, when a failed society arrived at this fork, they chose
      the path of repeated mistakes. It was easier. They already knew how to
      mine minerals, forests, soils, wildlife, and fisheries. So they regrouped,
      did it all over again, and suffered the same inevitable results. Their
      primary objective was to die of old age. The generations yet-to-be-born
      were on their own, to thrive or perish by the power of their wits. Good
      luck to ye!

      In the coming years, we too will arrive at this important fork of
      destiny. Will
      we chose, once again, the well-worn path of repeated mistakes? We don’t
      have to. Many of us now understand why that would be really dumb. Heck, it
      might actually be fun to try the other path for a change. Our descendants
      would be so grateful if we took bold steps and freed them from the dreaded
      Quinn exhibits great admiration for the few surviving tribes who continue to
      walk on the path of sustainability: “They’re not seething with discontent
      and rebellion, not incessantly wrangling over what should be allowed and
      what forbidden, not forever accusing each other of not living the right way,
      not living in terror of each other, not going crazy because their lives seem
      empty and pointless, not having to stupefy themselves with drugs to get
      through the days, not inventing a new religion every week to give them
      something to hold on to, not forever searching for something to do or
      something to believe in that will make their lives worth living.” Imagine
      Take care,
      What Is Sustainable www.wildancestors.blogspot.com

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