By B. Kester
In the novel Ishmael, Daniel Quinn takes his readers on a journey to de-construct the notion of civilization. Our culture is examined over the course of a lengthy dialogue between a teacher and a student. Through this discourse, it is established that our current methodology of living has set us on a path toward destroying not only our own civilization but much of the life on the planet. As products of the very construct from which this dilemma has arisen we, as individuals and society as a whole, find it nearly impossible to see the way out. The answer, according to Quinn, lies in observing nature and uncovering the laws which govern all other systems on the planet. The decision to ignore these laws has landed ‘civilized man’ in dire straits and, if we are to survive, we must learn to play by the rules on peril of extinction. In essence, we must commit to participating in the competition of the natural world while abstaining from destroying our competitors- either through outright attack or by interfering with their food source. This, the peace-keeping law, is at the core of the evolutionary process and is responsible for the longevity of our world, as well as it’s diversity and in turn it’s resilience. When we make the commitment to return to living in accordance with this law we will begin the next phase of humanity. Quinn’s vision is that humans will realize their place in evolution as being the first to evolve a higher consciousness and that, in a revised climate of supportive coexistence, others will follow- evolution will continue and humans will lead by example. Working toward this inspiring vision will replace our ongoing enactment of a faulty viewpoint which has brought us to the current situation. Ultimately, the all-important question arises: “What do I do?” This question is the crux of the message, yet receives little enough attention by Quinn in the novel. It is this question that baffles individuals on a daily basis as we are presented with a laundry list of problems and enemies that seem so much greater than ourselves. The answer? Teach others, change minds.
The Easy Way In
“How?” you might ask. The secret to the simple answer lies in the existence of this novel. Here, Quinn has put in the time to reflect and coalesce a great deal of information into an enjoyable and approachable book. Pass it on. If everyone who was touched by this book gave it to ten people, eventually the message would be far-reaching and many people of great influence might be inspired to see a way out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Similarly, if we utilize the media available to us on the Internet to spread our appreciation of Ishmael via facebook, online book reviews, etc, we can reach a great number of people with a relatively small amount of effort. There are, of course, many other equally inspired writings available to support this cause, as well.
Earn Your Colors
“What can I do right now?” Ultimately, each individual can begin by altering their participation in our cultural system. Every person that commits to living more in accordance with the peace-keeping law will assist in tilting the scales toward balance. The final goal of these efforts is to shift the cultural perception of what is desirable and practical for the success of humanity. Certainly, this is a daunting task. With this in mind, the specific actions to be taken are personal and require a good deal of self-reflection, for there are many ways to make a difference.
First, consider that the peace-keeping law implies that we should not take more than we need to survive, especially at the expense of our planetary cohabitants. The well-known waste hierarchy is a tenet well worth heeding: reduce, reuse, recycle. We can move toward living in accordance with the law which governs all of life through reducing our consumption of goods by limiting our purchases to that which we need. It would be wise to tune out advertisements in general, which seek to convince us that we must be part of the latest trend and consequently lead us to indulge in buying items that we have no true need for. If we can’t avoid advertisements, we can at least foster an air of skepticism and seek to uncover the manipulation to which we are subjected so regularly. By reusing or re-purposing products, we keep goods in circulation much longer than would otherwise be the case. Frequenting thrift stores, taking exceedingly good care of our belongings so that someone else might make use of them when we’re finished and using discarded objects as the basis for art are all options for interrupting the waste cycle. Finally, if necessary, recycling products rather than sending them to the landfill is an important contribution.
When you must buy, vote with your dollars. Living in a capitalist society, our culture is subject to the laws of supply and demand. By using each of our purchases to increase demand for products that are most supportive of the peace-keeping law and beneficial to the well-being of the planet, we are able to offer not-so-subtle encouragement to businesses to come along for the ride. There are many factors to consider when using purchasing power to voice an opinion. For instance: How much petroleum was used to make and transport this product? Am I patronizing a local establishment? Where did this product come from and how did it get here? Is this product sustainable- i.e. is it made of renewable resources or natural ingredients in a responsible and humane manner? Does this product have excessive packaging and is it recyclable? Is my food as close to it’s natural form as possible? Does all meat that I eat come from small, ecologically responsible farmers? The more we consider these types of questions before making purchases, the more informed our purchases will become. By their nature, business and industry will respond to this increased demand. As it stands right now, industry is jumping at the chance to make the claim of being ‘green’ because they know that catch phrases such as ‘green’ and ‘organic’ sell. This willingness on the part of businesses can and should be leveraged to encourage truly sound practices.
Choosing the location of your home carefully allows you to vote with your feet. When making decisions about where to live, take into account how much or how little fuel you will need to consume for every day living. For instance, consider walkability in order to minimize your petroleum dependence. Walkability refers to the ability of an individual to get most services by walking a short distance from their home. Can you walk or bike to work? Can your children walk to school? Is there a grocery store or hardware store nearby? A farmer’s market? Entertainment, parks and natural areas?
Craft Your Soap Box and Hop On Up
Defining the platform through which you can reach out to others is also a highly individual process. In Ishmael, the student is encouraged to utilize his occupation as a writer to teach a hundred people and to inspire each of them in turn to teach a hundred more and so on. This notion touches on an important principle- allowing for small efforts to multiply and gather momentum of their own accord. If we don’t allow ourselves to start small, the enormity of the situation can seem utterly stifling. So, it matters not whether you change the mind of one person through personal conversation, hundreds through your blog, thousands as a teacher or lecturer, millions as an author, or just one strategic business person as a consultant. What matters is that as many humans as possible start chiseling away at the walls of the prison with as many tools as we have at our disposal. This is the way to shift cultural perceptions and change the path upon which our civilization trods.
The Gandhi Principle
Gandhi was known for his ability to transform an adversarial relationship into friendship. He did so by forging human connections with his supposed enemies. Herein lies an important lesson- that of the ability to listen. If we can stop and listen to individuals we stand a much greater chance of understanding their point of view and in turn being able to offer up practical solutions. When people feel heard, they are much more likely to listen to what is directed at them. Instead of remaining adversaries, the opportunity for coalition is opened along with the possibility for greater change.
The Culture Connection
Early in the novel, Quinn establishes that we are all “captives of our civilization.” By this, he simply means that we are each born into, reared and programmed by the culture of our civilization. With this in mind, we are only able to draw on the information and explanations that are offered by our culture. Through careful de-construction the veils of cultural myth were lifted and the falseties upon which we have built our fortress revealed. Through this knowledge we are able to see that while our civilization’s viewpoint is not sustainable, our survival depends upon the ability to and willingness to craft an existence outside of this destructive pattern. Here we have explored some practical steps toward shifting the cultural norm in an effort to move us closer to an ecologically sound way of life. It is worth noting that these methods can also be modified to address any aspect of social inequality that we might observe: locate and distribute well-written information, make personal changes, and find the platform from which you can reach as many people as possible, inspiring them to do the same in turn. Through incremental change, individual viewpoints can be altered affecting change in the culture at large. Perhaps one day, in the near or distant future, we will find ourselves living in harmony with the natural world around us so that we might resume the fine act of evolution.
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn