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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Right Way to Live

I recently read several books by Daniel Quinn, notably Ishmael and the sequel My Ishmael. I found his novels both entertaining and thought provoking. Quinn has hit upon an interesting way to present his ideas about humanity through the eyes of a highly educated telepathic gorilla who wants to “save the world” and recruit people to help him with that challenge.

Admittedly Quinn’s books are not intended to leave us feeling like we are on course to peace and prosperity but instead they make a compelling case that we are indeed headed for another collapse of civilization unless we can correct the course. He challenges us to be the creative compassionate creatures we claim to be before it is too late and find a sustainable way to live in harmony with each other and the planet.

At the root of Quinn’s argument is that the agricultural revolution has been a kind of Trojan horse that appeared to be a great boon to mankind but concealed within it there was a recipe for disaster. As food shortages become more and more frequent and population continues to increase at an exponential rate the evidence that Quinn may have a valid point becomes more and more obvious.

Quinn is adamant that he is not suggesting we turn the clock back and become hunter-gatherers. What he is pointing out is that we as a species believe we have discovered the “right way to live”. But like a monkey that is held fast in a trap by his unwillingness to release the food he has in his grasp we will perish holding on to an idea that is clearly not working. If the monkey were to release the food he could easily remove his hand and go on his way. Like the monkey, we will need as a species, to release the notion that we are on the right and only course that leads to success of the species.

Nor is Quinn suggesting that we reduce the population, although his detractors have accused him of doing so. He is merely pointing out that it is not a kind compassionate world we have created [or allowed] where only 1% of the population control 40% of the wealth on a planet and where many people starve to death every day.

Also Quinn does not suggest that there is something inherently wrong with human beings as a species but sees the state of our current world civilization as simply one of many evolutionary courses that could have been taken albeit one that is headed for demise. He points out that based on the results so far there is nothing superior about human beings or we would demonstrated that wisdom long ago and be living in harmony on the planet both with nature and each other.

This disaster scenario can’t possibly be our destiny, people argue. We are too intelligent. We aren’t just animals! Unfortunately Quinn points out that there is abundant anthropological evidence to the contrary, plenty of civilizations that have just died out.

One answer to this dilemma is to just accept that these cycles are inevitable. The past certainly bears this out. But no one I know wants to accept that a huge percentage of the human species must die off so that a cycle of thousands of years can begin again from scratch. So we continue to insist that this time it will be different even though we refuse to give up the idea that we have discovered the “right way to live”.

The message of Ishmael is that there is no right way to live and that when we refuse to be willing to continually reinvent ourselves we are headed for extinction. I am taking the time to expound on this theme because I think this unwillingness to reinvent our lives when they are clearly not working is endemic in western culture on an individual basis. The more our lives become uncertain and insecure the tighter we cling to ways of being and political leaders that move us closer and closer to disaster.

Daniel Quinn tells us that we, as a culture, have bought into the idea that we have discovered and are living the “Right Way”. Could it be that the reason we are convinced that our civilization is the only possible civilization we could have created is because we as individuals want to believe that it is not necessary or desirable to continually re-invent ourselves.

Could it be that we, as individuals, are afraid to admit that we could be wrong, afraid to admit that just maybe we don’t know the right way to live? Could it be that we refuse to accept that there is no such thing as the right way to live? Could it be that we have become so intolerant of others that we are incapable of learning anything from each other and evolving?

Quinn is not trying to answer any of these questions. He leaves that to us. From his point of view this latest version of civilization has merely evolved in a way that has created a problem that, so far, we are unable to solve. It looks like we are headed for yet another contraction if civilization, this time on a worldwide scale. Quinn is obviously not one for magical thinking either. He never mentions that any interventions may be on the horizon, divine or otherwise. I think this is why his views are so often met with disfavor. In times like these it is comforting to hope that God or extra terrestrials might come and save us.

Could it be that if enough people don’t become conscious of this situation soon enough that we will, as a species, become extinct? Daniel Quinn simply gives us this possibility to consider. He is pointing to evidence. He is telling us to “wake up” before it is too late. Will history repeat itself once again? It is in our hands. Only time will tell.


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