The Daniel Quinn Files: Ishmael (4)

We’re zooming in more on the idea of why our culture sees itself the way it does and which consequences this has. Let’s just say, we’re not jellyfish.

As our cultural story goes on, man existed but basically lived like, well, jellyfish and lions, always just hunting and gathering food, but not actually accomplishing anything. He had no control over his environment but when he figured out agriculture, it gave way to all the amazing progress we see today. There were no limitations anymore, so man was ready for technology, science, culture, mathematics, literature and so on.

Again, most people would probably find this story common and not problematic at all. It is what we think of how humans have developed. But in fact, instead it is the story of our culture. It has this idea of accomplishment, of achievement, as if the world was incomplete without man and needed him to perfect it. In many history books, this is how the story is presented, not accidentally called The Agricultural Revolution.

When Alan is asked to imagine earth without man, the world is an archaic jungle. With man on it, it became ordered, controlled, it got a purpose. So, our culture’s creation myth goes on as follows:

The world was made for man, and man was made to rule it.

Again, this clearly is a myth but even today, over 20 years after this book was published and climate change is a thing, you’d find many people not denying this at all.

Now, as man was destined to rule the world, he realized that this wasn’t so easy because for some reason, the world was unwilling to be ruled. Animals, plants, the weather, the soil – everything seemed to work against him and his purpose. So, ruling was not enough, man had to do more, he had to conquer the world.

This is our destiny, as we see it. And if you point out that things don’t look so great, so what kind of destiny might that be, people often say: “Well, that’s the price you pay for civilization. Do you want to live in the jungle again?” Which stops cold any argument you might have but only we want to believe in that story.

And how does that story end? We mastered all those incredible things, achieved great technology and progress, but we’ve using resources and destroying the planet in the course of it.

Only one thing can save us. We have to increase our mastery of the world. All this damage has come about through our conquest of the world, but we have to go on conquering it until our rule is absolute. Then, when we’re in complete control, everything will be fine. We’ll have fusion power. No pollution. We’ll turn the rain on and off. We’ll grow a bushel of wheat in a square centimeter. We’ll turn the oceans into farms. We’ll control the weather—no more hurricanes, no more tornadoes, no more droughts, no more untimely frosts. We’ll make the clouds release their water over the land instead of dumping it uselessly into the oceans. All the life processes of this planet will be where they belong—where the gods meant them to be—in our hands. And we’ll manipulate them the way a programmer manipulates a computer.

I think for a long time, this was how people saw our future. This has changed, I would say, nowadays, at least to some degree. While there is still a strong belief in being saved by control and technology, many people are more pessimistic and assume that we’ll just crash and burn eventually. But the desire to do something is still mostly not present. So, the way the story ends in Ishmael

The world was made for man to conquer and rule, and under human rule it was meant to become a paradise.

is not as prominent as it used to be. On the other hand, Ishmael notices that something is still missing from that story and this the integral part we need to update the story for our times too. Why can’t we achieve paradise, according to our cultural story? It’s not because we don’t want to but because we can’t. And why can’t we? Because there is something wrong with humans.

Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this. Man was born to turn the world into a paradise, but tragically he was born flawed. And so his paradise has always been spoiled by stupidity, greed, destructiveness, and shortsightedness.

This is where you get everyone to agree with you. Not just agree, they’ll be dumbfounded it you present this as some special insight because most people will just go d’uh! I’ve written several times about this assumption that humans are flawed because it is so essential for endless movies and songs and books, just essential for our culture. To Ishmael, and I highly agree, it is one of the most important aspects to realize about our culture if you are interested in change. Again, the reason we accept all the destruction, waste, wars, greed, inequality, violence and so on, is because we believe that human are bound to be this way. It is what makes them human. And it is not even a surprise: they looked back at what they considered to be the relevant part of human history (the last 10,000 years since the beginning of our culture) and people acting terrible all the time. They don’t look at all of human history.

But is there something fundamentally wrong with people? That never made sense to me. Ishmael explains that this is how people will automatically feel when they enact a story that makes them conquer the world until the world “will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.” They fight against the very thing they’re living on, so it can only end in the conclusion that something must be wrong with them, especially when they see themselves not as members of a culture but of the human race.

This is longer than usual but there is one more point we have to make. Making the point that in the past people of our culture often relied on prophets telling them how to live, Alan realizes that despite all the technical progress we’ve made in our culture, we are certain that we can never find out ourselves how to live. All the discussions we have on certain issues, abortion, gun control, surveillance, everyone knows that we will never find a solution for them, there will always be two sides. All those issues are about how we should live and we have accepted that we just don’t really know what’s right. Mother Culture assures us of this and insists that there is no point in even looking for this kind of knowledge. We just know it’s not there. While in every other scientific area we wouldn’t stop looking for an answer, when it comes to this, we consider the attempt already pointless.

As they discuss, maybe that’s the human flaw, according to Mother Culture, that we don’t know how to live.

Following this story for thousands of years, a story that attempts paradise but only ends in misery and destruction, it is no wonder that people get depressed and try to escape through entertainment, religion, consumption and drugs. How else can you endure living a story that guarantees an unhappy ending.

Our real flaw or mistake, is believing that this is the only story we can tell about humans. That we believe our way is the only way to live. Flawed, yes, but since there is no alternative, there is nothing to be done. Next time, we’ll join Ishmael and Alan in “crossing the border” to find another story about humans. That is the part where it gets really interesting.