Monday, May 14, 2007

My struggle with Ishmael...

I'm currently reading what one of my friends defines as a "mind fuck." They're really kind of pleasant and enjoyable when you're in it, but you sometimes have regrets when it's over and you have time to think about it. For me, that book is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.

Published in 1992, this is a book about why our society is essentially doomed in its current state. I have no problem swallowing that fact. I see it all around me. Some of the accounts that Ishmael, a talking gorilla, gives for this demise are rather interesting and sometimes harder for me to swallow than the original premise that we've screwed everything up and are going to have to work very hard to change the world if we'd like to survive. Chapter eight is an excellent example of one of the more difficult aspects of the book.

Let's talk about population growth. In the wild, when food supply increases, the population that feeds on that supply increases along with that supply. Eventually the food supply becomes exhausted and shrinks, causing famine in the population that depends on it. The population then shrinks in response. That's just the way nature works.

Humans are somewhat different, according to Ishmael, since we see ourselves as above the laws of nature. We see the earth as given to us by God and we our its kings. In order to fully reign, we must conquer. Thus, the world is our subject and we can do what we please. We are the final end, not a means to anything else. It's liberating in terms of what we are allowed to do, but eventually this paradigm of thinking will probably end up destroying us. One of the examples of why is this:

Since mankind settled and became agricultural some three thousand years ago, our population has been allowed to increase. If we have more people and outgrow our food supply, however, we don't have to get hungry. We just conquer more of the earth and make up for the famine. This is a problem because, as humans, we tend to eliminate anything that stands in our way. Nature loses in our quest for sustaining our ever-growing population. Without diversity of species, the earth is a much more fragile place. If something should occur, diversity ensures the ultimate survival of life. We're causing extinction and thus endangering our own species. It's a problem.

I'm sure I did a terrible job of explaining the situation there, but hang with me. There is a philosophical point to come. Plus, maybe my vague explanation will encourage you to read the book yourself!

It seems that there should be a solution, and there very well may be later in the book, but I can't see it. Logically, we need to find some way to limit our population or face demise according to this paradigm. Do we let the starving people starve? Do we lessen our food production in hopes of limiting human life and ultimately saving the earth? I can't see that happening. As a humanitarian, I see an inherent need for protection of human life. I could give you my proof for why, but I'll spare you. Needless to say, I don't think we can just let people die. I also don't think we can continue on our current path. I'm just stuck for now. This is why I'm into ethics and philosophy. It's practical applications may ultimately come in handy in saving the world.

No comments: