Ishmael – Daniel Quinn (1992)

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
I first read Ishmael back in 1994, and as the book came up in discussion recently I decided to read it again. It’s an alternate view of human culture, posing that our cultural premise is broken, and will lead to disaster. Some thoughts on the book:1. Esssentially the idea that the world will soon be ‘destroyed’ is posited as a given. While certainly certain habitats/species/ecosystems are indeed being destroyed as we speak, I’m not sure that qualifies as global destruction. Change is constant, and species have gone extinct in the past without any activity by man. Man may go extinct in the future; but the world will presumably go on… however most of us would not deem that as a ‘successful’ future, so it’s worth thinking about what would constitute ‘success.’

2. I think the observation that our cultural ‘story’ or premise is that “the world belongs to man” is pretty valid, and does explain much of our activity. As there are now 6+ billion people, and probably soon to be 9 billion, it’s a necessity to consider sustainability issues in a meaningful way.

3. Quinn’s observations on the Cain & Abel story (that it was told from the point of view of the non-agriculturalists) is interesting, though I’m not quite sure what to do with it. I do think that at some point there could be a strange alliance of Christians and environmentalists taking on certain aspects of technology change.

4. A quotes/question that I found meaningful and potentially useful in making these issues clear to people: “Does being civilized mean being incapable of giving the creatures around you a little space in which to live?” Changing minds is sometimes a slow business, but at special times there can be incredibly fast changes. Perhaps this is one of them…

Here is a speech by Daniel Quinn that summarizes his message.

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  • […] I found this book by James Trefil to be almost diametrically opposed to the position taken by Ishmael (see earlier post), so they make an interesting pair of reads. The subtitle is a little misleading; the book is more a declaration of the position rather than a plan or blueprint for how to ‘manage the planet.’ The position of the book is: “The global ecosystem should be managed for the benefit, broadly conceived, of human beings.” […]

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