(Reading time: 3 - 6 minutes)
Ishmael book cover

Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael is certainly the best selling environmental novel of all time. Over the last 20 years, it has blown hundreds of thousands of minds by presenting an exceedingly important story — a believable explanation of how modern society became so deranged and destructive. It provides us with a believable explanation of the last 10,000 years, an era when much of humankind got lost and confused, and strayed far from our ancient path of harmony. This story is a safe and effective treatment for painful and highly contagious historical ignorance. Many readers experience a flood of bliss upon discovering that they are not alone with their unconventional ideas. “Hey! I’m not crazy!” That’s always a great thrill.

Quinn spent 13 years tweaking and polishing Ishmael, and it is beautifully easy to read, unlike history books, which tend to stimulate soaring daydreams or snoring naps. Indeed, historians could not have written this story, because their field of study is chained to large, heavy, exceedingly irrational dogma: the Myth of Progress. Quinn drives over this wacky myth with a tank. Well, not a tank, but a highly intelligent talking gorilla named Ishmael.

The Myth of Progress is so deeply rooted that genuine rational analysis simply bounces off of it and rolls away. It seems to be bulletproof. But it is possible to slay pathological myths, and the most powerful tool is passionate creativity — imagination, visioning, storytelling. We have zero trust in human experts, but we’re perfectly willing to carefully listen to provocative lessons from an imaginary talking gorilla.

In the novel, Ishmael is interested in saving the world, so he seeks to find human students. If he can change the way humans think, then there will be hope for tomorrow. The book revolves around the process of illuminating one of his students — a series of lessons and discussions.

In a nutshell, humankind arrived at a fork in the road with the emergence of domestication and civilization. Those who wisely remained on the traditional, sustainable path are called Leavers, and those who plunged headlong into the cesspool of weird new ideas are called Takers. The Takers have now conquered most of the world, only a few Leavers remain. Takers have exploded in numbers, destroyed everything they could touch, disemboweled the Earth’s ecosystems, and have put us in the fast lane to catastrophe.

Readers with open hearts and minds are likely to find Ishmael’s vision of reality to be far more coherent than the vision of reality taught by families, friends, schools, churches, and the mass media — the brainwashing civilized mindset that Ishmael refers to as Mother Culture. Mother Culture is like our shadow, following us everywhere, constantly feeding Taker memes into our thinking. Thus, most of us live in the Taker mindset, like fish live in water. The idea of questioning it never occurs, because it seems to be totally “normal.” Our society has been entranced by a malevolent spell, and this is never fun.

Thankfully, Ishmael does not serve us magical thinking or false hope. He never suggests that the Technology Fairy will rescue us via astonishing miraculous inventions. We’re not going to be able to shop our way out of this mess by buying solar panels, electric cars, and other unsustainable industrial products.

Our only hope is to change minds. But, is this enough? “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all.” Before you can address behaviors, you must first address beliefs and values. Is it possible that changing minds can succeed in bringing humankind back into balance with the living planet? Well, it’s as “improbable as hell but not unimaginable” — the BS-free bottom line. Since we have nothing to lose, and nothing better to do with our lives, it’s worth a try. Nothing is more embarrassing than self-extinction.

During Ishmael’s 20 years on the planet, environmental awareness has grown exponentially. The class of 2012 is far better informed than my class of 1970, which was tragically swept away by the consumer stampede, devoting their entire lives to mindless hoarding. Ishmael first appeared when there were five billion in the world. Now, we’re seven billion, and counting. Storm clouds are growing. The road ahead is flashing and rumbling with danger. Optimists fantasize that we’re moving closer to an amazing “tipping point,” when ever-expanding human consciousness will achieve a critical threshold, leading to a sharp shift toward enlightenment and compassion — humankind will move into a bold new era, a beautiful paradise for all living things! Skeptics have some doubts about this. So do realists.

But it now seems likely that the tipping point lies on the other side of turbulent times, and that’s OK. The path to a genuinely sustainable future must pass through the collapse of industrial civilization, because industrial civilization is the opposite of sustainable. Collapse is a necessary component of the healing process, and it will be a powerful force for changing minds. When the lights go out, we’ll remember what really matters. Huge quantities of infantile nonsense will quickly be abandoned and forgotten.

On the other side of collapse we’ll come to a crucial fork in the path. In the 10,000 year history of civilization, there have been many collapses. In almost every case, when a failed society arrived at this fork, they chose the path of repeated mistakes. It was easier. They already knew how to mine minerals, forests, soils, wildlife, and fisheries. So they regrouped, did it all over again, and suffered the same inevitable results. In the coming years, we too will arrive at this important fork of destiny. Will we chose, once again, the well-worn path of repeated mistakes? We don’t have to. It wouldn’t be wise.

Ishmael is a masterpiece. My only quibble is this: Quinn thinks that primitive agriculture is OK, and I think that it often isn’t — tilling is dangerous juju. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books that I’ve read three times. Ishmael is one of these. It’s a useful book to read and share and remember.

Quinn, Daniel, Ishmael, Bantam Books, New York, 1992.


Richard Reese lives in Eugene, Oregon. His primary interest is ecological sustainability, and helping others learn about it. He is the author of What Is Sustainable, Sustainable or Bust, and Understanding Sustainability and is currently working on a new book titled Wild, Free & Happy.  Reese' blog wildancestors.blogspot.com includes free access to reviews of more than 196 sustainability-related books by a variety of authors both contemporary and historical, plus a few dozen of his own rants. The blog is searchable by author, title, or topic.


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