Added 4 July 2000
WEBMASTER'S NOTE: The essay has been included here in it's entirety as given to me.
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
Since Daniel Quinn has been constantly exhorting us is in his books and essays to reach, teach and educate as many people as possible, it seemed to me that one way to accomplish this would be to package up some of his writing into an email that could be distributed over the internet. I submitted it as a suggestion to his web site, but then thought "what the hell, I'll do it myself." DQ makes his living from his books and has a slight conflict of interest - he wants people to spread his ideas but his writing is copyrighted so you can't legally just cut, paste and email it out. My intention is to provide an essay based on his ideas using my own words that isn't copyrighted and can be distributed freely. Therefore, please publish this on your web site, forward it on to other people, print it out, whatever - it's my gift to the B and Ishmael community.
Most people recognize that we have serious problems right now, such as pollution, over-population, loss of bio-diversity, urban sprawl, poverty, murder, crime, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. However, while there has been much public hand-wringing and political rhetoric, when it comes to actually understanding the ultimate origin of these problems there has been a roaring silence. You'll hear the usual hollow remedies - we must build more prisons to reduce crime, grow more food to combat hunger, more development to alleviate poverty, new government programs and laws to clean up pollution, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But didn't we DO all of those things last year, the year before that, the year before that, and haven't our politicians and leaders been promising to do even more NEXT year, the year after that, the year after that, until some glorious future when all our problems will be magically solved? Seriously, how many of you really believe that - and be honest! Haven't these problems always been with us, and don't our religions tell us that it's our fate to live lives of suffering until we obtain salvation? The subliminal message whispered in the background noise of our culture is that humanity is inherently flawed, we are poison to the Earth, we always have been and always will be.
Well, we could easily answer all of those questions but unfortunately we've forgotten the answers. This is crucial - it's not that we never knew the answers, we've forgotten the answers and we've forgotten even where to look to find the answers. In fact, it's such a stupendous piece of self-delusion that it has been called The Great Forgetting. We look at our beliefs and the way we live now and say humanity has always been this way, humanity will always be this way, this is the way it was meant to be. But guess what - it's a lie. It's not true. It's not true in so many ways it's actually laughable. I'm here to tell you that humanity has not always been this way, humanity doesn't always have to be this way, this is not the way it was meant to be.
Part of the problem is that we of this culture have a skewed sense of what is old. We look back a hundred years and think wow, that's old - we're much different now then we were back then. We look back five hundred years and think wow, that's really old - I barely recognize those people. We look back a thousand years and think my god, that's incredibly old - nothing that happened then could possibly have any relevance now. But yet it's not true - a thousand years is not actually a very long time, compared to the age of humanity. Last year Edge asked the question "What is the most important invention in the past two thousand years?" and many important people came up with some very impressive sounding answers. http://www.edge.org/documents/Invention.html Marvin Minsky said it was the foundations in chemistry, Joseph Traub said the scientific method, Colin Blakemore said the contraceptive pill, Freeman Dyson said hay, Charles Simonyi said public key encryption, V.S. Ramachandra said the place-holder 0, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. However, a geoarchaeologist named Eberhard Zangger came up with a very interesting answer: "Since the principle factors controlling people's lives today already existed 2000 years ago, the skeptic in me would intuitively vote for: nothing worth mentioning." He went on to say "If we take a stroll through a Roman town 2000 years ago — and ancient Pompeii provides a good example of a city frozen in a moment of every day life — we would find a city containing factories (including one for fish sauce), public baths, athletic stadiums, theaters, plastered roads, proper sidewalks, pubs and, inevitably, brothels — facilities for people who were, for the most part, in better physical shape than us." Think about this for a second - the people two-thousand years ago were just like us. They looked the same, had the same needs and desires, the same institutions, thought processes and guess what - the same problems too. They also had slavery, crime, pollution, war, murder, problems with government, over-population, and so on. Socrates was executed in fifth-century B.C. Athens on the trumped-up charge of "corrupting the youth", the same charge we now level against video games and popular music today.
You're probably wondering why I've dragged you back two-thousand years - to summarize, the same problems we're experiencing now have been with us for thousands of years but are much magnified now because our population is so much larger. So if we're going to find answers we need to look back further in time, starting at a time before we had these problems and then moving forward until we start to encounter them. Why? Because we don't have a hope of solving our problems until we understand how they came about in the first place. Unfortunately up until now we've been like a football official standing on the one-yard line, staring intently at the ground. We've scrutinized every square inch of ground from the one-yard line to the goal, but we've completely ignored the previous ninety-nine yards on the field. We just wave our hands dismissively and say "Oh, nothing that happened there has any relevance to me."
As I alluded to before, a couple of thousand years is not really a long time, compared with the age of humanity. Modern humans showed up over a hundred thousand years ago, and humanity's direct ancestors have been around for a million years. So here is an interesting question: Did people a hundred thousand years ago experience the same problems that we do today, and have been experiencing for the last few thousand years? The answer, as you would expect, is an emphatic No! So what happened? How did we get from there to where we are today? Well, focus your attention on the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers about ten-thousand years ago and you'll find a small group of people living in a profoundly unique way. You'll probably dimly remember from your early schooling that something important happened there, and that it had something to do with the birth of agriculture. Well, that's not quite right - agriculture with a small 'a' had been around for millennia in the form of people supplementing their diets by promoting the growth of their favorite foods. But this was Agriculture with a capital 'A' - full-time farming as a way of life. But yet it was even more than that, because those people underwent what we now call a paradigm shift - they started out in one frame of mind and ended up radically different. They don't seem different to us because we are them - their beliefs are our beliefs. If you don't believe me, here is an example. You may not agree with the following statement but I'm 100% certain that you've heard it before, and you'd agree that many, many people do believe it: "The world was meant for Man, and it's Man's duty to conquer and rule it." That one simple statement epitomizes the central pillar of our culture, and it was invented by those people living in the fertile crescent ten-thousand years ago. No-one before them believed that statement, no-one around them believed it, but they did and took it to heart, and that made all the difference.
What made their revolution Agriculture with a capital 'A' was that it was totalitarian agriculture - they believed that they were not just a member in the Community of Life but that the Community of Life served them. Any plant or animal that was useful to them was promoted and allowed to live, and plants or animals that harmed them or their food were labeled pests or weeds and were hunted down and destroyed. While many of you are probably shaking your heads in agreement, I can't stress enough that this way of thinking was different, new, unique and ... dangerous. Dangerous because it provided something never before seen - food surpluses, enormous, incredible, empowering amounts of food. Before Agriculture the amount of game a tribe could catch and the food plants it could raise limited its population - you can't create people out of thin air, you need to have food first before you can create more people. But Agriculture freed a tribe from that restraint by re-shaping land that had been home to an incredibly diverse ecology into a factory for producing one thing - human food. The more food available the more people you can create - many, many more people than could ordinarily have been supported. And so the first "modern" problem appeared - over-population. Totalitarian Agriculture is a hard, back-breaking, toilsome profession so those people ten-thousand years ago also invented the concept of work. The nine-to-five day was completely unknown before - previously the food was all around and all you had to do was reach out and catch it. But now you had one class of people toiling on the land, and a whole other group of people living off their labors. So how do you convince one group to transfer food to the others? Why, you need money and barter, which leads to jobs, products, markets, towns, cities, governments, haves and have-nots. Something else those people invented is famine - everything is fine and dandy when the rains fall and the sun shines, but how do you feed all those extra people when the rain doesn't fall and the sun doesn't shine? You don't, and they starve. What a bargain!
So, to pull the various threads together, humanity was not born a full-time agricultural, city-building people destined to subdue and rule the world. For tens of thousands of years humanity lived as yet one member of a Community of Life and lived as harmlessly as any other creature in a uniquely human lifestyle. One single culture ten-thousand years ago decided to try living in a different way, just as an experiment. Unfortunately the food surpluses generated by that experiment allowed that single culture to expand and consume nearly all other cultures until it became a single obscene global entity that is busily going about its duty of harnessing the entire biosphere for human food and needs. And it will continue on until either we eliminate so many species that the whole system collapses or people stand up and say Enough! We finally realize that we can't go on creating more food surpluses because the only result is more people. We now see that our one insane culture is not humanity and that humans have lived and a very small percentage are still living in ways that aren't poisonous or dangerous to the world. We now understand that humanity is not inherently flawed and we were not destined to a life of suffering with our only reward occurring in an after-life.
This is but one small corner of the entire mosaic that describes us - who we are, where we came from and what we desperately need. If you're still with me, know that there is more, much more than can be contained in one letter. Please, go to your library or local bookstore and find some of the books written by Daniel Quinn - Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, to learn more. His website address is:
And no, this isn't advocating that we immediately give up everything we have and are doing now. But we have to understand how we got here and the important things we're now lacking before we can come up with any meaningful solutions to our problems. In the meantime, please forward this letter to as many people as you can - our problems can only ultimately be solved by people with changed minds and a new vision.