Few books have left as large an imprint on Chris' general outlook on the world as has Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.
Our so called modern economy requires the equivalent of two full planets of resources to operate. Therefore, it's living on borrowed time, which means that someday, that experiment must end — as must every living arrangement that borrows too heavily from the future.
Giving that we're indoctrinated from birth that "Growth is good", how can an intelligent person grapple with this contradiction? Get ready for a discussion that upends much of the conventional programing we grew up with, and asks us: What different path should we be taking?
Daniel Quinn: Every culture has a mother culture whose function is to assure continuity, to repeat the wisdom of the culture and to see that it remains in place. In our case, our mother culture happens to be insane. So she is unique. She is constantly teaching us things that in the real world are destructive and insane.
For example, that the world was made for man and man was made to conquer and rule it, which is what mother culture teaches us. We alone have that belief and it has led us to take the world into our own hands and to put the world and ourselves at great risk because of that.
Chris Martenson: For instance, be fruitful and multiply was maybe a good idea with a few tens of millions of people on the planet, maybe not a useful idea today.
Daniel Quinn: Yes, that’s true.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Daniel Quinn (60m:05s).
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson and its November 14, 2016. Now, I want to open this dialogue with the first three sentences from my most recent book, Prosper, and it’s this. “You can feel it in your bones. The world is in crisis. You see the signs every day. They are in the overabundance of depressing news, revealed by overly stressed natural systems and telegraphed by the emotional strain exhibited by people you know.”
Those words written more than a year ago somehow seem prophetic today, but they’re not. A prophecy foresees things others cannot. I was simply extrapolating a set of trends, which is not the same thing as prophesying at all. Trend extrapolation takes no special talent at all beyond being free from a worldview or set of beliefs that might eclipse your vision. Here’s a quick example.
Our so called modern economy requires the equivalent of two full planets of resources to operate. Therefore, its living on borrowed time, which means that someday, that experiment must end, as must every living arrangement that borrows too heavily from the future. You see, there's no special sauce, no deep magic involved in that line of thought; only being free from the hope that somehow, someone will think of something that will in some way append the most basic laws of the universe.
But how can an intelligent person respond to such lines of thinking? This interview fits into the framework we’ve been exploring here that roughly centers around the idea of tribalism, which is just one way for humans to organize themselves socially. Today, we’re going to be adding enormously to that line of inquiry by talking with Daniel Quinn, the author who wrote books with such revolutionary ideas and in such a creative way that he changed the way I think. As you know, I place a very high personal value on anybody or any experience that changes the way I think.
One of Mr. Quinn’s output is the exceptional book Ishmael which was the first book of his that I read, as well as Beyond Civilization which is an extraordinary distillation of a carefully curated line of thinking. For those who have read one of his books, Mr. Quinn needs no introduction. For everyone else, Mr. Quinn had a 20-year career in educational and consumer publishing in Chicago. He served as biography and fine arts editor at the American People’s Encyclopedia, was the managing editor of the Greater Cleveland Mathematics Program and was head of the mathematics department at Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation.
Mr. Quinn is probably best known as the author of Ishmael, the novel that in 1991 won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship which was established, which was established to encourage authors to seek “creative and positive solutions to global problems.” Ishmael has been in print continuously since its publication in 1992 and has been made available in more than 25 languages. Ishmael has been and continues to be used as a text in a broad range of classes that, listen to this now, that include anthropology, ecology, history, literature, philosophy, ethics, biology and psychology at age levels from middle school through graduate level.
That broad range of subject and age appeal is the mark of an exceptional line of thinking coupled to a clear and accessible style of writing. Welcome Daniel.
Daniel Quinn: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be with you.
Chris Martenson: Well, I really have to begin by thanking you for your work, your logical thinking and for undertaking what must have been, it must have resulted in as much trouble as it did accolades, I might say. You went straight after mother culture’s central ideas, which is maybe not always, shall we say, appreciated.
Daniel Quinn: Yes, it was an incredible struggle. I was fortunate to be in a position where I was able to devote 12 years to it. Not many people would be able to do that, but I was able and I was forced to do that. I did nothing else for 12 years except work on the book that eventually became Ishmael.
Chris Martenson: Now, that 12 years, obviously you must have had your own struggles to come through and sort of to figure out how to tell this huge story, and I notice that it's interesting, I should say. You have a mathematics background, it's right there in your bio, and you’ve built a life around observing that humanity’s future is at stake. I’d like to read a sentence from Beyond Civilization that I think gets to this.
You say: “If we go on as we are, we’re not going to be around for much longer. A few decades, a century at most, if we’re still around a thousand years from now, it will be because we stopped going on as we are.” Now in my experience, a background in mathematics or some other logical pursuit and the ability to formulate such a thought as expressed in that sense are connected. Do you think they are?
Daniel Quinn: I never thought of that. What you say is true, though. Yes, I suppose, I don’t consider myself a mathematician or anything even remotely close to a mathematician, though I have been associated with it in some of my career in publishing.
Chris Martenson: To me, the connection is that there's a logicalness to all of this, where we can just say simply note how humans are using resources, note the arrangements that we’ve built around that, and there's a conclusion you can draw from that and as I said in my own work, where we do a lot of that sort of logical concluding. We find a lot of people who are doctors and lawyers and engineers and have math background, but some logical pursuit that has enabled them to add one plus one and arrive at something that looks like two.
There's a simple logic to all of this on some level, isn’t there?
Daniel Quinn: I would say so, yes. I was thinking about what we’re going to be talking about and I reached into my pile of quotes and I came across this one I thought would be appropriate to our conversation. Something I wrote a few years ago. “During the 20th century, humanity’s great enemy was nationalism, which brought us to the brink of a global nuclear holocaust. What’s taken nationalism’s place as humanity’s great enemy is unlimited and completely unscrupulous global capitalism. Global nuclear holocaust seems to have receded for all time because something like that would be bad for business and wouldn’t put money in anyone’s pocket.”
Of course, global unscrupulous capitalism is with us. It has a pretty firm hold on us.
Chris Martenson: Indeed, it does. I’ve written that down, I want to get back to that. First, I feel that I want to set the stage for anybody who hasn’t actually read your work so far. I know this is going to be too hard to encapsulate quickly, so in the spirit of setting the stage, Ishmael introduces, your book Ishmael; several key concepts get introduced in there that I think set the stage for these later understandings, including really understanding the quote you just read.
Central among those are the ideas of leavers versus takers and that of something I alluded to earlier, mother culture. Is there a way you could walk our listeners through those two concepts quickly?
Daniel Quinn: Yes, I can do that now. A funny thing happened long, long ago just after Ishmael came out. I appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show and she had first sent her people, sent a list of questions she might ask and I said of those, if she asked those questions I would be dumbfounded and would be, the thing would come to a stop.
So, I gave her a list of questions that I thought could properly be asked. When she got me on the show, the first thing she said was you write a lot about leavers and takers. Can you tell us what leavers and takers are? I was completely dumbfounded. I looked at her blankly and the conversation stopped dead in its tracks. She was so angry and it was such a disaster that when the show was over, she just walked away. She didn’t even say goodbye to me.
Anyway, now after 20 years, I can answer the question more easily. The original meaning was this. Leavers are those who leave the rule of the world in the hands of the gods. Takers are those who take the rule of the world into their own more competent hands. Those are, of course, us. We are the takers of the world.
Unfortunately, most readers have come to think of leavers and takers as good and evil. That was not at all my idea. They also have the idea that we are objective and the world is to become leavers again, and I don’t really think that’s possible or even necessary. It’s important in understanding where we came from, and the difference between us and our ancient ancestors, who were leavers and did leave the rule of the world in the hands of the gods.
Chris Martenson: So in that idea of leaving, just let me know if I’m interjecting inappropriately, but it seems that there's some humility baked into that which says that the rules of the world are so complex and have been operating for so long and have honed themselves through evolutionary processes to such a high degree that there's probably some wisdom baked into that that we have not yet fully grasped or encountered when we try and go down the taking path, which is let’s just reduce all of this. Let’s see if we can Newtoningly solve this whole thing and of course, we’re discovering all the time that maybe that’s not possible or maybe advisable.
Is there something in there around hubris versus humility for you? Not to say good versus bad or evil versus saintly, but something around that idea of certainty versus being comfortable living with uncertainty, which is the difference between hubris and humility.
Daniel Quinn: There's disconnection that in the garden of Eden, God permitted Adam and Eve fruit of every tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which is the knowledge that the gods used to rule the world. They alone know what is good for one is evil for another in every case. They alone know when it is to be good for one and when it is to be evil for another.
If the fox tries for a pheasant and catches the pheasant, and this is evil for the pheasant, but good for the fox and vice versa, this of course is very connected to leaving and taking; leaving the rule of the world in the hands of the gods who know what they’re about, know what it’s about. We will never even know; we imagine we do. The remarkable thing is we think that having this knowledge is most wonderful knowledge there is. We really have no idea why God should have prohibited it in the first place.
Chris Martenson: So, this idea then of, because you're getting at this idea of where culture is, sort of whispering to us, another central theme in Ishmael, mother culture does whisper to us so seductively that we don’t even hear it. I think is sort of a close paraphrase, maybe. I’m drawing back from many years ago.
So this idea that we’re surrounded with mother culture is just so central to the ideas that you’ve put forward. Do you have a way of explaining that concept quickly to people?
Daniel Quinn: Yes, this was; it took me most of those 12 years to come up with that very simple idea. Every culture has a mother culture whose function is to assure continuity, to repeat the wisdom of the culture and to see that it remains in place. In our case, our mother culture happens to be insane. So she is unique. She is constantly teaching us things that in the real world are destructive and insane.
For example, that the world was made for man and man was made to conquer and rule it, which is what mother culture teaches us. That we alone have that belief and it has led us to take the world into our own hands and to put the world and ourselves at great risk because of that.
Chris Martenson: For instance, be fruitful and multiply was maybe a good idea with a few tens of millions of people on the planet, maybe not a useful idea today.
Daniel Quinn: Yes, that’s true.
Chris Martenson: I love this idea that we have, that there are things that culture is telling us, that people just, they pick it up as a child, they wear it as a shawl and they never understand where the shawl came from. We’ve seen lots of books and movies sort of poke at this idea of the myth of progress, but you get beyond the myth of progress and talk about the cultural invocation that there is inevitability to progress. I’d love to talk about that.
The things that our culture considers inevitable, that don’t necessarily have to be inevitable once we unpack them a little.
Daniel Quinn: That’s true. I’m not sure I myself have ever written about that in particular. I may have done it and don’t recognize the way you put it.
Chris Martenson: Let’s talk about one of those inevitabilities. I’m sure I’m just retranslating it awkwardly for you, but it’s the idea that civilization itself is inevitable. Is it not?
Daniel Quinn: Yes, I would say so. It was, let’s say, it was humanity’s destiny to rule the world. Having that rule, acquiring that rule meant becoming civilized, because only a civilized people could conquer all other peoples in the world, which is necessary for us to rule the world. So, we had to come as Cain did to Abel, came to the Americas and took the land there and watered their fields with the blood of the natives that they found here.
Becoming civilized was necessary for that to happen and of course, we have brought the world to its finest points and achieved things that would have been completely beyond the imagination of our ancient ancestors.
Chris Martenson: Let’s talk about that, because there is this sense in people, there's a number of myths that I think we’re carrying; and one is that idea that technology is always good and will always carry us forward. It’s become a religion in many cases and it’s a belief system; but this idea of you put it right at the front of Beyond Civilization. It’s in the chapter of fable to start with and talks about the idea that one of the central ideas we’re carrying is that nothing really different is possible.
Nothing can be beyond civilization. As you write, civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention. It was inevitable that it was going to spring forward and here it is and so therefore, nothing else is possible. This has to be one of the key things that’s tripping us up at this point in time, is this, if I can use the word slavish adherence to an idea.
Daniel Quinn: Yes. The idea of giving up the thing that is destroying us is unthinkable. We would rather hang on to it and go down to death than give it up. To give it up would be terrible, would mean reverting to a way of life that is subhuman.
Chris Martenson: Yes, going backwards, right.
Daniel Quinn: Going backwards, and really, I think that people are all too ready to prefer ending it all to giving it up.
Chris Martenson: Alright, so now we’re at the heart of it. Daniel, this is the part I really want to talk about is that idea that, so you’ve been working with this a long time. I want to work with this idea that people are willing to cling to the Titanic and go down with it. That would be preferable to recognizing they’re on something called the Titanic and building a life boat or taking a life boat and going in a different direction. That doesn’t sound entirely rational, so I’m hearing that subtext to all of this.
This is part of the human condition, isn’t it? We’re not entirely rational when we get down to it.
Daniel Quinn: Yes, that’s true.
Chris Martenson: How do you begin to make sense of that, and this is where I want to be leading is to this idea of the memes and we’re going towards memes and anybody who doesn’t know what I’m saying, you will in a minute. We’re going to get there.
This is critical is this thing that we’re being driven and we’re adhering to an idea. It’s critical, so what causes, have you found in all your studies and decades of observing and wrestling with this carefully, what causes people to cling to an idea with such fervent devotion.
Daniel Quinn: I could probably give a lot of thought to that, but I wouldn’t want you to sit on the phone while I thought about it. It’s a hard thing for me to get my head around right now.
Chris Martenson: OK, all right, I was wondering if biology was going to factor into this or if it’s a cultural invention. In my own work, what I’ve discovered is that for people to give up a belief system is expensive. It costs, mostly it costs emotional energy. It’s what Kubler-Ross would call the five stages of grief. Faced with the ultimate belief challenging material of all, your own mortality, people will go through a fairly predictable set of emotional experiences and that’s really one of the pieces is to ask, this is what I found in my work, to ask people to engage with this work is to ask them on some level to go down an emotional period, an emotional journey as much as it is a logical journey.
Daniel Quinn: Ishmael tells his students that if you go down this path, you will never be able to go back. So you either stop now or if you go ahead, be aware that you're taking an irreversible step. We have a reliance on certain ideas that is uniquely our own, that you would not find, do not find among aboriginal peoples who have more trust in, I don’t know how to characterize it, traditions, things that they know work, have worked for them for hundreds of years from time out of mind.
They know that they work, whereas we tend to have abstractions that we cling to. For example, aboriginal peoples never make laws prohibiting things that they know people are going to do. For them, that would seem quite absurd. For us, of course, that is exactly what we do. Every one of our laws prohibit something that we know absolutely people are going to do.
We believe in that completely, to prohibit things that we know people are going to do. We’re dedicated to that and we are dedicated to the idea that having passed a law against something, we have made real progress. Now we’ve taken care of that; by God there's a law against it so we fixed that problem.
Chris Martenson: Indeed, and you have a story in Beyond Civilization about a gentleman who owned a rug company where, as you mentioned, if you could take us through that story, that would be great, but you're making this point, which was you could have passed a thousand laws and not gotten the change that was, that occurred. Can you take us through that story?
Daniel Quinn: Yes. It was not just a rug company, it was the largest maker of commercial carpeting in the world, the Interface Corporation. He read two books. One was The College of Commerce and the other was Ishmael. He had always made a point of being in compliance with regulations regarding his products. Now, he saw that being in compliance was not nearly enough, not nearly enough.
He would have to in very short order cease to make products from petroleum. He would eliminate plastic carpet entirely. He would make carpeting that was 100 percent recyclable. He achieved those two things in a very few years and by doing so, he forced all of his competitors to do the same. He revolutionized an entire industry because he read two books, which is to me a great story of the power of ideas.
Chris Martenson: Yes.
Daniel Quinn: I had a hundred stories like that, but this is the best.
Chris Martenson: Indeed, this gets to the heart of it. Its these ideas that we’re carrying, that will enforce some outcomes and punish others. It’s the ideas that we’re carrying that matter most. The meme that I’m working with, if I only got to pick one in my personal work, the meme that I’m inserting is this. Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.
Not my meme, obviously this started with people in the 70’s and with the Meadows work and Limits to Growth and all of that and people, even Thomas Malthus sort of pointed this out in the 1700’s, so this isn’t mine meme. I don’t claim ownership, but I’m saying this is something that if I can keep elevating it and working with it, it does a lot. What it does is it invalidates or undoes a lot of these other ideas that are out there.
You said in Beyond Civilization that, to summarize briefly, memes are to cultures what genes are to bodies. From your book, I’m going to quote here, “Richard Dawkins suggests that memes replicate themselves in the meme pool, the thing I call culture, in a way that is analogous to the way genes replicate themselves in the gene pool. That is, they leap from mind to mind the way genes leap from body to body. Genes leap from body to body by way of reproduction. Memes leap from mind to mind by way of communication. In lullabies heard in the cradle, in fairytales, in parents’ table conversation, in jokes, in television cartoons, in the funnies, in sermons, in gossip and lectures and textbooks, in movies, in novels, in newspapers and song lyrics, in advertisements and so on.”
You were responsible for an idea that went out and changed how a person thought, which changed how an industry was functioning. This idea of memes, an idea as a meme, I really want to go forward with this, because this is the central work as far as I can tell, is first what are these memes? Great description here, can you go further in really helping us understand what a meme really is.
Daniel Quinn: Wow, I think it’s one of those things that’s so simple, it’s really very difficult to deal with. I think that what you already have read from Beyond Civilization exceeds anything that I could make up on the spot right now. Golly, you’ve stopped me there.
Chris Martenson: All right. Let’s just wrestle with the, if I could, I’ll make this very personal, I am making my life around, and like you, I’ve had the benefit and the luxury of being able to take lots of time off and I’m being supported through my work of trying to come up with this idea that seems so simple, its dastardly and devilishly hard. You can’t grow infinitely on a finite planet.
This of course runs afoul of the entire finance industry, the real estate industry, various religions, churches, you name it, but it’s a very simple idea. It seems so brain dead simple to me. Any sixth grader can work it out with a crayon and a napkin, but there it is. There's this idea that we can’t grow forever, so we won’t. Full stop, now what right.
That’s trickier than I thought, so I’m personally really wrestling with this idea of how an idea like can come and take root when it runs afoul of so many other ideas that are, let’s say other genes in the gene pool, that are more dominant. There's a black hair dominant over blonde hair. I’ve got a blond-haired idea, trying to get it out there.
I don’t know what I’m really asking, except gosh, you’ve been working with this a long time. How is it that these memes, where do they come from and how do they live and continue?
Daniel Quinn: They help us make sense out of the world, and so we hold onto them because they work. They help us. What you were expressing, I’ve said whatever grows without limit ends by destroying itself. Again, you will find people who are longing to, who imagine that we can solve our problems by exporting our population to other planets, as though that now takes care of it. Realizing that, what must be realized is that our civilization, which is based on the idea of unlimited growth, our fundamental notice, notion of wealth depends on growth, annual growth. We must grow and the...; we would occupy the entire universe and then of course end because there's an end to the universe as well. There's not an infinity of planets and we would come to an end, as well.
People don’t like that. They hate to think about that. They think that what we have is so wonderful that we really should be able to go on doing it forever.
Chris Martenson: Well, of course it’s beyond imagining to think that anything else is possible and yet, as we’ve discussed here, there's obviously a finiteness to the resource base that exists. This almost never gets said directly and outright, but we’re at 7.4 billion people. We’re going to 9 billion people, based on current trajectories.
When we get to 9 billion in the year 2050, we will also be out past the peak of fossil fuels, which of course we’re eating right now in the basis of 10 calories of fossil fuel silently embedded secretly in every calorie of food that we eat. Food, of course, is the ultimate energy source. We’re eating fossil fuels. Nobody that I ever talk to in any position of power is even, in any way Daniel, ready to entertain the idea of what are we going to be doing there in 2050.
They just have hope. I don’t know, hope that we’ll go to Mars, I don’t know what the hope is, but the hope is we’ll figure something out. That seems a little insane to me. It’s kind of crazy making. Like you said, there's no going back once you take this body of knowledge on. For people like myself who follow this work and your work and think it through, it’s hard not to feel like they’re all the crazy people and you're the sane person. Of course, they would see it differently.
Daniel Quinn: Yes. I don’t know. Food, at one time, was not based on fossil fuel, was not partly fossil fuel and so it can again be not made of fossil fuel. Whether this could happen by 2050, I have no idea. Its thinkable, anyway. I don’t believe we will ever reach 9 billion or 10 billion as its also predicted. I don’t think we’ll make it.
Chris Martenson: No? That’s hopeful thinking.
Daniel Quinn: Right.
Chris Martenson: This is the interesting part to me, is that if we could turn to current events for a second, there's a lot of recording this in November 2016 and we’ve just come through a very contentious election cycle, in case anybody is listening to this several years out. Donald Trump has just been elected president and ,although the electoral college, which has not met yet, so who knows. Currently he’s been elected by the electoral college and there's a lot of emotions up at this point in time, a lot of fear.
I understand that on a surface level, but I think that one layer deeper, in the way I look at this, what’s being exposed here is people’s deep discomfort with something. Of course, I have my filter and some of that deep discomfort, I think they have to know that the narrative we tell ourselves and their reality aren’t lining up. A narrative, say, about the American dream, right. Well, young people with student debt can tell you that narrative that you're taught, not in school necessarily, maybe there but every article in movies, in common stories, around the dinner table, that that narrative of who we are and the reality of their current circumstance is pretty divergent.
I think that’s creating some of that anxiety that then translates and comes through as fear that gets identified in some way, so people experience that. Is it possible though that what you're talking about, that deep understanding you have, right or wrong, but it’s your understanding that we’re not getting to 9 billion people, isn’t that lurking under there? Does not mother culture whisper to us seductively, but then lose the narrative and that’s what makes people ultimately change or walk away from the current story when the stories no longer work?
Daniel Quinn: I’m trying to think of people who walk away from stories. Some are quite famous. The civilizations of central America, some of which were contemporaneous with our earliest civilizations. The members of those societies eventually walked away from them. One of the controlling memes of our culture is we must go on, no matter what.
We may not quit. We must go on. These civilizations, people of those didn’t have that meme and when life became intolerable, they said, I won’t say what they said, I will say simply that they walked away. They said this isn’t worth it and they quit. Usually they burned down some of what they left behind, but sometimes they just walked away from it, disappeared into the jungles around them, which were still there.
Also, those civilizations did not have the meme that says that everyone should be made to live the way we live, which is of course one of our memes. They didn’t have that meme. They didn’t feel that everyone around them had to be made to live the way they lived, so they left them alone. So there was still a world for them to disappear into. So it was possible for them to walk away, but for us to walk away, where would we walk to.
Chris Martenson: Of course, there is nowhere to walk to now, but I remember being fascinated Daniel as a kid by these so called lost civilizations, like you’d find these elaborate cities and pyramids and all the trappings and architectures of a civilization. It’s almost like, in many cases, it looks like they did just up and walk away one day and that’s such an unthinkable prospect that that’s where the, I think, excitement and energy, what happened. Something must have happened. It must have been a great plague or aliens or some cataclysm or something must have happened, except for what you're proposing, which is they said this isn’t working and they walked away.
Daniel Quinn: Well, you have to understand that just as our civilization was based on the idea of having the food locked up and everyone having to work for it, they became hierarchical organizations where the people at the top lived completely luxurious lives ,and the people at the bottom did all the work. For us, we say oh yes, well that’s OK.
For them, they didn’t necessarily feel the same. Yes, it’s OK. They got tired of being the workers, those who did the slaving for, they kept the people at the top living lives of luxury. No special thing was needed to make them decide to quit and there's no particular, they say for example that there were droughts and things like that, but of course, how many droughts have we survived and they didn’t slow us down. They wouldn’t have slowed them down if they had our meme. If they had our meme, they would say it doesn’t matter what, we must go on. We must keep doing this.
Chris Martenson: Not only we must keep doing this, but we’re going to share this with everybody else, because it’s such a great idea.
Daniel Quinn: Yes, well we share it by force if necessary.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. This gets to the central idea, Beyond Civilization, I noted very
boldly that at the front, you dedicated it at least in part, the dedication was to the homeless. I assume meaning that homeless in many cases are not just mentally ill people who had a bad run of luck, but in some cases, it represents people who have walked away. Did I get that right?
Daniel Quinn: Certainly some have, many have, and found success of its own kind.
Chris Martenson: It’s fascinating that we have these stories from way back deep in our history of saints and whatnot who gave it all up and went on walkabout, and we revere them through the stories, but today, homeless people are amongst the least visible people in our population. Nobody pays any attention to them.
Daniel Quinn: Yes, that’s certainly true.
Daniel Quinn: So, this gets to this idea then that, I’m going to read again from Beyond Civilization page 95, it says revolution without upheaval is the chapter and the passage says “because revolution in our culture has always represented an attack on hierarchy. It has always meant upheaval literally, a heaving up from below. But upheaval has no role to play in moving beyond civilization. If the plane is in trouble, you don’t shoot the pilot. You grab a parachute and jump. To overthrow the hierarchy is pointless. We just want to leave it behind.”
I’m wondering, first how you leave something behind when it’s this dominant and pervasive and I’m sure a lot of people, and you don’t have to have the answers, but a lot of people are wondering how do we leave this behind. So yes, let’s start there. What does that mean to leave behind the hierarchy? Homeless, that’s one articulation of it, are there others?
Daniel Quinn: Yes, I think that; I don’t recall, honestly whether I attacked this question at all in Beyond Civilization. I take it that I did not from the fact that you don’t cite it. Am I right?
Chris Martenson: Yes, you go further and continue to talk about it, but I think that even writing this in 1999 when that was published, and today there’s more data, more information and I encounter this a lot. Here’s an articulation of that in the people I talk with, say at a seminar. They say “Chris, there's the life I’m leading, which involves kids that are just about to graduate high school and I’ve got this job and I’ve got a pension in it and of course, I’ve got some stock options or other golden handcuffs. But there's this life I want to be leading over here, which is the one that more authentically aligns with who I think I am deep down and also, makes sense given where the world is going.”
So they call it, we call it leading two lives. So, I’m really asking a question for those people, which is what does it take to begin to step into that new life which in some cases might be an act of revolution. You're leaving behind that old story and I guess the first, people don’t find that easy. They find it very challenging even to think about, let alone do. Why is it so hard?
Daniel Quinn: Certainly, overthrowing what we have, I think the idea is silly. What do you have when you’ve done that? You have nothing. I don’t think it can be done or it is even desirable to be done. To walk away, really that is the, that was the subject of the book itself, was walking away and I gave examples of successes that came about by people doing something different. Four people, my wife and two others, started a newspaper on capital -- less than $100. No one in the world can start a newspaper for under $100 and we did.
It became a success. It became a tremendous success. We had newspapers that covered 1,000 square miles of New Mexico east of Albuquerque, what we called the East Mountain News. We changed a lot of minds about what was going on in that world, about water, about real estate development and things like that.
The four of us, we worked without salaries. We didn’t have salaries. We weren’t computing how much we earned because we didn’t have salaries, so much per hour, so much per day. Although we didn’t think of it, we were operating as a tribe and that’s why we succeeded. Others, people would try to get in. They wanted to join us, but they thought they could get a job with us and we said no, we don’t have any salary for you. You can’t come and work for us that way.
You can join, if you have something to do for us that will help us succeed, then you become one of the tribe. Otherwise, there’s no place for you. I give other examples, larger examples of things that grew from tribal beginnings. It is a way of, this of course is what is beyond civilization. It is the way to go, the way that I was pointing to in the book, the journey beyond trying to compete without the normal instruments of competition.
If you have $10 million, you can start a business of any kind that you want. What do you do if you have $200? You can’t do anything. What I’m trying to show in Beyond Civilization is that’s untrue; only person that I know of who actually did what I was pointing at was a group of young men who realized that there is a great sea of second hand hardware lying around out there, being unused, but completely usable. They said why don’t we sell, why don’t we collect and sell this used hardware. For other people, it’s just junk. For us, it’s not.
They could get into that with no money, virtually no money. I don’t know whether they did or not, but it was a great idea. There are other examples I give in Beyond Civilization of people who are able to do remarkable things if they stopped thinking in the typical way.
Chris Martenson: That typical way, which you had a quote at the beginning, talking about global unscrupulous capitalism, that’s an organizing principle and a different, not opposed, but perhaps orthogonal, just a different organizing principle is this idea of tribalism and a lot of people hear that and they think, oh my gosh, that’s a stone age or something. Tribalism, what does that mean?
Daniel Quinn: A tribe is a group of people working together to make a living. That’s all. It’s very simple.
Chris Martenson: It’s a social organization; a group of people working together to make a living.
Daniel Quinn: Yes. It can be, a famous couple that makes the ice cream, not Tom and Jerry.
Chris Martenson: Ben and Jerry?
Daniel Quinn: Ben and Jerry, they started a tribe of two. Two of them opened a shop, swept the floors, manned the counters, made the ice cream and started, from there they went on. They ceased to be tribal very quickly and became a common corporation, but they began the only way they could without capital. They had virtually no capital, but they were able to start that way.
I tried to awaken a different way of looking at problems other than the usual ones of getting a barrel full of money and then doing the normal thing.
Chris Martenson: The normal thing being? Global unscrupulous capitalism?
Daniel Quinn: Right, yes.
Chris Martenson: Creating a hierarchy out of this, so I think that’s really where I’m getting at with the people who are leading two lives. They are somehow plugged into this global unscrupulous capitalist system. They understand that they are a cog in a wheel that is ultimately got its own seeds of destruction designed right into it. They’re asking a different question, which is how do I become part of something that’s more fulfilling.
Tribe is in our DNA. I’ve done a podcast series with Bill Kauth and Zoe Alowan and they’re recreating a tribe in Ashland, Oregon where they live and experimenting with what that means. Sebastian Junger had a book called Tribe which talked about how that once service members, men and women, have experienced the tribal aspect of unit formation within the U.S. military, and they come home, they’re committing suicide at atrocious rates, and these aren’t all people who experienced traumatic war experiences.
Many of them saw no “action” at all, but they found life at home so devoid of meaning compared to the one they had just left, that suicide has become a favored path. What an indictment of your culture when people come home to it and say I’m going to kill myself.
Daniel Quinn: That I did not know. I had not heard that. That’s interesting.
Chris Martenson: It's absolutely startling, so really the underneath of all of this is that we’re living, we force ourselves into a living arrangement, which is destructive of the earth, is not terribly fulfilling for a large number of people, is amazing for the people at the top. It’s just totally awesome and that those systems; I think one of the points you're making is that those are inherently unstable because over time, you can’t sustain that way of life.
Eventually, the needs of the top of the hierarchy overwhelm the ability of the bottom to supply those needs, if I could characterize it that way, and the friction starts to erupt. That’s at least a little of what I think is happening right now in the United States, that friction is starting to appear.
Daniel Quinn: Yes.
Chris Martenson: Do you have more to say on that? It’s a pretty hot topic right now.
Daniel Quinn: No.
Chris Martenson: All right. It’s certainly a lot of energy around that right now. Listen, Daniel, I want to thank you for a really enlightening interview and gosh, I have to thank you for bearing the burden of holding up a mirror to culture itself, which has and probably never will be a welcome task, entirely. Yet you did it and you did it in a way that people were able to engage with and understand and see that, which is a real mark of achievement.
Of course, I’m going to recommend and link to all your books at the bottom of this interview. You also have a website, Ishmael.org. What can people find there?
Daniel Quinn: It is an enormous thing. It’s a dinosaur. It’s really a prehistoric object. It isn’t widely visited compared to many modern sites, but one can find there everything, over 600 questions are answered there by me; each question answered by me as well as all of my essays and speeches and tons of other stuff; all of the courses that Ishmael is used in for example.
I’m afraid I’m very lax when it comes to social media. I have a Facebook page, but I scarcely visit it and it's very naughty of me.
Chris Martenson: I was excited to read on your dinosaur of a website the news that you're working, you’ve got another book. Is there anything you can tell us about it and when it might be done?
Daniel Quinn: It is, yes I suppose I can talk about it. It is called Ending the Sixth Extinction Before It Ends Us. It’s odd that I was talking to someone the other day about this and I said to her that, I had the impression that when I mentioned the sixth extinction, that people don’t know what I’m talking about. She shook her head. I said why are you shaking your head. She just shook her head.
She shook her head because what she was saying was they’ve never heard of it. I think that’s true. There is a great silence when you say, your lips move but no one hears the sounds. It’s too great an idea for them and they simply ignore it, this sixth extinction. It is a very great reality and in this book, I undertake to examine what it would take to end it.
Chris Martenson: Well, wonderful topic; all of my listeners are quite familiar with it because we wrestle with ideas like that all the time. We’ll be looking forward to that, Ending the Sixth Extinction Before It Ends Us. Again, Daniel Quinn, thank you so much for your time today. We’re all now elevated and obligated in the best sense of that word, I think, to bring our very best to this human experiment. So, it’s time to bring the new ideas out that will give us something we can actually live into. So, thank you.
Daniel Quinn: Thank you. I’m very honored to have been with you.