One night when he was six, Daniel Quinn had a dream he would later call “a description of my destiny.” In the dream, young Daniel was walking home alone through the dead of night when he suddenly found the sidewalk blocked by a fallen tree. Along the trunk of the tree scurried a great black beetle. Terrified of insects, and afraid the beetle would blame him for destroying its home, the tree, Daniel shrank back. But the beetle told him not to be afraid; it just wanted to talk with him.
The beetle informed Daniel that the community of life needed his help. “It will mean almost giving up your life,” the beetle said, “and becoming one of us. But we must first tell you our secrets.”
Just as the beetle was about to reveal those secrets, Quinn suddenly awoke and burst into tears. His mother thought he’d had a bad dream. “No,” he replied, “I’m crying because it was so beautiful.”
“From that age,” Quinn writes in Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Quest (Bantam), “I knew that somehow or other, I would make the dream come true. . . . Someday I would be allowed to step off that sidewalk and enter another world.”
Half a century later, Quinn used the framework of the dream to write his novel Ishmael (Bantam), and in 1991 the book earned him the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, an award created by television magnate Ted Turner to encourage “fiction that produces creative and positive solutions to global problems.” Like Quinn in his dream, the narrator of Ishmael is confronted by a dark, threatening creature — this time a gorilla — who offers to reveal secrets unknown to humans, and invites him to embark on a journey of discovery that will alienate him from his human family and friends.
Quinn himself left family and friends behind at the age of nineteen to enter Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky — even though his upbringing was anything but religious. In fact, his parents thought that “notions of God and Heaven belonged to a generalized childhood fantasy that included Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Rabbit.” But Quinn, who grew up with the notion that he was unlovable due to his imperfections, viewed Catholicism as the path to becoming perfect. At the monastery, he came under the guidance of Thomas Merton, the religious writer and poet known for such books as The Seven Storey Mountain.
For the first three weeks, Quinn never set foot outside the monastery’s stark walls. Finally, he was instructed by Merton to go outdoors to collect kindling with some of the other monks. In Providence he writes:
“I went last, stepped over the threshold, turned around to close the door, then turned back to face the sunshine.
“And the god spoke. . . .
“Everything was burning. Every blade of grass, every single leaf of every single tree was radiant, was blazing — incandescent with a raging power that was unmistakably divine.”
Quinn left the monastery without joining the order, but the vision continued to incubate inside him, along with his childhood dream. In 1976 he left his job in corporate publishing — he had been head of the biography and fine-art departments for the American Peoples Encyclopedia — and, with the help of a small inheritance, soon began work on a manuscript that would become Ishmael.
The message in all of Quinn’s books, including the recently released The Story of B and the upcoming sequel My Ishmael (both Bantam), is that if we’re going to clean up the mess we’ve made of the earth, we’d better start listening to “our neighbors in the community of life, including all the beings on this planet.”
Though novels, both The Story of B and Ishmael are constructed such that Quinn has ample opportunity to express his intricate views on the world situation. The books raise as many questions as they answer, and the following interview arose from my desire to ask some of those questions.
Swift: What do you consider to be the fundamental problems that you address in your work?
Quinn: People of this culture are trying to reinvent the wheel in their attempts to find a way to live in the world. We’re behaving as though it had never been done before, as though we had no reference points from which to start. What I’m trying to point out is that humans, people as smart as you and I, have lived on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years. For much of that time people had a way of life that worked very well for them.
Now we are plummeting toward catastrophe, imagining that we have nowhere to turn for answers, when, in fact, there are people living on this planet now — descendants of those very successful people of earlier times — who know how to live. And it’s still possible for us to learn from them.
Swift: You’re speaking of native or aboriginal people.
Quinn: Exactly. They’re still living essentially the same way people were living hundreds of thousands of years ago. This is a way of life that “civilized” cultures have been stamping out for about ten thousand years. The assault on native peoples started in this part of the world in 1492.
For two hundred thousand years people had a way of life that worked beautifully for them. They didn’t have Tinker Toys or carnival rides or transistor radios, but they had a life that was satisfying and ecologically successful.
Swift: Are you suggesting that we go back to living like hunter-gatherers?
Quinn: That’s not what I’m saying at all. A dozen planets the size of Earth couldn’t accommodate 6 billion hunter-gatherers. The idea is absurd. My point is that for two hundred thousand years people had a way of life that worked beautifully for them. They didn’t have Tinker Toys or carnival rides or transistor radios, but they had a life that was satisfying and ecologically successful. Yet we teach our children that there was nothing until the rise of our agriculture-based civilization — that we started ten thousand years ago with nothing.
The fact is, we threw away everything in the treasury and started over from scratch. So now our task is to go back and look again into that treasury. But we don’t have to go back in time, because that way of life is still with us wherever tribal people are living today. The problem is, their way of life works so effortlessly that people looking at it from the outside see absolutely nothing.
For example, tribal people have an educational system that doesn’t require taxes or buildings or professional teachers, yet functions with 100 percent effectiveness. Their entire culture is transmitted flawlessly from one generation to the next. Still, we look at this system and say, “Oh, those poor people! We have a much more advanced system.” But in fact, our system produces incompetents who, if left on their own, would perish from ignorance about how to survive. When our children get out of school, they have no job skills, and this is by design: if they had skills, they would be competing with us, their parents, for our jobs.
By contrast, among tribal people, children enter adulthood at age thirteen or fourteen. And they’re ready to function fully as adults at that point. This is accomplished through an educational system that is invisible to us.
The economic system of tribal people also works flawlessly, and is completely self-sustaining. It does not deplete their resources, and, most importantly, it supplies them with the one assurance that people really want: cradle-to-grave security. In this economic system, people never have to worry because they know they will be taken care of their whole life long. The only way they will ever go hungry is when the entire tribe goes hungry. This isn’t because tribal people are especially wonderful and generous, but because their economy is set up that way. No one has an individual store of food. Rather, they’re surrounded by food that belongs to no one — or to all equally. So in times when the hunting and gathering becomes difficult, as in a drought, and there isn’t as much food around, the whole tribe goes hungry. There isn’t a store of food locked away to which only some people have access. Tribal people are classless. Tribal leadership, where such exists, is untyrannical. They have a way of life in which there is no suffering class, no poor class, no despised class — while a third of our society belongs to such a class.
The economic system of tribal people is based on an exchange of energy among people within the tribe. People support each other at every point. No one is left alone with the problem of educating his or her child, or caring for someone who is sick, or caring for an elderly parent. That just doesn’t happen.
Swift: How does this translate to our society? How can we apply this information to education, for example?
Quinn: People say, “Oh, but there’s so much more to learn in our society.” Yes, but do children actually learn it? When we give them a test to find out how much they actually know, we find they know very little. Yet if a child grows up in a household where four languages are spoken, that child will learn four languages. So there is nothing wrong with the learning capacity of children. If they have access to information, children can learn anything they want. If preteens, for example, get into computers, they can learn how to defeat national-security systems. They don’t need to go to school to learn that. They sit at their computers and teach themselves. This is the way learning takes place in tribal societies. Children have access to everything there. And if children in our culture had access to everything we have, they would learn it all. The best part is, if they learn things because they want to, they never forget them.
Our educational system doesn’t trust our children to be able to learn, even though we are learning machines; we are genetically designed to learn. This is our greatest success as a species. We don’t need to force children to learn, or put them in a prison-like environment.
Swift: If people were to take the message of your books to heart, how might they act on it?
Quinn: Well, I see the Industrial Revolution as the most successful social movement at unleashing human creativity. People began to cooperate and collaborate in very complex ways, inventing, building on each other’s inventions, and sending out information in all directions, solving all kinds of problems in the process.
Today, by contrast, what we learn in school is that we’re all helpless to save the world, that we simply have to sit and wait for someone else to do it — some president or world leader. I’m trying to say that we’re not completely helpless, we just have to think about our problems in a different way, and the Industrial Revolution gives us a terrific model for how to do that. During the Industrial Revolution, no one waited for someone else to do something. People took matters into their own hands. That’s what we have to do now, each of us recognizing that we have a stake in the future of the world.
Some people are disturbed by the fact that I find something to recommend in the Industrial Revolution. But what I recommend is the process, not the goals. During the Industrial Revolution, people saw new ways to use resources. For example, the process of refining coal produced coal gas, which was discarded until some clever person figured out how to use it as a fuel for lamps. Coal gas created the gaslight era. Refining coal also produced coal tar, which was originally discarded as well — until some people discovered that, by refining the tar, they could produce kerosene. Another coal byproduct, made from distilling coal oil, was creosote, which was discovered to preserve wood. From creosote came carbolic acid, which someone found kept sewage from putrefying. Seeing that, a surgeon named Lister wondered whether carbolic acid might inhibit the rotting of flesh. In that era, to cut people in surgery was virtually to kill them. Lister made an application of carbolic acid and wax, applied it to a cut, and the cut got better! Remember, it was not a capitalist who did this.
Obviously, we need to move in a different direction from that of the Industrial Revolution, which led us to consume tremendous amounts of fuel and irreplaceable resources. And it was completely responsive to the greed of capitalism. But the process itself unleashed the greatest flowering of inventiveness in history. The same process, motivated in a different way, can unlock a comparable flowering today. But, to start with, people have to look around and see what they can do.
Take, for example, Ray Anderson, whose company is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles, the kind used in airports, hotels, motels, hospitals, and the like. These carpets, of course, are not made of natural materials; they’re made of petroleum. It’s a tremendously polluting industry, whose products take up enormous amounts of space in landfills. Two years ago, after reading Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and my Ishmael, Anderson decided he was going to end his company’s dependence on petroleum. He developed carpeting that was made entirely of recycled materials, and that was itself 100 percent recyclable. There would be no more waste, no more carpets going into landfills. In addition, he would try to persuade his customers to lease carpets from him, with the understanding that, when the carpets were no longer serviceable, he would take them back, recycle them, and replace them with new carpeting made entirely from recycled material. In other words, he made up his mind to become a sustainable industrialist.
Now, Anderson, of course, has the power to make these kinds of changes. But the point is that he did what he could do. And there’s no one, anywhere, who is totally without influence, who can’t change anything. We have to get over the idea that we are helpless.
Swift: In The Story of B, you say “totalitarian agriculture” has alienated us from the rest of the world. What do you mean by the term totalitarian agriculture?
Quinn: First, not all agriculture is totalitarian. All hunter-gatherers encourage the regrowth of their favorite foods. And they have a virtually bottomless understanding of how to grow the things they like. So they do little things like occasional weeding, eliminating blocks to sunlight, or shoving a few seeds into the ground.
Now, that is agriculture, but it is not totalitarian agriculture. There are many gradations in between the two. There are people who do a little gardening, but depend largely on collecting wild food and hunting. There are people who do more gardening, right up to those who depend almost entirely on agriculture. Then there is our system, which is based upon the idea that all the food on the planet is human food; that it all belongs to us; that no other animals have any rights to it. We consider every square foot of the planet to be our exclusive agricultural property. That’s what makes it totalitarian agriculture: the idea that the whole planet is ours to turn into human food. From this attitude, it follows that everything that competes with us for food is fair game. We can destroy it if we want. We can keep all other animals from sharing our food, or even kill them outright. This is totalitarian agriculture, and we’re the only people in the history of the world who have ever practiced it.
Swift: And, just to be clear: when you say “we,” you’re referring not just to the U.S. or the West, but to practically the entire world population, right?
Quinn: Yes, and there is a strong presumption that because nearly everyone lives this way, it must be the one right way for people to live. To my mind, that’s like saying that, because someone is being eaten alive by cancer, cancer must be the higher life form. And we are, indeed, a cancer devouring the world — not humans as such, but rather humans of one particular culture.
Swift: Perhaps one of the most controversial points in The Story of B is this statement: “Agriculture doesn’t cure famine. It produces famine. It creates the conditions in which famine occurs.” Could you elaborate on that?
Quinn: Most people have the impression that, before agriculture came along, people were hungry. This is complete nonsense. Before agriculture people were no more hungry than birds or badgers or deer are hungry. We did perfectly well for hundreds of thousands of years without totalitarian agriculture, and without being dependent on crops. Famine doesn’t occur among hunter-gatherers, because they don’t sit there and starve: they go wherever the food is, as all animals do. One reason why famine and agriculture are connected is that, when crops fail, practitioners of totalitarian agriculture stay put and starve, because there isn’t anywhere else for them to go. If you look at famines throughout history, you’ll find that almost every one is connected to crop failure.
The recent famine in North Africa, for example, was brought on by a drought that caused crops to fail. Before people there practiced totalitarian agriculture, the population was much smaller and much more able to deal with drought because it wasn’t completely dependent on crops. Now they must have those crops or they starve. And that’s what they’re doing: starving.
Now, a related question is what to do about our population explosion. And the first thing to understand is that, to achieve a population increase in any species, there must be more food available. And if you give more food to any population, it will grow.
In the natural community — among species other than humans — populations are constantly growing and decreasing, constantly finding new balance points among themselves. For example, the number of deer will increase until the amount of food available begins to decrease, sending the deer population into decline. As the deer population decreases, the food will come back, and the number of deer will begin to increase again. Then, in response to the increased deer population, food availability will once again decrease. This is an example of negative feedback, and it’s what keeps populations in balance in the natural community.
When humans adopted totalitarian agriculture, we got rid of the limits on our food supply as a means of controlling our population. Unlike deer, which decline in number when their increased population strains their food supply, we humans grow more food when our population increases. Every time our population grows, we produce more food to feed that population, and having more food available enables the population to increase, just as in any other species. There is a direct, unavoidable connection between food availability and population growth. This is shocking to most people, because they’ve never thought about it this way; they think that population growth is just a matter of self-control, that we humans aren’t subject to the same laws as all other species.
Now, if we observe populations in the natural community moving from increasing to decreasing numbers, we don’t generally see animals starving to death. In extreme cases — accidents, unusually severe weather — there can be famine. But in the ordinary workings of the community the population is constantly going up and down in response to other populations that are going up and down, all without famine.
Totalitarian agriculture . . . is based upon the idea that all the food on the planet is human food; that it all belongs to us; that no other animals have any rights to it. We consider every square foot of the planet to be our exclusive agricultural property.
Swift: Are you suggesting that, if we ultimately want to get a handle on our population crisis, we need to stop increasing food production?
Quinn: We must face the fact that we are subject to the same laws as all other biological species. For as long as we continue to increase food production, our population will grow.
Swift: But if we don’t continue to produce more food in regions where the population growth is the highest, won’t the result be not just continued famine, but more famine?
Quinn: People assume that, if we had only as much food next year as we have this year, catastrophe would ensue. There’s no reason to think so. Yes, there would still be people starving; but there will still be people starving no matter how much food we make. People are not starving because there isn’t sufficient food for them: they’re starving because food isn’t getting to them. We continue to increase food production, but that food does not go to those who are starving. Instead, it goes to increasing the population of the rest of the world.
Swift: If the problem is that food doesn’t reach the starving population, doesn’t this suggest the need for a political solution rather than a solution based on growing less food?
Quinn: Possibly. But people are going to have to face the fact that, if we go on increasing food production, the population will keep on growing. Really, the alternatives are not very many. If you keep making more food available to the human population, it’s going to grow.
Swift: I understand what you’re saying, and yet, if my five-year-old daughter were hungry and I could produce more food for her, I would do that, and I don’t know that I’m any different from the rest of the world in that respect.
Quinn: The starving millions are used as an excuse for us to increase food production, yet the surplus does not reach the starving millions. The increase in our food production simply goes to feed our own population. We’re not making the food because we’re hungry. If we look at the situation globally, we see that, right now, there are about 5.9 billion people on the planet, and we’re making enough food for 6 billion. When we reach 6 billion, we will be making enough food for 6.1 billion, and so on.
Swift: Let’s move on. You point out in The Story of B that the major religions of the world, including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, all grew out of a fundamental sense that there is something wrong with human beings, and that salvation of the individual is of primary importance.
Quinn: These are the religions of a particular culture. They all appeared in response to the needs of people who lead anguished lives. They are religions of anguish.
Buddhism, for example, teaches that to be alive is to suffer, and that the only way to achieve peace is to relinquish desire for something better. End desire, and you will not suffer as much. You will have peace. And perhaps eventually you will achieve the ultimate peace, nirvana.
In Christianity, the understanding is that some terrible original sin was committed, and that we all suffer for it, but we have been saved from that sin by Jesus, who said that in the kingdom of God the haves and the have-nots would change places: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
All such religions are religions for the have-nots, for people who have no hope of getting the good things enjoyed by only a handful of people.
Swift: You say these religions belong to one culture. What are the roots of this culture?
Quinn: Our culture has its beginnings in the agricultural revolution, which started around ten thousand years ago in the Near East and spread eastward to India and the Orient and westward and northward to Europe. About five hundred years ago, it spread to these shores on the ships of Christopher Columbus. Wherever you find that food is locked up, that’s where our culture is. Wherever people have to work for a living to gain access to the food, that’s where our culture is.
Our economic system is based on products, starting with food. In an economy based on products, the wealth always tends to concentrate in a few hands, producing classes: rich, middle, and poor. This goes back to ancient times, when there were royalty, nobility, and commoners. The royalty lived really well, the nobles lived comfortably, and the commoners lived like shit. We’ll never see the end of it so long as our economy is based on an exchange of products: “Here are thirty pots; I want thirty times as much food as you’d give that guy over there, who’s got only one pot.”
In the tribal paradigm, nobody makes thirty pots and no one needs thirty pots, because that economy doesn’t function on the basis of who has the most pots. Instead, the wealth belongs to the tribe as a whole. It is the tribe that lives well, and not just a few individuals at the top. But when you have an economy based on the exchange of products, wealth will always concentrate in the hands of a few. And when that happens, you have anguish on the part of poor people.
As our system developed, many people became dissatisfied with it and, where possible, walked away. But when all the food is locked up you can’t walk away. So people began to look for other ways to escape: if you can’t get rich and live in a palace, how about nirvana, or heaven?
Humans lived on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years without religions of anguish, because they had a life that worked for them. They did have a religion, but it was not a religion that painted humans as alien beings, fallen beings, flawed beings. Rather, it painted humans as participants in a sacred process: the world was a sacred place, it said, and people belonged there. This religion was what we call animism.
Swift: Given that we’re not hunter-gatherers anymore, how can we learn to see ourselves as engaged in a sacred process?
Quinn: One of the basic ideas of our culture is that people are fundamentally no good, that people are greedy, cruel, and vicious to the core: That is our nature, so get used to it, folks. Get as much as you can, then get really good locks for your doors.
I want to change that basic attitude. Not only is the world a sacred place, but we belong in it. We’re not alien monsters here. We should stop perceiving ourselves in that way and begin to reevaluate our place in the greater community. The view of this culture is that we are vicious beings, but still infinitely better than every other creature on this planet. They are worthless beings we can kill off at will. I’m proposing that we all belong to a community of life. We are no better or worse than other creatures. We have to begin to think of ourselves as members of the world community, rather than as rulers of the planet. Our old vision of ourselves as the despots of the world, snapping our whips and making nature obey, might have thrilled us, but it’s not working out.
What’s important to know is that the world religions of today are not the only religions. They are only those of our particular, estranged culture. I’m not advocating that they be abandoned, although perhaps, if we adopt a healthier vision, they’ll die of their own accord.
I’d also like to advise people against pinning their hopes on the utopian idea that we can become better than people have ever been before. In this sense, our present system is a utopian system, one whose institutions would work perfectly if people would just be better than they have ever been: our schools would educate; our laws would be obeyed; our governments would govern effectively and justly. The success of tribal systems doesn’t depend on people being better human beings; and, indeed, that is why they succeed.
In the same way, nothing that I’m proposing requires people to be better than they’ve ever been. The new-age vision is that if people would just be better than they are now, if they would be more loving, raise their consciousness, and be more sympathetic and more sensitive, then everything would be wonderful. Of course that’s perfectly true. But utopian undertakings never work. Besides, people don’t need to be better, because there’s nothing basically wrong with them in the first place. For hundreds of thousands of years, people lived on this planet harmlessly — or as harmlessly as any other creature — so there’s no need to change our nature. If we put our hope in people becoming better, we’re inevitably going to be sorely disappointed. All the changes I’m talking about can happen without people becoming better than they have ever been. People need only to continue being what they are. That’s the direction in which hope lies.