EcoGeek of the week interview with Matt James for EcoGeek.org--July 2007Daniel Quinn, I think, is more a thinker than a writer. His ideas are what change the world, his books are merely attempts to explain his somewhat unique worldview.
In his most famous work, Ishmael, and throughout his other works, both fiction and non, his ideas repeat: the need to examine the cultural myths which we are steeped in from birth, the necessity of adopting new ways of thinking in order to change our behavior, and the drastic differences both in form and functionality between "civilization" and those we term "uncivilized".
While his way of thinking may seem odd at first, Quinn's ideas are extremely rational and widely acclaimed. His work has been translated numerous times, and is assigned reading for anthropology students, business majors, and students of biology, ethics, ecology, and history worldwide. Quinn's broad, sweeping documentation of our society's ills are never without hope for the future, and though he's a bit reluctant to bear the title of "EcoGeek", we're thrilled to welcome him that way, as EcoGeek of the Week.
EcoGeek: In many of your books, you tackle the subjects of sustainability and the environment, but from a perspective that may seem odd to many environmentalists. It seems you are not the typical "tree hugger"...
Daniel Quinn: I don't consider myself an environmentalist. I feel that the category itself is badly conceived, dividing the world into people who are "for the environment" and people who are "for people," which is nonsense. Thus it came to be seen that "environmentalists" were "for" the spotted owl, while non-environmentalists were seen to be "for" forestry jobs that would be lost by saving the spotted owl. The term "environmentalism" emphasizes a false division between "us" and "it" -- "it" being the environment. There is no "it" out there. We are all in this together. There are no two sides. We cannot survive as a species somehow separate from the rest of the living community.
EG: A lot of people are worried about a lot of different things right now. What scares your pants off?
DQ: It seems to me that your question is: "What's gonna get us first?" I'll let others conjecture about that. I know that there's going to be an end to fossil fuel, and when it comes, we'd better have in place a petroleum-free way of feeding ourselves or it's going to get real ugly around here. That scares the pants off me (though I won't be here to go through it.)
EG: It does seem we are headed for certain disaster if we keep living the way we do now. What gives you hope for the future?
DQ: Only the prospect of worldwide mind-change gives me hope for the future. It has happened before, in the Renaissance. It happened in the Soviet Union, bringing about its collapse. It can happen again, and it must -- or indeed we are doomed. What gives me hope is the fact that the curve of awareness as measured by the number of books published and read on the subject has risen steadily. I (and a relatively small number of others) have AS YET been unable to shake the commonly held Malthusian vision of the relation between population growth and food production. So it continues to be seen that it is completely inevitable that our population must continue to grow to 8 billion, 10 billion, 12 billion. If this happens, I'm afraid I see no hope for our species. The world's biologists now concur that we have entered a period of mass extinction as great as any such period of the past. Sustaining 6.5 billion of us costs the world as many as 75, 100, or 200 species a day (the United Nations recently offered the lowest of these estimates). Eventually, the ecological structures that sustain human life will collapse if this continues. This disastrous trend (which will grow worse as our population grows) is reversible; but only if people in general come to understand that it MUST be reversed, for the sake of our own survival.
EG: No organism (to my knowledge) has ever intentionally decreased or halted it's population growth. Is this actually possible, or are we reduced to hoping for a minor apocalypse now, in order to avoid a major one later?
DQ: It is indeed possible. Malthus imagined that our food production increases whenever our population increases. The point I've been at pains to make is that, like all other species, our population increases whenever whenever we increase food production. Food production is under our control; if we cease increasing food production, then our population will of necessity cease to grow. If x amount of food is needed to sustain a population of 6.5 billion of us, then that population can't grow to 10 billion if we continue to produce only x amount of food. People are made of food and nothing else. You can't make them out of moonlight.
EG: You've often stated that it's not a new technology or "program" that will sustain humanity into the next century, but rather massive a sea change in the way that we think and live. What strategy do you use when trying to win over people who don't see any advantage to changing?
DQ: I have no strategy for such a thing. I don't know how to make the blind see.
EG: Regardless of what you may think, many of us have found your work to be eye-opening. When do you think the tipping point for environmental consciousness, for sustainable living, will be reached? When will it become mainstream to "save the world"?
DQ: What I've said is that if there are still people here in 200 years, they won't be living the way we do, because if people go on living the way we do, then there will be no people here in 200 years. If there are still people here in 200 years, they won't be thinking the way we do, because if people go on thinking the way we do, then they will go on living the way we do? and there will be no people here in 200 years. You could probably cut that down to 100 years. I would say that the tipping point is probably going to have to occur in the next 25 to 50 years? more likely 25 than 50.
EG: Since you stress mind-change so heavily as an element of future survival, can you point to a single change that seems to you key?
DQ: One idea that survived the middle ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment to flourish into the present age is this: that humans belong to an order of being that is separate from (and higher than) the rest of the living community. This is, to my mind, the most dangerous idea extant today, and it's literally going to kill us if we don't get rid of it. Earthworms are more important to the life of this planet than humans are, and if earthworms disappear, we humans will follow very soon after. It's vital that we get it into our heads that we are members of a community and dependent on that community the same way every other member is. We cannot exist apart from it. We don't "own" that community. We aren't custodians of it (it takes care of itself and did so successfully for billions of years before our appearance). We need it, absolutely and forever; it doesn't need us. If there are still people here in 200 years, they will know this without the slightest doubt.
EG: Changing the subject a little bit, how do phenomena like Apple's iPhone fit into, as you put it, our "culture of maximum harm"? I can't help but want one, yet there's some part of me that knows I don't *need* it.
DQ: I'd say that Apple's iPhone fits into our culture of maximum harm by reassuring us that everything is just getting better and better and better and better, when in fact we are teetering on the brink of catastrophe. That doesn't make the iPhone especially pernicious, however. It's just one of the annual output of attractive toys that keep us smiling while we teeter.
EG: In your latest book, "If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways", you talk about your unique perspective, and refer to it as that of a "Martian anthropologist". Could you explain for our readers what you mean by that?
DQ: Everything we do - all the institutions we create and support - make perfect sense to us. We are trained from infancy to believe, for example, that passing laws against activities we don't want to happen somehow "works" (even though we know that those laws will ABSOLUTELY continue to be broken). We are trained from infancy to believe that putting law-breakers into prison somehow "works" (even though we know that those laws will ABSOLUTELY continue to be broken). We are trained from infancy to believe that schooling is somehow "nature's way" (perhaps even God's ordained way) of educating children, even though it is endlessly demonstrated that the schools do a sickeningly poor job of educating our children, despite the billions (or is it trillions?) that we spend on them. The Martian anthropologist - that is, the anthropologist who comes from that planet for the purpose of studying us - is not trained to see things in these ways, and so looks at us and wonders how it came to be that we believe such odd things. That's been my role here.
EG: It seems like there are a large number of people who agree with you, but few who think like you. How do you explain the disparity? Was this new book an attempt to help others begin answering their own questions?
DQ: Believe me, I was surprised by the disparity when it became evident, as book followed book. It eventually became clear to me that I DO have a weird way of looking at things that others can't automatically pick up on. "Lined Paper" is designed to analyze my "method" (as far as it can be analyzed) and to help others adopt that method.
EG: What's the best part of your job? How do you renew yourself when you're feeling burnt out?
DQ: The best part of my job is seeing some new angle of attack to bringing my message home. You might say that each of my books represents a different angle of attack -- and that includes "straight" novels like "After Dachau" and "The Holy." Having finished "Lined Paper," I am, for the moment, without a new direction: written out, rather than burnt out.
I'm sure we're not the only ones eagerly awaiting Daniel Quinn's next inspiration. You can check out his most recent book, If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways at your local book store. If you're looking for more, be sure to check out Ishmael.org for the latest updates and thoughts; the comprehensive Q&A section gives a deeper look into Daniel Quinn's way of thinking, and there are also many compelling short stories and parables.