Address by Daniel Quinn to the Sixth Annual Rice University Environmental Conference, Houston, Texas, February 14, 1998


Whenever I receive an invitation to speak at an event like this, one of the deciding questions I ask myself is whether I have anything to say that is relevant to the theme of the event. If I feel I don’t have anything relevant to say, I decline the invitation. Following this procedure, when I was invited to address this conference I asked myself whether I had anything relevant to say about its theme, which is, as you know, “Protecting the Environment: Whose Business Is It?” I found that I did have something to say, and the best way I could think of saying it was going to be in the form of a parable, which I actually sat down and wrote before formally accepting the invitation. Here’s what I wrote.

Once upon a time in a certain city it was noticed that pre-adolescent children were beginning to throw themselves off the roofs of tall buildings with alarming frequency. No one wondered for a moment whose business it was to deal with this alarming development. The city council met and quickly drafted some regulations requiring the erection of guard rails on the roofs of tall buildings. Denied this means of suicide, however, children began to throw themselves off of much lower buildings, and soon all buildings of more than three storeys were required either to install guard rails or to block access to roofs. The expense was enormous, but of course what is outgo to one person is income to another, so the economy continued to flourish as before.

Unfortunately, however, the pre-adolescent suicide rate did not decline. Instead of throwing themselves from buildings, children were now drowning themselves in the river that ran through the city. This was even more perplexing, because no one could think of any practical means of making the river inaccessible to would-be suicides. At the same time, no one wondered whose business it was to stop these drownings. The city council met and finally decided to erect watch towers every five hundred meters all along the river’s edge. Unfortunately, the effect of this was merely to move the suicides from daytime hours to nighttime hours, when the watchers were blinded by darkness. Of course, it was totally out of the question to install searchlights to cover such a wide area. Instead it seemed sensible to institute a curfew for children under fifteen. So, between the watch towers manned during the day and the curfew maintained during the night, self-drowning came to an end — but, alas, not the suicides in general.

Children began to hang themselves. Civic leaders saw immediately that they needed parental cooperation to control this new development, and so initiated a massive education program to show parents how to reduce hanging opportunities in their homes and neighborhoods. Ropes were put under lock and key. Belts, ties, and suspenders vanished. Bedrooms were routinely searched for evidence of braiding projects.

As hanging opportunities declined, however, children found other opportunities in bottles, jars, and boxes in medicine cabinets, potting sheds, and garages. With these means, they succeeded in rendering themselves sick, blind, comatose, brain damaged, and indeed very often completely dead. New educational programs were put in place, and the city expanded the activities of its poison control center to include home visitations and inspections.

The hospitals soon noticed a decline in pre-adolescent patients who were merely sick, blind, comatose, or brain damaged — but a dramatic increase in those who were just plain dead by poisoning. A reporter on the local paper soon discovered the explanation. As poisons became unavailable in the home, teenage entrepreneurs began to make up the shortfall in the school environment. Not only were poisons readily available there, the market pressure of competition assured that they were of high quality, which is to say that, unlike products found randomly in the home, these were reliably lethal.

Naturally law-enforcement officials ordered a crackdown on the playground poison trade. And naturally this didn’t end the trade, it just drove up prices. The incidence of crime among pre-teens soared as youngsters scrambled for funds with which to buy oblivion. Then one day an armed eleven-year-old was gunned down by law enforcement officials at a robbery site. This was a revelation for would-be suicides, for they suddenly realized that it was now much easier to find death by way of a policeman’s bullet than by conventional means, which the city had gone to so much trouble to put out of reach. Overnight a fifth of all the city’s pre-teens were running amok to make themselves into attractive targets of lethal force.

The city council hastily met to address the crisis. The police commissioner was on hand to demand safety for the public. The head of the police union was on hand to demand safety for law enforcement officers. The head of the controller’s office was on hand to explain that there were no funds left anywhere in the budget to throw at this problem. The school superintendent wanted special patrols for classrooms and hallways. The head of the teacher’s union, on the other hand, argued for an early school closing. The city attorney proposed developing an early-warning system so suicidal youngsters could be locked up for their own good. The head of the prison department informed him that the jails were already full to overflowing with would-be suicides, with a shocking number of them condemned to sleeping on the floor.

A member of the general public — an ordinary citizen — at last managed to gain the floor to make a statement. “Instead of spending all this time, energy, and money to prevent children from doing what they want to do,” she said, “why don’t we spend some of it to find out why they WANT to do it in the first place? What is IMPELLING them to self-slaughter? We need the answer to that question, and when we have it, we need to do something about it. Then we won’t HAVE to patrol the river and guard the roofs and lock up our neck ties and all the rest.”

Well, this statement shocked the assembly into a long moment of silence. Then a wave of baffled looks and shrugs traveled round the room, and the council members resumed their former conversation at precisely the point at which it had been interrupted.

The question is: Why? Why was this upstart citizen ignored? It was because she was not going along with the idea that pre-adolescent suicide is government business. We all know what the business of government is. The business of government is making and enforcing regulations. Governments approach ALL problems as problems of making and enforcing regulations. They reduce all problems to things about which regulations can be made and enforced. This upstart citizen was trying to propose an approach to the problem that had nothing to do with regulations, and so she was ignored — and rightly so, from the point of view of the city council.

This brings us, clearly enough, to the theme of this conference: Protecting the Environment: Whose Business Is It?

Well, to answer this question, we naturally have to begin by asking what is this thing called “the environment”? You can help with this answer by taking out a moment to point to it. Does anyone here know where this thing called “the environment” is to be found? This is not a trick question. Where is “the environment”? Please help me out by pointing to it. That’s right, “the environment” is something out THERE. It extends deep into the earth and high up into the sky. It encompasses trillions of cubic miles of earth, air, and water.

Now if we define our problem here as “protecting” trillions of cubic miles of earth, air, and water, whose business is it going to be? What agency could imaginably take on such a task? Or maybe it would help to describe what means could possibly be employed to protect trillions of cubic miles of earth, air, and water. I’ll start with a suggestion. The only conceivable way to undertake protecting trillions of cubic miles of earth, air, and water is to MAKE REGULATIONS and ENFORCE THEM. So now guess whose business it is to “protect the environment.”

As far as I’m concerned, protecting the environment is a conceptually equivalent to regulating EVERYTHING. And whose business is it to regulate everything? For those of you who answered “The Government,” give yourself a perfect score of one hundred.

The upstart citizen who interrupted the city council meeting refused to define the city’s problem as a problem only governments can handle. And I refuse to define the problem WE face as a problem only governments can handle. It’s true that only governments can realistically “protect the environment” (and those three words are in quotes). But I refuse to accept “protecting the environment” as a meaningful description of our problem. In fact, I think it’s a lousy description. In fact, I think that “protecting the environment” is probably a description that was invented by a bureaucrat in order to preempt the problem and let everyone know that this is government business, and ordinary citizens should butt out.

My book Ishmael begins with a famous want ad, which reads “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world.” The ad does NOT say “Must have an earnest desire to protect the environment.”

You laugh because you see that there is simply a titanic difference between these two ways of perceiving our problem.

Protecting the environment is not nearly enough. Protecting the environment is just something bureaucrats can manage. What WE want is what that upstart at the city council meeting wanted. She didn’t want to make it difficult for children to kill themselves. This is something bureaucrats can manage. She wanted to keep children from wanting to kill themselves!

Our situation is the same. Personally, I am not in love with the environment. The environment is just an IT. It’s a collection of STUFF, a conglomeration of physical and chemical processes. Has anyone here ever fallen in love with trillions of cubic miles of stuff? Has anyone here ever had an ecstatic experience with “the environment”? Has anyone here ever gone for a picnic in “the environment”? Has anyone here ever taken the kids out to spend an afternoon in “the environment”? No, I confidently believe that the only person who could really LOVE something called “the environment” would have to have the heart of a statute-writer.

But I do love the world. And I do have an earnest desire to save the world, and this is something I share with hundreds of thousands (and probably millions) of other people. People seem to have in common an intuitive understanding of what saving the world means. The world is our HOME. It’s not just “the environment.” Saving the world means our children will have a place to grow up — and their children — and their children. Failing to save the world means our children will grow up (or fail to grow up at all) in the land of nightmare and catastrophe.

The fable I began this talk with has a second point. What the dissident told the city council was, “Why work only to PROTECT our children from their suicidal impulses? Why not find out what’s BEHIND their suicidal impulses and deal with THAT? In other words, why not deal with the CAUSE of the problem instead of perpetually dealing with its effects?”

By adopting a strategy of “protecting the environment,” our leaders are adopting the same reactionary strategy as the city leaders of my fable — but for slightly different reasons. The officials of my fable were merely stupid. Our leaders aren’t stupid, they’re just acting in accordance with the fundamental mythology of our culture, which represents humans as intrinsically and hopelessly destructive. This being the case, the only conceivable course for them is to (quote) “protect the environment” — from us, of course. Who else? The environment doesn’t have to be protected from shellfish or owls or rattlesnakes or elm trees. It has to be protected from those intrinsically and hopelessly destructive beings who are US. The pre-teens of my fable seemed to be impelled to self-slaughter, but it never occurred to city officials to wonder WHY. We seem to be impelled to destroy the world, and it similarly never occurs to our governmental protectors to wonder WHY. What they’ve learned from infancy is that humans are just NATURALLY destructive. So, for anyone under the spell of our cultural mythology, all ANYONE can do is . . . “protect the environment.”

In THE STORY OF B I made the following statement: “If the world is saved, it will not be saved by old minds with new programs, it will be saved by new minds with no programs at all.” With these words, I’ve redefined our task. Our task (if we hope to avoid extinction on this planet) is not to “protect the environment” but rather to change minds. “Protecting the environment” is not enough and will never be enough, because it is essentially reactionary, essentially defensive. It WAITS on bad things to happen. It WAITS on — DEPENDS on — our destructiveness. “Protecting the environment” is an invitation to develop programs, one after another, FOREVER, to combat our destructiveness — as “Preventing suicide” in my fable was an invitation to city officials to develop programs, one after another, FOREVER, to combat their children’s self-destructiveness.

“Protecting the environment” is the business of those among us who never expect to achieve more than stalemate with the forces that are rendering our planet uninhabitable. We must have more than that. Stalemate is just not good enough. And that’s the very first mind-change we must make — getting rid of the notion that “protecting the environment” is the very best we can hope for.

Protecting the environment is for bureaucrats and vote-getters. We can safely leave that in their hands to screw up in the usual fashion. But saving the world is different. Is anyone here waiting for Bill Clinton and Al Gore to save the world? No, saving the world is too important to leave to them. Saving the world is for upstarts and lovers. Saving the world is for the rest of us.


Questions from one member of the audience compel me to append this note.

“Saving the world” is a slippery concept, to be sure. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, it’s not in our power to render this planet lifeless. Life as such is safe from us, so we don’t need to save the world in the sense of biosphere. I’ve defined saving the world elsewhere as an enterprise calculated to preserve (as far as possible) the world as it is today. Of course we can’t preserve the world as it is today in any literal sense, since upwards of two hundred species a day are disappearing as a direct result of our encroachment on the world’s remaining wilderness. The question I received from the audience at Rice University’s Environmental Conference was getting at something else that I didn’t recognize until later.

Just as it’s not within our power to destroy all life on this planet, it’s not within our power to preserve all life on this planet exactly as it is today (or tomorrow or any other day), even if we totally ceased growing, totally ceased polluting the environment, and rolled our population back a hundred-fold or a thousand-fold. In other words, evolution is utterly beyond human control and always will be. We can’t say, “We like the world exactly the way it is today” — and then FORCE it to stay that way. To think we could do this would be utterly absurd — and utterly arrogant. With or without us, the world of life is FOREVER changing and will never stop changing just to suit us.

This being the case, what on earth can “saving the world” mean? I can only approach a definition in this way: Saving the world means ceasing to make ourselves the direct cause of mass extinctions through sheer recklessness. No matter what we do (even if we disappear entirely!), extinctions will continue to occur on this planet — just exactly the way they always have. But they don’t have to continue as a direct result of our expansion and our pollution of the environment. You might say then that “saving the world” is equivalent to “making ourselves as harmless as any other species.”

The key words in that phrase are “as any other species.” Anytime a new species appears, adjustments must inevitably occur in the rest of the community, and some of these adjustments may well result in extinctions. That’s what evolution is all about. This isn’t a measure of the species’ ferocity or voraciousness. For all anyone knows, the emergence of butterflies may have resulted in a whole cascade of extinctions. In other words, “making ourselves as harmless as any other species” doesn’t mean making ourselves gentle or loving or sweet-natured. Just as it’s true that butterflies may have been the cause of countless extinctions, sharks may never have caused a single extinction.

Please note that I’m not “changing my mind” here. Ishmael asked Alan Lomax: “Does being civilized . . . make you incapable of living as harmlessly as sharks and tarantulas and rattlesnakes?” Charles Atterley in THE STORY OF B said, “Man lived at peace with the world . . . for millions of years. This doesn’t mean he was a saint. This doesn’t mean he walked the earth like a Buddha. It means he lived as harmlessly as a hyena or a shark or a rattlesnake.”

So, to repeat: Saving the world surely doesn’t mean freezing it as it is right now — or returning it to some supposedly ideal evolutionary state (equally impossible). What it does mean is learning to live harmlessly in the world — as harmlessly as sharks and tarantulas and rattlesnakes.