From Part One: Closing In on the Problem
I heard this, naturally, from my grandfather, he from his grandfather, he from his own grandfather, and so on, back many hundreds of years. That means this tale is very old. But it won't disappear, because I offer it to my children, and my children will tell it to their children, and so on.
-- Gypsy storyteller Lazaros Harisiadis, quoted by Diane Tong in Gypsy Folk Tales
A fable to start with
Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations--packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds, and so on. One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed a unique social organization called a tribe. Tribalism worked well for them for millions of years, but there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social organization (called civilization) that was hierarchal rather than tribal. Before long, those at the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury, enjoying perfect leisure and having the best of everything. A larger class of people below them lived very well and had nothing to complain about. But the masses living at the bottom of the hierarchy didn't like it at all. They worked and lived like pack animals, struggling just to stay alive.
"This isn't working," the masses said. "The tribal way was better. We should return to that way." But the ruler of the hierarchy told them, "We've put that primitive life behind us forever. We can't go back to it."
"If we can't go back," the masses said, "then let's go forward--on to something different."
"That can't be done," the ruler said, "because nothing different is possible. Nothing can be beyond civilization. Civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention."
"But no invention is ever unsurpassable. The steam engine was surpassed by the gas engine. The radio was surpassed by television. The calculator was surpassed by the computer. Why should civilization be different?"
"I don't know why it's different," the ruler said, "It just is."
But the masses didn't believe this--and neither do I.
A Manual of Change
My first concept of this book was reflected in its original title: The Manual of Change. I thought of this because there's nothing the people of our culture want more than change. They desperately want to change themselves and the world around them. The reason isn't hard to find. They know something's wrong--wrong with themselves and wrong with the world.
In Ishmael and my other books, I gave people a new way of understanding what's gone wrong here. I had the rather naive idea this would be enough. Usually it is enough. If you know what's wrong with something--your car or your computer or your refrigerator or your television set--then the rest is relatively easy. I assumed it would be the same here, but of course it isn't. Over and over again, literally thousands of times, people have said to me or written to me, "I understand what you're saying--you've changed the way I see the world and our place in it--but what are we supposed to DO about it?"
I might have said, "Isn't it obvious?" But obviously it isn't obvious--or anything remotely like obvious.
In this book I hope to make it obvious.
Humanity's future is what's at stake.
Who are the people of "our culture"?
It's easy to pick out the people who belong to "our" culture. If you go somewhere--anywhere in the world--where the food is under lock and key, you'll know you're among people of our culture. They may differ wildly in relatively superficial matters--in the way they dress, in their marriage customs, in the holidays they observe, and so on. But when it comes to the most fundamental thing of all, getting the food they need to stay alive, they're all alike. In these places, the food is all owned by someone, and if you want some, you'll have to buy it. This is expected in these places; the people of our culture know no other way.
Making food a commodity to be owned was one of the great innovations of our culture. No other culture in history has ever put food under lock and key--and putting it there is the cornerstone of our economy, for if the food wasn't under lock and key, who would work?
What does "saving the world" mean?
When we talk about saving the world, what world are we talking about? Not the globe itself, obviously. But also not the biological world--the world of life. The world of life, strangely enough, is not in danger (though thousands and perhaps even millions of species are). Even at our worst and most destructive, we would be unable to render this planet lifeless. At present it's estimated that as many as two hundred species a day are becoming extinct, thanks to us. If we continue to kill off our neighbors at this rate, there will inevitably come a day when one of those two hundred species is our own.
Saving the world also can't mean preserving the world as it is right now. That may sound like a nice idea, but it's also out of reach. Even if the entire human race vanished tomorrow, the world wouldn't stay the way it is today. We will never, under any circumstances, be able to stop change on this planet.
But if saving the world doesn't mean saving the world of life or preserving it unchanged, what are we talking about? Saving the world can only mean one thing: saving the world as a human habitat. Accomplishing this will mean (must mean) saving the world as a habitat for as many other species as possible. We can only save the world as a human habitat if we stop our catastrophic onslaught on the community of life, for we depend on that community for our very lives.