By Donella Meadows
–June 11, 1992–
Watching my president argue with other leaders of nations about who shall own, patent, and collect the profits from the earth’s biodiversity, I wish I could get him — and all the others — to read just one book.
I know, leaders don’t read. But I can’t help thinking how different the Rio Conference could have been, if the qualification for entry had been a quiz on the contents of Ishmael, written by Daniel Quinn (Bantam Books, 1992). Ishmael is a gorilla. The book is a surprisingly funny but profound dialogue between him and a human narrator. In it Ishmael tells us just what the other species think about our plans to own, patent, and profit from them.
Here’s a sample of the conversation. The narrator has just told Ishmael the story of creation, starting with the big bang, ending with the evolution of man.
“And so your account of creation ends, ‘And finally man appeared.'”
“Meaning that there was no more to come. Meaning that creation had come to an end.”
“This is what it was all leading up to.”
“Everyone in your culture knows that the world wasn’t created for jellyfish or salmon or iguanas or gorillas. It was created for man.”
Ishmael fixed me with a sardonic eye. “And this is not mythology?”
“Well … the facts are the facts.”
“Did the entire cosmic process of creation come to an end three million years ago, right here on this little planet, with the appearance of man? Did evolution come to a screeching halt just because man had arrived? Do you see the slightest evidence anywhere that man was the climax toward which creation had been straining from the beginning?”
“No. I can’t even imagine what such evidence would look like.”
“So what are we to make of that story you told?”
I bared my teeth in a rueful grin. “It’s a myth. Incredibly enough, it’s a myth.”
From that startling beginning Ishmael coaxes out of his human informant more of the myth. “If the world was made for you, then what?”
“Then it belongs to us and we can do what we darn well please with it.”
“Exactly. That’s what’s been happening for the past ten thousand years. You’ve been doing what you darn well please with the world. And of course you mean to go right on doing it, because the whole thing belongs to you.”
“Yes,” I said, and thought for a second. “Actually that’s pretty amazing. I mean, you hear this fifty times a day. People talk about our environment, our seas, our solar system. I’ve even heard people talk about our wildlife.”
You may already be uncomfortable with the conversation, but Ishmael is just getting to the really dark side of our culture’s reigning myth. He goes on, “The world was made for man to conquer and rule, and under human rule it was meant to become a paradise. This clearly has to be followed by a ‘but.’ It has always been followed by a ‘but.’ The ‘but’ was there to explain all the flaws in your paradise — warfare and brutality and poverty and injustice and corruption and tyranny.”
I looked at him blankly.
“Come, think. What went wrong here? What has always gone wrong here? Under human rule, the world should have become a paradise, but …”
“But people screwed it up.”
“Because there’s something fundamentally wrong with humans. Something that makes people stupid and destructive and greedy and shortsighted.”
“Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this.”
I gave him a long incredulous stare. “Are you suggesting that this explanation is false?”
Yes, Ishmael considers the flawed-humanity part of the story to be as mythical as all the rest. He concludes, “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”
That statement occurs on page 86. The rest of the book develops another story, a fascinating and heartening one, for humanity to enact. Our leaders and we ourselves, if we chose to adopt that story, would see that there are more essential and more precious human rights for governments to defend than the right to make money. And there is much, much more value in nature for governments to protect than the potential for money to be made.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1992