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  Ishmael Community: Dialogue on Beyond Civilization

Dialogue on Beyond Civilization between Jef Murray and Daniel Quinn, December 1999

JEF MURRAY is an artist and writer who resides with his wife, Lorraine, in Atlanta. Jef holds BS and MS degrees in Electrical Engineering and has extensive graduate-level training in Environmental Engineering and Fine Art. In addition to developing his artwork, Jef writes for numerous conventional and electronic newspapers and magazines on the topics of Voluntary Simplicity and sustainability. He is a volunteer with the New Road Map Foundation, and is a member of the non-profit FI Associates' National Council.

JEF MURRAY: Many people in the U.S. have, especially since the early 1980's, been actively seeking a different way of living. It's been called different things by different groups (e.g., the "frugality" movement, Voluntary Simplicity, "downscaling", intentional living, etc.), and this search for a better way to live is, in fact, just the latest in a long, long line of movements founded by individuals and groups that have held that something is wrong with us and/or our culture that needs to be fixed. Clear examples of these are the social upheaval of the 1960s, the anti-industrialist movements in America and Europe at the turn of the century, the "transcendentalist" writings of Thoreau and Emerson, the philosophies of Jefferson and Franklin, the beliefs of the Puritans...and stretching back and back through the millennia to the ancient Greeks and beyond, even until the advent of civilization as we know it.

Definitions of what this dis-ease on the part of so many is about have come from a number of contemporary authors Duane Elgin, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, Cecile Andrews, Janet Luhrs, Linda Breen Pierce. Related topics have been tackled by David Korten, Ernest Callenbach, Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Paul Hawken, Jeremy Rifkin, Bill McKibben, etc. And the overarching goals of those seeking to live more simply have included a desire for more meaningful work, a desire to live rather than just consume, a desire to lessen our individual and collective impacts on the earth, a desire to live in greater harmony with nature, a desire to (as Studs Terkel once wrote) "make a dent", or to leave this earth in better shape than we found it.

Along with secular writers, we've had informing contributions from the various religious/spiritual/ philosophical traditions: the Dalai Llama, Desmond Tuttu, the Findhorn Community, Pope John Paul, Ram Dass, Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Krishnamurti, Gandhi, etc. Stated goals of these writers (in consensus with many of the secular authors) have been to attempt to create greater community and a more compassionate world, to live according to our deepest religious/spiritual convictions, to go beyond injustice, cruelty, disease, suffering, to help people to live up to their potential, to help curb the abuses of governments and corporations, to more equitably distribute the wealth of the earth among all peoples.

In other words, the Simplicity movement and its forebears represent a tremendously diverse amalgam of differing beliefs, goals, and visions. Yet the one characteristic that seems the most deeply and fundamentally present among all members of this group is the one mirrored by the protagonist in your book Ishmael -- that of knowing that something is wrong, and having "an earnest desire to save the world" from itself.

Can we begin, then, by discussing what is wrong with the world as we know it? And what does "saving the world" mean from the perspective of your writings, and particularly from the perspective of your latest book, Beyond Civilization?

DANIEL QUINN: From my point of view, there's nothing whatever "wrong with the world." Assuming that by "the world" you mean the world of life (as opposed to, say, just the physical globe), it's a self-perpetuating, self-renewing organism that has been functioning flawlessly for four billion years or so--and is still functioning flawlessly today. You might say that it's a system with an almost unlimited capacity for adaptation. When it adapts in ways that don't suit our human purposes, however, we (perhaps naturally) tend to view this as something "wrong."

For example when the microorganism Pfiesteria Piscicida begins to proliferate in coastal river estuaries and oceans, causing "red tides" and massive fish kills, this is just the world adapting to current conditions. But because we don't WANT Pfiesteria Piscicida to proliferate in coastal river estuaries and oceans, we perceive that something "wrong" is taking place (while, from the world's point of view, this is just business as usual). The same can be said of the melting polar icecaps. Because we don't WANT them to melt, we perceive this as something going wrong. But if the global temperature rises, then the icecaps MUST melt. If they didn't, then something would be very wrong indeed: the laws of physics would be being violated.

From our point view, we'd like to be able to do things to the earth WITHOUT the earth adapting to the things we do to it. We want to change conditions on the earth--and have the earth stay the same. This is not only unrealistic, it's childish, like expecting to be able to eat your cake and to have it as well.

I was surprised at your characterization of Ishmael as reflecting "'an earnest desire to save the world' from ITSELF." The world is not in any sense in danger from ITSELF. The world is in fact not in any danger at all. It is WE who are in danger. We're in the process of making the world uninhabitable by humans (as well as by millions of other species). But if we finally succeed, the world will go on exactly as before, adapting to this new humanity-free condition.

When we speak of saving the world, this cannot mean "keeping the world from changing." It's impossible to stop the world from responding to the things we do to it. It cannot mean "saving the world from us," because the world is not really in danger from us (though millions of species are). It can only mean "saving the world as a human habitat" (which will entail curtailing our lethal onslaught against the conditions that make it possible for us to live here).

An important point made in all my books is that rendering the world uninhabitable is not the work of humanity itself. Humanity existed here for three million years without manifesting any tendency toward making the world uninhabitable. This is the work of a single culture that in a mere eyeblink of time (on the geological time scale) has brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

JM. So this single culture -- our culture -- is not exhibiting a fundamental flaw found in all of humankind, but is rather exhibiting behavior based on a vision of how to live that is proving lethal to us. Is this a more accurate way of expressing it? And if so, what is the nature of the vision that is driving our behavior?

DQ. All my books are investigations of an unacknowledged cultural mythology that lies at the heart of "the vision that is driving our behavior." I call it a cultural mythology because (while we take it to be a set of self-evident truths) it's clearly a set of irrational and improbable notions that are peculiar to our culture and no other. We take it for granted, for example, that the earth is a piece of human property that we may use as we see fit. We take it for granted that the earth was made for us to conquer and rule, and that we are uniquely fitted to rule it. At the same time as we believe ourselves to be uniquely fitted to rule the world, we believe ourselves to be fundamentally flawed. But no matter how flawed we are (and no matter how disastrous our reign), our fitness to rule the world is beyond question.

We're convinced that, while there is no one right way to build a computer or an automobile, no one right way to fashion a wing or a nest, no one right way to shape a beak or a claw, there MUST be one right way for people to live--and that everyone should be made to live that way. We further believe that the way WE live is that one right way. The way we live is the way people were meant to live from the beginning of time. Our social organization, civilization, represents an unsurpassable blessing that we must cling to--even if it kills us.

This complex of ideas is what drives our behavior as a people. This is the way people are MEANT to live, and we must go on living this way even if it kills us (and hundreds of thousands, even millions, of other species as well).

JM. In Voluntary Simplicity circles, often one of the great "Aha!" moments -- one of the great epiphanies of folks trying to get off of the earn-and-spend consumer treadmill -- comes when folks realize that their behaviors are a form of role playing. They're acting out certain cultural myths: myths like "more is better", "growth is good", "bigger is better". Living deeply in debt, voting for conservative "pro-job" politicians and buying an SUV are really just specific instances of going with the (cultural) flow.

And, in fact, these cultural myths (e.g., "more is better") are just local outcroppings, as it were, of the deeper mythologies you're speaking of, are they not? And these deeper mythologies are not specifically a phenomenon of the United States consumer culture at the end of the 20th century. In fact, these ideas are just as deeply embedded among Hindus in India, Buddhists in Japan, Anarchists in Oregon, Catholics in Venezuela, and Muslims in Saudi Arabia as they are in us. We can, if I understand correctly, find our cultural siblings on every continent and in nearly every extant religious and political system. Is it fair to say, however, that one of the signs of our being "among our own", culturally, is the existence of hierarchical social structures -- of there being distinct "haves" and "have nots"?

DQ. Every civilization (and I use the word in its ordinary dictionary sense) turns food into a commodity. Among people for whom food is free for the taking (as it once was for humans everywhere), it's impossible to imagine a civilization coming into existence or remaining in existence. Just think what would happen in our own civilization if tomorrow food became free for the taking and no one had to work for it anymore.

As soon as food becomes a commodity, society automatically falls into a hierarchical structure, with those who control access to it at the top and those who need access to it at the bottom. In ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh controlled access to food. In modern times, wage-payers control access to food (because the wage is what gives workers access to food). The vast majority of workers globally don't go to work in order to own automobiles and computers and high-resolution television sets, they go to work in order to put food on the table (which is all their wage enables them to do)--and if food were free for the taking, they wouldn't go to work at all. Below this lowest class of workers is of course a still lower class of the unemployed and unemployable who, earning no wages at all, must beg, steal, or scavenge their food.

The system is the same whether you live in Detroit, Bangladesh, Beijing, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires.

JM. So, in our culture, which you describe in "Beyond Civilization" as "the culture of maximum harm", we are all bound by this mechanism. Even if we recognize the inherent unfairness of the system, we have no choice but to participate, since it is "clear" to us all that there is no alternative--we "know" that our culture provides us with the very best way to live and that it cannot be surpassed.

You've described, also, a continuum of participants in our cultural structure, and I think being honest about this continuum is important. The vast majority of those in the Voluntary Simplicity movement are not anywhere near the lower end of this continuum. They're in the middle to upper part, where the rewards in terms of "stuff --food, shelter, education, transportation--are relatively plentiful. Simplifiers recognize the deficiencies in other areas -- in lack of time, in lack of community, in lack of security, in lack of meaningful work--and it is important for them to question their circumstances and to try to opt out of the financial traps that are part and parcel of our culture. But it's also important to acknowledge that Voluntary Simplicity, by itself, cannot address the underlying vision that is continuing to push us toward extinction.

In order to address the vision itself, the driving mechanism, we have to consider fundamentally non-hierarchical ways of living, do we not? We have to look for ways of living that are available to all, not just to those in the middle and upper classes. And you have stated that such ways of living exist. Can you explain?

DQ. I was recently in New York City to participate in a British video documentary devoted to "The Stone Age." It presented an orientation problem for me because the series (like so much of our literature) reflects back on our ancient ancestors our own obsession with products. In other words, the series perceived our ancestors to be in the stone-tool making business the way we're in the business of making automobiles, computers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, cameras, sporting equipment, and so on. Our ancient ancestors seemed to be envisioned as people living in a consumerist society based on stones instead of things like dishwashers, fountain pens, radios, central heating, Xerox machines, bathtubs, cigarettes, and sunglasses.

Humans didn't evolve as stone-workers. They evolved as tribal beings just the way bees evolved as hiving beings. The tribe is a distinctly human social organization. I mean by this that it's not only unlike the social organization of geese, termites, wolves, or dolphins, it's unlike the social organization of our nearest biological relatives--chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, and so on.

None of the social organizations found in the living community are about making and consuming products. Bees are not in the honey-making business, birds are not in the nest-building business, spiders are not in the web-making business--and no one would imagine them to be (though they readily imagine our ancestors to be in the stone-tool making business). Every social organization found in the living community is in place because it helps its members make a living (and every living creature on earth has a living to make; nothing, not even the green plants, receive what they need to live while remaining inert). Virtually all the activity we see in the living community is activity connected with making a living.

Every social organization we see in the living community is the survivor of thousands or millions of years of natural selection. Whales live in pods not for some arbitrary reason, but because this particular social organization is the one that natural selection never eliminated. Millions of years of testing couldn't produce a better one, which means it's pretty safe to say the pod is the social organization that works best for whales, just as it's pretty safe to say that the pack is the social organization that works best for wolves, the flock is the social organization that works best for geese, and the troop is the social organization that works best for baboons.

But, needless to say, the suggestion that the tribe is the social organization that works best for humans is often greeted with horror and consternation by people of our culture. To offset some of this horror and consternation, it's important to note at the outset that a social organization is not an occupation. Our ancient ancestors were hunter-gatherers by occupation, but the tribal organization didn't force them to be hunter-gatherers, it enabled them to be hunter-gatherers--made it easy for them to make their living by hunting and gathering. Most tribal peoples extant today are not hunter-gatherers but settled agriculturalists living in villages, and the tribal organization makes it easy for them to make their living this way.

I generally avoid the word natural (which is nowadays so often taken to be a synonym for good), but it's tempting to say that the tribal organization comes naturally to people when no other social organization is working or in place. For example, the homeless "naturally" gravitate toward tribal associations, not because there is some arcane instinct at work among them but simply because this is what works best for them. To be alone on the streets is the hardest and most dangerous situation for any homeless person. Much, much better is to ally yourself with a small group of other homeless people, who can watch your back while you watch theirs; it makes sense to share what you have with them, because you want them to share what they have with you. It's completely ordinary to see one of them share a bonanza with the others--not because he or she is noble and altruistic but because this is what works best in the long run. And this is the very essence of the tribal organization. There's nothing abstruse about it.

I should note (in answer to your question) that I don't think of the tribe as "a way to live," any more than I think of Robert's Rules of Order as a way to live. It gives people a way to pool their energies in the interest of making a living. As I describe in Beyond Civilization, my wife Rennie and I (with two others) once had a tribal newspaper in New Mexico. Being tribal made it very easy for us all to make a living this way, but I can't think of it as "a way to live." It simply enabled us to achieve something that wouldn't have been possible if we'd tried to do it in the conventional way.

JM. Ok. I think I see the distinction between seeking "a way to live" versus seeking "a way to make a living." In fact, in retrospect, asking "how should one live?" sounds suspiciously like asking "what is the one right way to live?" And this question is, again, one of our cultural mythologies rearing its ugly head....

But if tribalism, as a social organization, can help us to provide ourselves with more of what we really want (e.g., more meaningful work, more security, less disparity between the rich and the poor, less power to hierarchical structures that wield too much power), then an example should illustrate this

Let's suppose I want to start a freelance writers' group to develop features, editorials, etc. for local and national publications. I care about the environment and sustainability, so I'd like to collect a group of high quality writers who can also do research on topics related to the environment, and who share an enthusiasm for taking on writing tasks that are in alignment with a sustainable vision for the earth. Let's say I've found three other writers plus one marketer and one PC-savvy accountant that are interested.

On the conventional route to starting the "The Gaia Writers' Group," I would need to get enough money to pay myself and my "employees" for, say, a year or two. I'd also need funds to rent office space and equipment. Since this amount comes to hundreds of thousands of dollars, I would need a bank loan or would have to locate a venture capitalist who can "float" us for the time needed to establish the company. I opt for the latter (since I don't have hundreds of thousands of my own to "invest"), and then become an "employee" of "The Gaia Writers' Group, Inc." just like everyone else (except that, as with the venture capitalist, I am half owner of the business).

If things work very well, the company may grow and the original employees (if offered stock options as a benefit of employment) might eventually make a lot of money with an initial public stock offering. On going public, however, the group comes increasingly under the scrutiny of shareholders who may demand higher output from workers and more lucrative projects, whether or not they align with the original values of the company. In fact, I am likely to be replaced as "CEO" by someone chosen by the stockholders.

Unfortunately, if things don't go very well, even worse problems arise. If, for instance, we don't earn much money the first year or two, funds may dry up with no additional sources in sight. Pressure will be put on all of us (by the venture capitalist) to work harder, or to consider more lucrative types of writing, perhaps, than what we love. Or we could be bought by a larger firm that puts us into the very sort of large corporate hierarchy we were originally trying to avoid.

So, in both a successful and a failing "standard" business scenario, we end up in the same state that drove us to start our own business in the first place.

Now, consider "The Tribe-of-Gaia Writers' Group." Here we have the same setup as before, but all six of our original "employees" are now willing to approach the business tribally. We find that one of us has a large basement room that can serve as an office, and we scrounge PCs we currently own as well as some new equipment. There is virtually no overhead, since we agree, tribally, to share whatever income we generate, regardless of how much or how little. That may mean several of us work second jobs, and will almost certainly mean that lowered personal living expenses would be a plus.

If things go well, the group adds people who share our vision as needed. We pick and choose between work, based on our values, and can keep the group to a size that works for all of us. There's no particular incentive to "go public," since there is no venture capitalist or bank urging us to produce higher returns. If things don't go well, we tighten our belts, and may even consider taking writing jobs we're not too happy with, but accept this as a group in order to keep us all going. We'd have to not make money for quite a while before we would be forced to quit, since there are no loans to pay back and no fixed salaries to cover.

So, have I described these two scenarios accurately? Is this characterization consistent with your definition of the differences between a conventional and a tribal business?

DQ. I'm not really qualified to testify to the accuracy of your first scenario; some might think that you've exaggerated the start-up difficulties or the consequences of success or failure. I simply don't know. I know enough about myself to know that I couldn't start a business that way to save my life (even if I was interested in doing so, which I'm not and never have been).

The second scenario certainly exemplifies what I'm talking about as a tribal enterprise. It clearly shows why a tribal business is easy to start and maintain and why it's more likely to succeed (at least to the degree desired by the members of the tribe). All the key elements are in place, and you've caught the spirt of the thing exactly.

I'd offer this extension.In one episode of the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, the magazine fashion editor asked her assistant Bubbles what her (Bubbles') job was. Bubbles thought for a moment and said, "Get paid?"

Eventually and inevitably someone outside the tribe is going to say to you, "Hey, I really like what you're doing. I'd like to be part of it." How do you evaluate this proposal? In a conventional business, the question would prompt this question in return: "Would your contribution be worth the salary we'd have to pay you?" This is the appropriate question to ask of an employee. In a tribal setting, however, the question would be different: "Can you extend our living to include yourself?" This is the appropriate question to ask of a tribal member. You don't just want an employee dragging cash out of your pockets. You want a tribal member who is somehow bringing in (or making it possible for YOU to bring in) enough new income to justify his participation in the wealth of the tribe.

This is not to say that a tribal business can't have employees. If you find you need a file clerk, you're going to hire a file clerk, just the way you'd hire a plumber to fix a leak. But this person isn't extending the tribe's living to include himself or herself. Rather, the tribe is giving up some of its living to provide a salary for this needed employee.

Or let's say you decide you need a website, and none of you have the time or background to create it. You contract with a website designer to do the job--but again this person doesn't need to become a member of the tribe. But suppose alternatively that you're approached by an internet guru who says to you, "I can extend your business by twenty percent, not just by designing a website but by tapping into internet resources you aren't even aware of." Now you've met someone you may want to be part of the tribe (provided he or she is actually interested in making that commitment).

I'm not sure it's possible to have a member who has one foot inside the tribe and one foot outside. For example, if this internet wizard's REAL dream is someday to build another ebay, amazon, or fatbrain, then he or she is not for you. We've faced exactly this situation ourselves in our own search for tribal members. We've found people who could extend the living of our tribe to include themselves, but their ambitions are fixed on some other goal entirely and very understandably don't care to throw their lot in with ours, even though they may be very supportive of what we're doing, wish us all the best, and so on.

JM. What seems most important in a tribal way of making a living is that all members get from the tribe what they most need. The labor involved is less because those aspects of starting a business that tax the labor of all for the benefit of the few aren't present. And yet, the "business" is only compelled to grow bigger as its members feel inclined to allow it. There's an elegance here--a recognition of what is enough for the tribe that is a mirror of the "enoughness" that many in the Simplicity movement seek. And, presumably, since the living is being made for the benefit of all tribe members, the members themselves would be happier; in fact, you've described tribal businesses you've encountered in which this is emphatically the case.

It also seems clear to me that if more and more people recognized the richness of making a living in a social structure that is designed for their needs rather than the needs of stockholders, politicians, CEOs, etc., fewer and fewer would flock to the Microsofts, the Exxons, the World Trade Organizations, the Monsantos, the Medellin drug cartels. By moving toward tribalism, we collectively withdraw support from those structures built by our culture's current vision. And by withholding support, we allow the destructive mythologies that have driven our culture for 10,000 years to pass away.

But you've mentioned in Beyond Civilization that one of the keys to making this shift toward a social structure that offers us so much of what we really want is changing minds. Getting people to realize how their own belief systems lock them into working at jobs they hate so that they can buy stuff they don't really want has been an ongoing goal of many of us in the Voluntary Simplicity movement. It seems clear to me that your ideas go beyond just the question of how to help folks off of the earn-and-spend treadmill that has been a lot of our focus. For my final question, then, I'd like to know where you see avenues of potential synergy between your work and those of us in the Voluntary Simplicity and related movements? Are there ways we can help each other?

DQ. It is a curious feature of the prevailing "world of work" that workers are encouraged (and in a real sense compelled) to get AS MUCH AS THEY CAN. This fosters a fundamentally competitive environment in which workers try to outdo each other in making themselves visibly dedicated (working the longest hours, for example), by looking the most worthy of promotion (by "dressing for success"), by taking credit for others' accomplishments, by framing events in a way that makes their co-workers look bad, and so on. An employee who declined a promotion and a raise by saying "I don't WANT that much" would not only be considered a kook, s/he would be deemed untrustworthy (much the way the New York cop Serpico was deemed untrustworthy by his peers because he declined to accept his share of bribes). It would be clear that such an employee is not "with the program"--which is of course exactly the case. How can you trust someone who would pass up a chance to stab you in the back if the opportunity presented itself? Employers definitely want their workers to be trying to get as much as they CAN, not as much as they merely WANT.

It's only in the tribal model that workers are free to get as much as they merely WANT. If you actually want very little (as the members of our tribal newspaper did), than knocking yourself out by working long hours, neglecting your family, dressing for success, betraying your co-workers, and so on becomes ridiculous. Why would you do these things if you're getting what you WANT? In the tribal setting, you're ALLOWED to be content with what you have. In the tribal Neo-Futurist theater company I describe in Beyond Civilization, the members are not looking for ways to stab each other in back, because what on earth would it get them? They're not jockeying for promotions--promotions to what?

The watchwords for the New Tribal Revolution are: (1) WALK AWAY (from "the Microsofts, the Exxons, the World Trade Organizations, the Monsantos, the Medellin drug cartels), (2) GO TRIBAL, and (3) THINK INCREMENTAL. When you say that "By moving toward tribalism, we collectively withdraw support from those structures built by our culture's current vision. And by withholding support, we allow the destructive mythologies that have driven our culture for 10,000 years to pass away," you display a rare willingness to "think incremental."

Many people can get behind the idea of a cataclysmic revolution that will reduce civilization to a smoking ruin overnight, and many others can get behind the idea of a day-long festival of prayer and meditation that will make civilization melt away into nothing like the Wicked Witch of the West. But the idea of undermining civilization's foundations and sapping its titanic strength incrementally as a rewarding, lifelong process is a bit of a shocker.

My high school physics teacher, when talking about mass, said that if you should ever confront a locomotive creeping down the tracks at an inch a second, your intuition will tell you that you can stop it easily just by sticking our your hand. But, even though it's traveling only an inch a second, your intuition is wrong, because its enormous mass will keep on moving forward as if you weren't even there. This is the way it is with our civilization. It has the momentum of two hundred human generations behind it. Its crushing forward movement isn't going to be stopped in a moment, but every hand pressed against it reduces its momentum infinitesimally--and the more hands that are applied to the task, the sooner it will be stopped in its tracks.

The hardest question you've asked is about "avenues of potential synergy" between my work and those in the Voluntary Simplicity and related movements. After several hours of thinking and writing, the best I can come up with is a fable (and you know how fond I am of fables)., I have to talk about what my work is (and isn't). At its simplest, I think my work is reaching people with new ideas--however I can, wherever I can--through books, speeches, essays, letters, websites, video and audiotapes, videoconferencing, and indeed interviews like this one. I have no organization and am the leader of no movement. As such, it's not easy for me to see what use I can be to those who DO have organizations or movements, though I'm always open to discussion and suggestions.

I think of the famous story of Dutch boy who saw that water was gushing from a small hole that had opened in the dike. Realizing that the small hole would soon be a big one, then an even bigger one, threatening the whole dike, he stuck his finger in the hole. Soon some people came along, and, seeing what he was doing, said, "How can we help you?" "Why are you talking about helping ME?" the boy said. "The whole country is in danger! Get help for the DIKE!"

A worker walking along a road came across a crowbar lying in the dust. He'd never seen such a thing, but he said to himself, this looks like a very useful object. "How can you help me?" he asked of it, "and how can I help you in return?" The crowbar said, "I can be put to use in all sorts of ways, but how can I possibly know which of those ways will be helpful to you? Even you will find new ways to use me as time goes on. As for me, I'm easily satisfied. All I need is to be put into as many hands as possible. The more widely I'm used, the happier I am!"


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