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What Ishmael Unveiled

Every so often I read a book that overturns my entire view of the universe. A book that I share with everyone I know. A book that I leave in cafés for strangers to read. Ishmael: An Adventure in the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn is one of those books. In the novel, the main character, Ishmael, a giant sentient gorilla, teaches his human student “how to save the world,” while revealing profound truths about humanity that sit right in front of our noses. Ishmael changed my outlook on humanity, and it inspired me to adopt a cause: bringing our species back into harmony with the Earth through awareness and action.
Ishmael revealed to me that many of the assumptions we “civilized” people take for granted are nothing more than myths. Drenched everywhere in Western culture lies the assumption that humans are the chosen species, that we were placed here on Earth to rule above all other life. Ishmael points out that even in science classes, we present evolution as a gradual ascent towards us— humanity. However, have we ever considered that we lack what other all other animals possess— a harmonious relationship with the environment? Instead we have adopted what Ishmael calls a “Taker” culture, in which we claim the Earth as ours for the taking. We strip her of all of her resources until there are none left for future generations. When our culture does recognize the existence of this self-destructive behavior, we write it off as mankind’s greedy nature. But, as Ishmael points out, our selfish attitude does not innately stem from mankind. Humans existed for millennia living simply, “primitively,” without disrupting the ecosystems in which they lived. The dawn of civilization brought the harmful concepts of property and human exceptionalism; nevertheless, we laud our civilizations as the greatest accomplishments of our species.
Humankind sits on a precipice. If we continue our limitless consumption of natural resources, then we hurtle towards the demise of our species. Simply curbing energy use and recycling isn’t enough. If we want to change the future of our species, we must persuade people to think differently about our place in the universe. Ishmael certainly transformed my thoughts. Rather than viewing life as an all you can eat buffet, I now see that sacrificing luxuries, such as meat and long showers, will bring more long term benefits to our species. All that I claim possession of— my furniture, my books, even my brain cells— do not actually belong to me. I only borrow them temporarily from the atom bank of the Earth. To pay off my loan, I look for ways to live in more harmony with the Earth, such as buying used clothes and locally grown food, and conserving water. Most importantly, I try to influence others to change their attitude of entitlement into one of humility, for I know that only by undoing the “Taker” mindset can we make real progress towards achieving unity with the living world around us.



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