Ishmael – An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

In 1989 Ted Turner created a fellowship to be awarded to a work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. The winner, chosen from 2500 entries worldwide, was a work of startling clarity and depth: Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, a Socratic journey that explores the most challenging problem humankind has ever faced: How to save the world from ourselves.

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Technology & the Other War

Address by Daniel Quinn at Student Pugwash “Technologies of Peace” Conference, Carnegie Mellon University, 1997

I’m not going to talk long here, because it’s been my experience that people who’ve read my books always come loaded with questions that are always much more relevant to them than anything I could dream up to say in advance.

Four years ago one of the organizers of the Minnesota Social Investment Forum called to ask if I would come address their annual meeting. This was in fact one of the very first invitations I’d ever received to speak, and I must say that it puzzled me a lot. Why would a bunch of investors–social or otherwise–think I had something to say to them? I know nothing whatever about investing, have never written a single word about investing.

The following year I received an invitation to address a sort of executive committee made up of representatives from every department of a regional hospital system centered in Albuquerque New Mexico–each of whom had read my work. Needless to say, I was even more puzzled. I’m a regular mine of information about investing–compared to what I know about hospitals and health care.

Last winter I was contacted by someone connected with The Woodlands Group, an informal gathering of human resource professionals and organizational development specialists who have been meeting four times a year for something like twenty years. Each meeting has as its focus a book that has a unique contribution to make to them and their work. The focus of this spring’s meeting was going to be on two books of mine, Ishmael and The Story of B. The question for me was, would I care to come and interact with them for the three days of their meeting? I have only the vaguest idea what human resource professionals and organizational development specialists actually DO, but of course I said yes.

And then of course there was the invitation to address this group here, meeting to consider something called “Technologies of Peace.” I’m very far from being an expert on the subject of social investment, health care, human resources, organizational development, OR technology–but there I was and here I am. Why? Not “Why am I here?” but rather “Why was I invited?”

I’ll share this answer with you because I think it may in fact be more important and more useful to you than anything I have to say on the subject of technology. If you were to ask all those people WHY they invited me to speak on subjects I’m apparently unqualified to address, I think you’d work hard to get a single, coherent explanation out of them. But here it is. The characteristic of my work that appeals to all these different points of view is this: I follow a strange rule that can be applied usefully to any subject whatever, whether it’s social investment, health care, human resources, or the technologies of peace. Here it is: IF THEY GIVE YOU LINED PAPER, WRITE SIDEWAYS.

We are perpetually being presented with lined paper on which we are expected to write our thoughts, our lives, and indeed our futures. Nicholas Copernicus received a full sheaf of lined paper at the end of the fifteenth century, and some of those lines represented the physical arrangement of the universe as it was understood at that time. It was perfectly possible for him to be a respected astronomer so long as he did his work within the lines of the Ptolemaic system. But because he eventually saw that he had to write sideways against those lines, he knew that his most important work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), could not be published until after his death. Albert Einstein similarly received a full set of lined paper as a young man, but his was a different sort of age. When he turned the paper sideways and began to work out his theory of relativity, this was very quickly recognized as an important contribution. Darwin, Freud, and Marx are other well known examples of people who took the lined paper they were given and turned it sideways to do important work that changed the world.

Let me give you an example of some of the lines found on the paper you’ve received so far–you, I–everyone who grows up in this culture. “Because we have a growing population, we must finds ways to increase food production. Increasing food production is essential and undoubtedly beneficial work.” These are the lines on the paper we’ve been given. But when I turn the paper sideways and write, “Food production is the fuel of our population explosion, and the more we increase it, the more fuel we supply that explosion,” everyone goes crazy. I’m not writing inside the lines!

The paper we receive provides lines not only for single opinions in our culture but for opposing opinions as well. For example, there’s a set of lines for writing in favor of capital punishment and a set of lines for writing in opposition to capital punishment, and we’re all familiar with them. When writing in favor, you say, “Some crimes deserve this ultimate punishment, and it acts as a deterrent.” When writing in opposition, you say, “No crime deserves this ultimate punishment, and it DOESN’T act as a deterrent.” You can use either set–but only an original thinker turns the paper sideways and says, “Punishment isn’t a value for me, and deterrence can never be demonstrated in any definitive way. So where do we go from here?”

There is a set of lines for writing in favor of abortion and a set of lines for writing in opposition to abortion, and if you turn that paper sideways and write the wrong way against those lines, you’d better do it anonymously–or move to the moon. There is even a set of lines for writing in favor of technology and a set of lines for writing in opposition to technology. Here is someone writing within the lines in opposition to it: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in ‘advanced’ countries.” The media has elevated the author of these commonplace ideas to the level of a genius, because a madman is always more interesting if he’s a genius. He is Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who seems to have imagined that he was saying something terribly original in his ponderous diatribe, called “Industrial Society and its Future.”

You might be surprised to know how many people go along with the line of thinking taken by the Unabomber–or perhaps you wouldn’t, I have no way of knowing. Some heavy lines have grown up in recent decades around the concept of “natural.” Natural foods are good foods, foods that come to us, as it were, directly from nature, without the addition of artificial colors or preservatives. This notion has been extended in all sorts of directions. Clothes made from “natural” fibers contribute to a more “natural” lifestyle. Shampoos made from “natural” ingredients are presumably better for your hair than shampoos made from ingredients synthesized in a laboratory. Thinking along these lines has produced, by a kind of sympathetic magic, the notion that everything manmade is unnatural, and therefore unhealthy and quite possibly evil. If something comes to us from bees or sheep or flowers, it’s natural and okay, but if it comes to us from humans it’s unnatural and noxious. Humanity has gradually come to be perceived as ITSELF unnatural–as somehow no longer belonging to nature. When a beaver fells a tree, this is a “natural” event. When a man fells a tree, this is an unnatural event–perverted, unholy.

Technology, in this context–to use Kaczynski’s words–has made life unfulfilling, has subjected human beings to indignities, has led to widespread psychological and physical suffering, and has inflicted severe damage on the “natural” world–the natural world being that world where humans don’t belong at all.

Writing across these heavily drawn lines has been hard work. Those of you who have read Ishmael or any of my other books know that it’s been my particular business to re-imagine the life story of our species as a member of the general community of life on this planet–not as the ruler or steward of that community or as the most important member of that community or as the single culminating high point that the universe has been straining to reach for the past fifteen billion years or so.

When humanity is scaled down to the size of the rest of the community, distinctions between “natural” and “unnatural” become very hazy indeed. For example, why exactly is the trail system of a white-tailed deer “natural” but an expressway system “unnatural”? Why is a bird’s nest “natural” but this building we’re in here “unnatural”?
An easy answer might be that the bird builds from “natural” materials and we don’t. But then you might ask why wire, cotton, string, paper, fiberglass, and even cement are often found in birds’ nests. Someone in Texas recently found a raven’s nest constructed entirely of barbed wire. Workers in an office building in California once found a canyon wren’s nest built entirely of office supplies–things like pins, thumbtacks, paper clips, rubber bands, and so on–not a shred of so-called natural materials.

The ancestors of birds didn’t fly–and neither did ours. The creatures we call birds eventually FOUND a way to fly–as did we. It’s not easy to explain why this transition was “natural” for birds but NOT natural for us. If we conceptually restore humanity to its place in the community of life, it becomes a little difficult to figure out how ANYTHING we do is “unnatural.” In fact (I suggest), this distinction between natural and unnatural that we hear so often made–especially in reference to technology–is as little reality-based as the distinction between approved and unapproved recreational drugs.

Speakers at event like these always receive lined paper at the outset. This isn’t meant in any sense as a criticism. The theme of any event (as stated in its title) is specifically INTENDED to provide lines. I recently gave a keynote address at the annual convention of the North American Association for Environmental Education, and the theme of this meeting was “Weaving Connections: Cultures and Environments.” Now these were hazy lines indeed, so faint that, for all practical purposes, they could be ignored. The result was, I didn’t have to turn the paper sideways, I just talked about what was currently on my mind, and this is basically what they wanted me to do anyway.

The theme of THIS event, “Technologies of Peace,” presents a different sort of challenge entirely. There are some clear lines drawn here, and I’d like to spend a few minutes examining them.

What is understood instantly is: Technologies of peace–versus technologies of war. It’s not, for example, technologies of peace versus technologies of commerce or technologies of peace versus technologies of communications. The dichotomy to be focused on is the one between peace and war.

For any culturally literate Westerner, a foundation piece of wisdom found in the bible will spring to mind on the subject of technologies of war versus technologies of peace. Here it is, from the second chapter of Isaiah:

  • The Lord shall judge between the nations,
  • and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
  • they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
  • and their spears into pruning hooks;
  • nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  • neither shall they learn war any more. 


This is a great and famous image of people turning from war to peace–unless you happen to be in the habit of following my rule. If you turn this lined paper sideways, what you see in this business of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks is not people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war–from an inTRAspecies war to an inTERspecies war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature–the mythological war that the people of our particular culture have been waging here for the past ten thousand years. 

The plowshare has always been understood by the people of our culture as the sword they follow across the face of the earth. They followed it out of the Fertile Crescent eastward to India and China, they followed it northward into Europe, and finally they followed it westward into the New World.

The first great addition to the “technologies of peace” in the New World may have been the cotton gin, but the second was the more important. This was the John Deere plow, called “the plow that won the West.” Everyone in nineteenth century America understood the military reference in this nickname. Guns and swords didn’t win us the West, though we had to have them to drive off the Indians. It took a plow to win us the West–a plow that could penetrate the intransigent, never-before cultivated soil of the Great Plains.

I bring all this up because it’s important that you not be deceived into thinking that any technology we don’t use as a weapon against each other is automatically a technology for peace. There are not two kinds of technology in this domain, there are three. There are technologies for peace, technologies we use to conquer each other, and technologies we use to conquer the world–technologies for what I’ve called “the other war.”

Technologies for the Other War need special attention, because I’m afraid most people WILL take them to be technologies of peace, and that’s a very hazardous mistake. This is because, oddly enough, the wars we wage against other species are actually no less dangerous TO US than the wars we wage against each other.

Two examples will show you why this is so. Two examples will be sufficient, because there are basically two kinds of species we go to war against: Those species we can easily destroy right down to the last member and those species we cannot easily destroy down to the last member. I’m afraid that many of our current crop of “technologies for peace” are devoted to these wars.

It’s relatively easy for us to destroy large, slow-breeding species like elephants, giraffes, gorillas, bison, wolves, coyotes, passenger pigeons, Siberian tigers, whales, California condors, and so on. Some of these are already extinct, and probably most of the ones I’ve named will become extinct during your lifetime. These large, slow-breeding species are not, for the most part, being killed off directly by technology. They’re being obliterated by our population explosion–which receives essential support from technologies that are perceived in our culture to be technologies not just of peace but of godliness itself. A famous recent example is the well-known “Green Revolution,” a technology that made it possible for us to grow our population from three billion to six billion in just 35 years. The sacred work continues, of course, in every school of agriculture in the world, where every researcher is diligently working to give us the tools that will enable us to grow our population from 6 billion to 12 billion in ANOTHER 35 years.

Upwards of two hundred species–mostly of the large, slow-breeding variety–are becoming extinct here every day because more and more of the earth’s carrying capacity is systematically being converted into HUMAN carrying capacity. These species are being burnt out, starved out, and squeezed out of existence–thanks to technologies that most people, I’m afraid, think of as technologies of peace. I hope it will not be too long before the technologies that support our population explosion begin to be perceived as no less hazardous to the future of life on this planet than the endless production of radioactive wastes.

We’re very like people living on the top floor of a high rise who every day set off two or three explosions in the lower floors of the building, weakening and even demolishing walls. Still–so far–the building stands, and the top floor where we live continues to sit on top. But if we continue to set off two or three explosions a day in the lower floors, then eventually and inevitably, one of these explosions is going to create a critical weakness–a weakness that combines dynamically with all the other weaknesses to bring the building crashing down.

We can say, “Yes, it’s true that we drive a couple hundred species to extinction every day, but there are tens of millions–hundreds of millions–between us and catastrophe.” We can SAY this, but the sheer number is no guarantee, because like the random bombers in the high rise, there’s no way of telling which extinction will be the one that suddenly combines dynamically with thousands of others to bring the whole structure down.

This brings me to the other kind of species we’re are war with–the small, rapidly-breeding species. Species of this type become our enemies for one of three reasons: they invade our fields and eat our food, they invade our houses and make us nervous, or they invade our bodies and make us ill. These are all pretty obvious. The first type are all the various insects and funguses that feed on our crops. The second type are creatures like cockroaches, fleas, and termites. The third type are bacteria and viruses.

The technological strategy we’ve pursued in our dealings with these small, fast-breeding creatures has been remarkably obtuse. Very simply, all too often we’ve acted as though we could make these creatures extinct down to the very last member, the way we might do with elephants or pandas. All too often we’ve acted as though the more we killed, the closer we came to making them extinct. But of course this constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of biological realities.

What we’ve done in actual fact is make ourselves the chief agent of natural selection in these enemy species. Our insecticide hasn’t killed off every last member of the targeted species in a given field. It’s killed off the 80% that are most susceptible to the deadly effect of the insecticide, leaving alive as breeding stock for the next generation the 20% that was less susceptible. Generation after generation, we are in effect PRODUCING a population of insects more and more resistant to our insecticides. If we WANTED to produce such insects, this would be exactly the way to go about it!

In the same way, I’m afraid, we’re systematically developing household pests that are more and more resistant to the insecticides we use against them.

The misguidedness of our technological strategy toward the small and fast-breeding is even more evident–and more disturbing!–when it comes to human disease organisms. In areas of the world where antibiotics are used more freely and are often available without prescription, resistant “super-bugs” are turning up with alarming frequency. Bacteria resistant to penicillin have emerged in Africa. In France and Britain, Enterococcus, a bacterium that causes blood infections, became resistant to vancomycin in the late 1980s. Atlanta hospitals recently came across a deadly staph germ that is only one step away from becoming completely immune to what is now the last-resort antibiotic against it. A strain of plague has appeared in Madagascar that is immune to standard antibiotics.

It must be kept in mind that this is nothing remotely like “nature fighting back.” This is merely nature operating exactly the way we know it operates, the way it has been operating here for some three and a half billion years. As I say, if we WANTED to produce a bacterium resistant to an antibiotic, this is exactly how we would proceed. We would kill off as many as we could from a population of bacteria and let the survivors produce a next generation. Then we’d kill off as many of that generation as we could and then let the survivors produce a next generation. And so on. Eventually, sure enough, we would produce a generation that was totally impervious to our antibiotic–and that’s what we’re doing globally.

Not that I’m trying to alarm you. [Kidding.] I’d better end here by saying that I’m definitely FOR technologies of peace. At the same time, we’d better be aware that SOME technologies of peace are actually more hazardous than ANY technology of war.