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Unwinding the Spool of Civilization in Ponting’s The Green History of the World and Quinn’s Ishmael
Clive Ponting’s The Green History of the World and Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael both critique the dominant paradigms of modern human civilization-especially where its relationship with environment is concerned. Both feel strongly that we are in trouble. Neither are quite willing to make final connections and present us with a systematic method for getting out of our impending ecological crisis, but they both do spell out what has been wrong, what is wrong now, and what will happen should we choose not to take evasive action.
In the absence of similar works “in the canon” it is hard not to feel as though, (as the character Ishmael promised), if you accept their premises you are doomed to isolation for, those who see the future most clearly are usually outcasts, lost as to what power they may have to change minds and directions.
Enlightenment almost always comes at a price, often steep.
In the interest of exploring the necessity of dissent, let’s follow that line of environmental thought a little further. Ponting presents us with the scientific/cultural evidence that backs up what Quinn is saying: that we as a species are destroying our foundations even as we proclaim our creation-Civilization-a success. If this massive breakdown and foreboding future are certainties, then we must ask-as Quinn does-who or what is telling us lies to make us believe otherwise? His character Ishmael calls it “Mother Culture” and insists that its pervasive voice acts to keep us on course even when large portions of the population have every reason to lose hope in Her tenets. This all-powerful entity would, presumably, include most educational establishments and media outlets, and so information to the contrary would rarely be funded or reported, and probably never directly emphasized.
Which leaves us with a challenge: using Thomas Kuhn’s model for change in the social sciences, we must endeavor to see if the Ponting/Quinn paradigm for all civilization is merely a shift in attitude or-as would be difficult for Kuhn to imagine-an entirely new realization that carries with it remedies for the penalties it warns of. If this is a shift back in paradigm, to hunter-gatherer or Noble Savage imagery, then the potential for civil disruption is great. With the stakes of annihilation as high as they are presented, such a shift could justify sweeping political/economic reform that-in the absence of the believed-in reality-would only place more of the Earth’s population in positions of subsistence and subservience. The other alternative, however, is intense suffering and death on a massive scale and the real possibility that Mankind would survive (in small numbers) only to begin the march again.
In other words, if environmental science is right we must act immediately. But if we act immediately, and the science is not right or complete, then we put great populations at risk to the whims of authoritarian political/economic systems. Because there is so much at stake, dialogue is crucial.
Time, too, becomes paramount, for there seems to be only a limited window of opportunity in which to choose correctly and act decisively. But, if Ponting, Quinn, and a growing body of like-minded thinkers, are right, then we must begin to change our direction now. So, we are faced with a decision: should we change in the face of compelling but not yet complete data, or should we go on in a direction that has no other explanation (or even acknowledgment) of that compelling data?
Common sense is informative when we consider the stakes: if we begin to enact environmental legislation that respects the laws of ecological/biological diversity and gives room for alternative patterns of existence, then we can and should expect an improvement in ecosystems that, by its very definition, should translate into improvements for all human populations. If we let current practices continue unabated, then we should expect still-increasing profitability, but with two caveats: that the rich will continue to enjoy the lion’s share of it, and that limited resources will eventually catch up with their consumption. And while modern economics in theory teaches that no such limitation can occur due to changing technology, it neglects the fact that the resources in question really do become scarce or extinct in reality.