The Culture of Maximum Harm
Daniel Quinn, Ishmael.org
[This is an excerpt from Beyond Civilization, pages 109-118. Read more here or you can check your local bookstore to buy a print copy.]
People have lived many different ways on this planet, but about ten thousand years ago there appeared one people who believed everyone in the world should live a single way—their way, which they considered the only “right” way.
After ten thousand years of hard work, this one people, whom I’ve called the Takers, had conquered every continent on the planet and dominated the world completely. In the course of their conquest, the Takers overran, swallowed up, displaced, or eliminated every other culture and civilization in their path. Once the civilizations of the New World were destroyed, there was only one civilization left in the entire world—that of the Takers: ours. From that point on, civilization was synonymous with our civilization.
At the present time, the United States represents the high point of maximum affluence that our civilization has reached. There’s no place on earth where people have more, use more, or waste more than the United States. Though other nations haven’t as yet reached this high point, they yearn to reach it. They have no other goal. There’s only one right way for people to live, and the people of the United States epitomize it. Everyone in the world should have a house, a car, a computer, a television set, a telephone, and so on—at least one of each, preferably several.
This I call “the culture of maximum harm,” a culture in which all members are dedicated to attaining the high point of maximum affluence (and to forever raising the high point of maximum affluence).
But How Can We Contain Their Expansion?
I’ve been asked, “If we don’t crush the Taker way entirely, won’t it rebound and begin expanding again?”
The Middle Ages could only remain the Age of Faith for as long as Christian mythology dominated people’s minds, all the way from serfs to kings. After that mythology was abased and superceded during the Renaissance, it was inconceivable that such an Age of Faith could recur. Never again will a whole civilization embrace the vision that dominated the Middle Ages.
The same is true of Taker mythology. Once it has been exposed for what it is—a collection of poisonous delusions—it will no longer be capable of exercising the power it has exercised over us for the past ten thousand years. Who, knowing that there’s no one right way for people to live, will take up the sword to spread the Taker vision? Who, knowing that civilization is not humanity’s last invention, will defend the hierarchy as if it were humanity’s most sacred institution?
But won’t the last pharaohs in their maddened wrath turn their nuclear arsenal on us?
Perhaps they would if they could, but where are they going to find us except living right beside them in their own cities? Is the president, seeing his/her power slip away, going to bomb Washington D.C. to destroy the tribal people living there? Is the governor of New York going to bomb Manhattan?
Something Better to Hope For
Because all six billion members of the culture of maximum harm are striving to maximize their affluence, we shouldn’t be alarmed solely by the one percent who live like lords of the universe. We must be equally alarmed by the other ninety-nine percent who are hoping to live like lords of the universe. It’s probably not going to be the billionaire pop stars, sports heroes, and deal-makers who are going to lead us out of the prison we share with them. It’s the rest of us who must find the way out, who must discover something better to hope for than inhabiting a sable-lined cell next to Barbra Streisand, Michael Jordan, or Donald Trump.
The world can support a few million pharaohs, but it can’t support six billion pharaohs.
“Something better to hope for. . .” Is this by any chance a reference to what I called “another story to be in” in Ishmael? Is this what I meant when I said that “people need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them”? Is this what I meant when I said in The Story of B that “If the world is saved, it will be saved because the people living in it have a new vision”?
Of course it is.
An Intermediate Goal: Less Harmful
In case it isn’t evident, I’m still working on my student’s question: “How does walking away from civilization help us live as harmlessly as sharks and tarantulas and rattlesnakes?” Any move beyond civilization represents a move away from the culture of maximum harm and therefore reduces your harmfulness. Jumping over the wall of the prison won’t instantly make you as harmless as a shark, tarantula, or rattlesnake, but it will instantly move you in that direction.
Look at it this way: no move beyond civilization will ever result in greater harm. If you want to do harm, you’ve got to stick to civilization. It’s only inside that framework that you can burn up ten thousand gallons of jet fuel just to have lunch at your favorite restaurant in Paris. It’s only inside that framework that you can casually dynamite a coral reef just because it inconveniences you.
Moving beyond civilization automatically limits your access to the tools needed to do harm. The people of the Circus Flora will never build a Stealth bomber or open a steel mill—not just because they wouldn’t want to but because even if they wanted to, they wouldn’t have access to the tools. To regain access to the tools, they’d have to leave the circus and find new places for themselves in the culture of maximum harm.
But is “Less Harmful” Enough?
Though it’s a good and necessary start, being less harmful is not enough. We’re in the midst of a food race that is more deadly to us and to the world around us than the Cold War arms race was. This is a race between food production and population growth. Present-day followers of English economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), like those of the past, view producing enough food to feed our population as a “win,” just as American Cold Warriors saw producing enough weapons to destroy the Soviet Union as a “win.” They fail to see that, just as every American “win” stimulated an answering Soviet “win,” every win in food production stimulates an answering “win” in population growth.
Right now our food race is rapidly converting our planet’s biomass into human mass. This is what happens when we clear a piece of land of wildlife and replant it with human crops. This land was supporting a biomass comprising hundreds of thousands of species and tens of millions of individuals. Now all the productivity of that land is being turned into human mass, literally into human flesh. Every day all over the world diversity is disappearing as more and more of our planet’s biomass is being turned into human mass. This is what the food race is about. This is exactly what the food race is about: every year turning more of our planet’s biomass into human mass.
Ending the Food Race
The arms race could only be ended in two ways, either by a nuclear catastrophe or by the participants walking away from it. Luckily, the second of these happened. The Soviets called it quits—and there was no catastrophe.
The race between food and population is the same. It can be ended by catastrophe, when simply too much of our planet’s biomass is tied up in humans, and fundamental ecological systems collapse, but it doesn’t have to end that way. It can end the way the arms race ended, by people simply walking away from it. We can say, “We understand now that there can be no final triumph of food over population. This is because every single win made on the side of food is answered by a win on the side of population. It has to be that way, it always has been that way, and we can see that it’s never going to stop being that way.”
But this isn’t going to happen because of these few words—or even the thousands I’ve devoted to it in my other books and speeches. This subject engages our cultural mythology at the most profound level—a level far deeper than I imagined when I thought it could be handled in a few pages in Ishmael. This is the deadly man-eating Minotaur at the center of the labyrinth of our culture . . . far beyond the scope of the present expedition.
100 Years Beyond Civilization
People will still be living here in one hundred years—if we start living a new way, soon.
But how would we get there, and what would it look like? Utopians can’t let go of the idea of sweeter, gentler, more loving people taking over. I prefer to look at what worked for millions of years for people as they are. Sainthood was not required.
To project into the future: as people begin going over the wall in the early decades of the new millennium, our societal guardians are at first alarmed, seeing it as portending the end of civilization-as-we- know-it. They try heightening the wall with social and economic barbed wire but soon realize the futility of this. People will keep dragging stones if they’re convinced there’s no other way to go, but once another way opens up, nothing can stop them from defecting. Initially the defectors derive their living from the pyramid-builders, just as circuses do today. As time goes on, however, they begin to be less dependent on the pyramid-builders. They interact more and more with each other, building their own intertribal economy.
After a hundred years civilization is still hanging on at about half its present size. Half the world’s population still belongs to the culture of maximum harm, but the other half, living tribally, enjoys a more modest lifestyle, directed toward getting more of what people want (as opposed to just getting more).
200 Years Beyond Civilization
Gradually the economic balance of power shifts between “civilization” (by now almost always burdened with those quote marks) and the surrounding “beyond civilization.” More and more people are seeing that they can trade off a plenitude of things they don’t deeply want (power, social status, and supposed conveniences, amenities, and luxuries) for things they really do deeply want (security, meaningful work, more leisure, and social equality—all products of the tribal way of life). “The economy,” no longer tied to an ever-expanding market, has become an increasingly local affair as global and national corporations gradually lose their reason for being.
Two hundred years out, the thing we call civilization has been left behind and seems as quaintly obsolete as Oliver Cromwell’s theocracy. The cities are still there—where would they go?—as are the arts, the sciences, and technology, but these are no longer instruments and embodiments of the culture of maximum harm.
I don’t indulge in these speculations in order to lay claim to powers of prophecy. I toss them into the water to show you what part of the pond I’m aiming at . . . and to let you follow the ripples back to the shore of the present.
But Where Exactly is “Beyond”?
In the paradigmatic utopian scenario, you gather your friends, equip yourselves with agricultural tools, and find a bit of wilderness paradise to which you can escape and get away from it all. The apparent attraction of this weary old fantasy is that it requires no imagination (being ready-made), can be enacted by almost anyone with the requisite funds, and sometimes actually works for longer than a few months. To advocate it as a general solution for six billion people would set an all-time record for inanity.
Civilization isn’t a geographical territory, it’s a social and economic territory where pharaohs reign and pyramids are built by the masses. Similarly, beyond civilization isn’t a geographical territory, it’s a social and economic territory where people in open tribes pursue goals that may or may not be recognizably “civilized.”
You don’t have to “go somewhere” to get beyond civilization. You have to make your living a different way.
About the Author
Daniel Quinn is best known as the author of Ishmael, used in classrooms from midschool to graduate school all over the world. Other works include The Story of B, My Ishmael, Beyond Civilization, After Dachau, The Holy, Tales of Adam, and If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways.
**This article was featured at Films for Action.**
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