Lock Up the Food—Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn 1989

by Eva van Loon

Not enough people have read this 18-year-old book, which leads us down the jungle path to find out why things are the way they are. Ishmael re-landscapes the mind. Said Jim Britell of Whole Earth Review: “From now on I will divide the books I have read into two categories -- the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after.”

In 1989 Ishmael won Ted Turner’s prize, for fiction about solutions to global problems, by exploring the biggest challenge in history: how to save the world from ourselves. Over the years the book has developed iconic status, studied in schools as well as in the New Tribalism movement it spawned.

Ishmael opens with an ad: “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world.” The narrator is startled to find his teacher is a silverback gorilla, Ishmael, who grew up alongside humans, uniquely placed to deliver lateral insights into history.

Ishmael’s paradigm of human history differs from any in schools: the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago marked the time when some humans conceived the idea of locking up the food, thus forcing others to work, war, or wheedle for their share.

The ultimate expressions of that doctrine of locking up the food are now upon us. Our government, for example, forbids us to sell the food we ourselves grow except under its tight control and, sometimes, to impossible legal standards. And agribusiness has invented terminator seeds, the idea being to force farmers to buy seed each season under the guise of quality control. Such control over food supply swiftly turns Earth into a prison planet. Science and the rule of law become the work of the devil instead of the tools of enlightenment they were meant to be.

Think about locking up the food. Spend a few minutes imagining a life without that doctrine, without worry about the next bag of groceries. What would our neighbors be like if they weren’t forced to compete for food, basic clothing and shelter? If we each merited that much, simply by being born?

Mind-boggling, isn’t it? Our entire market economy—and the war machine that depends on corporate greed--just imploded inside your head.

Ishmael suggests a subtext for the Adam-and-Eve story: eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil refers to the notion that humanity is special within Creation, special enough to take on god-like powers. That sense of entitlement sanctions limitless technology as pure science.

Children understand this parable very well. Remember Jurassic Park? As the scientist who cloned dinosaurs from prehistoric mosquito blood proclaimed the glory of science, my 7-year-old companion stage-whispered to me, “He thinks he’s God!” Yes, indeed. That film was all about the consequences of our arrogance, our sense of entitlement to rule our planet. Kicked out of Eden? No problem. Humanity has better ideas, anyway.

Ishmael divides societies roughly into Takers (they’re ready to take over from God or fate) and Leavers (they leave things up to God or fate). Taker societies have now taken over from Leaver societies around the planet. It isn’t difficult to peg our own society as the Taker type. The hard conclusion, however, is that Taker societies inevitably collapse. Leaver societies are more durable.

Quinn insists humanity wasn’t born a menace to the planet, and nothing compels us to continue being a menace. “I think we have a much finer and more exciting destiny than conquering and ruling the world,” he says. “This book shows that we can learn about…that destiny…from the life around us--and in Ishmael…life speaks with the voice of a lowland gorilla.”

Google Ishmael. Discover new groves of thought. Meditate there on ways to strengthen our life in what could be Eden once again, right here in Powell River.