Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Garden of Eden

I just want to posit a possible reading of the Fall of Man story, incorperating Daniel Quinn's ideas, adding a few of my own. Starting from the beginning of Genesis 3, I'll list each element as I come to it:

The Serpent: Snakes, when they shed their skin, gain a very deathlike appearance. But if you continue watching, the snake comes out, alive and well. Perhaps some people during the period during which this story was constructed made a leap from a live snake coming out of a dead snakeskin, to a live human spirit coming out of a dead human body; ie. they first came up with the idea of the Immortal Human Spirit, and another realm to which it belongs. If this is what the Serpent refers to, then the writer considered this to be a deception, that rather, "...you are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Genesis 3:19) Perhaps a belief that death isn't necessarily final leads men to believe that we can do whatever we want, the consequences being merely temporary and leading ultimately to a higher existance.

The Woman: Anthropologists speculate that agriculture grew initially out of women's traditional role as gatherers of edible plant materials (the stereotypical division of labor between hunters and gatherers). Perhaps it was women who first went about the business of what Quinn calls "Totalitarian Agriculture," simply because men were too busy hunting to develop this idea, the idea that humans ought to make the choices of good and evil (that is, to rule the world) to increase their food, rather than leaving it to the gods. That is, they ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course, men followed suit rather quickly, as agriculture reduces space for hunting food.

The Man: Followed the woman into a lifestyle that involved the subjugation of matters of life and death to mankind. Representative of a single culture: those that practice our way of making a living.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: Eating from it is analogous to using one's ability to rearrange the biosphere in an effort to increase one's food supply and the expense of others.

Nakedness: The realization that there is something very wrong happening with our culture...

Fig leaf loin coverings: Religion of human invention, a futile attempt to deal with the problem of what's gone wrong by pretending we have nothing to do with it... covering up the fact that our way of life is the very thing that will destroy us.

The Serpent's Curse: I'm not really sure... and I feel like this is important. Quinn has dismissed the Serpent altogether as an actor in this story, but I'm not ready to do so...

The Woman's Curse: Perhaps this refers to the fact that the birth of new societies out of old ones, in our culture, in response to changing conditions, is always done violently.

The Man's Curse: There is no doubt that agricultural societies work harder for a living than any other.

The Flaming Sword: WAR. Very simply put, if anyone attempts to "return to the Garden of Eden," that is, to attempt to live in the way all men lived before all this happened, he is rather quickly subjugated or eliminated by his neighbors. War is a fact of life, and the main reason we have to work as hard as we do is to support the armies that protect us from our neighbors. If anybody tried to live as an aborigine in the United States, he would rather quickly be taxed out of existance (an aborigine can't afford to pay property taxes, and would be chased off someone else's land). Try it in a place where property taxes aren't a problem, and someone is bound to cut down your forest, plant crops, and shoot you if you try to say anything about it.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Error of Capitalism

Here I am, reading yet more from Danial Quinn, and I find myself thinking about the fundamental difference in worldview between Capitalists and Socialists (in the either-or fashion), and finding myself forced to re-examine my own position on the matter... and at the same time coming closer to finding the "third way" beyond, not between, the two extremes.

Basically, what Quinn said was this:

the knowledge that every single action God might take--no matter what it is, no matter how large or small--is good for one but evil for another
This got me thinking about the notion that every bit of wealth one gains is a loss for another. Very simply put, many people have the unconcious notion that wealth is always gained at the expense of another, and thus you can identify the wealthy as some kind of cheat, by default. You may not know the exact mechanism by which they cheated, nor do you have to: because wealth is a static thing, a gain by one is a loss by another, and thus the wealthy are all scoundrels who cheat others out of their fair share.

On the other end is the Capitalist, who recognizes that trade isn't about one cheating another out of their share, but rather about this equation: one person has more of item A than he wants but less of item B, while a second person has more of item B than he wants but less of item A. The two trade A for B, and both are enriched by it. Even if the first is smarter than the second and gets a better deal than the second, both have more than he began with at the beginning. Had the trade never occured, the second person may not have ended up with relatively less than the first, but he also wouldn't have as much of item A as he wants, and far too much of B. So, trade is good, and wealth is simply the result of being better at making such transactions.

The thing is, I am coming to recognize that there *is* a reservoir from which all this extra stuff comes from. Human labor transforms natural resources into commodities—things that people can eat or use. In the case of things we can eat in particular, the natural resource in question is animals and plants. Hunter A may have more meat than he needs, farmer B may have more grain than he needs. They may trade meat for grain, and in the end, both have a better meal than he would have had otherwise, but the wealth wasn't created by the trade. It was created through the death of another living creature.

Now, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the death of other living creatures. All creatures live off material that was once the living tissue of another creature—yes, even the green plants, which draw nutrients from the soil, by-products of the action of bacteria feeding on the remains of another living thing. Humans are no different, nor should we think we can be otherwise. As long as we continue to exist, we will subsist of the death of other creatures.

The question to be raised is, what happens when we run out of living creatures to kill? For the herdsman kills more than he needs, in order to trade with the farmer and feed his children. The farmer plants more than he needs, in order to trade with the hunter and feed his children. As generations go by, there are more and more people, but where did the things that make up their bodies come from? They came from other creatures.

This is fine, as long as we live in a balance with the rest of the ecological community. But this is not how we are living. Our population continually grows at the expense of the rest of the ecological community. This doesn't seem to be a problem, until one realizes that if we keep growing, eventually, we'll reach a point where we are eating more than the ecological community can replace. We have already gotten to this point; this is why species go extinct at the rate they do.

Even this wouldn't be a problem, if all we were doing was replacing grass and deer and trees with wheat and cows, but the thing is, we're now converting areas to farmland and pasture that simply cannot support this sort of thing for very long. Eventually, farmers *do* ruin their land. Eventually, the soil becomes totally leeched, and formerly productive land becomes wasteland. This is as true in the developed world as it is in the developing world, though, if I understand correctly, it happens even faster in tropical regions. Cut down the rainforest, and you end up with a thin topsoil that blows away in the wind, leaving a worthless wasteland.

So what will happen when we finally run out of other species to eat? Why, we'll have to eat each other. I sincerely doubt this will be conducive to an enjoyable lifestyle, particularly if we set upon one another with the same gusto we set upon other species. While one can imagine "recycling" becoming our typical death ritual (eating those who pass away from natural causes), I can easily imagine death gangs being set up to "harvest" less economically productive humans to feed the more economically productive ones—the rich will feed upon the poor in a very literal sense.

Ugh, this is yet another "True Ramble" on my part—where the heck was I going with this?

Oh yeah, the whole Capitalist Worldview vs. Socialist Worldview thing. Basically, so long as we continue to think of the resources of Earth as being essentially infinite, we will eventually reach a point where we have run out of resources. The Socialist is locked in an earlier time when our exploitation of resources was limited, and thus wealth was typically gained at the expense of other human beings. But now, we are much better at extracting wealth from the Earth itself, and now it is not the Poor that suffer and the hands of the rich, it is Everything (including the poor, though the burden on them is less than it was in the past). Even the poor of this country live better than the wealthiest during the middle ages (they didn't have air conditioning, for example), but it is other species that suffer as a result of our opulance. Now, I don't really believe in "animal rights," but I do believe that the ultimate result of doing this completely thoughtlessly is that, one day, we're going to find ourselves without any natural resources to exploit. Then, we will starve.

The question is, what does one do about it?

(BTW, if anyone has a problem with the irregular pattern of my posts, the "non-weeklyness" of the Ramble, drop me a line. If I have any actual readers, I'll try to regularlize it again, rather than simply treating this as a repository of my thoughts.)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

My wife and I are re-reading through Daniel Quinn's The Story of B again, and we found ourselves debating about the viability about Quinn's hypothesis regarding the Abrahamic story of The Fall of Man (meaning, the Garden of Eden). It's on page 95 (of my edition, anyway), the story of The Tak. In this story, he defines some of the features of totalitarian agriculture ("...chickens may live but foxes must die... wheat may live but chinch bugs must die... Anything we eat may live, but anything that eats our food must die—and not merely on an ad hoc basis. Our posture is not, 'If a coyote attacks my herd, I'll kill it,' out posture is, 'Let's wipe coyotes off the face of the earth..."

He then claims that we have a record of the moment we assumed this attitude, from an outside observer. When asked the viewpoint of "some nomadic herders of ten thousand years ago" regarding who decides what lives and what dies, Fr. Jarred Osborne's answer was, "The Gods." B then identifies the knowledge of who lives and who dies with the knowledge of "good and evil. "What the Zeugen (the Witnesses) perceived is this, that every choice the gods make is good for one creature but evil for another, and if you think about it, it really can't be otherwise. If the quail goes out to hunt and the gods send it a grasshopper, then this is good for the quail but evil for the grasshopper. And if the fox goes out to hunt, and the gods send it a quail, then this is good for the fox but evil for the quail. And vice versa, of course. If the fox goes out to hunt, and the gods withhold the quail, then this is good for the quail but evil for the fox."

He then released the zinger: "When the Zeugen saw what the Tak were up to, they said to themselves, 'These people have eaten at the gods' own tree of wisdom, the tree of the knowedge of good and evil.'"

After going back and forth about how much this explanation makes sense to Jarred and every biblical scholar B has spoken to about it, B goes on. "I felt I had to bring this out in order to drive home the point I've been trying to make about this revolution. Even the authors of the story in Genesis described it as a matter of changed minds. What they saw being born in their neighbors was not a new lifestyle but a new mind-set, a mind-set that made us out to be as wise as the gods, that made the world out to be a piece of human property, that gave us the power of life and death over the world. They thought this new mind-set would be the death of Adam—and events are proving them right."

I hope I have provided enough of the text to demonstrate Quinn's message to one who has not read The Story of B. (I highly recommend it, by the way.) First off, I want to say that I think this explanation to be the most probable I've ever heard... indeed it's the only probable explanation I've heard. Up to now, it was just a really old story, the origin of which we could not possibly know. To begin by presenting our agricultural policy—no, our very worldview where the subject of food and other species are concerned—as the cause of our ultimate destruction of the world, and then go on to say that the second story in Genesis is another culture's "I told you so" before we went an absorbed them, gives Quinn an indirect claim to an authority he seems to deny... a religious claim. Indeed, he has identified the Original Sin, through which Death has entered, but that Death was not the death of individuals, but the ultimate Death of the Whole World: Because we are set upon devouring the whole community of life, once we are done with it, we must then turn upon one another, and then the destruction will be complete.

However, my wife wasn't so much concerned with the particular interpretation of the Genesis story than with Quinn's story of where it came from... a claim she thinks is flawed. Earlier in the book, he writes against those who "angelize" "leaver" peoples (hunter/gatherer/garderner/herdsman types), but then he identifies a neighboring "leaver" tribe as the wise ones who pointed out our error long before the nature of it could possibly be apparent. On the one hand, we can't possibly imagine how life will be in two-hundred years, any more than reniassance thinkers could possibly imagine the ultimate consequences of their own thought revolution. However, somehow the Zeugen managed to do exactly that, or so Quinn seems to suggest. I tried initially to argue that the origin of the story isn't necessarily important, that Quinn is just telling a story... but then I put some thought into it.

I identified a consistant tradition within our own culture that could very well have reacted that way to the mind change that produced what we today call the "Agricultural Revolution." Let us go deeper into speculation about that period of time, and I shall tell a little story that makes even more sense to me.

Once upon a time, there were a group of farmers, of the old type. These types planted their crops, protected them, but had no "agricultural policy" per se. If a wolf or lion came to kill their sheep or cattle (or children), they would kill that individual wolf or lion. If they found rabbits in the vegetable garden or deer in the corn patch, they would kill and eat that. Generally, they weren't very ambitious about creatively increasing yield. Indeed, much of what they ate still came from the wild plants and animals that surrounded them. And when the crop failed, or herds were eaten by predators, they simply sighed, resigned to the will of the gods.

Then one day, someone got the brilliant idea of going out and killing as many wolves as they could, to better protect their sheep. They started building fences. To avoid drought and flood, they came up with the idea of dams and canals, to channel the water advantageously. Little thought-of by them were the species that depended upon the old arrangement of things; their ideas were progressive, and brought greater comfort to the people living there.

There was another group, however, that were appalled by this. To them, drought was the will of the gods, and to dare try to prevent drought—it was unthinkable! To them, success or failure in the hunt, whether by men or by beasts, was the will of the gods, and to attempt to rig the system was a horrible overturning of the natural order of things, a rebellion against God. They argued vociferously against the new changes, predicting dire punishments from the gods if this continued. A few generations passed, prosperity continued, the new way of life spread at an incredible rate (spurred by population pressures wherever this new way of life was adopted), and generally, the prophecies of the nay-sayers were generally forgotten. Indeed, it's a wonder that the Genesis story even still exists.

Does this look familiar? Look at medical history. Every time somebody comes up with a potential new way to prevent or treat disease or injury, there's always somebody piping up with the notion that whatever it is they're meddling with is the province of God, not men, and should not be meddled with. Whether it be air-conditioning (to help sufferers in warm environments), vaccination, or today, genetic engineering, scientists and doctors (and their predecessors) have spent nearly all of recorded history having to answer the charge of "playing God." This is the common thread, which can easily be imagined to reach all the way back to the first to tell the story that ultimately made its way into Genesis.

Now, to comment on the matter itself...

Of course, we always believe that life is better now than it was before, because of these advances... but look at what else it accomplishes. It brings comfort to a generation or two... and as a result of that comfort, that generation or two breeds at a higher rate than the previous generations. More food equals more births. Better medicine equals less death. The two together result in higher and higher population, which requires even more advances to reach previous levels of comfort, which opens the floodgates for even more population growth. There are those who think we can continue this cycle indefinately, that scientific and material progress will ensure that we never outstrip our resources, since we end up discovering more every time we need to.

But what happens when we finally reach the limit on—not iron, oil, or any other mineral resource, but biomass? What happens when the population of the world literally reaches the point where we have eaten everything? According to Quinn, 200 species go extinct every day, and not because we are careless, but because we need to make room for ever more food production. Rain forests are devoured by would-be farmers, for miniscule returns. I have little doubt that, so long as our population has the food to grow, it will grow, with medicine, sanitation, and engineering making possible greater and greater population densities. Every time we think we've conquered yet another source of death, be it disease or strife, we simply bring ourselves closer and closer to that Ultimate Death, that point where we literally experience worldwide famine, and the ecosystem is literally so ripped apart that it can't recover in time for us. Then, we go extinct, and evolution starts over again at the microbal level.

So what do we do about this? I don't know. I mean, it's one thing to say "make less food" or "pollute less" or something, but its quite another to figure out a way to actually get people do do this. Quinn says that its enough to change other people's minds on this matter, that people with changed minds will find ways to implement the change in their daily lives. I do hope he's right, and I do hope that, if I have any readers, at least some of you come away with some notion that there's something going wrong here.

So... go read Ishmael, and The Story of B, and possibly more. I can't think of anything else to say, or do, about this subject.