Interpreting Ishmael: It All Boils Down to Land Use

Ishmael by Daniel QuinnTo some, Ishmael might be the Silent Spring of our generation.

The novel by Daniel Quinn is indeed philosophical but it has real world implications to those who study, or have interest in, how we manage our environment. While reviewers hotly contest whether the book is well-written, the thought-provoking nature of Ishmael is undeniable.

The subject is the discussion of human beings’ role on earth. A key point is that the history of man was forever changed by agriculture and our subsequent practice of controlling our environment to provide for our needs. Early modern humans had no knowledge of the repercussions, or rather ripple effects, this practice can cause in nature and we still struggle to understand this process today. Essentially it boils down to land use…rather in this case, unwise land use. More frequent interaction with killer hornets, the increasing emergence of infectious diseases, accelerated global climate change, invasive cane toads are just a few clear examples of the unintended side effects of the human activities.

We have advanced our knowledge over many generations by learning from the mistakes of our past and are now poised to make decisions about the future. Ishmael suggests that to maintain human existence we need to return to a harmonious relationship with nature. But how? Global society is not willing to return to the “primitive” lifestyles of the Leaver peoples discussed in the book. Instead the author challenges our generation with perhaps human’s greatest assignment since becoming intellectual beings.

“You’re an inventive people aren’t you? Then invent.” – Ishmael

Quinn compels us to invent a harmonious method of existence by using the knowledge of the past to move forward.

A recent study of the Native Tribes of North America’s traditional resource management practices suggests that scientists are beginning to see the value in this logic. We are actively researching and learning from the practices of the past but how do we take that information and invent a way forward?

Most now agree that a system approach (based on systems thinking) is the best method for exploring complex scenarios with interacting and compounding factors. This method can improve upon the rudimentary trial and error approach discussed in the book. Trial and error methods are not limited to the era of the Wright brothers. In fact we still regularly struggle with unintended consequences. For example, solar panels which efficiently harness energy but apparently can flip planes and incinerate birds that flies over.

It is possible to combine our knowledge of past failures performing trial and error methodology with new information and create a smarter system. Rural System proposes the creation of such a computer program capable of analyzing complex interactive factors and generating management plans for optimal land use over the long term. Incorporating the outcomes of experiments to avoid unwanted results in the future is called feedback. Rural System also proposes the incorporation of “feedforward” which can be understood as a projection of expected outcomes in the future. It is analogous to the way we train athletes to “keep your eye on the finish line.” Essentially feedforward is “follow-through.” A system containing standback, inputs, outputs, feedback and feedforward allows us to capitalize on our past and current knowledge to make better decisions which impact the future.

“There is no one right way to live,” Quinn writes. Thus we do not suggest Rural System to be the one right answer to the challenges facing humanity. Rural System is, however, one way to strive scientifically to invent a way forward.

Some links in this post lead to Guide to Rural System, a site featuring in-depth, comprehensive coverage of Rural System concepts, actively updated by Rural System founder Robert H. Giles, Jr. since the mid-1990s.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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