Address delivered by
Daniel Quinn at the University of Texas
Center at Houston, March 7, 2002
Excerpted from Daniel Quinns newest book If They Give
You Lined Paper, Write Sideways from Steerforth Press, 2007.
Twenty five years ago,
when I began working on a book that would someday become a novel
called Ishmael, very few people thought humanity was in much trouble,
provided the Cold War didnt turn into a nuclear war. Everything
looked fine, to most people. Thats changed around very drastically
in the last ten years.
People often ask me
if I have any hope for our survival. What they really want to
know, of course, is whether I can provide them with some grounds
I am hopeful, because
I feel sure that something extraordinary is going to happen in
your lifetime something much more extraordinary than has
happened in my lifetime, which has included the birth of television,
the splitting of the atom, space travel, and instant, global communication
via the Internet. I mean something really extraordinary.
During your lifetime,
the people of our culture are going to figure out how to live
sustainably on this planet or theyre not. Either
way, its certainly going to be extraordinary. If they figure
out how to live sustainably here, then humanity will be able to
see a future that extends into the indefinite future. If they
dont figure this out, then Im afraid the human race
is going to be among the species that were driving into
extinction every day as many as two hundred every day.
The people who make
it their business to predict such things agree that the human
population is going to increase to nine billion by the middle
of the century. It isnt just the doomsayers who say this.
This is a very conservative estimate, recently endorsed by the
UN. Unfortunately, most of the people who make this estimate seem
to have the idea that this is workable and okay.
Heres why it
that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food
we need to maintain our population at six billion. But there is
an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life-forms.
Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up
in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up two hundred species
a day in addition to all the food we produce in the ordinary
way. We need the biomass of those two hundred species to maintain
the biomass that is in us. And when weve gobbled up those
species, theyre gone. Extinct. Vanished forever.
Maintaining a population
of six billion humans costs the world two hundred species a day.
If this were something that was going to stop next week or next
month, that would be okay. But the unfortunate fact is that its
not. Its something thats going to go on happening
every day, day after day after day and thats what
makes it unsustainable, by definition. That kind of cataclysmic
destruction cannot be sustained.
thing that is going to happen in the next two or three decades
is not that the human race is going to become extinct. The extraordinary
thing thats going to happen is that a great second renaissance
is going to occur. A great and astounding renaissance.
Nothing less than
that is going to save us.
The First Renaissance
The first Renaissance,
the one you met in your history textbooks, was understood to be
a rebirth of classical awareness and sensibility. Actually, it
was the necessary preface to an entirely new historical era.
A few medieval ideas
were jettisoned during the Renaissance, replaced by ideas that
were entirely new ideas that would not have made sense
to classical thinkers. These were ideas that would make sense
to us. In fact, these ideas still make sense to us.
During the Middle
Ages reason and authority were the chief means of gaining certain
knowledge. For example, it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose
that the earth was a stationary object around which the rest of
the universe revolved. It was reasonable and it was affirmed
by a towering authority, the great second-century astronomer,
Ptolemy. Similarly, it seemed perfectly reasonable to suppose
that heavy objects fall to earth faster than light objects
and this was affirmed by another towering authority, the genius
But during the Renaissance,
reason and authority were toppled as reliable guides to knowledge
and replaced by
observation and experimentation. Without
this change, science as we know it would not have come into being
and the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred.
During the Middle
Ages it was taken for granted that our relationship with God was
a collective thing that only the Roman Catholic Church was empowered
to negotiate. During the Renaissance this dispensation was challenged
by a completely new one, in which our relationship with God was
seen as an individual thing that each of us could negotiate independently
with God. In this new dispensation was born the magnification
and sanctification of the individual that we take for granted
in modern times. We all see ourselves as individually valuable
and quite fantastically empowered literally bristling with
rights in a way that would have been astonishing to the
people of the Middle Ages.
In the Middle Ages
the universe was perceived as a thing that had come into being
as a finished object just a few thousand years ago. It was fixed,
finite, and as much known as it needed to be. In the Renaissance,
however, the universe began to be perceived in a much different
way: as dynamic, infinite, and largely unknown. It was this change
in thinking that led not only to the great Age of Exploration
but to the great age of scientific investigation that followed
and that continues today.
All this seems very
obvious to us today. The Middle Ages obviously couldnt last
forever. Things obviously had to change. But this was not at all
obvious to the people of the Middle Ages. As far as they were
concerned, people would go on thinking and living the medieval
We think the very
same thing. Just like the people of the Middle Ages, were
absolutely sure that people will go on thinking the way we think
forever, and people will go on living the way we live forever.
The people of the
Middle Ages thought this way because it seemed impossible to them
that people could think a different way. How else could people
think except the way they thought? As far as they were concerned,
the history of thought had come to an end with them. Of course
we smile at that but in fact we believe exactly the same
thing. We, too, believe that the history of thought has come to
an end with us.
Well wed better
hope were wrong about that, because if the history of thought
has come to an end with us, were doomed. If there are still
people here in two hundred years, they wont be living the
way we do. I can make that prediction with confidence, because
if people go on living the way we do, there wont be any
people here in two hundred years.
I can make another
prediction with confidence. If there are still people here in
two hundred years, they wont be thinking the way we do.
I can make that prediction with equal confidence, because if people
go on thinking the way we do, then theyll go on living the
way we do and there wont be any people here in two
But what can we possibly
change about the way we think? It seems so obvious that everything
we think is just the way it must be thought.
It seemed exactly
the same to the people of the Middle Ages.
Although several key
ideas of the Middle Ages disappeared during the Renaissance, not
every key idea of the Middle Ages disappeared. One of the key
ideas that remained in place and that remains in place
today is the idea that humans are fundamentally and irrevocably
flawed. We look at the world around us and find that turtles are
not flawed, crows are not flawed, daffodils are not flawed, mosquitoes
are not flawed, salmon are not flawed in fact not a single
species in the world is flawed except us. It makes no sense,
but it does pass the medieval tests for knowledge. Its reasonable
and its certainly supported by authority. Its
reasonable because it provides us with an excuse we badly need.
Were destroying the world eating it alive
but its not our fault. Its the fault of human nature.
Were just badly made, so what can you expect?
Another key idea that
survived the Middle Ages is the idea that the way we live is the
way humans are meant to live, and were living the way humans
are meant to live from the beginning of time. The fact that we
only began living this way very recently has nothing to do with
it. So it took us three million years to find it. That doesnt
change the fact that its the way we were meant to live from
the beginning of time. And the fact that the way we live is making
the world uninhabitable to our own species also has nothing to
do with it. Even if we destroy the world and ourselves with it,
the way we live is still the way we were meant to live from the
beginning of time. But these two medieval survivors are relatively
benign. One other key idea survived, however, is the most dangerous
idea in existence more dangerous than all our nuclear armaments,
more dangerous than biological warfare, more dangerous than all
the pollutants we pump into the air, the water and the land.
All the same, it sounds
pretty harmless. You can hear it and say Uh-huh, yeah, so?
Its pretty simple too. Here it is: Humans belong to an order
of being that is separate from the rest of the living community.
Theres us and then theres Nature. There are humans
and then theres the human environment.
Im sure its
hard to believe that something as innocent sounding as this could
be even a little bit dangerous, much less as dangerous as Ive
Two Hundred Species
As Ive said,
its conservatively estimated that as many as two hundred
species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact
on the world. People take in this piece of horrendous information
very calmly. They dont scream. They dont faint. They
dont see any reason to get excited about it because they
firmly believe that humans belong to an order of being that is
separate from the rest of the living community. They believe it
as firmly in the twenty-first century as they did in the tenth
So as many as two
hundred species are becoming extinct every day. Thats no
problem, because those species are out there somewhere. Those
two hundred arent in here. They arent us. They dont
have anything to do with us, because humans belong to an order
of being that is separate from the rest of the living community.
Those two hundred
species are out there in the environment. Of course its
bad for the environment if they become extinct, but it has nothing
to do with us. The environment is out there, suffering, while
were in here, safe and sound. Of course we should try to
take care of the environment, and its a shame about those
two hundred extinctions but it has nothing to do with us.
Ladies and gentlemen,
if people go on thinking this way, humanity is going to become
extinct. Thats how dangerous this idea is. Heres why.
Those two hundred
why exactly are they becoming extinct? Are they
just running out of air or water or space, or what? No, those
two hundred species are becoming extinct because they have something
we need. We need their biomass. We need the living stuff theyre
made of. We need their biomass in order to maintain our biomass.
Heres how it works. Go down to Brazil, find yourself a hunk
of rain forest, and cut it down or burn it down. Now bring in
a herd of cows to pasture there. Or plant potatoes or pineapples
or lima beans. All the biomass that was formerly tied up in the
birds, insects and mammals living in that hunk of rain forest
is now going into cows, potatoes, pineapples, or lima beans
which is to say into food for us.
We need to make two
hundred species extinct every day in order to maintain the biomass
of six billion people. Its not an accident. Its not
an oversight. Its not a bit of carelessness on our part.
In order to maintain our population of six billion, we need the
biomass of two hundred species a day. We are literally turning
two hundred species a day into human tissue.
But all too many people
most people Im afraid tend to think Well,
so what? Humans belong to an order of being that is separate from
the rest of the living community. Since were separate, it
doesnt matter how many species we destroy and since
were superior to them anyway, were actually improving
the world by eliminating them!
Were like people
living in the penthouse of a tall brick building. Every day we
need two hundred bricks to maintain our walls, so we go downstairs,
knock two hundred bricks out of the walls below, and bring them
back upstairs for our own use. Every day
every day we go
downstairs and knock two hundred bricks out of the walls that
are holding up the building we live in. Seventy thousand bricks
a year, year after year after year.
I hope its evident
that this in not a sustainable way to maintain a brick building.
One day, sooner or later, its going to collapse, and the
penthouse is going to come down along with all the rest.
Making two hundred
species extinct every day is similarly not a sustainable way to
maintain a living community. Even if were in some sense
at the top of that community, one day, sooner or later, its
going to collapse, and when it does, our being at the top wont
help us. Well come down along with all the rest.
It would be different,
of course, if two hundred extinctions a day were just a temporary
thing. Its not. And the reason its not is that, clever
as we are, we cant increase the amount of biomass that exists
on this planet. We cant increase the amount of land and
water that supports life, and we cant increase the amount
of sunlight that falls on that land and water. We can decrease
the amount of biomass that exists on this planet for example,
by making the land sterile or by poisoning the water but
we cant increase it.
All we can do is shift
that biomass from one bunch of species to another bunch
and thats what were doing. Were systematically
shifting the biomass of species we dont care about into
the biomass of species we do care about: into cows, chickens,
corn, beans, tomatoes and so on. Were systematically destroying
the biodiversity of the living community to support ourselves,
which is to say that were systematically destroying the
infrastructure that is keeping us alive.
As Ive said,
its conservatively estimated that our population will increase
to nine billion by the middle of the century and people
take in this hair-raising piece of information very calmly. No
one screams. No one faints. People are as untroubled about our
mushrooming population as they are about those two hundred daily
extinctions. They see no reason to get excited, because they firmly
believe that humans belong to an order of being that is separate
from the rest of the living community. They dont see that
the extinction rate is going to increase as our population increases
and probably exponentially. This is because when we make
species extinct, we dont gain 100 percent of their biomass.
A great deal of it is simply lost, contributing to the desertification
of the planet. By the middle of the century, if our population
has indeed increased to nine billion, then the number of extinctions
will be a thousand a day or ten thousand a day (the number is
incalculable at this point).
If people are still
living here in two hundred years, theyll know that humanity
doesnt belong to an order of being that is separate from
the rest of the living community. Theyll know this as surely
as we know that the earth revolves around the sun. I can make
this prediction with confidence, because if people go on thinking
we belong to a separate order of being, then there will be no
people living here in two hundred years.
What everyone wishes
I could do (and what I myself wish I could do) is describe how
people will be living here in two hundred years if there
still are people living here. All I can tell you is how they wont
be living. They wont be living the way we do.
I can tell you with
complete confidence that something extraordinary is going to happen
in the next two or three decades. The people of our culture are
going to figure out how to live sustainably or theyre
not. And either way, its going to be extraordinary.
The fact that Im
unable to give you a prescription for the future doesnt
mean youre just helpless bits of cork bobbing in the tide
of history. Each of you is about where Galileo was when he was
told in no uncertain terms to shut up about the earth moving around
the sun. As far as the gentlemen of the Roman Inquisition were
concerned, the earths movement around the sun was a wicked
lie they had to suppress and could suppress. But as he
left his trial, Galileo was heard to mutter, All the same,
hung on the matter. The future of humanity didnt depend
on destroying the medieval picture of the solar system. But the
future of humanity does depend on our destroying the medieval
picture of humanitys relationship to the living community
of this planet.
know that people would someday take space travel for granted,
but he did know that they would someday recognize that the earth
revolves around the sun. We dont know how people will live
here in two hundred years, but we do know that if people still
are living here in two hundred years, they will recognize that
we are as much a part of the living community and as thoroughly
dependent on it as lizards or butterflies or sharks or
earthworms or badgers or banana trees.
want more of the same. Yet, oddly enough, when they ask me what
will save the world, they want to hear more of the same
something familiar, something recognizable. They want to hear
about uprisings or anarchy or tougher laws. But none of those
things is going to save us I wish they could. What we must
have and nothing less is a whole world full of people
with changed minds. Scientists with changed minds, industrialists
with changed minds, schoolteachers with changed minds, politicians
with changed minds though theyll be the last, of
course. Which is why we cant wait for them or expect them
to lead us into a new era. Their minds wont change until
the minds of their constituents change. Gorbachev didnt
create changed minds; changed minds created Gorbachev.
minds is something each of us can do, wherever we are, whoever
we are, whatever kind of work were doing. Changing minds
may not seem like a very dramatic or exciting challenge, but its
the challenge that the human future depends on.
Its the challenge
your future depends on.
Excerpted from Daniel
Quinns newest book If They Give You Lined Paper, Write
Sideways from Steerforth Press, 2007.
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