Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ishmael (Part 2)

p. 139: “‘Every increase in food production is answered by an increase in population somewhere. In other words, someone is consuming Nebraska’s surpluses—and if they weren’t, Nebraska’s farmers would stop producing those surpluses, pronto.’ ‘True,’ I said,…’Are you suggesting that First World farmers are fueling the Third World population explosion?’ ‘Ultimately,’ he said, ‘Who else is there to fuel it?’”
        Okay, first off, this doesn’t make much sense on the face of it. Is Quinn honestly trying to tell us that there is some sort of worldwide psychic cooperation between First and Third world peoples, so that the Third World peoples send messages to the First: “Don’t worry about reproducing to match your food supply; we’ll handle that for you, thereby not violating the Law”? Why in the world would this Law apply to entire populaces only, and not to geographical subsets? Can you find a single example in the wild in which this is true? No, of course you can’t, because it’s a law of individual behavior, not some psychic collective force.
        But secondly, Ishmael [Quinn] here betrays his profound ignorance of American farm economics. First: It is assuredly not true that Nebraska farmers would stop producing surpluses if no one consumed them. They would produce regardless, because the government purchases the surplus. The government might then (and has) simply destroy it. Or they might send it—for free—to those starving third world countries, whose people might not be able to afford Nebraska corn on the open market. This has several effects. First, free food does increase population among poor peoples—if there is food enough for six kids this year, perhaps two of them will survive next year, when famine returns, whereas if I only had two children, both would likely die. If I have to pay to feed my children, the calculus is entirely different. Second, free imported food drives the price for locally-grown food to zero, driving local farmers out of business and increasing the certainty that famine will continue, increasing their reliance on free Nebraska food, which tends to increase their population still more. And why does the U.S. government do this? To prop up Nebraska food prices! Why? Because food can be produced so cheaply, and there is so much food relative to the paying world population, that only large corporate farms can compete in a free market. To keep smaller farms afloat, government props up prices. There is plenty of food. There is no need for starvation. To end world hunger, only one step need be taken: convert every country in which there are starving people to market capitalism (and stop giving them free food). Modern, wealthy, post-industrial nations have a stable or declining population. Problem solved. Check out The Disaster of International Foreign Aid Programs for a fascinating overview of the problem.

[Go back to pp. 141–2. I feel that there should be something to say here.]

p. 143–4:
        What extinction? I don’t see a case having been made of a path that will lead to human extinction. Is this just assumed?

p. 147–8:
        Yes, the Leavers have a great life (and Quinn quotes Sahlins! Cool). They’re wonderfully happy, and rich with food (although I still say that they are benefiting, food-wise, by our decimation of their brethren). We are miserable by comparison. But that is the price we pay for our increased population, strength, and resilience to disaster and famine. I hope to help remedy the mental diseases (crime, addiction, loneliness, all the things he mentions) created by this situation.

p. 165-66: I’ll have to check my Bible, but IIRC, Man wasn’t made to rule the world, not in a Taker way at least. It was only after he was cast out of the Garden that he got that job. See Asimov & Rand on the subject. The Garden of Eden story is an allegory, from a Taker point of view, of the move from Leaver life to Taker life. The fruit of the tree of Knowledge is an allegory for man’s loss of innocence and his new necessity of rules—of Good and Evil (nothing’s evil to a Leaver—nothing anybody would ever want to do anyway. Emotions are in line with right action. Not so with Takers). See Asimov’s Guide to the Bible for more details. It’s a racial memory thing. Early agriculturists weren’t so sanguine about the change, and looked back to “the good old days.”

p. 166: “The world is at the point of death.”
        How so? Is this just assumed? Who says? You?

p. 167:
        I don’t see that Takers deliberately forced neighbors into agriculture. Back this up.

p. 169:
        Leavers would not have come up with the allegory of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because the knowledge it gave is that, according to Quinn, the way of life of the Leavers is evil.

p. 173–4:
        He’s likely right about Cain & Abel though. Cf. Asimov again. But this is a separate story from the Eden story. Because the Eden story is about “us,” not “them.” Therefore told by agriculturists. Or something.

p. 204–5:
        The Takers didn’t forget how to live; they discovered that the old rules didn’t work anymore, so they came up with new ones, and then forgot the old ones. The story didn’t play out the way he says.

• Okay, any new rules the Leavers come up with are inventions too. You’re making a false distinction. It’s just that conditions change very slowly among Leavers, and new rules/ideas have a long time to settle out and fly or fail. Not so among Takers; by the time we’ve adjusted to one rule and started to be able to see its long-term consequences, conditions change and new rules are needed.

p. 214: Unrelated note: “I don’t think you can start wanting something until you know it exists.” Or know it’s useful, or know a specific use for it, or hear how it can benefit you. Yes. But note how this concept applies to the idea of marketers creating demand by popularizing such things as underarm deodorant. No, people didn’t complain about not having it until it was available. But the change did not occur because of marketing brainwashing, it came because people discovered they wanted something they had only just discovered existed.

p. 217:
        What’s this about the Plains Indians being agriculturists? Look this up.
        P.S. I’d love to be a Leaver. It sounds like a fantastic life. But I can do more good here. Plus: books.

p. 218–9:
        Crucial point: The reason almost nobody rebels against our Taker life is that they realize that they’d almost assuredly die were we to revert to primitivism.

p. 220–1:
        Okay—the day-to-day life may have been as good as you say—sometimes. But the hard times could be brutally hard—deadly. Twenty good years cannot make up for one bad year (people expand to fit their food supply, right?) for people who cannot store food. The tribe can be killed or mortally wounded by one bad year. This is why agriculture is so attractive. Otherwise—why become agriculturists at all?
        P.S. We’re not first on the menu of any remaining predators. Hmm.

p. 238:
        Stop. Takers aren’t subject to evolutionary forces? Bullshit. All life is. True, we’ve tried to make ourselves rich enough that we’re no longer as susceptible to the mass death that goes along with much evolution (Leaver life is just a bowl of cherries, right? Riiiiight), but we’re not exempt.
        No, I can’t leave this like that. Leavers are subject to evolution, he says, right? They’re part of the community of life. They’re subject to the will of the gods. Well, what do the gods of evolution say? They say, “You, and you, and you, and you, and all of you over there, must die so that my approved remnant may thrive.” And that remnant may include humans—and it may not. The gods could kill all humans as surely as they killed all dinosaurs. And even on an ordinary level, they may kill all but one out of twenty in a tribe, or one out of twenty tribes. Are you sure you wish to live subject to the gods’ will? Hello? Wake up! Evolution is harsh. Evolution’s a bitch. The gods of evolution care not one whit whether your family, your tribe, or your entire species lives or dies. Mother Culture—does. This is the most crucial issue of all, and yet Quinn glosses it over while talking out of both sides of his mouth about it. In Leaver life, things are great—until the Grim Reaper comes calling and wipes out your entire genetic line in a blink.

        By the way, on the note of lamenting as unspeakable, unjustifiable evil the destruction (by assimilation, competition, or murder) of Homo sapiens leavers by Homo sapiens takers, where are the Homo erectus? Hm? Oh? The Leavers killed them? How interesting. So we’re not so unique after all.

p. 242:
        Oho! Ohoho! So we should go back to hunter-gatherer/agrarian life to wait—and leave room—for the next intelligent creature, who, if we wait long enough, will kill and enslave us?? Thank you, no. Go to Hell.

• Oh, that’s precious. “Man? Oh, yes, man! What a wonderful creature he was! He owned the world—and then gave it up so we could arise.”
        “Whatever happened to him?”
        “Eh? Oh, we killed him, of course. Couldn’t have him around—he might have taken it into his head to try and reclaim his throne and deprive us of our destiny. Couldn’t have that. No, he had to die. Noble creature, though. There might be a few left in zoos and preserves.”
        I’m with Heinlein. We have to be the biggest, meanest, roughest, nastiest kid around—so that when somebody else big and mean shows up and wants to take our lunch money (and dinner money, and breakfast money, and every meal forever after), we’ll have a chance to fight him off. This is also why I believe that we should never completely get rid of war.


Michael said...

p. 169:
Leavers would not have come up with the allegory of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because the knowledge it gave is that, according to Quinn, the way of life of the Leavers is evil.

I don't actually have a copy of either book here with me at the moment however you do realize that the old testament of the bible MUST be a "leaver" story by the definitions Quinn is working with right?

Unless you are actually going to contend that the Torah was not written by Semites/Hebrew whatever.

(I guess you could also contend that they were takers not leavers but I can point you to some strong evidence that will contradict that)

Calion said...

Er...perhaps I don't understand the definitions. I would say that the Semites were, largely, Takers. Quinn's definitions seem muddled, but it seems to me that even he classified the Semites this way. The Garden of Eden is a story, in my (and Asimov's) view, of agricultural people looking back on pre-agricultural times with longing. While agriculture per se does not make a people Takers, being bound to it does, by Quinn's standards. Yes?