Here is the list of a few books that I highly recommend. They all deal with what it means to be a human being in our society, and why things came to be the way they are now. I hope you will enjoy them and that they will challenge your present belief system. If they picked your interest you can order these books now at Amazon.com or Barnes and Nobles (these links are provided for your convenience only; I receive no monetary reward for this), although I strongly encourage you to support your local bookstore by buying the books there instead.
Ishmael (Daniel Quinn). This book won the $500,000 price awarded by Ted Turner in 1991 for the best fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. With the clever strategy of using a non-human animal (a gorilla) as his main character, Daniel Quinn manages to address very important questions about human beings and society. Indeed, he points out that if we are living the way we are now, it is because of the myths we internalized throughout our history. Thus, despite the fact that we are not consciously aware of what these myths are, or that they even exist, they do influence our every day lives. The main point of the book is to make us aware of our own cultural myths by educating us about other world cultures that do not share the same mythology. Quinn claims that the core belief of our culture is something like this: "Man was meant to rule over the entire world, and use all its resources for his own good, and this is the one right way to live. However, there is something fundamentally wrong with human nature, and that is why things are not going well for us." Daniel Quinn then goes on arguing that it is this belief that is driving our species toward catastophe, as human beings are using up the Earth's resources too quickly, as well as destroying species they think are not useful to them, thus putting in danger the fragile equilibrium of the web of life, which evolved over many million years. Quinn brings us the positive message that there is nothing wrong with human nature per se, and that what is leading us toward self-destruction is only the mythology of our own culture, which we have to change if we want our species to have a future.
It is a very interesting and fascinating trip to follow Ishmael back in time to discover the origins of our cultural myths as, if this book is a fiction for practical purposes, it is remarkably well documented with real anthropological studies and observations. Whether you agree with Quinn's interpretations or not, you will look at the state of things from a different angle, as you will then try to uncover why things we take so often for granted came to be the way they are now. Something is going wrong with the world, we all have this feeling deep inside us; it is now time to know why and to do something about it! (For more information and to meet like-minded people, please visit Ishmael's website by clicking the following icon!) Why people should read Ishmael Tools for the Ishmaelite
The Story of B (Daniel Quinn). This is the second of Quinn's books. It is thus a deepening of the issues discussed in Ishmael. In my opinion, this is the book that is the most fun to read, as it was written as a thriller. However, I think Quinn went too fast in writing it, and his arguments are not as strong and as developed as they should be. It nevertheless remains a must-read if you liked the first book. The main point of this novel is to make us focus on the issue of population growth. Indeed, it might be surprising to most of us that the human population is now doubling every thirty five years. It undeniably represents a very big problem because, as the Earth's resources are limited, we might not be able to support many more mouths to feed and accomodate. Our present understanding of population growth is that we need to generate more food in order to keep up with this incredible population growth. However, nobody really asks the most important question: Why is this poluation growing so fast suddenly, when it used to grow only very very slowly just a few thousand years ago? Quinn, who works in collaboration with Dr. Alan Thornhill in the Natural Sciences Department at Rice University, proposed an interesting point: We have been confusing the cause for the consequence the whole time! Indeed, making the comparison with the arm race during the Cold War, Quinn makes us aware that people are made of food, and that there would not be more people if there was not more food. Therefore, we are the ones fueling this incredible population growth by creating more food than we really need! This is very logical in terms of natural negative feedback loops that we find in the wild; that is, generally animals eat their food, which by consequence decreases, which leads to a decrease in population, leading to an increase in food, an increase in population, a decrease in food...etc... However, humans have extracted themselves from this negative feedback loop, which promotes balance, and have created a positive feedback loop, which is drawing us toward the collapse of the fragile equilibrium of the web of life.
Quinn then moves on to make the distinction between salvationist religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam), whose followers are passively waiting for a miraculous Savior to come fix all our problems, and anismists, who are people who are aware of the laws of nature and lead their life in accordance to them. Thus, Quinn explains that when humans decided to "take their life in their own hands" they tried to design laws from scratch, which proved to be a disaster. Indeed, if natural laws evolved over many million years so that they reflect what "works," humans have been focusing on what is "forbidden" to do. In consequence, humans have faced great difficulties in trying to prevent people from doing what is forbidden, leading to the incredible mess of our present judicial system, as well as rebellious acts from the youngs who feel pressured to conform, so that we are now facing a cultural collapse of values. Quinn nevertheless ends the book on a note of optimism, as he says that instead of trying to implement new programs that never work to fight our social problems, we should instead adopt a new vision of human life within the entire community of life, so that people get more of what they really want (a sense of belongingness and fulfillment, for example) and stop acting crazy.
My Ishmael (Daniel Quinn). This is the "official" sequel to Ishmael. Basically, it is Ishmael revisited by a twelve-year-old girl. Although the first fifty pages of the book will bore you to tears if you have read the first novel, it deals with different issues and is definitely worth reading. Two main problems are covered in this volume. First, Quinn asks a very pertinent question: Why do we have to work hard eight hours a day, five days a week? Has it always been that way? The answer is a sounding "NO!" Many people are not satisfied with their life because of a job they don't really like. Just ask people you know if they would stop working if they won one million dollars. I'm sure most of them will say "yes, of course, my job is not fulfilling, I'd rather do something else!" But, still,they go to work every day just because they don't have the choice: no job means no money, which means no food. However, Quinn points out that it was not like that before food was put "under lock and key." That is, in ancestral cultures, you just had to go grab the food you needed where you knew you could find it. At one point in our culture, however, we produced so much food with agriculture that we needed to store it, thus leading to a new class of people: those who did not work in the field anymore as they had to manage the way food was stored. These people found that life was easier that way, and they soon realized that as long as they were in control of the food distribution, they could take it easy by letting the others work hard. And to protect this new "gold mine" they hired guards, who thus also had the priviledge not to work hard as long as they kept the food away from those who worked for it. And this is what led us to the way things are now: a large class of working people who spend many hours a day in an environment they despise, and a small class of priviledge people who have a much eaiser and enjoyable life.
The second point of the book is the one of education. Have you ever wondered why you spent so many years of you life in school? Do you ever use just a tenth of what you've learned? Did not it bore you to death to go over the same things, over and over again? What our cultural myths tell us is that this is necessary in a competitive society like ours to learn about many things, and that repeating the materials is necessary for students to master everything, as they don't seem to get it the first go around. Quinn first explains why our education really takes that long, and then claims that if students cannot learn the materials properly it is because it is not meaningful to them. In ancestral cultures there is no formal education, but it is fair to say that tribal children know much more about life than "civilized" ones. Indeed, the education of the former kids is made in context, just by observing what adults do. However, in our cultures we are totally separated from the real world and thus we do not make the necessary connections to really master anything (believe me, as a graduate student I learned much more by seating just five minutes at the computer with my mentor than by attending classes my whole life!). Meaningfulness of what we learn is the essential thing we are missing; let's change this!
Beyond Civilization (Daniel Quinn). This is the last born of Quinn's books. Honestly, I've been a bit disappointed by the book. The reason why it made this list, however, is that it makes us aware that human beings did not appear as civilization builders. Indeed, civilization was only one of the many experiments that humans tested in order to improve their lives. Quinn shows us that many cultures tried this experiment at one point in their history, but that they all gave it up because they quickly realized that (1) this lifestyle pushed them to work more than ever before, and (2) it favored an uncontrollable growth that put in danger their ecosystem. Quinn's message is that it is time for us to do the same thing: it is now obvious that our civilization does not work well at all, and it is on the verge of being eliminated by natural selection (putting our ecosystem in danger puts us in danger!). Thus, even though our cultural myths implicitly tell us that civilization is the greatest accomplishment of human beings, it is now time to realize it is not true and to walk away. Now the real question is "How can we walk away?" Do not read this book if you are just looking for easy and quick answers because you will not find them. What Quinn proposes is to (1) become aware of our cultural myths (the purpose of Ishmael), and (2) change them to a more sustainable mythology of the way we live. Thus, by teaching our children and other people around us about the failures of our own culture and the successes of other cultures, we should be able to have a better vision of human life and how human beings can live sustainably within the community of life. Quinn goes on saying that the tribal way has been working for hundreds of thousands of years, as it provides what people really need: A sense of belonging and of purpose. He then gives a few examples of how people, nowadays, could form small groups and start sharing their resources and monitoring their impact on their environment. Their is real hope and a future for the human species beyond civilization. Walk away from it and find your own creative ways to adopt a sustainable lifestyle!
Walden II (B.F. Skinner). This is a rather different book than the ones presented above. Indeed, for those of you who do not know Skinner, he was one of the most famous behaviorists in the history of psychology. Behaviorists believed that human behavior is totally controlled by the environment and that our social problems therefore come from "wrong" reinforcement contingencies between our behaviors and the feedback we get from our environment. Thus, Skinner wrote this novel to show how it was possible to build a good community if it was based on the "right" contingencies of reinforcement. Although it does not focus on cultural mythology and what it means to be human, this book shows how people can cooperate and have fulfilling lives by simply working a few hours a day to keep the community functioning, and then spend time on what they really enjoy doing. Skinner also discusses very important issues. As in My Ishmael, behaviorists believe that different individuals are interested in different things and also learn at different paces. Thus, children need to be in an environment where they can master their interests at their own pace, with a lot of personal attention yielding to more and more independence with age. Skinner then illustrates what such education would be like, with small laboratories being set for children to experience many things and thus learn by seeing the meaningfulness of what they are taught.
In short, Skinner tries to recreate the workings of natural selection with behavioral engineering methods. The argument is that human beings have stopped experimenting with what works and what does not work. Our civilization has settled down in its own ways, and now tries to fix its problems from the inside, blinded by the false belief that civilization was the best thing ever made. Skinner argues that there are better ways to live, and that to find them we need to experiment with different things and find what works for everyone of us. Although you might find a few of its chapters plain silly, or even scary because of the "engineering" of behavior, this book is a great read to see what may be possible to do beyond civilization.
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (Robert Wright). This is an extremely well written book, combining scientific seriousness with wit and humor. It is a wonderful introduction to the theory of natural selection that gives strong insights about how and why certain traits, both physical and psychological, have been selected for our genes to be passed on from generation to generation. For psychologists in general it offers the wonderful option to solve the nature/nurture conflict. Indeed, it shows how it is the environment that selects certain genes, and then in turn how our genes can influence the environment, leading to a new selection and thus going full circle. Therefore, it becomes obvious that genes and environment are entertwined for ever, and that it is their interaction that makes us who we are. For my own purpose, it is also a wonderful tool to understand how very complex behaviors can be executed automatically (or unconsciously), either for strategic reasons or because the number of variables to consider is way too big for our limited consciousness to grasp. Indeed, haven't you ever found yourself saying "I am not sure why I did that..." or "I know it was stupid but I just could not help it..."? Evolutionary psychology is trying to understand why we sometimes feel compelled to do certain things, or why we are attracted toward certain persons, even though we are not aware of the powerful forces behind our actions. Among other things, the author presents compelling evidence about why males and females are so fundamentally different psychologically, why we feel love toward our offsprings and which ones we are likely to favor over others, why and how frienships emerge, and the role of social status in the search for a mate. Additionally, one of the most impressive things I found in the book was the explanation of the emergence and purpose of feelings. Indeed, feelings seem to be so deeply routed in our animal nature that it is extremely hard, if not impossible, for us not to react in very emotional ways in many situations. Evolutionary psychology offers a logical way for us to make sense out of this fact, and provides insights about why it is such a central part of us to feel outraged, humble, grateful, indignant, proud, etc...
Do not expect to feel very good about yourself after you read this book. Indeed, the author points out that the most noble behaviors emerged for a very selfish end, that is, for our genes to be passed on to the next generation. This is why the last couple of chapters are dedicated to ethics. If you ask me, this part sounds way too patronizing for my taste, and I would have been glad to draw my own conclusions about what is to be done with the knowledge I acquired reading the book. However, it is important to note that we evolved to be moral animals; that is, we became able to be aware of unconscious forces and thus to slowly learn how to master them. Finally, tying this book to the more general purpose of all the posted reviews, the author indicates that our genes were selected in what he calls the 'ancestral environment,' when we lived in small groups in a world where the word civilization did not even exist. Thus, it allows us to understand why so many people either feel out of touch with their environment or are considered deviant. In the past our genes were selected for their fitness in a particualr environment and our children were thus fit for it as well, as the environment remained virtually the same. However, in our modern world where everything is changing so fast, the genes that had been fit for hundreds of thousands of years are now lost and clueless, and our ever changing environment is leaving us no hope to ever adapt ourselves to it. It is obviously impossible to go back to our ancestral environment for our genes to feel at home again. However, we still can stop our mad race toward destruction and allow human beings to once again feel like they are belonging to this world.
Walden (Henry David Thoreau). Okay, friends of American literature please close your eyes for a second, or better: keep reading while keeping the purpose of this list in mind. If you read the first chapter of Walden, you will be amazed by how lucid Thoreau was about the problems of our society (which have not changed much by the way). Indeed, in only one chapter he manages to pack all the information described in all the books presented above! Needless to say, this is really dense to read but definitely worth it as Thoreau's insights are deep and straightforward. He points out how our culture managed to drown itself into a more and more complex system where people have to strive more and more to be more and more miserable. If it seems paradoxical, look at our heavy bureaucratic system: it is extremely complex and extremely inefficient, so people think it should be more complex to handle the situation, but it ends up making it even more inefficient, so that it becomes more complex, more inefficient, more complex... ad infinitum. Thus, Thoreau argues that instead of blinding ourselves with complex systems we cannot handle, we should return to a simple and enjoyable life. To prove that this is possible, he decided to experiment simple living himself by building his own house in the woods and cultivating his own food. And guess what? He did not die! I mean, he did not have the police to protect him, he did not have complex written laws to dictate his behavior, he did not have a complex bureaucracy to take care of his own life, and he still did not starve to death, his house was not too cold; he just did not die! And on top of that he was happy because he felt connected to his environment, he belonged there. So why the heck does our cultural mythology tells us that we need all this complex structure to be able to live when it's clearly not the case?? It looks like we've been kidding ourselves all along: we tried to make things better and better, but it ended up being more and more complex and we totally lost track of what life is all about: live!
So the first chapter of the book is great, but then Thoreau starts describing his life in the woods and despite the fact that it remains a masterpiece of literature it becomes utterly boring if you're looking for something more constructive. Indeed, apart from a couple of good insights dispersed among the many pages of the book, the only thing you will find are precise descriptions of birds, trees, ponds, ice, distances, sky, weather, what have you. All this is nice, but if I want a piece of nature, I would prefer going outside and experience it myself rather than reading about it in a book. So this part, for my own purpose, is really disappointing after the dense dwelling into human condition of the first chapter. Fortunately, the very last chapter brings back Thoreau's reflections on civilization. The scary part is that the book makes you aware that we were already in deep trouble 200 years ago, and that nobody paid attention to authors like Thoreau to try to make this world better. Instead, we have been pursuing our fall toward a more complicated lifestyle that brings more misery to more people. Now that authors like Daniel Quinn (among many others) are pointing out the same inadequacies of civilization, I hope that we will listen better and take actions to live a simpler yet better life.
A Language Older Than Words (Derrick Jensen).
A powerful book that presents destruction in society with much emotion, and explores communication with
the natural world. And when you're ready for action, join the discussion group.
The Man Who Grew Young (Daniel Quinn).
A thought provoking book that gives a new spin to life and illustrates the deconstruction of civilization.
The Fifth Discipline (Peter Senge).
A great book on systems thinking. It is a bit dense but definitely worth reading as it gives you the tools
to understand how a society as a whole works.
A Green History of the World (Clive Ponting).
Gets boring at times, but a must-read nonetheless to see how we exploit the world and its people,
as well as what happens to civilizations that overuse their ecosystem's resources.
Ecotopia (Ernest Callenbach).
Revolt and create a sustainable state in which you can live freely and happily!
Against Civilization (John Zerzan).
A great book assembling excerpts from the greatest books written against the institution of civilization.
The comparisons between our way of life and tribal ways are particularly interesting.
The Continuum Concept (Jean Liedloff).
Although sometimes hard to understand Liedloff has a profound understanding of evolution, the
unconscious mind, and child development. Certainly one of the most thoughtful books I have read.
The Greatest Spiritual Secret of the Century (Thom Hartmann).
If you ever felt a deep connection with a great spiritual force, a call to be an active agent in making the
world better, then this book is for you. It is powerfully insipiring. You should read it.
Industrial Society & its Future (FC).
An excellent book; everybody should read it. It's very well and clearly written; each sentence has
obviously been thought through very carefully.
Participating in Nature (Thomas Elpel).
Both practical and inspirational. A wonderful book about living in and with nature.
The Tracker (Tom Brown).
Although it is easy to get sort of distracted by Brown's stories, this book delivers some very profound
insights into wilderness living.
In Search of the Primitive (Stanley Diamond).
Despite some passages where Diamond spends a little too much time defining what anthropology should be,
this book is truly wonderful and one of its kind. An absolute must-read.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (Roszak et al., Eds.).
Most of the essays in this book are much needed. They show that 'saving the world' starts by connecting
with the source of all things, both within ourselves and in the non-human world.
Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age (Michael Shuman).
EVERYONE should read this book. It is very well thought out and very convincing. Change is possible
by sticking together and empowering ourselves as self-reliant communities. The appendix is awesome.
Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving
Financial Independence (Joe Dominguez & Vicki Robin).
Wow! This book is so much more than about money. It's about life, purpose, fulfilment, values,
responsibility, integrity, awareness... If you're not reading this book, you're really missing out.
The Day Philosophy Dies (Casey Maddox).
This is an amazing book, and you'll get banged up just as much as the main character along the crazy ride of
rewinds and fast forwards. Prepare for a rollercoaster of emotions. This book made me stop and ponder, laugh
out loud like I rarely do reading a book, stare at the pages in total disbelief, and madly leaf back to try to
connect the dots. There is absolutely no way you can guess what the next page, or even paragraph, is going to
say. If you love Derrick Jensen's work, if you deeply despise western civilization and are ready to do something
about it, you will absolutely love this book. In the end, I hope to see you at the beach. I'll be there. (order the
book from Derrick Jensen's site at http://www.derrickjensen.org/philosophy/index.html).
See many more books on my Amazon.com Listmania!
Inspired? Go check my activism page and walk your talk toward a more sustainable life!