I was once told that Ishmael was a good book. It is not. It is pablum for upper middle class whites who self-identify as liberal and count The Omnivore’s Dilemma among their favorite books. If you are interested in the vague sense of lifestyle guilt that allows the affluent to feel morally engaged but not actually do anything about it, have I got the book for you.
Quinn’s central argument is that “modern” society—where modern is taken to mean post-tribal and mass-agricultural—is unbounded. Food production and survival have been almost completely decoupled from the vagaries of fate and the constraints of geography, and as it grows such a society inevitably usurps and consumes ecologies, habitats, resources, and other species. Modern society is, in short, a virus. In contrast, says Quinn, tribal societies must live in balance and cooperation with nature, must never grow more than the environment can provide, must not destroy species or upset the ecosystem. Modern society, comprised of “takers,” is doomed to collapse unless it is rebuilt in the style of sustainable tribal life—the “leavers.”
Fundamentally, this is just the noble savage trope with new window dressing. The “hard primitivism” branch of the noble savage views tribal life as a brutal Hobbesian struggle for survival. The “soft primitivism” branch is nostalgic and paternal, looking back fondly on a lost past of humans living in blissful, utopian, communal, nonviolent groups in harmony with nature. Quinn is a soft primitivist; it’s like he’s looking at that old recycling commercial with the crying Indian and nodding in agreement, thinking “yes, yes, the Indian is right to cry.”
To his credit, Quinn points to specific qualities of “leavers” (size limitations, less destructive agricultural practices) that are beneficial, rather than appealing to a nebulous ancient mystic wisdom. And he’s right that those societies aren’t savage, primitive, unevolved, or “less than.” But how can starvation be an inescapable failing of modern society while also a necessary way of maintaining ecological balance in tribal societies? This is the kind of twisted logic that comes from the noble savage: look, these people even starve to death with honor and dignity (nevermind that modern society produces more than enough food to feed everyone on earth)! We do not need the wisdom of leavers to know that clearcutting the forest is bad, or that hunting buffalo to extinction is bad; the morality of those actions is not somehow contingent on an ancient ethereal connection to natural law.
Quinn goes on to suggest that the rot at the core of modern society is so profound and fundamental that we must tear down and rebuild “taker” society before it inevitably destroys itself. Imagine, he says, the way a broken hang glider might seem to be working while in the air, right until you crash. Similarly, any apparent “success” of modern culture is just the illusion of flight as we hurtle towards disaster. This claim is, in a word, bullshit; an argument that sequesters itself in the Castle Rhetorical Fuck-Off, safe from all epistemological attack. Society hasn’t self-destructed? It will, just wait. It’s successful? That’s just an illusion. It’s an argument that can’t ever be wrong.
The ultimate frustration is that Quinn could be thinking and talking about profound questions of philosophy and morality, but he’s not. It’s easy to put a finger on the scale and say: people are starving to death and dying of disease and being generally deprived in modern society. But everyone thinks those are bad things; the question is whether they’re unfixable, and whether some costs of modern agricultural societies could ever be worth it? Large interconnected societies have greater genetic diversity and increased disease resistance, they more easily share and accumulate knowledge, and by at least some accounts, we are in the midst of a centuries-long decline in violence and increase in health and life span. I can get in a giant steel tube and fly at near the speed of sound to anywhere on the globe in less than 24 hours, or communicate anywhere on the globe instantaneously. It’s not that we can boil it down to some kind of atomized actuarial checklist of costs and benefits, but there is a much deeper question of morality here than Quinn bothers to tangle with. I absolutely do not know the answer, but “agriculture bad, tribes good” sure isn’t the end of it.
Quinn isn’t wrong, in the sense that humans should stop doing dumb, shortsighted, evil shit; that people starving or dying or suffering is immoral. But that point is so obvious as to be banal. There may or may not be a solution to these problems, but I am absolutely sure what isn’t a solution: a plan based on a romanticized notion of the “noble savage” and a false dichotomy between modern and tribal societies, mixed with the timeless generational permanence of the concern that society is on the downslope.
Addendum: In his most delusional moment, Quinn argues that if humans had continued to live only in sustainable, nature-communing utopian societies, other animals would have blossomed and developed human-like intelligence and self-awareness rather than being oppressed under the jackboot of taker society. What a profoundly egocentric claim in a book ostensibly arguing against human egotism. Evolution does not have a goal line, and if it did, why presume it is human intelligence? World history has not been a geological epic of animals striving to reach the apex that is humanity. Jesus.