And on the Seventh Day, God said CONSERVE!
by Jack Johnson
In a novel that begins with a classified ad reading ‘Teacher seeks pupil, Must have an earnest desire to save the world, apply in person’, Daniel Quinn kicks off an odd bout of Socratic dialogue between a skeptical pupil and a talking gorilla. Unlikely as it sounds, the main thrust of Ishmael is the need for an enlightened stewardship of the Earth along the same lines of the biblical verse from Genesis, but with a serious twist. According to Ishmael (the talking gorilla) the world is divided into two communities –those of the Takers and those of the Leavers. Takers are those who practice domesticated agriculture as a means of survival; Leavers are hunters and gatherers or pastoralists. About 8000 years ago these two groups clashed in the Fertile Crescent. The Takers won and the world hasn’t been the same since.
Takers, unlike Leavers, allow for the one unforgivable sin for any species, uncontrolled population growth. Because of the benefits of domesticated agricultural, according to Ishmael, our species has continued to grow, pushing out other species, laying waste to our environment and effectively fouling the only nest we have, the Earth. Worse, we have clothed our reckless behavior in the robes of invincibility and myth. Not only have we conquered and subjugated the planet – according to our own mythologies, we were always meant to subjugate and conquer the planet. It’s written in our Holy Book, as Ishmael points out. The myth of the Fall and the story of Cain and Abel is deconstructed by the gorilla and becomes a warning by the Semite Leavers (pastoralists) against the unfathomable destruction of the Caucasian Takers (farmers) from the north.
Takers are destructive due to a kind of cyclic reinforcement that affects agricultural communities. Populations are allowed to grow because of the increased food supply. But because increased population puts pressure on that very food supply, the Takers must continuously expand, forcing neighboring tribes out of their region, killing off or domesticating other species for their own purposes. Hence, outward expansion and destruction becomes a natural dynamic of a ‘Taker’ lifestyle.
Ishmael says at one point, “Whenever a Taker couple talk about how wonderful it would be to have a big family, they’re reenacting this scene beside the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They’re saying to themselves ‘Of course it’s our right to apportion life on this planet as we please. Why stop at four kids or six? We can have fifteen if we like. All we have to do is plow under another few hundred acres of rain forest –and who cares if a dozen other species disappear as a result?”
Ishmael notes that the spread of Taker culture has nearly encompassed the world. It’s what we have come to know as ‘Western culture’ and it temporarily holds many benefits for those who embrace it. Short term benefits to be sure, as Taker culture inevitably will exhaust itself. But in many ways it’s also like a prison, a pleasant consumerist prison, and ‘what is crucial to your race is not the redistribution of power and wealth within the prison but the destruction of the prison itself.’
The narrator objects that destroying the consumer prison would not be easy; would in fact be nearly impossible. Too many benefits accrue to those within its walls to contemplate its demolishment. The book ends without real resolution, the gorilla dies and the narrator is left with his calling card that asks a simple question:
With man gone, will there be hope for Gorilla?
And on the flip side….
With Gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?
The latter is perhaps the most compelling argument for a sensible adjustment of the ‘Taker’ lifestyle. In the recent issue of Harper’s, Steven Stoll, associate professor of History at Fordham University, takes a look at these adjustments and finds that one of the most compelling was first noted in the Holy Book as well. In his view, “Genesis is all about population as destiny” According to one Jewish legend, after the Flood, Noah invented the plow, scythe and hoe—the tools for appropriating the landscape and bending it to satisfy man’s hunger. On the flip side, Stoll notes that later in the Hebrew bible, Moses, a herder, is given the Ten Commandments. These laws had become necessary because as people changed over from being Leavers to Takers, “the relationship between land and labor also changed. Slavery, dispossession, empire—all can be understood as rational adaptations to a new world in which the intensive occupation of land become the basis of wealth and sovereignty.” The laws are necessary to control the behavior of an aggressive population, and to control the expansion of the population itself. Towards this end Leviticus “extends the commanded Sabbath day of rest as a precaution against the ecological destruction endemic to agrarian societies.” In short, a period of rest (approximately 1 year), of letting the land lie fallow was not just advised but legislated to slow down an economic and cultural system that threatened to devour the region both environmentally and socially.
“In the sabbatical year not a grain or grape was harvested, or even gleaned from the weedy shoots that poked up in formerly planted fields. The inconvenience of spending a year to gather wild wheat in the hills of Galilee had to be balanced against the very survival of the nation: the fallow period restored a degree of soil fertility, preventing starvation and the need to migrate. In a political sense, the sabbatical lived up to its peaceful principle, because a seed planting people able to remain within their ordained territory had no need to go to war with their neighbors.”
Within the strict practice of the Sabbatical year, we find the necessary response to the God of Genesis, the one that commands man to ‘be fruitful and multiple’…the laws laid down in Leviticus recommend a certain level of ‘sustainable management’: sure grow your crops, but don’t exhaust your soil, and if you want to maintain some semblance of a decent life, stick to one place and don’t count on continuous expansion as a life habit—otherwise you’ll be afflicted with ceaseless wars and turmoil. Good advice! But it doesn’t end there.
“Channeling God’s voice, the authors of Leviticus then moved the sabbatical toward and even more radical confrontation with the cumulative tensions of a farming society. Following every 7 sabbatical cycles not only would land lie fallow for a year, but a half century of property sales would be reversed , outstanding debts would be relieved and all slaves released. …The statute effectively abolished whatever notion of property the Israelites might have had. Instead everyone owned a ‘use’ right that could be bought and sold until the jubilee (7th sabbatical year) suspended the economic rules and reset the game.”
And in the Seventh year, God gave us true land reform.
The upshot, Stoll notes, was a “legal mechanism for preventing class differences.” More importantly, it was a method for creating a sustainable and localized community. We could extend the core concept of the jubilee to our own economic behavior in forgiving third world countries their ‘debts’, by extending carbon tax laws so that we “break a pattern that threatens the social order” just as the Leviticus statutes did. Our economic norms are dysfunctional without an awareness of the culture and environment in which they are practiced. One famous Goldman Sachs investor suggested that creating a bubble around food supplies in 2008 wasn’t an ethical problem because he preferred to think of such investment in commodities as investing in ‘widgets’. But Goldman Sachs wasn’t investing in widgets, it was creating financial products around wheat used to feed the world and because of the bubble that such products created, millions of humans starved. Following economic rules with no regard for their real world consequences is not just greedy and cruel, it’s insane and self-destructive.
Ultimately, Leviticus rules are about humanity’s survival (at least at the tribal level). The eating laws (don’t eat pork, etc…) are probably as much about trichinosis prevention as a religious mandate. The same applies to their concept of the jubilee. The biblical laws enforced and regulated economic activity—even the ultra conservative God of Leviticus knew that an unfettered free market would destroy their world. They tell us what we really want to know, how to survive, how to live within the context of our environment, legislating against the urge for thoughtless domination and endless expansion.
So the next time some far right Christian decries your environmentalism as idolatry or tries to use Genesis to prop up arguments against caring about species extinction or global warming, or that only the Bible offers any ‘true’ meaning, mention Leviticus, the book of laws, and the Sabbatical year, how those rules, with appropriate adjustments, could offer solutions that could be applied successfully to our own situation today. Tell him that the ultra conservative Hebrew God of Leviticus had the good sense to advocate for sustainable farming, not to mention the downright Socialist notion of property redistribution and probably mankind’s first legislated land reform.
Once again, we thank writer, activist and our friend, Jack Johnson, for contributing to APV’s blog.