Vulnerability, Communicating and Connecting

I’ve mentioned earlier on this blog that this year has been one of great learning and self discovery. I’ve also realised that such terms can be extremely abstract and on closer scrutiny may not convey anything at all. It’s been an enlightening practice to reflect over what one has said/written/thought and really cross examine it to understand more deeply what you yourself are conveying by it. This has been one of the areas of learning.

Doing this in real time has been extremely difficult to begin with. Sometimes one has no choice. For example, take the first sentence. If I’m telling someone that it’s been a great experience of learning and self discovery, most people would accept it at the surface level or assign their own interpretations to it and move on. But at Sahyadri, in serious discussions, many a times it is not left at that and if what you say isn’t unambiguous, there would be further questions, not to intimidate you, but to make the matter clearer to everyone. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen elsewhere, I know several people who would demand such clarity, but it is something that is there in the atmosphere in Sahyadri.

In the beginning when I stated something like that and found my statement being cross-examined like that, it was an unnerving experience. Suddenly I realised that what I was saying didn’t make complete sense even to me, and when I looked deeper within me for what I was trying to say, I couldn’t find anything but emptiness. It was as if I was in a mechanical mode, saying what is generally said in such situations and accepting what I listen without closer analysis of what it means to me. Even now, I can’t say I’m comfortable with putting myself in a vulnerable position like that, but I’ve felt myself the power of the clarity it can give you and the connections it can help you build with other people.

The same goes for unconscious assumptions, especially in the area of teaching/learning- like doing a lot of practical work is better than doing a lot of theory, or a quiet classroom is necessary for learning to happen. For teachers, it is absolutely essential to be able to bring to the fore such naive ideas that we may have about teaching/learning situations, so that we can actually experiment and try to find out whether our assumptions are reasonable. But most of the time we are not consciously aware of most of the assumptions that we carry and it’s extremely difficult to actually unearth them. It requires a certain level of willingness to put oneself in a vulnerable position to be examined, but it’s really worth it.

I recently happened to watch a very interesting TED talk by Brene Brown, on vulnerability.

It seems like most of the time, most of the conversations we have with most people in our lives, don’t go deeper than the surface and we either don’t have the time or the impetus to penetrate further and establish more meaningful relationships.

An after thought:
I suspect this deeper reflection, scrutiny etc. is something that we (our brains) are not evolved for. If you look at much of our evolutionary history, until a few generations ago, our ancestors would have mostly interacted only with other members of relatively small, well knit tribes or other social groups with a lot of common cultural ground and a way of living that had been successful for thousands of years. In such a scenario, it made sense for our ancestors’ brains to be economical and make use of the common cultural grounding to make reasonable guesses and interpretations while communicating. When we do the same thing today, with people from such diverse backgrounds(even people from two generations in the same family), our communication ends up being superficial.

Next of Kin

I’ve been quite busy over the last few days, and haven’t got around to writing anything, though there is a lot that I’d like to write about. Just thought I’d keep the blog going by writing about a book called Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees by Roger Fouts, which I read last month. It’s about a series of experiments about the language learning ability of chimpanzees, by teaching them sign language. Of course we know that chimpanzees are our nearest cousins, but the book reveals just how “intelligent” they are, and how amazingly similar their cognition and social behaviour are, to our own. The author takes us on an intriguing journey that tells us a lot about the nature of our own learning and behaviour, and tackles the question of how language could have evolved, from the common ancestors of humans and chimpanzees.

It’s interesting that for decades, the Western scientific world looked at the chimpanzee as little more than a “monkey”, but the native African cultures look upon chimpanzees with a lot of respect. In fact, the word “chimpanzee” comes from an African dialect, and it originally meant “different man”. Some tribes even supplement their knowledge of medicinal plants by following and observing chimpanzees medicating themselves with herbs.

We often call ourselves “social animals”, which somehow seems to put ourselves on a pedestal above the rest of the animal kingdom. After reading this book, any line of division between humans and the other animals looks really thin. In fact, it makes you even redefine what is meant by “human”.

On Competition

In the Eleventh standard, we had a lesson called The Other Side of the Hedge by E.M.Forster, in English (looking back now, we had some amazing lessons with good philosophical content). It is a satirical essay on the notions of progress we have in our civilized society.

To briefly sum up, the story starts with the protagonist walking briskly along a dusty road, lined by tall brown and crackling hedges on either side. He had been walking down that road for as long as he could remember, like everyone else he knows. It’s the only world he has ever known. He’s weary and stops by the wayside to rest. People jeer at him as they pass him. He is reminded of his brother, whom he had to leave by the roadside a few years ago because he couldn’t walk any further, and wonders whether his fate was going to be the same.

He feels a puff of cool air coming from the other side of the hedge, and he becomes curious to see what is there on the other side. He tries to peer through the hole in the hedge but gets stuck and has to wriggle completely to the other side. He’s amazed by the sight that he beholds- he had never seen such green grass, hills, meadows, the blue sky in its full expanse, clear pools before. He had known only the monotony of the road.

He meets an elderly man who greets and welcomes him. He asks the old man where this place led to, and he replies, “Nowhere, thank the Lord!”. That it led nowhere, and there could be a world without progress was inconceivable to our protagonist. Moreover, he’s puzzled by some peculiarities of this strange new world. When he saw a person swimming alone in the lake, he asks the old man, “Where are the others?”. He replies, “There are no others.” Again, it’s inconceivable for him that someone would be so foolish as to waste energy swimming alone, without anyone else to hold a race with.

He’s amazed to find in this world people he had known on the road, and the old man explains that people keep coming over to this side of the hedge when they are tired of “walking”. As they stroll around, he notices a gate from which ran a road just like the one he had been walking on for ever. The old man says, “It is through this gate that humanity went out countless ages ago, when it was first seized with the desire to walk… It is the same road. This is the beginning, and though it seems to run straight away from us, it doubles so often, that it is never far from our boundary and sometimes touches it.”

The day was getting older, and he told the old man that he should get going, back on the road. Though this world seemed pleasant, mankind had other aims and he felt he had to join them. But the old man wouldn’t let him go so soon. They passed by a group of people having their dinner, who invited the newcomer to join them, but he wouldn’t because he mistrusted them.

They now reached a new gate, similar to the first one and the old man says, “This is where your road ends, and through this gate humanity—all that is left of it—will come in to us.” His transformation is complete when he notices a person walking by and cannot believe his eyes when he sees that it was his brother, whom he had left by the road a long time ago.

This story influenced me deeply. It was a time when I had just started thinking about the problems with the human world, and had this feeling that there was something wrong with the world, and this story seemed to ring true. Right from the early school days, we are initiated into a world of competition, just like the road in the story. We are not aware that there is an alternative.

One of the main hurdles that we have, in escaping from the rat race, is our deeply ingrained belief that “progress” is essential to mankind. We believe that it is a natural law just like gravity, and to not progress would be to become fossilized. Of course, happiness is dynamic, not static, and we should be constantly renewing ourselves. But our notion of this renewal, along the lines of “progress” is misguided. Wherever we look in nature, we can see constant renewal in equilibrium with its surroundings. “Equilibrium” is the key word.

Also, in my previous post on Ishmael, I had mentioned how we have this misconception of “survival of the fittest” as an unbreakable law. But that is not how nature works, and that is certainly not the only way humanity can work. In fact, when you observe nature carefully, it is so diverse that each creature finds a niche, which suits its characteristics. I feel that our human world is similarly diverse and each one of us can find a niche which suits us. We don’t have to take part in the rat race, and keep “climbing the ladder” or “progressing on the road” (which doesn’t lead anywhere). For me, “success” is finding this niche which we can fit into, which gives us space to pursue everything that makes our life meaningful and worth living.

Note: The idea of niches evolved from a discussion with Ayyappadas, who says that our identity crisis is our failure to look for and create a niche for ourselves. When we follow the set trends of society that do not suit us, it’s likely that we lose a part of our identity.

Choices, Careers and Livelihoods

My seventh semester is underway, and I feel this is a good time to write about this, as companies have just started visiting the campus for recruitment and most of my friends are eagerly writing the tests and facing the interviews amid fears that campus placements could be seriously down this year, due to the recession.

The fact that I’m not putting myself up as well, with a “FOR HIRE” board,  seems astonishing and hard to digest, for most. It has invoked countless enquiries as to what my future plans are. When I tell them that I have no real concrete plans, though I may do a post grad, they are perplexed and exclaim that I could have at least appeared for the placements just to be “secure”. Secure from what? The vacuum created by the loss of an address that defined your life for the past four years perhaps, as a job would give you a new one? And what kind of security? The promise that some company will buy your time and skills and give you lots of money in exchange?

I’ve been often reminded of the fact that I would need money to live (strangely, something which most people feel that I’m oblivious to). But there is a difference between making money to live, and living to make money. I have never been attracted by the prospect of making a lot of money. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. On the other hand, I think I know why people generally are obsessed with making money to such an extent that it is the central concern in their lives (of course, a small fraction of the people are lucky and get to work on things which they are really passionate about, but this is a minority).

The urge to earn more and more money, is ultimately down to a deep insecurity regarding one’s own survival (and other comforts to a lesser extent). Obviously, in today’s society and economy with specialized divisions of labour, none of us have any survival value. (That we take pride in this condition and consider it to be a sign of progress seems incredible to me, but that is the topic for another post). For example, a software engineer knows only how to code, and if his company goes bust, he doesn’t have the skills or resources to earn a living off the land. So his obvious concern would be to earn as much money as possible, so that he is “safe”. The more specialized the division of labour, the deeper is this insecurity.

Like Christopher McCandless says in Into the Wild, “Careers are twentieth century inventions”. For the most of us, doing this work or that doesn’t make much difference if we get the money we need to support our families and lead a good life. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, what people want is a livelihood and not a career. It is unfortunate that in our times, you invariably need to take up a career offered by an institution to earn a livelihood, and the difference between them has become almost imperceptible. I can’t imagine the Kalahari bushmen leading careers in picking berries. It’s just something they do for their livelihood.

Now I’ll tell you why I don’t like modern “careers”. It is a rat race out there to earn as much money as possible to “secure” oneself. In fact, people struggle too much just to stay alive. Some of the things you put into your work in exchange for wages, are simply invaluable and irreplacable. Each one of us might be aware that every decision and choice we make, is a tradeoff. When we choose something, we inevitably have to forego something else. And for me, taking up a career is a huge tradeoff, one that is almost unacceptable.

First, the amount of Time, Energy and Health that one has to put into a career. Any anthropologist would tell you that ours is the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet. No other creature has to work so much just to stay alive. Nor did humans for a few million years, nor do the few tribal people who have survived. I accept that I cannot just jump off our culture at will, but what I can do is to reassess my actual needs, (as opposed to imagined needs and fear of future needs) and work only so much as to fulfil them, instead of sacrificing myself for earning money and then wondering what to do with it.

Another thing that is compromised, I feel, is Freedom. It is a word that is often used in misleading ways. For example, you often hear that when you get a job, you get economic freedom and independence. What the speaker probably means is that you no longer have to depend on your parents for your livelihood. But as I see it, a job just transfers your dependence(at least in modern economies with specialized division of labour) from your parents to the company and the wider economic structure without which your job wouldn’t exist. So that’s why I feel that taking up a career means compromising one’s freedom to a large extent. Again I realize that I can perhaps never be completely independent of the global economy, but I can experiment with alternative ways of living that would minimize the dependence.

To quote Thoreau once again, “The price of anything is the amount of what I call life, that you exchange for it”. So taking up a career is indeed a costly affair. If I reject a particular career, it is because I roughly realize the terms of the trade off and find them unacceptable. It is actually because I feel there is something to be gained by searching for alternative ways of living, and not down to frustration or indifference or prejudice. Of course, this is another trade off, where I’m compromising social “security” for other things which, obviously, I personally consider dearer.

It is one thing to know all this, and quite another to actually experiment with one’s life. That’s why I admire people like Gandhiji and Thoreau so much. I don’t really know what I’ll end up doing, but I am damn sure that what I’d like to do is to find my own path, however dense and unforgiving the undergrowth seems, and not to follow the beaten road, “secure” and “promising”. It doesn’t really matter how long the path runs or where it leads, as ultimately it is the journey itself that is important and fulfilling.

Interesting Times

“May you live in interesting times”– an ancient Chinese curse.

Undoubtedly, we are living in interesting times. Of course, you may say. After all, we live in an age in which we can communicate with a person on the other side of the globe at the speed of light, travel around the world in a day, we have machines to do all the “dirty” work for us, tourists are venturing into space, we carry gadgets around in our pockets, that people a century ago would have considered magic, we are splitting atoms to produce the energy equivalent to burning thousands of tons of coal- in short- an age in which anything is possible.

Sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. Perhaps, half a decade ago, I would have revelled in such thoughts- when I still hadn’t begun to see through the general belief that the only relevant world view is that held by the mainstream society. Yes, there was a time when I used to be excited by technology(As a student of technology currently, I’m definitely interested in it, but excited is perhaps far too intense a word). When I used to eagerly observe new models of cars on the roads, when I was fascinated by the things you could do with a computer, when I used to read about astronauts while holding my breath and wonder whether one day I would like to travel into outer space as well.

This popular fascination with technology is not because people truly appreciate technology-in fact, very few people understand it- but is a testimony to the ways in which technical gadgets and increased means of mass production which technology made possible, have supposedly “improved” our lives and rescued us from the alleged misery and filth which our predecessors endured in centuries past.

To come back to my original point, that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. I’m referring to the fact that exhaust fumes from our vehicles are heating up the earth and disturbing the climate system, the fact that more than a hundred species are becoming extinct everyday- more than any other time since the dinosaurs, the fact that we are six billion today and our population is still exploding, the fact that a significant portion of us go to bed hungry, the fact that water is becoming undrinkable and air unbreathable. I’m referring to the ecological, cultural and social crisis that we are facing today.

What is there about it that is so “interesting”? Fair question. After all, the crisis I mentioned is not something new to us. In fact, some of these problems have been with us for centuries. Only it has almost never been perceived as a crisis. There has always been an explanation for why these problems persisted in our society. It is the price of civilization and technological advancement. True, we face serious problems, but we have come so far, haven’t we? Surely, we are smart enough to conjure solutions to all of them, sooner rather than later. Surely, technology will help us solve our problems. We can clean up the atmosphere of excess greenhouse gases, and that will be the end of global warming, using genetic engineering and biotechnology we can grow a ton of wheat in a square foot, we can desalinate sea water and use it for drinking… the list is virtually endless.

In fact, this cheerful and blind optimism has brought us to the edge of peril, almost to a point of no return. The biosphere is a web interconnected in unimaginably myriad and complex ways, and not a pyramid with humans at the very top. We have been alienated from the natural world ever since the beginning of large scale agriculture. But driven by the unprecedented power and control which the industrial revolution made possible, we have been meddling with and tweaking the delicate web of life, tuning it to our advantage, in a massive scale that was previously impossible. And we have been unbelievably successful for a while. But the biosphere is not designed for domination by a single species. It thrives on diversity and competition, the very things we are wiping out so successfully, undermining its very ability to support life. No wonder it is starting to show signs of distress, threatening our existence, and that of other higher plants and animals. Hence the use of the word, “crisis”.

“But you still haven’t answered my question!”, I can almost hear you grumbling.”Why is it interesting? All you have succeeded is to paint a picture of gloom and doom in my mind.”

True. I still haven’t come to the interesting part. I’m taking you through the journey that I reluctantly set out on as a sixteen year old, when I first began to feel that there was something wrong with the world. Doom and gloom were the feelings that came to my mind when I used to think about the state of the world and where it was heading. Throw in helplessness, when I realized that this was the world which I was about to step into, and you have the complete set!

Now I come to the interesting part- it doesn’t have to be this way. I mean, there is nothing about human nature which dictates that we live this way, that we alienate ourselves from the natural world. We are brought up to believe that agriculture, civilization, division of labour and advanced technology are inevitable expressions of the human urge to evolve, and represent progress. There is very little evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, advances in anthropology and paleontology in the last few decades positively refute this claim. Science has played an important role in changing the way we think about the world. This, I think, is the true significance of science, and not the utilitarian pseudo-blessing as it is usually perceived.

Human beings have been roaming the earth for a few million years now. According to our beliefs, it was a long, dark, uneventful and stagnant chapter in human history. We were “just another animal”, until we had the brainwave to take matters into our own hands. It was a “difficult”, “savage”, “brutal” life. Having been brought up with this myth, I’m not surprised that until half a century ago, it was unthinkable that technology was anything but beneficial.

But now we know that most of what we generally believe about the lives of our ancient predecessors is nothing more than a myth, we have to embark on the difficult and seemingly impossible task of educating and convincing as many people as we can. For people who are thoughtful, free and flexible enough to accept and acknowledge such a radical change in perspective, are a tiny minority, though encouragingly a growing one(that an ordinary boy like me, brought up in reasonable comfort and good care, can perceive that something is wrong and mostly work it out for himself gives me hope!). A vast majority are blindfolded and trapped in the exploitative global economy of today, dependent on it for their livelihood. Its seeming infallibility is reason for despair, but we know that “seemingly infallible” need not mean infallible(look at communist Russia).

What we are doing today, continuing with buisiness as usual, doesn’t offer much room for hope. But a collapse of this mega-structure in the near future, is definitely a possibility, given its stark dependence on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. In fact, there is enough reason to believe that we are approaching, and maybe even past, peak oil. Who knows, the current global financial crisis could be something more than just another recession. Such a collapse would be painful, yes- there will be increase in mortality. But it would be just a transition to a better and more sustainable future. I don’t believe even for a second that our planet can sustain billions of us indefinitely. The number has to decrease drastically, it’s got to happen and it will happen when we’ve reached the tipping point. But it’s not for us to decide what would be the ideal number. Natural processes will see to that. Perhaps it need not be a mass die-off as in a calamity. Perhaps it would happen through a lower life expectancy, and we might hardly notice it. We don’t know, really.

Meanwhile, we need to find out as much as we can about how our lives were, before agriculture, before the Great Forgetting, so that we can intelligently choose a sustainable way of living and begin the transition instead of waiting with folded hands for catastrophe to strike. Some people say that there is no “going back to nature” for us. We can’t go “back to being a hunter-gatherer”. This is probably true. We know a lot, and we have developed wonderful disciplines like literature, art, science which have probably become an important part of who we are, but how much of it survives the millenia will be probably decided by how much of it is sustainable and in accord with the laws of the biosphere.

Probably, there is no “going back to nature”. But I firmly believe that we will go “forward to nature”, because that is where we came from, and where we ultimately belong. We will find another way of living, unimaginably more beautiful, and in harmony with nature. This dream is what drives me on, and dispels my despair. This is why I feel that we live in “interesting times”. There is no going back to the drudgery of the inhuman machinery that is the global economy. I have to find my path in the undergrowth. A path that leads me back to the glorious road which our ancient ancestors followed for millions of years, until we lost our way and ended up at a dead end- on the edge of a cliff.

The Remarkable Story of the Evolution of Intelligence

“…the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree, and not of kind.” –Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man

I just finished reading Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. It’s a great book, though nowhere near as good as his masterpiece, Cosmos. It’s very intriguing to ponder about the origin of intelligence. The complexity of the brain and ratio of brain mass to body mass seems to be a reasonable measure of intelligence. But what is intelligence, as manifested by behaviour? Is it unique to humans? How and when, did we become “humanly” intelligent? What could be the possible direction of future evolution of intelligence? These are issues that are touched upon by Sagan. Besides, when we refer to violent, rash or cruel behaviour as beastly, we are probably referring to reptilian character, which is probably a part of us, due to our inheritance of significant portions of the reptilian brain. Emotions like love, and generally sensitive behaviour, are characteristic of most mammals.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book is the one which deals with out ancestors. We all know that we are descended from monkeys, but how closely related are we, to them? Particularly enlightening is the report of a study of chimpanzees, in which they demonstrated amazing aptitude for mastering sign language, complete with syntax and semantics. Aren’t we perhaps too chauvinistic in holding our almost universal conviction that human beings are somehow fundamentally superior to the rest of the living world, and that the world is ours to rule?

Perhaps human chauvinism is not particularly recent. We had a variety of different primate species of ancestors, who were probably contemporaries with at least a few others, which means that their reigns may have overlapped. But where are they today? Why did they become extinct? It’s still a mystery. Perhaps it was just natural selection at work, and the smarter primates survived while the others were wiped out. There is evidence of fractured fossil skulls that belonged to one species of our ancestors who didn’t use tools, who were contemporary to another who did. Could it suggest that the smarter(and shrewder) of the two just killed off the other unsuspecting and defenseless group? Could the line of human beings, that led to us, have exterminated all other relatives they thought intelligent and perceived as  a threat? That could explain why today there are no primates other than us displaying obviously comparable levels of intelligence, but there are species like chimpanzees, who at first sight, is “just a monkey” but upon greater scrutiny, show signs of intelligence very similar to our own.

When I read about this theory, I just couldn’t help imagining how the world would have been, had a few of our ancestors survived. The vision of the world that sprang to my mind was eerily like that in the Lord of the Rings– with a variety of human like creatures co-existing. Little and gentle Hobbits who lived in hilliside burrows, the big Men of Gondor who were known for their skill at machines and warfare, the mysterious elves who were legendarily philosophical.

On the whole it is a great book, though certain portions lack the rigor and flow that is so characteristic of the works of Carl Sagan. For example, there is a chapter called “Future Evolution of the Brain”, which actually talks mostly about the human invention of storing knowledge outside our bodies, computers and machine intelligence, and gives a hint of human chauvinism. It’s a very educative work, and is perfect for the layman wishing to know more about intelligence.

‘The God Delusion’

I just finished reading the book, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It’s a wonderfully well thought-out critique of religion, and the God hypothesis. Dawkins focuses on why a belief in a supernatural being is so ubiquitous, and further examines the arguments in favour of the existence of God, and explains how scientific evidence contradicts them. He also tackles the social and psychological purposes which religion claims to fulfill, such as morality, consolation and inspiration, and argues why these functions are fulfilled even in the absence of religion. The book ends with a chapter on how the broadening of the horizons of our knowledge through the advancement of science reveals a beautiful and diverse universe, governed by simple and elegant laws, which doesn’t really need a supernatural element for us to perceive beauty.

It is impossible to write a review of this book without mentioning my personal views. If you read the “About me” page, you can probably guess that I am an atheist. I was lucky to have been born into a family which was only mildly religious, though a benevolent personal God(s) was always there, for consolation and inspiration. As I grew up I gradually began to think for myself, and have become a proud, if tactful(since none of the persons closest to me is blindly religious, definitely not fundamentalist, and I respect their faith) atheist.

It’s a must-read for all those who have wondered, at some point in their lives, whether God exists.

An afterthought(25 June): Since writing this post, I have had discussions with a couple of friends about religion, and I think I need to add a few more thoughts here. One of them is an agnostic, and the other a believer. Neither of them could understand why an atheist should be so hostile to religion, if so many people indeed find comfort in faith. I don’t have any problem with faith, but I feel that these are things which one should work out for oneself. Indeed, the believer friend has a beautiful faith, that the universe is full of intentions(whether it is true or not is beside the point), which gives her hope and comfort. In fact, I believed in something similar for a while myself.

Unfortunately, such enlightened faith, acknowledging science and savouring scientific knowledge of the world, is rare and doesn’t reflect the blind faith of an overwhelming majority of the religious people in the world. Just look at the attack on evolution by creationists in the twenty first century, that too in developed countries like the USA today, and you will see what I mean. I understand and sympathize with the (verbal) hostility of Dawkins towards religion. In fact, it’s a stance every true scientist should take, in my opinion, since religion has tried too much in the course of history, to discourage scientific enquiry and encourage unquestioning faith as a virtue.

Besides, it beats me why people should find comfort in believing something like creationism, that all evidence points to be false. Why does a better, more beautiful and apparently true knowledge of the world drive them to despair? Probably there is a psychological role for faith, but I think it’s ultimately down to education and consciousness raising. I don’t think the atheists of the world live in quiet desperation. Quite the contrary. I think most of them would have become atheists because of a certain level of satisfaction in learning more about the universe, and perceiving it as it is, without needing the comforts of beliefs which they find false anyway.

Sail Transport Network

Wanderer way before

“The great age of sail didn’t end, it just took a break”

Over the past 100 years, all basic human activities like agriculture, transport and trade have all become heavily mechanized and highly dependant on non-renewable and polluting energy. We have built up an empire with no foundation- in fact, I would rather call it a sand castle in the air. We, as a race, are about to enter that point of our evolution when we realize this fact, and are forced to modify our culture to be in harmony with Nature. One of the biggest dangers to this evolution, apart from the actual destruction of the life-sustaining environment, is that during these 100 years of complacency, we have lost huge repositories of invaluable traditional knowledge.

One of these is Sailing. Just imagine- could there be a more efficient mode of trans-continental transport? It was the mode of transport and trade for many centuries- even millenia- before the steam engine pushed it to the sidelines. Now that we are about to enter an era of inevitable enlightenment(wonder how fast we can get rid of those nasty gas-guzzling smoke-spewing airplanes), sailing is bound be a valuable skill. That’s why I think we should all hail and support the activities of the Sail Transport Network.

“Sail Transport Network is a movement. For thousands of years, wind energy moved people and goods all over the world without pollution. Today, dwindling, geopolitically sensitive oil is used for every form of transportation and commerce. Even e-commerce with computers is dependent on forms of petroleum, and trucks and cars clog roads to a deathly degree.

The Sail Transport Network is dedicated to finding answers to the problems of tomorrow by looking back to the way it worked before. Trade, exchange, and travel are the basic triad of intercultural connection. If we can reduce the dependence on oil in these three areas, we will have reduced the majority of oil dependence in the world, while establishing through STN a model for sustainability in the new post-oil, greenhouse-ravaged world.

There once was a time when you could walk down to the local harbor, and see nothing but great sailing ships. These ships stirred something in the soul of humans then, and it is that same stirring that can bring us into a cleaner, more sustainable future. The great age of sail didn’t end, it just took a break. Now is the time to take up the sheets again, as it were, and sail into a future of sustainable trade that doesn’t cause wars for non-renewable resources.”


Ishmael thought for a moment. “Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?”

“Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”

“And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world.”

“Yes, that’s so.”

“Why don’t you stop?”

I shrugged. “Frankly, we don’t know how.”

“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”

“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”

“So. You are captives- and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it?- your captivity and the captivity of the world.”

“Yes, that’s so. I’ve just never thought of it that way.”

–from Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn.

I hope most us wouldn’t deny that we are destroying the world. If you do, please look around you and think again. But why? Why can’t we stop? Is it that we are fundamentally flawed? That’s what people generally seem to believe. All the time we hear that this is the price we have to pay for civilization, the price for being human, the price for all the advancement we have had so far.

The truth is that our civilization is shockingly ignorant of the laws that govern life on our planet. No, not ignorant, really. Shockingly convinced that those laws do not apply to us. Like Mr.Quinn says in his wonderful book, imagine a person who jumps from the top of a tall building and says- “See, the law of gravity doesn’t apply to me. I’m still in flight!” Surprisingly unscientific for such a scientific people as us, wouldn’t you say?!

If you have ever felt the thought of why we seem unable to curb our ever-accelerating fall towards destruction, haunting you, this book is a must-read. It’s a thought that has grown on my mind during the last few years, and has come to occupy a central position in my mind and changed the way I look at the world. That must be why the ideas expressed in Ishmael resonated with my thoughts.

Ishmael is a book full of original ideas and should be right up there among the best books that have ever been written.