Rules for Living Here -- A Preamble
I lived for a while in Cameroon. I was there ostensibly to do development work. Mostly I think I was just learning how to be a white person in the world with a bit more humility and devouring a random yoga philosophy library I found.
Over my Christmas break, I travelled with a couple of friends to the south-east of the country, where the Central African jungle begins. We stopped in the capital city of Yaoundé for a night on the way. We went out in the afternoon to visit a primate sanctuary, a sprawling, thick forest enclosure a little ways outside of town. It’s a rescue site for baby gorillas and chimps and baboons found scared and alone in the wild when their parents have been killed or kidnapped by poachers. The goal is to raise them in an environment as similar to their wild habitat as possible, until they can be released back into the forest in a safe location. There aren’t any safe locations yet. They have no idea how long it might be until there are.
Jeo, my dear friend, my travel companion, and my supervisor at the NGO I was working at, had been on staff at this sanctuary for many years. He had worked with the chimpanzees. When we went to visit the chimps, Jeo started legit communicating with one of them, a troubled sweetheart named Max. Max had been Jeo’s personal charge from the time Max was small. It was years since they’d seen each other. One night before we left Kumbo for our trip, Jeo showed me old pictures of Max as we ate dinner together in his living room. I referred at one point to Max as a 'monkey.' Jeo recoiled in real offence: Max is not a monkey! Max is an ape! I snickered a little inside. What was the difference? I would find out.
After visiting the chimps, we strolled over to the gorilla enclosure. The gorillas were in smallish cages while the staff fixed up something in their large enclosure, so we came easily face-to-face. There was a serenity about them that was loud, and profound.
I picked up a bamboo-like twig from the ground. I poked it through the cage bars, waving it at one of the apes. He looked at it for a moment, bemused. And then he grabbed it. Waited a moment. And yanked it, hard, pulling me toward the cage and off balance.
He let go. I stepped back, and waved it near him again. Again he grabbed it, and pulled it hard enough this time that it slipped from my hand. Now he had the twig. Nothing happened. And then slowly, he put the stick back through the cage bars, and waved it at me. I played along. I took the end of the twig in my hand. He pulled me right up to the bars of the cage with it, and then he put out his other hand to me through the bars. I had been playing with a gorilla. And now the gorilla was playing with me.
In a little while, we left to walk back through the park. And at the exit to the gorilla area, we saw a painted sign on a post: with gorilla gone, it read, will there be hope for man?
My jaw dropped physically open. I had traveled halfway around the world to come halfway around a circle that I started tracing in my high school bedroom in Thornhill. It was a line from my favourite book. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I read it at 16, when Matt Zarek gave it to me in high school. I read it again every few years, and my life is still unspooling partly under its influence. As I scanned the haunting sign in the primate sanctuary, just after my close encounter, I remembered in a flash where the line appeared in the plot of the book, and then remembered what came next.
Hope for Gorilla, Hope for Humans
Ishmael unfolds through a series of conversations between a young man and a super-intelligent gorilla named Ishmael. Ishmael observes Western culture from inside an enclosure, and he teaches people from what he sees. In the room where the two have their sessions, there hangs a framed sign upon which is inscribed that passage that I came upon in the wildlife sanctuary: with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla? As the sanctuary staff would be well aware, gorillas are perilously close to extinction. Reading the book, I had understood that passage as a depressing suggestion that the only way for gorillas to escape extinction might be if human beings make ourselves extinct first. If man were gone, the gorillas might have a chance.
Near the book's end, Ishmael inexplicably disappears. The young man arrives in the usual room to find it empty. Heartbroken, he takes down the sign on the wall to bring it home with him as a memento. As he turns it over in his hands, he finds a second inscription on the back: with gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?
What would it mean for humans, the reverse inscription asks us, if, rather, gorillas went extinct first? Standing at the intersection of paths in the primate sanctuary in Cameroon, I was starkly aware of the fact that gorillas are basically family to us. After bonobos and chimps, they are our third-closest cousins. They are emotional; they are intelligent. I knew this deeply now in my body. I can still feel that gorilla's tug, and how sweetly heavy my heart became. And so I thought, maybe the reverse side of Ishmael's poster is really asking this: if we can’t find a way of life that lets our next of kin survive here, then what are we? Is there any hope for us if we are able to let our close family go?
With Power, Responsibility
Through Ishmael's voice, Quinn returns over and over to the Bible, that grand repository of Western cultural myth. He questions our common reading of the passage in Genesis in which God gives humankind dominion over the Earth. Quinn says that we’ve taken this to mean the Earth is ours to rule over, and to do with what we will. He suggests (demands) a different reading: instead of control over, Quinn wants to read dominion as responsibility for.
We are the only species on Earth, so far as we know, to enjoy the power of conscious thought. And we take this to be proof of our right to rule over the planet. We understand the Biblical creation story, Quinn thinks, as a process in which everything leads up to the arrival of humankind, the crowning achievement. But we could re-read this part of our mythology too. The creation story roughly summarizes what we now call evolution. And we know now that evolution isn't complete. We could read the founding story of our culture as telling us not that we should rule the Earth because we are its final product, but rather that we need to use our powers to take good care of it, because everyone else is coming up behind us.
If life goes on after the sixth and seventh days of the creation myth, then we are not the only species to evolve into consciousness. We are just the first. If everyone else is evolving along behind us, then the world is not ours to rule. It is ours to guard. Our gift and our curse is to be the first species with enough sophistication that we could choose to lay waste to the world. Our responsibility, Quinn insists, is to use our power to hold space for everyone else coming up behind us.
They are right behind us. They are right behind us. Across the bars of that cage -- a short expanse of metal that spans an enormous gap in power -- I felt I was communicating with a peer. Aren’t we better than this? Some days, when I look at the way of life we’ve chosen, it hurts because of its injustice. Today, it hurts because it’s just so dumb. You don’t eliminate the conditions that make life possible for family. And everything here is family.
We are better than this. We are better than this. Why can't we stop doing this? On one level, this is a searing, imponderable, metaphysical question. But on another level, it is an answerable anthropological one: what cultural factors condition us to understand this as the only choice? And on a third level, more practical still, it is an economic question, now rhetorical again: well, so then why don't we just stop? The third way invites us to set out in search, with boy-scout eagerness, of other ways of organizing ourselves here on this planet. Over the next two posts, we are going to ask and answer the question in both the anthropological and the economic way. We’re going to identify some basic planks of our Western worldview that pit us against the possibility of life here, and we'll see what it might look like to change them.
In the first of them, we'll dip deeper into the well of Quinn’s Ishmael. In the second, we'll draw from the ecological thought of the great urban theorist, Jane Jacobs. We’re going to see how eminently possible it is to build an economy that co-operates with the rest of life, and we'll unearth some of the mostly-unseen beliefs we have chosen to hold that make it seem impossible. Because it is not impossible. This is a thing we can do, and all of us who live here on Earth will be better off for it if we do it.
It is time for us to grow up a little further, and to accept the responsibilities that come with the great gift we have been given. When we grow into the better version of ourselves, there will be hope for gorilla. And once there is hope for gorilla, there will be hope again for us.