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Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ishmael, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon

Following World War II, the world population exploded. Across the planet, especially in the Third World, populations were larger than they’d ever been—and were growing at a faster rate than they’d ever grown before. At the time when Ishmael was published, in 1981, many sociologists worried that the rise in world population would eventually cause a global food crisis, and perhaps even the extinction of the human race. It’s worth looking at this notion more closely, since the possibility of such a global extinction lurks underneath every one of Ishmael and the narrator’s conversations. (Interestingly, in the years following Ishmael’s publication, the emphasis of population studies has largely shifted to population shortages, since in many developed nations the labor force is too small, not too large.)

As the narrator acknowledges, the theory that population growth will inevitably lead to food shortages dates back to the 17th-century English thinker Thomas Malthus. Malthus observed that human populations grow exponentially—in other words, the population grows by a given factor over a given time (in the United States, for example, the population doubles approximately every forty years). By contrast, food supplies, and most resources in general—tend to grow arithmetically—increasing by a given amount over a given time (for example: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25—in other words, at a much slower rate). The result is that the amount of food (and other resources) available per person is always shrinking, and eventually it will approach zero.

It’s remarkable, Ishmael notes, that Malthus’s argument has been well known for hundreds of years, and yet no one seems to pay attention to it. One reason that this is the case is that most humans think that they can “work around” the laws of exponential growth by using science and technology. For instance, during the 1960s and 70s, there was a worldwide “Green Revolution” that allowed crops to be farmed much more efficiently, thereby allowing a far greater number of people to be well-nourished than would ever have been thought possible. Nevertheless, Ishmael argues, no amount of human technology will ever be able to entirely counteract Malthus’s laws, so long as the population continues to grow exponentially.

In effect, Ishmael is an attempt to answer the question, “Why don’t humans recognize that they’re headed for extinction, when the truth is right in front of their faces?” Ishmael believes that humans don’t realize this because one group of humans, the Takers, have constructed an all-pervasive “story” about how the Earth is their property—and they can do whatever they like with their property. Because Takers—who, at this point in history, constitute the vast majority of the human race’s population—have had this story drummed into their heads since childhood, no amount of logic or research can make them change their behavior—behavior which will lead to human extinction.

It’s important to understand Malthus’s arguments about population while reading Ishmael, since food shortages and human extinction are the “stakes” of the novel. In order to prevent extinction, Ishmael tries to draw the narrator’s attention to the artificiality and irrationality of the Taker story. In this way, he hopes that the narrator will convince Takers to change their ways, relinquish their “ownership” of their environment, curb their population growth, and ensure the survival of their species.

Humans, the Environment, and Extinction ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Humans, the Environment, and Extinction appears in each chapter of Ishmael. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Quotes in Ishmael

Below you will find the important quotes in Ishmael related to the theme of Humans, the Environment, and Extinction.
Chapter 1 Quotes


Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator goes to visit Ishmael for the first time, he sees a sign bearing this rhetorical question. The narrator interprets the question as a kind of Zen koan—a cryptic sentence designed to provoke thought and meditation, rather than any clear-cut answer. In the spirit of a Zen koan, here are some possible interpretations of the question:

1) The question is designed to satirize mankind's arrogance. According to the way human beings see the world, man is the dominant species, and all other animals (not just gorillas) are humans' servants, enemies, or pets. The question takes an overbearing, paternalistic tone, as if mankind were an elder brother or father, and gorillas were the younger sibling or child.

2) By the same token, the question is meant to provoke our thoughts of the end of the human species. The notion of man being "gone" was inconceivable even 100 years before the book was written; only in recent years have the rise of nuclear war, environmental awareness, etc. challenged the notion that human beings will always walk the Earth.

3) The question is meant to suggest that gorillas are humans' natural successors on the evolutionary tree. According to one (incorrect) interpretation of the theory of evolution, gorillas and other primates are early "descendants" of human beings, from whom our species evolved. The question seems to assume that humans will go extinct, like the majority of all animals on Earth, and gorillas will evolve to become the new "rulers" of the planet. The question further asks if gorillas will learn from humans' mistakes, or if they, too, will pollute, wage war, etc. The question might also be asking if humans themselves can learn from their own mistakes.


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Chapter 4 Quotes

You didn’t believe me when I said that this is ambient in your culture. Now you see what I mean. The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it. Of course man is conquering space and the atom and the deserts and the ocean and the elements. According to your mythology, this is what he was born to do.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Ishmael tries to explain the guiding “myths” of human culture. For Ishmael, one feature of a myth is its invisibility, or ambience. The great myth of human civilization—so pervasive that it's undetectable, just as water is undetectable to a fish—is that humans were "made" to rule the planet. From the time they're children, humans are conditioned to believe that the world is their property: they can do whatever they choose with whatever parts of it they have access to. The first step in freeing the Narrator from the myths of his culture, then, is to identify these myths. By discussing the mythology of his civilization with Ishmael, the Narrator continuously reminds himself of these myths, until they slowly cease to influence him. As George Orwell wrote, "It is a constant act of strength to see what is right in front of your nose."

Chapter 5 Quotes

“It’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with humans. Something that definitely works against paradise. Something that makes people stupid and destructive and greedy and shortsighted.”

“Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this. Man was born to turn the world into a paradise, but tragically he was born flawed.”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Ishmael and the Narrator clarify the mythology of human civilization. While it's true that humans are indoctrinated to believe that they will "inherit the Earth"—i.e., that the world is their property—this isn't the whole story. Humans are told that they were meant to bring paradise to the world. But when they look around, they see misery instead: pollution, war, crime, etc. So almost by definition, the myth of human civilization has two parts: first, that man was created to rule the world; second, that man was born deeply flawed, and can't help destroying the world because of his flaws. (Oswald Spengler called this the "Faustian archetype.") Paradoxically, then, Ishmael is offering the Narrator a much more modest and yet much more ambitious view of humanity. On one hand, Ishmael rejects the bombastic idea that humans rule the world; but on the other, he insists that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with us at all—or at least nothing that we can't change.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Though the Takers don’t know it yet, the gods did not exempt man from the law that governs the lives of grubs and ticks and shrimps and rabbits and mollusks and deer and lions and jellyfish. They did not exempt him from this law any more than they exempted him from the law of gravity.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

Although human civilization claims to be governed by a myth—the myth of human dominance—Ishmael claims that human civilization is governed by the laws of nature. Naturally, humans reject the idea that they're the same as other animals—it's inconceivable that they'd have to obey the same laws as other life forms.

Arguably the most important word in this entire quotation is "yet." The basic law of nature that Ishmael is referring to here is that, in the end, human beings will go extinct because of their abuses of the environment—no species can survive while consuming its own resources exponentially. So it's inevitable that, at some point in the future, the human race will have to face the consequences of its behavior: it just hasn't done so "yet."

But your craft isn’t going to save you. Quite the contrary, it’s your craft that’s carrying to toward the catastrophe. Five billion of people pedaling away—or ten billion or twenty billions—can’t make it fly. It’s been in free fall from the beginning and that fall is about to end.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael explains the future of human civilization to the Narrator by making an analogy: civilization is like a failed flying machine. As billions of human beings try to operate the flying machine, they have the exhilarating feeling that they're defying the laws of gravity. The crux of Ishmael's analogy is that falling and flying feel exactly the same: in other words, civilization has been declining for thousands of years, even while human beings think that civilization is solving all their problems.

The passage is a good example of the way that Ishmael teaches the Narrator. Again and again, he relies on analogies and elaborate metaphors (at various points, he compares civilization to a flying machine, a waterfall, a concert, etc.). Because the concepts Ishmael teaches are so complicated, he must clarify them by comparing them to objects and situations with which the Narrator is already familiar. The passage also shows Ishmael at his most prophetic—for all the differences between Ishmael and Buddha or Jesus, he's making a grim prediction of mankind's future, and this is the very definition of a prophet.

Chapter 8 Quotes

The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is. Once you exempt yourself from the law of limited competition, everything in the world except your food and the food of your food becomes an enemy to be exterminated.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Ishmael shows the Narrator how the one basic premise of human civilization—the premise that man controls the world and can do with it whatever he wishes—determines how people view the world's plants and animals. The job of a farmer, for example, is to supply the maximum amount of food to the maximum amount of people—as Ishmael says, this is "holy work." But in order to maximize production, farmers must exterminate creatures that compete with humans for food—carnivores, pests, etc. Because humans believes that the only true "good" is humanity itself, then they must also conclude that any life that challenges humans' supply of food is "evil." Ishmael wants the Narrator—and us, the readers—to notice the narrow-mindedness of human civilizations' assumptions. Common sense dictates that animals aren't our enemies simply because they need to eat to survive; and yet human civilization pressures human beings to believe that animals absolutely are our "enemies to be exterminated." We're so conditioned to think in civilization's terms that we don't see how bizarre and brutal civilization can be in the larger scheme of things.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“All the same, Bwana, what are we to do with this food if we don’t need it?”

“You save it! You save it to thwart the gods when they decide it’s your turn to go hungry. You save it so that when they send a drought, you can say, ‘Not me, goddamn it I’m not going hungry, and there’s nothing you can do about it, because my life is in my own hands now!’”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In the dramatic (and intellectual) climax of the novel, the Narrator realizes why the Takers choose to live their lives the way they do. As Ishmael goads him, the Narrator begins to see that the Takers' goal is to "thwart the gods," which are understood as nature, nature's laws, natural disasters, etc. In order to prove that they're strong and self-sufficient, the Takers choose to hoard food, water, and supplies, so that they can survive any disaster nature throws their way. In doing so, the Takers distinguish themselves from all other forms of life. As we've already seen, other animals don't hoard resources; instead, they live and die with the elements, never taking more than they need in the short term.

The quotation is a good example of Ishmael's novel teaching strategy. Instead of telling the Narrator the truth about the Takers, Ishmael pushes, pressures, and even teases "Bwana" (the Narrator) into realizing the truth himself. In this section, the Narrator doesn't say anything that he and Ishmael hadn't already discussed earlier in the novel: the Narrator already knew that Takers tried to evade nature's laws by accumulating goods (the very name "Takers" assumes this behavior). But even if he's not learning new information, the Narrator's epiphany shows that Ishmael's teaching methods have paid off. The Narrator is genuinely excited about the lesson he's just learned: because he arrived at the conclusion on his own, he'll remember it for the rest of his life.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“The premise of the Taker story is that the world belongs to man.” I thought for a couple of minutes, then I laughed. “It’s almost too neat. The premise of the Leaver story is man belongs to the world.”

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

In this interesting quotation, the Narrator reduces everything he's learned about human civilization in the last 200 pages to a single, symmetrical sentence ("The premise of the Taker story ..."). As simple as it seems, a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom is crammed into this sentence. As Ishmael has shown, the Takers—really, most human civilization—accumulate the planet's resources in the delusion that these resources are limitless. Leavers, on the other hand, try to live in harmony with nature, knowing that this is the only way to survive.

The fact that the Narrator can sum up his knowledge so clearly and concisely proves how far he's come during the course of the book. In the first chapter, the Narrator was puzzling over a cryptic sentence (With man gone ..."). Now, he's writing sentences with similarly cryptic elegance, a sign that he's become wiser and more perceptive. The Narrator has become more like Ishmael himself—someone who can see, with total clarity, the flaws and contradictions of human culture.

Chapter 13 Quotes


Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ishmael's tragic death, The Narrator sorts through Ishmael's possessions and posters, and comes across a poster featuring yet another cryptic question: "with gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?" In order to understand this question fully, it's important to compare it with the question posed earlier in the novel: "with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?" As with that earlier question, it's best to interpret the quote in multiple ways, recognizing that no one interpretation is the whole story:

1) By itself, the question is incomplete: we should combine it with the previous question ("With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?"). Combining the two questions reminds us that neither man nor gorilla is the "whole story" in such an interconnected world—only by working together (just as Ishmael and the Narrator worked together) can both survive.

2) Literally, the quote reminds us of the novel's plot. The gorilla, Ishmael, is gone. The question then becomes, what will the Narrator do with the wisdom Ishmael has passed on to him? It's strongly suggested that the Narrator intends to share his new wisdom with other people. Indeed, it's implied that the Narrator converts Ishmael's wisdom into a best-selling book: the book we've just finished reading. In this way, the Narrator aims to achieve Ishmael's goal, convincing the Takers to abandon their destructive culture and live a healthier, more honest life.

3) On a more historical level, the question wonders what will happen to the human race when all other animals, gorillas included, go extinct. Throughout the novel, Ishmael has shown how Takers eliminate all rivals to their food supply—in other words, wipe out entire species—because they think that doing so will ensure them permanent control of the planet. The tragedy, Ishmael argues, is that by eliminating other forms of life, humans are also ensuring their own destruction. Human beings should be living in harmony with nature—in other words, they should be living like gorillas. When gorillas inevitably go extinct, humans will have no "model" for how else they might survive. With no Leavers left to emulate, the Takers' victory—and ultimate collapse—will be inevitable.