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
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Quotes in Ishmael
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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!’”
“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.”