Moving Beyond Civilization

I have written elsewhere within this site about the influence of Daniel Quinn’s work on my thinking. His books, Ishmael, My Ishmael, The Story of B, and others, have been fundamental resources and have significantly shaped my life. (Find all of Quinn works HERE)

In Beyond Civilization, published in 1999, Daniel Quinn broke down many of the concepts he explored in his fictional works as a nonfiction response to many of the questions he received from readers. Coincidentally, 1999 was the year I realized I was meant to do and be more in life than I had previously understood.

The catalyst for my shift was the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado on April 20, 1999, which compelled a near-obsession with understanding youth violence, which led me to decide to return to formal education after having been pushed out of high school 10 years prior, which led me to Philosophy 101 and the assignment and examination of Ishmael by my professor, who became a primary mentor and friend in subsequent years. I list this progression in this way because it illustrates the power of ideas to shape our choices, our relationships, and our impact. After reading Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and other works by Quinn, I discovered Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure.

This portion of Quinn’s dedication in Beyond Civilization provides context for the subsequent content:

The homeless and the young are rapidly converging on the socioeconomic territory I identify in this book as “beyond civilization.” The homeless have for the most part been thrust into it involuntarily, while many of the young unknowingly yearn for it, as anyone does who wants more from life than just a chance to feed at the trough where the world is being devoured. It is to them and their hopes that this book is particularly dedicated.

Quinn, Daniel; Beyond Civilization, dedication page. Published by Harmony Books, 1999.

Quinn’s observation that many young people and others yearn for an alternative culture (way of life) wasn’t groundbreaking but his framing within his written work and speeches offered a way of understanding that I had not encountered prior to reading Ishmael and his subsequent books. Using the Socratic Method of structured questioning and interrogation of concepts across academic disciplines, Quinn told compelling stories of intellectual and relational transformation that resonated strongly with me. In reading his books, I felt as though many of my own thoughts and feelings were being articulated clearly and accessibly, supported by logic, facts, and emotionally accessible characters.

Having been forced into homelessness for a time, myself, I am able to relate to those who are unhoused within the “wealthiest country in the world.” Those who consume the least and live outside of the systems of harm throughout the world are often the most marginalized and mistreated within our culture. This, to me, seems fundamentally wrong. I have worked and developed relationships with young people for over 20 years and have listened closely to their stories of experiencing harm within our culture. I share their desire for new ways of living that honor our diversity and the inherent value and worth of all of us.

One of the most powerful aspects of Quinn’s works is the use of narrative techniques of fable, parable, and dialogue to clarify complex ideas. In Beyond Civilization, he uses this fable to begin the text of the book:

Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations – packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds, and so on. One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed a unique social organization called a tribe. Tribalism worked well for them for millions of years, but there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social organization (called civilization) that was hierarchical rather than tribal. Before long, those at the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury, enjoying perfect leisure and having the best of everything. A larger class of people below them lived very well and had nothing to complain about. But the masses living at the bottom of the hierarchy didn’t like it at all. They worked and lived like pack animals, struggling just to stay alive.

“This isn’t working,” the masses said. “The tribal way was better. We should return to that way.” But the ruler of the hierarchy told them, “We’ve put that primitive way behind us forever. We can’t go back to it.”

“If we can’t go back,” the masses said, “then let’s go forward – on to something different.”

“That can’t be done,” the ruler said, “because nothing different is possible. Nothing can be beyond civilization. Civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention.”

“But no invention is ever unsurpassable. The steam engine was surpassed by the steam engine. The radio was surpassed by television. The calculator was surpassed by the computer. Why should civilization be different?”

“I don’t know why it’s different,” the ruler said, “It just is.”

But the masses didn’t believe this – and neither do I.

Quinn, Daniel; Beyond Civilization, page 3. Published by Harmony Books, 1999.

Much of my writing and thinking today is centered around how we move beyond the harmful systems and structures civilization (colonization) has created over the last 10,000 years and create others rooted in human well-being in relationship with the land, water, air, and all life on our finite planet. I’ve written of the myths and stories that hold the status quo in place and accelerate harm and attempted to offer alternative narratives and examples of living differently (in Chapter 4 of Flattening the Pyramids). I am convinced that indigenous ways of thinking, being, and knowing are essential to our survival and eventual thriving here on Earth.

I invite you to participate in imagining a thriving world with me- a world where justice is normalized and all life is valued as sacred, interconnected, and necessary. A world beyond civilization. Join me and imagine what we can create together. What an amazing adventure!

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