I just finished reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael for the second time (I previously downloaded the audio-book, which was amazing, but I think the book is slightly better). If you haven’t read it, read it. I’d say it’d be life-changing for anyone wants to do something about the state of the environment but don’t know where to start. For the ones how have already started, it’s perhaps even more recommended. That said, the rest of this post won’t make sense unless you already have read the book.

Ishmael answers a lot of questions for me – primarily the one that goes “if this isn’t the right way, then what is?”. But of course the answer isn’t final, it isn’t an end point, it’s just an opening. It’s another method of looking at things, and realising how much could change. Which basically means that it brings up more questions than it answers.

One of the major questions that it brings up is about the future. Considering the fairly convincing arguments that Taker (ie. civilised) culture is bound for destruction, while stagnating on the way, and that Leaver (uncivilised) culture seems to fit fairly well with the ecological realities of planet earth, it seems an obvious path to take to move towards a Leaver mentality, as fast as possible. This raises some questions: “What will a post-taker mentality be? And what will a post-taker society look like?” Obviously, no Leaver society has had the experience of previously being a Taker culture. If we survive this (I feel sure that some of us will) will there be fundamental differences between our culture and any other Leaver culture?

My first reaction is to say that there wouldn’t be – that the differences would be superficial, or purely technological (computers in a Leaver society?). But I also think I might be missing something. I can’t envision it.

The second question, and more pressing one relates to the Laws of Life: Quinn’s arguements for laws of life are extremely convincing – and I even think he’s pretty close to the mark with the Law of Limited Competition, although I think it needs sometesting. The main question is “is that it?” I mean, is there only one Law of Life (or rather, the three encompassed in the Law of Limited Competition) ? Are there more? Can these be refined? Expanded?

The third thing that springs to mind is a correlation between laws and patterns and pattern languages. Obviously my understanding of patterns comes from my architectural background (specifically, Christopher Alexander’s “The Timeless Way“, and “A Pattern Language”), however, this has strong parallels to Quinn’s flight metaphor. For any law, be it gravity, or a law of life, there are specific patterns that can be used to correctly operate in that law. For flight, the relevant law is gravity. If you asked an aeronautical engineer, they might tell you some patterns like wing area to body ratio, or strut-braced wings, or methods to attain laminar flow (I’m reading out of New Scientist (2007-2-24) here). These patterns don’t define an aircraft, but they can help define it. They help to guide the designer. The patterns don’t allow us to overcome gravity, but they do allow us to work within the limits of gravity (and wind resistance, and structure, etc), to create a functional solution. The same is true with buildings. Alexander came at it from the other end to Quinn – He started with the patterns, but the laws of building haven’t been entirely figured out yet (the structural ones have, but the social ones haven’t). Regardless Alexander and Co. managed to find over 250 patterns relating to how to design and build beautiful (livable) buildings and cities. None of them are perfect – all of them only relate to some specific purpose and scale, and none of them are applicable to all situations (or cultures) – but all of them important, and useful for the society that they were written for (or rather, discovered for).

Perhaps it’s this way because the patterns are actually simplified expressions of how best to go about working within the laws relevant to the field. If this is so, and we now have at least some understanding of the Laws of Life, then what are the patterns of life?

I think some are already understood – a lot of permaculture principles seem to fit this bill. but permaculture’s principle’s haven’t been expressed as patterns yet (as per Alexander’s methods), especially on the social side. More research to be done…