The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction

"You consider yourselves inventive don't you? Well, be inventive."

For those of you who don't recognize those words, they come from the Gorilla Ishmael from Daniel Quinn's book of the same name. Described as an "alien anthropologist" by some for his unique perspective, Quinn reveals through Ishmael to us the flaws in our thinking and why it is our story not our actions that are sending us towards inevitable collapse. Our cultural memes dictate everything we do, even the rebellious reforms we try to implement are still operating in opposition to the laws of nature.

Ishmael caused a critical shift in my thinking almost a decade ago and my highest recommendation to anyone would be to read it and share it with someone else. It is easy enough that it could be read by a 5th grader and with  less than 200 pages it could easily fit into your summer reading plans.

The quote at the beginning of this post is Ishmael's response to the main character's realization of our predicament. I won't spoil for you the paradigm shift that one gets as a result of reading Ishmael but it is important to realize that our society does not lead a sustainable existence. Not exactly news to anyone but what makes Ishmael truly valuable is the insight as to why we continue to do live an unsustainable existence.

Many readers of Ishmael are left with the question, well what should we do now? In fact, an entire section of the website devoted to Ishmael revolves around that question (don't click expecting an easy answer). About 15 years later, research and insight allowed Rebecca Costa to provide her perspective in her book The Watchman's Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction.

Although I read a lot of books, my favorites are those that inspire new ideas for me. As I was reading this on the way to the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, I easily filled 2 pages worth of thoughts, ideas, innovations inspired by this book. If for no other reason, check this book out because it makes you think.

The author draws from her research the realization that one of the causes of societal collapse is when we hit our cognitive threshold. When a society's problems become so complex that they cannot be solved by left brain/right brain thinking then we inevitably will fall prey to some cause like the Romans and the Mayans before us and be unable to think our way out of it.

Evolution, is too slow to provide us the biological gains to solve these problems, but we already have a mechanism built in that could be the key to our survival. Through numerous examples and with the latest in neuroscientific discoveries, the case is laid out for "insight" as a way to solve complex problems. While insight has always been a spontaneous non-repeatable occurrence, it has led to dramatic scientific and societal paradigm shifts as a result. Now scientists are discovering the factors that increase the likelihood of insight which could be used as a basis for innovation out of our current situation and into one more sustainable.

As Ishmael lays out in his book, our culture is the primary cause of our problems and not some failing of human nature or lack of technological innovation. Rebecca Costa shares the five supermemes which prevent us from reaching our goals. Memes are a cultural idea that is transmitted from person to person and generation to generation. The supermemes are those which are everywhere and are most destructive.

The problem is, when you describe a supermeme to someone their response is, "well that's the only way it could be or has been". We encounter this quite often with education as those who would remember a time before our industrialized classroom emerged are no longer with us and so we believe this is always the way it has been.

According to Quinn and Costa, the only way to overcome these cultural memes that are detrimental to our society  is to ensure our beliefs are rooted in fact and logic as opposed to destructive memes. Once a critical mass of people understand why we are doing things the way we are, it is possible to abandon it and start again. This is demonstrated in science (documented by Thomas Kuhn) as well as in our history that a small growing group of people can cause a shift in our societal thinking.

So while I know what I need to do, it is also critical that more of you read these two books and become inspired yourself to, "Save the World" as Ishmael called it. I can think of no better time than now.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

The Watchman's Rattle by Rebecca Costa

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