Illustration by Robert Neubecker (July 15, 2013)

This is a story about a blue crab killed for no good reason.

It is a story about birth and rebirth, law and life, nature and nurture, cooperation and connection, cultivation and civilization, production and destruction, seed and greed, Adam and Eve.

It is a story about "Ishmael."

"Ishmael," a 1992 Daniel Quinn novel, sounded an alarm on civilization's war on Earth, embarked on 10,000 years ago at the beginning of the agricultural revolution. It illuminated the way in which that revolution continues with blindness and madness, killing or swallowing all life — plant, creature or human — that stands in the way of its appetite for expansion. It urged us to wake up.

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.

The book inspired discussion groups worldwide through The Friends of Ishmael Society, and it prompted schools and teachers to include it in their curricula. Some still do.

I came upon the book almost 10 years ago during a time in which my heart — perhaps remembering a life-inspiring lesson from childhood — beat for books about the natural world, especially those that carried a historical, cultural or spiritual component. Thoreau's "Walden" begot Derrick Jensen's "A Language Older than Words," which begot Riane Eisler's "The Chalice & the Blade," with some Barbara Kingsolver mixed in. The latter two books beautifully bemoaned loss — "Language" the loss of our connection to the stars and streams, "Chalice" the loss of our connection to the sacred feminine. Both books explored an insane world run by men.

"Ishmael" featured an inviting subtitle: "An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit." It also carried on the cover this blurb by Jim Britell of Whole Earth Review: "From now on, I will divide the books I have read into two categories — the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after."

I now divide the books I have read into two categories — the ones that slap me in the face and the ones that don't. "Ishmael" slapped me in the face: Humanity isn't destroying the earth. One culture that now rules the globe is destroying the earth. That is our culture, whose objective is to bulldoze everything in its way and to put everybody at the wheel. The objective is food production and growth, and the target is any forest and any life — plant, animal or human — that occupies it. This is true whether in Brazil, China, Russia or the United States. Our culture won't stop until it devours everything, including itself.

My grandparents passed this culture to my parents, who passed it to me. I passed it to my kids, who no doubt will pass it to theirs. We do so unwittingly, much the way we commuters sleepwalk en masse from the train to our office buildings, unconscious but of our iPhones. As the book points out, we're on a crash course.

I've been thinking about "Ishmael" lately because of a new book I just finished: "Life's Operating Manual," by Tom Shadyac, director of films such as "Bruce Almighty" and "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." I read it because of the story of Shadyac, who sold his Hollywood mansion and moved into a mobile-home park. He writes in his book that he did that and gave away money because "it felt like the right thing to do."

Shadyac's book, broader in its cultural message and more spiritually focused than "Ishmael," told me little new. But it did offer strong reminders on ideas that resonate with me, such as the value of true wealth over material wealth ("I do not wish to redistribute wealth; I wish to redefine it," Shadyac writes); the problem of a cultural mentality that inspires competition and profit over cooperation and people; and the importance of our culture to recognize and embrace our connection to all things — each other and nature.

The book also pays tribute to "Ishmael" and to Quinn, its author. Shadyac writes: "Ishmael" grabbed "me by my throat in a literary vise grip. Quinn's chokehold is rooted in a simple idea: that our culture has seduced us, hypnotized us really, into wholeheartedly embracing a way of life that may have little to do with reality."

Shadyac's book prompted me to read "Ishmael" again and to write about it.

Early in the book, a man, the narrator, answers a newspaper ad that says:

"TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person."

The narrator meets the teacher — Ishmael, a thousand-pound gorilla who communicates telepathically. Using the Socratic method, Ishmael implores the narrator to think for himself on "how things came to be this way" and to come to the understanding that our culture has been enacting a story from the book of Genesis: that Man is here to conquer the earth.

Ishmael separates humans into two groups — "Leavers" and "Takers." "Leavers" formed cultures that thrived for thousands of years before the agricultural revolution — hunters and gatherers, herders, indigenous societies. Those cultures lived lightly and took only what they needed. "Takers" are us — the people who killed or annexed those cultures and continue to do so; logging and farming in the Amazon threatens some of the last uncontacted tribes on Earth.

"Mother Culture teaches you that this is as it should be," Ishmael tells the narrator. "Except for a few thousand savages scattered here and there, all the peoples of the earth are now enacting this story. This is the story man was born to enact [according to the mythology], and to depart from it is to resign from the human race itself. ... There's no way out of it except through death."

Unlike "Leaver" societies, which sustained themselves and the natural world for thousands of years, our "Taker" society will run out of things to kill and will die. Quinn likens the agricultural revolution to humans' first attempts at flight. Those attempts failed because we tried to mimic a bird. Only when we discovered the law of aerodynamics did we learn to fly.