What’s an environmentalist? Somebody who already has their mountain cabin.
— TC Boyle, A Friend of the Earth.
Over the past month I’ve read Ed Abbey’s infamous novel The Monkey Wrench Gang and T.C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth. Both books deal with a topic that is significant in Oregon, considering the recent eco-terrorism trials and the pending WOPR disaster.
The heroes in both of these novels lose everything in the attempt to stand up against the extractive industries (mining, logging, ranching, development, utilities). It’s the idea of sacrificing yourself to a machine, being the grit inside the gears, even as it chews you up and spits you out. The characters fight for something bigger than our puny existence which has come to blight the planet, driving the majority of species to extinction (just us, the rats and the roaches will be left… fitting).
I read Abbey first, and it seemed like great fun to run around in the desert in a 4-wheel drive and wreak havoc. Hell, even the broken hero Hayduke comes out ok in the end. I wasn’t prepared to go to those measures, but the idea of monkeywrenching seemed hopeful, less Quixotic. One could affect change and have a great time doing it.
Then I read a Friend of the Earth and it ruined that idea. The future in 2025 — floods, scorching heat, permanent El Niño — with the vestigial remains of a culture going through the motions as the last bit of biodiversity circles the drain.
The baby boomers live on, the old-old… zombies staggering around on bird’s bones with twenty or thirty years’ accumulation of sleep deprivation bleeding out of their eye sockets. The only alcohol is sake, the only meat is catfish — the rich are eating frozen beef and 20-year old cans of albacore.
The earth is revolting:
Global warming. I remember when people debated not only the fact of it, but the consequence. It didn’t sound so bad, on the face of it, to someone from Winnipeg, Grand Forks or Sakhalin Island. The greenhouse effect, they called it. And what are greenhouses but pleasant, warm, nurturing places, where you can grow sago palms and hydroponic tomatoes during the deep freeze of the winter? But that’s not how it is at all. No, it’s like leaving your car in the parking lot in the sun all day with the windows rolled up and then climbing in and discovering that they’ve been sealed shut — and the doors too.
And Ty Tierwater, the last man standing at the end of the world realizes that it was all for nothing. But the hordes have done it for him. We’ve ushered in the sixth great extinction. But at least the last remaining species will diversify and nature will spring back once we’re gone.
These aren’t particularly pleasant thoughts for the part-time eco-volunteer. In fact, it’s pretty freaking horrible. There are so many ideas to wrestle with in these books — the futility of doing nothing versus the futility of throwing ourselves headlong into the mouth of the machine. Ascetic lifestyles, clinging to the last bit of untamed life, living on soy and supplements versus gunning down the last condors to get the damn thing over with.
Both books deserve a read (A+ rating) and I recommend reading them together if you want to ride the eco-emotional roller coaster.
I’ll leave you with a little Billy Collins to help you stop worrying about the end:
But who has the time to consider such horrors
when the world’s body keeps pressing up against us
with the weight of its beauty, its dizzying sea cliffs
and coasting birds, its rolling fairways and deep pine woods?
Who could imagine all of this coming to a sudden end
but the lone visionary we always picture
on a street corner, gaunt, bearded, holdig up
the sign that bears the news he cannot keep
to himself: the last headline, the final announcement.