Sunday, 27 December 2020

No 112 - America's ecological fictions


Joe Biden may have a hard time reversing the slew of legislative sleights-of-hand through which Donald Trump’s administration has wilfully attacked America’s environmental health. These dozens of regulations range from easing restrictions on emissions and fracking, on oil exploration in wilderness areas and Native American reservations, on use of once-banned pesticides, and on ‘development’ on wetlands and offshore shoals. Not to mention making it easier to hunt endangered species.

It’s not just myopic Trumpians, of course. I listened in dismay recently to an oil executive blandly promoting exploration for fossil fuels adjacent to the Okavanga Delta, smoothly reassuring his interviewer that there would be no ecological impact. The record of oil companies in honouring these promises is criminally dismal. There would be no fracking, he said. Another report in Africa Geographic, however, makes it clear that fracking in one of the planet’s most unique wild environments is being contemplated. And nary a quiver of recognition – or admission – by the said smooth exec that the fossil-fuel process essentially involves extracting one form of poison from the ground, processing it and burning it to produce a whole barrage of spinoff poisons. Those poisons circulate through our waterways and wind currents into our very bladders and lungs. Never mind the slippery generalities of ‘climate change’: continuing to pump these toxins into the environment at the rate of millions of tonnes a year, when we know how bad they are, is the very definition of insanity. And every one of us, yours truly included, who uses a vehicle or a computer or a light bulb is a helpless-feeling but complicit beneficiary of this madness.

 It has been known for a long time. None other than Charles Dickens, 150 years ago, found Pittsburgh so polluted by coal-based manufacturing that he called it “Hell with the lid on.”  Pittsburgh is pleasantly clean today, which is encouraging. Still, the blatant lies of the coal-oil-gas industrialists and the government lackeys who subsidise them continue. The tide is turning, but with desperate slowness, as so-called ‘activists’ wade like crude-oil-coated penguins through the sludge of moneyed interests and the sheer inertia of a global civilisation indivisible from fossil fuel products. But even in high-tech SUV-addicted America, the signs are that Trump et al will eventually find themselves on the wrong side of history. California is a step ahead on curbing emissions; Massachusetts has just legislated that poison-warning stickers be placed on all fuel pumps; cities are greening in open defiance of Republican stupidity. There is no longer a cure, only mitigation, but fantastic inventions that can help are proliferating.

Dickens was one who recognised how Americans were wedded to the mythology of the open Western frontier, as many still seem to be, as if the resources of the continent are still infinite, and as if those with the chutzpah and the riches to exploit them have a virtually divine right to do so without restraint or conscience. (Tim Flannery titles his readable environmental history of the United States The Eternal Frontier.) The frontier notion has become delusory, of course, as certain American artists have recognised. The juggernaut of America’s extraordinary urban-industrial development also ironically hosts the world’s most robust and beautiful tradition of ecological writing. The names are legendary, ringing their elegiac warnings: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, through to current luminaries like Bill McKibben, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez. (Lopez, sadly, died just this week.) 

All those are non-fiction essayists. American novelists too, however, have regularly expressed an ‘environmental’ sensibility: one can hardly contemplate the soil and water disaster that is the Midwest today without thinking of John Steinbeck’s prescient The Grapes of Wrath. This is ever more the case as the global crisis deepens. Many current writers have projected grim imagined futures of techno-nightmare, desertification, or flood: to highlight just one instance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy about a future New York, besieged by rain, ice and rising sea levels. Sci-fi and speculative fiction apart, there are also many more ‘social-realist’ novels which treat of all sorts of current environmental issues. Those I outline below (I’ll get there eventually) are just those few that happen to have fallen into my lap, in no particular order. 

It has been suggested that the myth of the great western frontier stimulated the similarly epic scale of some American fiction, novels of the bulk and scope of John dos Passos’ U.S.A. or Tom Wolfe’s Time and the River. They certainly still keep producing them. My personal favourite has to be Don de Lillo’s massive Underworld (1997). In form it’s a deliberate undermining of the linear discovery epic in which a great hero of the stature of Davy Crockett launches into the wilderness. Underworld is instead a multiply intertwined collage of stories, not all of which end up anywhere. The bulk of the characters are involved in waste disposal, ranging from the trash pyramids of New York’s infamous Fresh Kills landfill to surplus food tossed into the back alley of an undistinguished restaurant. It depicts a country virtually drowning in its own garbage, from nuclear waste to a stray baseball (in some estimates nearly a fifth of American workers are employed in cleaning up, burying or exporting the nation’s junk). Sounds unpromising, but it’s superbly written, if anything even better than his justly celebrated White Noise, which also centred on an environmental hazard, the “airborne toxic event” resulting from a road tanker exploding. 

Annie Proulx published her first novel, The Shipping News, at the age of 56,and hasn’t looked back. She’s a tough, gritty writer – the very antithesis of a homely Jane Austen or even the rangy Jane Smiley – with a penchant for bumping her characters off in inventive ways. She has developed a strong environmental thread, not least in her multi-generational epic, Barkskins (2016). ‘Barkskins’ is slang for foresters: before coal and oil, there was wood, and the novel chronicles the fortunes and misfortunes of the English and French (later Canadian) woodcutters who established Euro-American civilisation by way of obliterating the continent’s great forests and most of their native denizens, human and animal alike. What seemed to seventeenth-century colonists as literally endless, proved all too finite before the invasion of axes and blades, then steam-driven sawmills and ultimately irresistible chainsaws and bulldozers. Those heroic ‘pioneers’ are here painted as ordinary, often rapacious and embittered misfits, later as unsentimental profiteers, loving and suffering and fighting and dying. The thing about families is they proliferate, and in trying to keep up with its own genealogical spread the novel arguably unravels in the end – but so do those unvarnished myths of divinely-inspired and entitled Western civilisation. 

What that civilisation ends up as is complexly portrayed in just two opening pages of Proulx’s That Old Ace in the Hole (2002). The Texan prairies are dotted with oil wells and grain elevators, the fields underlaid by networks of pipes and cables, “a region of immeasurable natural complexity that some believed abused beyond saving”. Proulx is far too canny a writer to simplistically beat the ‘environmentalist’ drum, but this novel shows just how intensive pig-farming in the Texas panhandle is undergirded by ecological damage.  The novel is funnier and more focussed than Barkskins, as its somewhat hapless central character, the ironically-named Bob Dollar, scouts for new lands his rich employer-company can buy up for pig-farms. He is regaled with stories about the region’s history, its entangled families, its loves and competitions and strengths and innovations and myopias. We are reminded, in short, that what we count now as ecologically criminal was built up over centuries by complicated humans mostly just doing what they saw as immediately advantageous, even good. Except, clearly now, the venal and remote big corporations, who apparently care not a whit about the toxic spill of pork-factories into local communities. 

Reminiscent of Barkskins in its genealogical scope and in its wilderness settings is Peter Matthiesson’s epic Shadow Country (2008). Mathiessen’s ecological credentials are well-established by his numerous non-fiction books, including The Birds of Heaven, on the world’s cranes, and the justly acclaimed The Snow Leopard. This chunky fictional epic, set in Florida’s coastal Everglades, is a thorough rewrite and combination of three separate earlier novels, starting with Killing Mister Watson. This obviously focussed on how and why said Mister Watson got killed, and so isn’t explicitly ecological in thrust. However, the environment of Shadow Country’s hardscrabble, marginalised swamp dwellers so dominates their lives that depicting the mutual impacts of place and people is unavoidable. Among other things, some residents make a living trading in egret feathers and alligator skins for the European fashion markets. Matthiessen chronicles the many distressing ways in which even the inaccessible Everglades are transformed by development and commerce.  (I’m not sure about the egrets, but the alligators were all but eradicated before protective legislation kicked in. Now they are as common as poodles, and occasionally eat one.)

So much for the grubby realities of the ‘pioneers’. The contemporary environmentalist scene – essentially a desperate squabbling over the remnants of two centuries of rapine and over-exploitation – is just not a Manichaean struggle between predators and protectors. Factions amongst environmentalists also contend over how best to address the crisis, a situation treated in two novels I know about. One is T C Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done (2011). In the earlier days of his wonderful novel Water Music and collections of startling short stories, this most vivid, versatile and sardonic of American novelists styled himself T. Correghessan Boyle, but must have tired of people puzzling over the pronunciation. When the Killing’s Done is set largely on a group of small islands off the coast of California, which have been overrun by foreign rats and pigs, which in turn are decimating indigenous bird populations. (This is precisely the problem on the South Atlantic’s Gough Island, itself a microcosm of the global problem of ‘invasive species’, mostly transported by humans across oceans and continents, with mostly devastating consequences – what historian Alfred Crosby termed Ecological Imperialism.) Boyle shows himself well-versed in ‘invasion biology’, as he pitilessly unpacks a tussle between a government biologist, Anna Takesue, trying to eliminate the rats, and an anarchistic animal-rights activist, Dave LaJoy, who thinks rats have as great a right to life as anyone, no matter where they come from. Neither character is particularly savoury (I’m not sure Boyle is capable of creating a really likeable character), but they and their respective if overlapping segments of society are revealed and understood in intimate and persuasive detail. Not least amongst LaJoy’s gripes are the pervasive habits of meat-eating, which in his view are both a rights violation and an ecological disaster. He reads a pamphlet citing German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity”. You could/should say the same of mountains, rivers and forests (as Equador has done). One suspects most of these novelists would at heart agree. 

Japanese-American Ruth Ozeki’s best-known novel, My Year of Meat, echoes the eco-dietary concern in both Proulx and Boyle. Another work, however, treats another intra-activist conflict of sorts. In All Over Creation (2013), a bunch of over-exuberant eco-activists, who are especially keen to confront genetic modification of crops, descend on a Midwest potato-farmer. He and his Japanese wife develop a wide range of organically-grown seeds, mostly varieties muscled out of the markets by big-agrobusiness monocultures, and they take him for an unlikely, and reluctant, guru. The insensitive, aggrandising domination of the big corporations looms large again here. Ozeki is wonderfully gifted, and often laugh-out-loud funny, while never losing sight of the seriousness and complexities of the issues. 

None of these writers fall into the trap of clumsy didacticism, even when the very subject of their works reveals their concern, if not open sympathies. One who perhaps sails closest to the edge of that trap is Barbara Kingsolver; perhaps she can’t quite escape her training as a biologist, most evident in her lovely essay collections such as Pigs from Heaven and High Tide in Tucson. Still, despite a touch of didacticism, her novel Flight Behaviour (2012) is an excellent story, centred on the decline of monarch butterflies. These magnificent fire-coloured creatures traditionally migrate in their millions annually between northern California and Mexico, but their health has been severely compromised by all the problems we’ve touched on: primarily the destruction of forest cover and crucial food sources by logging, wildfires, pesticides and conversion of land to agriculture, overwhelmingly for the meat industries, not to mention temperature changes that manifest ‘climate change’. The monarch’s decline, like so many other ‘canaries-in-the-mine’ warnings, have for way too long been ignored. 

Just this narrow selection of fictions of ecological sensitivity would seem to indicate that awareness is growing; likewise there are many films, and even humdrum American police-procedurals, which are taking ecological crimes and dilemmas as their subject-matter. We are floundering in a toxic tide of our own making, but I guess as long as people are writing and talking about it, despair can be staved off, and workable, more compassionate and equitable strategies of survival can be developed. What's really intriguing is how such fictions tell much deeper truths than the fictions propagated by the oil money-dependent government. 


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