A Friend of the Earth

I just finished reading T.C. Boyle’s 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth. A retirement gift from a long-time friend and colleague, the book describes one man’s futile attempts to save the living earth and the consequences of his failure.
A Friend of the Earth is set in 2025-2026, with frequent flashbacks to 1989 and 1990. In this tale, the industrial age has not reached its end, and the consequences are truly horrific. The effects of habitat loss for many species, along with climate change, have produced a badly overpopulated planet that alternates between madly monsoonal and hellishly hot. The book echoes Jonathan Swift’s classic writings from three centuries ago: People are living a long time, relative to today’s standards, but their lives are truly miserable.

The book opens with a quote from Emerson’s Nature along with one from Tom Waits’ song, Earth Died Screaming: “The earth died screaming / While I lay dreaming …” After the opening quotes, we dive right into the miserable existence of Tyrone (Ty) O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, 75-year-old caretaker of the a misbegotten menagerie of nearly extinct animals owned by a wealthy music star still revered years after his glory days.
Clogged with nine billion people trying to eek out a life worth living, the world of 2025 as portrayed by Boyle is simultaneously hauntingly realistic and overly optimistic. The realistic portion concerns the weather: The rainy season in the protagonist’s region is comprised of several months in a hurricane, complete with roof-ripping winds and incessant downpours. When the hurricane turns off, the weather promptly switches to achingly arid, with temperatures rarely dipping below 90 F.
I appreciate Boyle’s portrayal of the climate and weather in 2025, but I think he is entirely too optimistic about the future of food: It’s difficult for me to foresee so many people obtaining enough food to persist well into their second century of life in a world with few remaining species and even fewer remaining forests. When ecosystems collapse to the extent portrayed in A Friend of the Earth, you can forget about insect-pollinated plants in the heartland of any continent on this planet.
I’ll admit that describing the planet’s future, and the role of humans in that presumed future, is a daunting task. Nonetheless, I think James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road both offer far more plausible scenarios for our prospects in 2025. Ultimately — and perhaps paradoxically — both books are more apocalyptic and also more hopeful about our future than A Friend of the Earth. On the other hand, Ty’s loneliness in a crowded world, induced by his intellect and his passion for the planet, reminds me of an email message I received a few months back from a brilliant former student. It included this pithy line, which expresses, better than I ever have, my oft-felt sentiment: “Despite overpopulation I find the world a lonely place.”
There is much to appreciate in this book, and not simply due to the reminiscent pleasure of my email in-box. Consider this line as Ty prepares to sabotage a large electrical project in the early 1990s: “All it took was public awareness — if they only knew what electricity ultimately cost them, if they only knew they were tightening the noose round their own throats, day by day, kilowatt hour by kilowatt hour, then they’d rise up as one and put an end to it.” Every thoughtful conservation biologist and friend of the planet knows the feeling and hopes education is sufficient. And yet, by now we all know it isn’t working and almost certainly won’t.
This brief passage reminds me that novels contain truth deeper than works of non-fiction: “Revenge fantasies got you nowhere. Despair did, though. Despair got you to submit to the gravitational force and become one with the cracked leather couch in front of the eternally blipping TV in a rented house on a palm-lined street in suburbia.”
Later, our protagonist reflects on a life in the trenches on behalf the planet’s non-human species: “Friendship. That’s what got me into the movement and that’s what pushed me way out there on the naked edge of nothing, beyond sense or reason, or even hope. Friendship for the earth. For the trees and shrubs and the native grasses and the antelope on the plain and the kangaroo rats in the desert and everything else that lives and breathes under the sun. … Except people, that is. Because to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people.”
Maybe that’s why my in-box has all that hate mail. To be fair, though, I would modify the final sentence in the preceding paragraph thusly: “Because to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the majority of people of the industrialized countries.” After all, extant non-industrial cultures and future people will thank friends of the earth for bringing down the industrial economy despite the best efforts of the collective masses who are insanely destroying the planet. Assuming, of course, the industrial economy does not persist through 2025, thereby ensuring there are no future people alive to thank contemporary friends of the earth.
Like Nietzsche, I write for future humans. And, like Nietzsche, my ego allows me to believe future people will appreciate my efforts in ways contemporary humans don’t.
Fast forward to the dry season of 2026, driving through northern California: “Of course, there are the inevitable condos. And traffic. This was once a snaking two-lane country road cut through national forest lands, sparsely populated, little-traveled. Now I’m crawling along at fifteen miles an hour in a chain of cars and trucks welded into the flanks of the mountain as far as I can see, and I’m not breathing cooling drafts of alpine air either — wind-whipped exhaust, that’s about it. Where thirty-five years ago there were granite bluffs and domes, now there is stucco and glass and artificial wood, condos banked up atop one another like the Anasazi cliff-dwellings, eyes of glass, teeth of steps and railings, the pumping hearts of air-conditioning units, thousands of them, and no human face in sight. Am I complaining? No. I haven’t got the right.”
Ouch. Like a knife in my left lung.
Ty struggles until the very end, even as he realizes the futility of his efforts. When asked, in the book’s final pages, what he accomplished through passion and hard work that landed him in prison and cost him his health, his marriage, his daughter, and nearly his life, he responds: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Ouch. There goes the other lung.

Comments 15

  • an early death is preferable than living through a landscape of McCarthys imaginings
    to witness such degradation – I could not put that stain on my atheist soul

  • Sounds like a great read. Anything TC Boyle produces is worth the time.

  • Hi
    Another thoughtful posting. Drought comes in two flavors, the familiar one is a decrease in rainfall but the other is more likely to be in our future in the south west. That of an increased temperature which leads to increased evaporation and thus drought. You can even have an increase in rain and have the second form of drought as it is a relative condition that is the casual factor. that is what is happening here in Perth Western Australia. cheers

  • I truly wish you the best, Guy.
    I sincerely hope your life does not end on such a bleak note as the book you mentioned.

  • Not to worry, Charlene. All Guy has to do is remember all the lives his passion has touched over the years through his teaching, his publications, his work with the prison inmates, his interaction with friends and colleagues, and this blog, and he would never be able to say he accomplished nothing.
    I am reminded of the standing ovation given to Richard Dreyfuss’ character upon his retirement in the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus”. As I was not able to attend Guy’s retirement party I can’t say whether anything similar occurred, but I can tell you I was cheering my heart out from here in his old stomping grounds. :)
    All the best, Guy. May you weather the challenges and changes ahead with your characteristic brand of optimism and humor, and may life in the desert bloom for you in ways you cannot yet imagine.

  • A couple days ago I called Monte Kirven, a raptor biologist/falconer who used to be a professor of ecology and did a lot of the peregrine falcon surveying of northern California by helicopter. He also used to teach a local junior college class that provided an introduction to raptors and took the kids on field trips to observe raptors locally at various times of the year. And his melancholy at what he sees now was almost palpable. Conversion of wild grassland habitat to vineyards was a pet peeve. Public apathy and utter failure of the education system was another. Lack of places to practice falconry was another.
    And I had to symphathize because I have observed exactly the same things, although a positive counterpoint is that where raptor habitat is free of toxins, the birds are saturated in available habitat and it is easy to enjoy them, including a family of fledged baby great horned owls I saw yesterday.
    But it all reminds me of a saying by my hero, Aldo Leopold, that remains as true now as it did in the 1940’s when he wrote it: “To receive an ecological eduction is to live alone in a world full of wounds.” Most humans are able to readily understand quality of life issues for humans themselves, but in the absence of deeper understanding of relationships outside the purely human realm they simply do not see the impending peril that follows our own entanglements in the greater web of life.
    I don’t necessarily intend to read the Boyle novel, but if I wrote one like it, the only way I could conceive of traffic jams in 2026 would be if they were fleets of old cars still kept operating after the demise of the national automotive manufacturing industry in 2009. I don’t think that Chinese/Indian built cars will ever grab the lions’ share of the US market as the Japanese once did because Peak Oil will intervene.
    But I did think yesterday of an idea of how Chrysler could possibly stay afloat and maybe even thrive… Change their name to Christ-ler and put a Holy Bible in the glove compartment of every car sold. Maybe the Christian community could be convinced that it is God’s will that they purchase a brand new Christ-ler…
    Maybe not.
    Stan Moore

  • Will have to read this. Like Helen stated above, Anything TC Boyle produces is worth the time.

  • Best wishes to you Guy, in whatever the future holds for you.

  • I’ve just finished reading this book, Highly recommend it to all!

  • From this post this book seems interseting.will have to read this.Thank for sharing.

  • I’ve just finished reading this book and i Liked it.what all i wanna say is already written in this blog.Thanks for sharing

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  • from what peoples comments are, i’ll deffo have to get this book!

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