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.