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Frontlines

The Human Animal
If you're feeling suicidal about the future of the planet, T. C. Boyle has just the thing for you: a sense of humor.

Photo of T.C. Boyle T. C. Boyle first made his literary reputation in his 20s at the famed University of Iowa creative writing program. Boyle is known for his verbal exuberance and his scathing wit, but not for what is glaringly apparent to us: his abiding interest in the environment and his satirical, often hilarious, treatment of major environmental issues, from global warming to species extinction to suburban sprawl. Perhaps Boyle is not regarded as an "environmental writer" because people don't believe that anyone so consumed by the subject can also have a sense of humor.

Shortly after the publication of his most recent book, The Inner Circle, about the sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues, Boyle spoke with Susan Zakin, the author of Coyotes and Town Dogs, an irreverent, behind-the-scenes history of the environmental movement. The interview took place at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Chardonnay was involved. Despite loud laughter, occasional space-outs, and one odd interruption by a seedy character claiming to be Marilyn Manson's bass player, both parties remained fairly lucid.

You're one of the few mainstream writers extremely well versed on the environment. You've clearly done your homework.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's my hobby. I love nature, I love biology. If I'm going to pick up a book and read it, it's most likely a nature book.

Which books are we talking about here?
Every possible thing on nature, from Thoreau to Stephen Jay Gould to David Quammen to Coyotes and Town Dogs [laughter]. And more specific stuff. George Schaller on the lion. Doug Peacock's book about the grizzlies. That's just the tip of the iceberg. I want to know about the critters of the world; I'm fascinated by them.

Why do you think the environmental movement has such a tough time getting its concerns across to the American people?
It's a total bummer, that's why. There's no hope. Everybody loves the environment for the reason that you and I do. We are animals in this strange world, and there are other animals here too, and plants and things that are endlessly fascinating on the animal level, without the intellect. That's why I've spent so much time by myself in the Sequoia National Forest. I'm there two or three months every year and have been ever since I moved here to Montecito 27 years ago.

We all want that connection. But the connection will soon be lost. There's no hope. The typical nature film shows the beavers at play and explains why they have a flat tail, how they build their house, how they raise their kids, and we're so excited. Then the last few minutes the voice-over comes on and says that these precious creatures will be doomed unless within three weeks we do such and such.

I wrote A Friend of the Earth out of utter frustration, utter despair, and utter hopelessness. I read all the environmental books I could get my hands on, from Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague to Bill McKibben's The End of Nature [McKibben's groundbreaking work on global warming], and on and on. The End of Nature is the most depressing book in the history of humankind. I can guess what happened. After he wrote it, people said to him, hey, look, Bill. You're an environmentalist, you're trying to get people to join your cause. But look, everybody just wants to commit suicide. So lighten up. So his next book is Hope, Human and Wild. The hope is some city in Brazil where everybody recycles and rides bicycles. Big deal, compared to the fact that the forest is retreating and we're breathing garbage and we're all dead, you know? There is no hope whatsoever. None.

The only hope is that our species will be leveled by the coming plague, whatever it's going to be -- which of course will happen before too long -- and then we start over again. But as we know, speciation takes a million years. So this diversity of life that we inherited in our time won't be back for a long time to come. What's left just depends on how soon our numbers are stripped back. It's not the earth that's endangered; it's everything else that lives with us. Capitalism is a giant Ponzi scheme -- it's got to crash eventually.

So humans are the coming plague?
I wrote Drop City to meditate on that. To return to a time when it was back to the earth and people could homestead in Alaska. What I learned -- and probably knew anyway -- was that a guy like Sess Harder [the book's main character] is the alpha predator in a 40-square-mile range, just as a grizzly bear is. So of course you can't go back to the earth. How could you possibly sustain more than two or three people in a 40-square-mile range trapping and living off the land? That's over.

Okay, on another note, since I'm talking to someone who embodies Ed Abbey's beau ideal of a halfhearted fanatic, what kind of car do you drive?
A [BMW] M3 sports coupe.

Oh, my god. That's a car that can make you like driving again.
It's just a tool, Susan. I live in a village, though. I can walk to the grocery store.

Do you think you're getting the message across in your satires? Or are people just laughing and going on with their day?
In order to laugh...

You have to think?
Yes. You have to have some feeling for what's being lost. It's a sad laugh. It's laughter in the face of disaster. I don't write a book like A Friend of the Earth thinking, 'Man, people better wake up.' You can't calculate what the response will be to art -- or to passionate advocacy, either. You just let it rip and hope for the best.

Several of the stories in your next collection, Tooth and Claw, deal with the ragged line that doesn't quite separate humans from animals. Was that also in your mind when you wrote the Kinsey book? Isn't one of the themes of that book that we're animals?
Of course. Kinsey said the poets have had 2,000 years to talk about romance and the emotional side of love. Now science will tell you about the physiology of sex. He had a good point, but I also wondered, is there something else? This whole polarity between the spiritual side of us and the animal side of us is what I've always written about.

What conclusions have you drawn?
Well, World's End, my first novel, was a kind of theoretical autobiography. Are things determined for us at the cellular level? Psychologically, I mean. Are behaviors transmitted? More and more, science is showing us that they are. We've done the human genome and we can manipulate genes now. The only piece of any animal that is not purely cellular is thought. Thought is made by chemical reactions, but it can't be quantified as a thing. It's numinous.

Any animal?
Any animal has consciousness. To deny it is to deny existence.

So what does that say about animals? More to the point, what does it say about us?
We're going to kill things and eat them. Because that's part of who we are.

What do you think of the animal rights movement?
I'm very suspicious of gurus of any kind, of leaders of any party, who say, come to me and I'll absolve you of all your sins. That's why I write about Kinsey and [Dr. John H.] Kellogg [the health-food fanatic satirized in The Road to Wellville]. I subscribe to a lot of what the animal rights people believe in, but I'm more interested in the fanatical fringe.

Do you think the environmental movement is too preachy?
Yes, of course it is. On the other hand, our country has just been taken over by the religious right. Faith can tell you that evolution doesn't exist, creationism does. If faith can tell you that, why can't faith tell you that preserving the environment is more important than destroying it? I think things are cyclical and we're in a very puritanical situation now in which none of what you and I believe in matters much to the general public. But I have some good news for you. I don't want to be exclusively negative...

Let me guess. The calamari is really good here?
No, the good news is that I was on tour with A Friend of the Earth, depressing people all over the world. In the Q and A, they want to know, is there any hope? They're all crying into their hankies. I said to them: I have a plan.

That's good. Someone has a plan!
If we can all agree -- and this is everybody on earth, no cheating, because that'll destroy it -- to abstain from sexual relations for 100 years, the problem is solved.

I know you're willing to take that pledge.
Well, there's no cheating. [Hesitates.] Yes. Yes, I am.

So what are we supposed to do if we still care about the environment? Apart from the sex thing, because I'm not sure you'll get everyone to sign up for that.
We want to make it hip to be like us.


More Frontlines
Building the Hydrogen Boom
The Hot New Vintages
A Seedy Character
Oakes Award
Not for the Squeamish
Killing 'Em Softly


The Suburban Pilgrim
Photo of T.C. Boyle's books


T. C. Boyle's environmental riffs can be found in several of his best-known novels. A Friend of the Earth (2000) takes place in a futuristic, rain-melted dystopia in which Tyrone Tierwater, an aging hippie ecosaboteur, plays caretaker to an over-the-hill rock star's menagerie of rare, beloved, and brutally vicious predators. In The Tortilla Curtain (1995), the writings of Boyle's antihero, Delaney Mossbacher, are a dead-on satire of the worst excesses of environmental prose, full of navel-gazing and self-righteousness. Mossbacher calls his monthly column "Pilgrim at Topanga Creek," in homage to Annie Dillard. Here he describes a nocturnal escape from his home in the gated community of Arroyo Blanco Estates:

"Who am I, manzanita stick in hand and nylon pack clinging to my shoulders like a furled set of wings, out abroad in the wide world? Who am I, striding into the buttery glaze of evening sun amidst stands of bright blooming mustard that reach to my elbows and beyond. I'm a pilgrim, that's all, a seer, a worshiper at the shrine. No different from you, really: housebound half the day, a slave to the computer, a man who needs his daily fix of electricity as badly as any junkie needs his numinous drug. But different too, because I have these mountains to roam and these legs to carry me. Tonight -- this evening -- I am off on an adventure, a jaunt, a peregrination beneath the thin skin of the visible to breathe in the world around me as intensely as Wordsworth's leech-gatherer and his kin: I am climbing into the fastness of the Santa Monica Mountains, within sight and sound of the second-biggest city in the country (within the city limits, for that matter) to spend a solitary night."

(from The Tortilla Curtain, Viking Penguin, 1995)





Photos: top, photographed for OnEarth by Emily Shur

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council