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A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An impressive dystopic vision. How could anyone write the future otherwise? Just choose an eco-disaster from the menu, which is a long one. In this case, global warming and mass extinction in 2025 as a gross human population encroaches on the last wild places. Plus a smattering of industrial “accidents”. That’s for openers.

The central character, and narrator, is tending a zoo of animals close to extinction. Not cuddly animals but
those that only a mother could love (I’m sure that’s Boyle’s phrase somewhere) and many of them killers. Will they make it to whatever the other side of the environmental breakdown will be?

Another major theme is our hero’s past radicalisation into an eco-terrorist. (And we could model any sort of terrorist similarly.) It’s not those who recruit him to the E.F.! cause who send him off the rails. Quite the reverse: they try to rein him in. But his treatment at the hands of rednecks, police and courts set him on the path of revenge. Incidentally E.F. stands for Earth Forever (curiously a Bulgarian outfit) but I’m sure it’s an alias for Earth First! Even down to the clenched-fist logo and the exclamation mark.

Boyle litters the text with some pithy lines that raise issues: “…to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people.” It’s the language of war. If Bush could declare a war on terror, the environmentalists can declare their own conflict. If they need to: by most parameters people already are at war with the planet – conquest, rapine, annexation. It’s all there.

“…if a baby and an anteater fell in a drainage ditch … the baby would have to be sacrificed.” To transplant this 2025 scenario to the present, replace anteater by tiger, panda or California condor. (Respectively 3200, 1600 and 384 left in the wild.) How many babies are there? Babies who will turn into 7,000,000,000+ people? Look at all those zeroes; 2 million times more humans than tigers, for instance. If 2,000,000 babies and a tiger fell in a drainage ditch…

By about half way I wasn’t sure where the story was going plot-wise but as a dramatisation of the shit that’s coming our way and the 99% apathy about it, the book had me. And the drama hits its moment of pathos at about the nine-tenths mark.

This is a slight plot spoiler but you can see it coming: one of the animals eventually kills, so they all have to die. And this is how we’ll wipe everything out: as soon as any species conflicts with us, it won’t matter that it’s near-extinct. We’ll kill it. The perfect example in action now? Those upper-class twerps who killed the polar bear a while back. Boyle has this part of the book spot on.

There’s not much hope here. Nor should there be. We’re hitting a resource crunch and the seventh cavalry of science won’t rescue us this time.

Read it and weep.

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