Monday, February 9, 2009

A Natural, Organic, Green Pogrom

The degree will differ, but most of us will agree: We are poisoning and being poisoned by our environment.  Carbon Monoxide.  BPA.  Pesticides.  CFCs.  PVCs.  Phthalates.  One needs only look at the back of a package for an energy efficient light bulb to discover we are daily putting into landfills that which will lead to our own decomposition (in this case, mercury).  How do we respond?

For Rachel Carson, it becomes a responsibility to scrutinize and redefine our practices: "We are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effect.  These exposures now begin at or before birth and—unless we change our methods—will continue through the lifetime of those now living" ("Introduction," xx).

For John Brunner in The Sheep Look Up, the answer is found somewhere between a realization and a "rational proposal."  First comes the realization that "at long last the revolution had arrived!  Well—maybe not quite THE REVOLUTION, in capitals, but certainly the chance to make a revolution work.  There had never before been so many people so angry with the system, and striking back against it" (357).  Then comes the rational proposal: "we can restore the balance of the ecology...if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species" (363).  Such a revolution is destined for vengeance and fire.  America must burn.

Carson's language is dominated by the "we."  It is we who must reexamine our methods.  Some industries and institutions may have played larger roles in aggravating the plague she describes, and so their introspection perhaps must be more exhaustive than others; but that does not mean they alone are accountable.  There is no top and bottom that revolves in opposition to each other.  With Carson, the entire human landscape must revolve, or, better yet, invert itself, turn its practices inside out, if we are to evolve out of the current "stillness."

For Brunner that stillness is a complacency, a stupor which must be shaken from us.  We must awaken to see what They are doing to Us.  Corporate entities and governments align to form the perfect Marxist foil:  a hegemon that must be usurped.  Yes, indeed, this is REVOLUTION with capital letters, with "starving refugees besieging frontiers" (355).  Granted, this is problematized by Train's death at the hands of his own ideology, but it still seems like a welcome purging.  Fires will be started.  Bombs will be detonated.  A New World Order will reign free and green.

Eco-critics have not missed the violence implicit in this message.  Some have embraced it. Others, particularly Patricia Greiner, have labeled Brunner's book "false ecofiction...a literature of division, one that stresses opposition rather than commonality, and thus is inherently at odds with the integrative nature of ecology" (qtd. in Murphy 27).  Although Greiner's labels of "true" and "false" are lamentable for their strict, either/or logic, the point is helpful in explaining the ease with which political opponents of environmental reform can undermine the more confrontational elements of "green" activism.  They merely step back and reveal its perpetual compulsion to collapse in on itself.

A different kind of action is needed, one that is as creative as it is resistant.  Michel de Certeau would suggest walking instead of charging.  In de Certeau, walkers become bricoleurs, subversive spin artists of the dominant, "proper," powers.  Brunner, however, denies his characters this possibility, first, by physically making walking impossible, then by pitting against them oppressors so corrupt that their scapegoating is unavoidable.  Facing such a vile foe, one must draw blood.  Only through a purging violence can creation begin again.  

On the other hand, de Certeau and Carson locate both problem and solution within the individual.  The call becomes to rearrange one's own perspective, to "cut out" and "turn over" what exists within one's own relationship with the environment (62).  The cutting here opens no wound.  The turning over sets into motion no besieging army.  A space is renewed when, as de Certeau puts it, the extroverted and the introverted combine —a looking out as well as a turning within.  In this tactical turn totalities  are shattered and new relationships become possible.  A breech comes without blood.  A refreshment without the cleansing.

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