Monday, February 9, 2009

The Environmental Impact of The Sheep Look Up

Come, let us rise: the shade is wont to be
baneful to singers; baneful is the shade
cast by the juniper, crops sicken too
Now homeward, having fed your fill —
eve's star is rising — go, my she-goats, go
-Virgil's 10th Eclogue

What captured me about this novel, other than the unique method of writing and the absolutely magical way he ties together stories that often seem unrelated for significant portions of the text, is the dystopian vision of an environmental crisis so extreme, that citizens have no choice but to rise up against corporate interests. Government itself seems ineffective beyond belief at dealing with the unraveling of global concerns, and is largely relegated to the background – clean up activities and stately Senate hearings. We are never taken into the inner sanctum of the White House and there is no omniscient narration of powerful political figures; indeed the Trainites seem to direct the majority of their subversive behavior towards corporate activities or just to disrupting, for example, traffic in LA. Yet the lack of political involvement undercuts the entire book – one can not help noticing that it is the lack of a leader, of a person who will force people to take responsibility for the mess they have created, that creates the most extreme emotional response. The nameless, faceless politicos had better stay isolated because if this ineffective response is the way they handle what is essentially war time in the US, they might as well be dead (and, ironically, they seem to be for all except the corporations).

In the book (and one could argue, in the current day) very single aspect of life in the United States has become a struggle – the food chain is corrupted, the air quality leads to early death, the water is undrinkable, the youngest children are the weakest, and there is little discussion of spiritual life or even of quality of life. And, as with the genetic mutations of seeds that have begun proliferating over the last few years, there is little research to show what long term effect such activities will have on people. In the introduction to Rachel Carson’s Silent Springs, Al Gore notes that “Poisoning the food chain anywhere ultimately poisons the food chain everywhere.” So the isolated incidents in Africa – the food poisoning at Noshri, will – by the nature of our ties together, come home to roost. Yet few people, even today, recognize that their actions come at a consequence to others - that we are tied together in a brotherhood that looks beyond gender, race, or socio-economic factors, and it is our inability treasure one another that will be our undoing.

There is a selfishness at work that is so extreme, that no one seems to feel love for one another outside of the most nuclear of families, which we also saw in Dr. Bloodmoney – that we would not see our neighbor as ourselves, or value one another enough to say these chemicals that poison and pain you are my responsibility to clean up, that this trash in the ocean is my responsibility to clean up, that this air you can not breathe is my responsibility to clean up. There seems to be no person holding themselves responsible. And though it is understandable that the Trainites would direct their anger outward, it is hardly a solution. Where are their leaders, the ones that care about them? The one person with the most knowledge of "where the poisons are hidden" has been so ostracized from society that he collects garbage – a metaphorically correct job for someone who has no other way of helping us clean up our act. I agree with Al Gore - we've gotten a Faustian bargain - short term gains for long-term tragedy, and it is evident not only in Brunner's book, but in our own air quality, food supply quality, water quality, health care quality, etc. . . . This is one of those books I'll remember for a lifetime, and I can see how it, along with Rachel Carson's Silent Springs, could jumpstart an environmental movement.

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