Wishful Thinking

Environmentalism is yet to inspire a great novel

By George Monbiot. Published in New Scientist, 4th June 1994.

“While Doc stood watch above them his three comrades entertained themselves cutting up the wiring, fuel lines, control link rods and hydraulic hoses of the machine, a beautiful new 27-ton tandem-drummed yellow Hyster C-450A…”

Fact or fiction? Well, both. In 1973 this was Edward Abbey’s fantasy, as the team of eco-saboteurs portrayed in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang dismantled the machines destroying his beloved wilderness. By the late 1980s it had become a reality, as deep greens started to attack the machinery building roads and dams, installing power lines and clearing forests. The real saboteurs use the same tools, the same techniques, even the same words as Abbey’s avenging angels. The logo of American Earth First! is a monkey wrench, crossed with a stone axe.

Curiously, of the scores of novels that have followed The Monkey Wrench Gang and chosen green action or environmental catastrophe as their theme, few have been written by people who are not themselves committed environmentalists. With the termination of the Cold War, which hit novelists as hard as it hit arms manufacturers, as the readership wearies of the horrors of the Third Reich and switches sympathy from cowboys to Indians, there are few situations which so generously provide such a dramatic combination of impending catastrophe, real heroes and real villains as ecological disaster. It is a shame that the non-environmentalists have not yet weighed in, for most of the dramas published so far are hampered by a documentary trying to get out.

Throughout the genre – which, while growing fast, remains, as yet, quite small – casting light on the human condition takes second place to casting light on the condition of the planet. Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, published only two years after The Monkey Wrench Gang, is little more than a handbook for sustainable living, loosely threaded together by an uncertain plot. William Weston, a foreign correspondent for an American newspaper, is the first US journalist to visit the state of Ecotopia: the old lands of northern California, Oregon and Washington, which seceded from the Union when their inhabitants decided they could no longer tolerate the destruction.

Ecotopia has no pollution, no telephones, no sugar and no manners. It is a sharing, caring, matrifocal society, where people give themselves Native American names and expend their natural aggression in ritualized tribal wars, where marijuana is not only legal but distributed by the government and where no one works for more than twenty hours a week. It is, in short, a wholly New Age state, a sort of gigantic Findhorn, though strangely without the perpetual arguments and tiresome cycle of divorce and re-marriage. Unremarkably, William Weston falls in love first with one of the strong, self-knowing women of Ecotopia, then with the place itself. It is a stirring vision, but a deeply unsatisfying novel.

The wishful thinking that pervades both Callenbach’s work and (more productively) Abbey’s, touches almost every eco-novel published so far, even those that dwell on catastrophe. City Death, Stephen Booth’s furious novel published by Green Anarchist, is a fantasy of mortal justice for a negligent and greedy world. A megacity run by megacorporations falls into decay because “Trade was the only thing of importance, and savage exploitation the most efficient method of advancing in this.” A failure to invest, to redistribute wealth or to uphold any values which cannot be measured in sterling sets the unsustainable state reeling, and it is pushed into final collapse by the rebellious hordes of the dispossessed.

In Booth’s imploding world, holocaust and regeneration are one and the same. Here the apocalyptic banners proclaim “The Beginning of the World is Nigh”, for the eco-anarchist fantasy of overthrow and destruction will lead inexorably to a rebuilding of the world on eco-sensitive lines. It is a splendid rant but an ill-disciplined novel, and the echo of Voltaire in the final line – “Right then. … Let’s go and fix this footbridge” – simply underlines its moral simplicity: while Candide, in tending his garden, found accomodation with the least-worst state, the protagonist in City Death, like the hero of Ecotopia, finds an improbably stable nation state premised on escape.

Part of the problem is the apparent assumption that, as the situation is so striking, the characters need not be. In Karin McQuillan’s Elephants’ Graveyard, the combatants are little more than opposing forces of conservation and destruction, who are likely win your sympathy or hatred only because of their kindness or cruelty to elephants. Jazz Jasper, an insipid eco-friendly safari guide, finds the body of a murdered elephant conservationist, appropriately being buried by his wrinkly friends. It takes her 250 pages to discover what we must surely have guessed: that the yellow-toothed, lecherous ogre she suspects turns out to be not only the murderer but also an ivory trader. I fear it does not spoil much if I reveal that when the baddy tries to kill the goody he is brought to justice by an angry elephant.

A few writers have managed to break out of this trap, and to let the situation take second place to the story. Ben Elton’s This Other Eden – like Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass an enclosure nightmare, in which human beings have to live inside eco-domes in order to escape the deadly atmosphere – is funny enough to compensate for an occasional lack of consistency and power. Here villains turn out to be heroes and heroes villains, yet he cannot wholly resist allowing Mother Nature (if not “Mother Earth”, the corrupt campaigning organization he portrays) the last laugh.

Campaign, by Des Wilson, rooted much nearer to reality than any of the other books – even incorporating real characters – also manages to bring out some of the conflicts within people as opposed to just the conflicts between them. At times it is quite as thrilling as some of the better Cold War spy novels. Yet neither book – and in fairness neither attempts to be – could be described as a classic.

Perhaps the subject is still too young. Perhaps it must sink further into our consciousness before it can make the transition from fantasy to fable, before it becomes fit for a universal tale of the calibre of 1984 or Riddley Walker. In the meantime, however, while it has not produced good literature, it might, as The Monkey Wrench Gang has done, at least get us out of our armchairs and into the woods.