The Truax, The Falseax, The Lorax

Disclaimer: Although it was not technically assigned for our class tomorrow, I couldn’t stop myself from reading Truax. It does tie in with the critical essay we were assigned and obviously The Lorax itself, however, and so I thought that it would still be relevant to the discussion. If you’d like to read it yourself, here’s a link.

Disclaimer Part II: This may get a bit rant-y.

Firstly, I’d like to start with a quote from The Lorax. It has inspired me ever since I was a young sprout (intended).

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Secondly, as someone who does care a whole awful lot, I felt as if it were appropriate to dissect Truax to its very core.

If you don’t want to read the story, it’s basically just a (one-way) discussion between a logger and a creature named Mr. Guardbark. Mr. Guardbark represents all the bleeding-heart, quick tempered, irrational environmentalists that unjustifiably attack the logging industry. Let’s take a look at all the logging industry does for the environment:

The logger tells Mr. Guardbark that for every tree he cuts, he plants five more. He goes on to reassure the guardian of the trees that the planet relies more on young trees to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

He also makes the following claim in response to Mr. Guardbark asking about biodiversity “Then what would happen after a bit of time passes to the animals that live in the shrubs and the grasses? With no opening up of the dark forest floor, there’d be no new habitat for them anymore.”

Hold up. It’s time for science.

1. Trees are photoautotrophs, meaning that they rely on photosynthesis to synthesis the energy and nutrients that they need to undergo the necessary functions of maintaining life.  The main reactants of photosynthesis are carbon dioxide, water, and light. Leaves, which contain chlorophyl, are specialized structures in which most photosynthetic reactions occur. The older a tree is, the more growth it has, and subsequently the higher the carbon intake will be. It is completely inaccurate to say that young trees sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than old trees.

2. Rainforests are the most biodiverse biomes on the planet, with over 50% of extant species living within them. The author of Truax is attempting to claim that cutting forests allows for more biodiversity as the creatures that live in shrubs and grasses need places to live too. This is by far one of the weakest arguments I have ever heard in my entire life. It is saying that by destroying the habitat of an already richly diverse environment, we make way for other species that are nonnative to that particular area. An area that has been logged is immensely less habitable for any species, let alone those that live in “shrubs and grasses”.

I could write a full length essay on this one particular parody of The Lorax, but for your sake I will digress.

The main reason I wanted to bring up this particular story is how it relates to the Trees Are What Everyone Needs article.

One quote from this article in particular stuck out to me:

“Nature forces us to realize that we are a part of it; however, it doesn’t tell us what we are to make of that realization.”

The Lorax and Truax represent the two forms of which this realization can take. On one hand, it can be self-aware and constructive. Rather than trying to justify our actions, we take responsibility for them in order to prevent the issue from escalating further than it already has. On the other hand, we can be faced with the reality of what we are doing to the environment and quickly try to justify our actions so that we may continue to do them for the sake of profit and our own personal benefit. Truax is quite ironic in the way that it only solidifies the message of The Lorax rather than disprove it in any way.

The Lorax itself sheds a painful truth that is beautifully articulated by the critical essay:

“Our understanding of ecology – like the understanding of the Once-ler and like the Lorax himself, who has sprung from the first wound which the Once-ler inflicted on the Truffle forest – is largely a direct result of our destructive interactions with the environment.”

We only realize that we are a part of nature when we have done something to harm it, and only then because it subsequently harms us. It is a harsh truth to swallow, but it is true nonetheless. This essay in particular fits in perfectly with our overshadowing theme of dark ecology. We are all eventually forced to realize that we are not connected to Nature, but to nature. Humanity and nature are two entangled entities, neither of which can escape the other but in which neither can fully belong.

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Seal-Humans

What are humans? Humans haven’t changed much in a few million years. We are bipedal, with front-facing eyes and comparatively hairless bodies compared to our ape cousins. We cook our food, create societies, make art and make war. This is humanity, and this is what humanity has been for a very, very, very long time.

The narrator of Galapagos, Leon Trout, posits that a million years in the future (present being 1986), we are closer to seals. So what makes us still human? He refers to seal-humans as humans still, not batting an eye at the giant evolutionary step we took to bring us from hairless bipeds to furry water-dwellers. “As for human beings making a comeback, of starting to use tools and build houses and play musical instruments and so on again: They would have to do it with their beaks this time. Their arms have become flippers in which the hand bones are almost entirely imprisoned and immobilized.” (202)

Another difference, Leon states, between us and modern humans (being the humans of a million years in the future)– is that modern humans have much smaller brains than the humans of 1986. These brains don’t allow them to overthink things, to make mistakes, or to convince their owner’s of untruths. These brains don’t allow them to kill one another, to make war, or to participate in exercises of creativity or the imagination. But isn’t that what humanity is? When we often think of the divide between humans vs. animals, what sets us apart is not our bipedalism or our front-facing eyes, but our brains and what our brains have constructed. We have created vast empires, magnificent works of art, and slaughtered one another thoughtlessly and carelessly. All of this is considered supremely human. This is why the argument exists that humans are the superior species on Earth– because we hold the capacity to create and to imagine and to think. When that is taken away from us, along with most of our signifying traits– are we still human? What is humanity if not our big brains?

Wait for the punch-line

Here’s the joke:
One man and ten women are ship wrecked on an island. The only infertile woman looks at him and thinks, “Let’s colonize.”
What’s the punchline? Well, it’s that this may actually be possible.

Recently many people (including an organization called Project Hyperion comprised of scientist dedicated to space travel) have been looking at the mechanics interstellar travel. One facet of this science-fiction is the on-going argument of colonization or more specifically colony starting numbers. A large number that has been thrown around in recent years is 40,000; this number allows multiple potential mating partners and room for mistakes such as disease and disaster. Though this number is viable for the most successful colonization, it is far from the minimum success number. Even the article cited above suggests that the same could be done with 10,000 (though there is smaller margin of error). Another article suggests that a number as low as 80 could effectively colonize if social-engineering were implemented and no accidents happened.

Since these results were released many in the general population have played with the figures and gotten them even lower as seen in this blog post on a world building discussion page.

“Suppose we need to reach a population with 80 unique genetic sets to go past the tipping point. Lets do a quick calculation on how this can be achieved if fertile women are able to give birth to 4 children on average and have taken a bunch of frozen sperm samples with them:

  • Generation 0: 10 (fertile) women and 10 frozen samples
  • Generation 1: 20 women and 20 men and 80 frozen samples
  • Generation 2: 40 women and 40 men

From this point on the women of generation 2 could continue to expand the population with the men of generation 1 and 2. It is true that a little bit of bad luck could already mess up the system, but being on the safe side it seems like:

A spaceship with 20 women and a freezer full of sperm is likely enough to start a growing population.”

So how does this pertain to our joke? In all of these situations the studies are searching for genetically diverse colony. This means that they will avoid incest to maintain the best genes. On our lovely island of Santa Rosalia this is not a problem. Though incest holds many problems medically (not to mention morally) it is only considered such if within the close family. Children borne of even first cousin relations are much healthier than parent-child or sibling sired children. These parings aren’t ideal, but they are not as genetically taboo as one might think. Reports have found that children of cousins are only slightly more likely than those of unrelated couples to have cystic fibrosis, mental retardations, and birth defects. How would this continue over a million years? I am unsure, but any unhealthy offspring will be eaten by killer whales so they won’t pass those genes down.

Adam & a bunch of people who aren’t Eve

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos is extremely concerned with mapping out human reproduction and evolution from the point of view of someone tracking the million years following the 1980s.  Because this is a story about straight people in a “new,” “fresh,” or “unpopulated” environment, it is obviously going to carry Adam-and-Eve connotations (quick question- is it possible to ever shake this connotation or is it too engrained?).  Our narrator, who eagerly tells readers when and how characters are going to die, establishes quickly after his introduction that Adolf von Kleist is our “Adam.”  However, all of the women we have been introduced to in the novel are counted out as the ever-important “Eve.”  Mary is too old, Selena does not wish to pass her blindness down, and Hisako, despite the fact that she starts the novel out pregnant and will have a daughter, is for some reason not our Eve.  The narrator even makes the problematic statement that Kazakh, Selena’s seeing-eye dog, “wasn’t really a female anymore, thanks to surgery.  Like Mary Hepburn, she was out of the evolutionary game.  She wasn’t going to leave her genes to anyone” (48).  The link between motherhood and womanhood is strong in Galapagos, as the beginning of Chapter 14 lays out the pairings that will come in the future (past?).  Hisako and the childless Selena’s pairing seems like a natural progression to the claim that counting one’s self out of the evolutionary game removes womanhood.  And, spoiler alert for the first six words of chapter 28, this Adam and Eve story has not one Eve, but six.  I’m interested to see where this text will go, especially after claiming that Mary is the God in this story but not really developing this fact.  Vonnegut obviously wants readers to have this famous duo in our minds constantly while reading, so I guess we’ll find out how much more problematic it can get ; )

The Curse of the “Big Brain”

In Galapagos, we are presented with a story of a set of humans who go on a cruise ship to the Galapagos, only to never return. They begin their own revolution and eventually become the ancestors of all human/humanoid kind a million years in the future.

Millions of years in the future, this story is told by a human who is (was?) of our current time period. Although he was essentially ‘one of us’ he talks of us as if we are a embarrassing mutation, a genetic mistake; one that existed in just one small blip of time in Earth’s vast history. The narrator then draws a great deal of attention to our “big brains” in particular, even admitting that one of two of the central themes of the story he weaves is that “the brain is far too big to be practical.”

The discussion of the humans and their ‘big brains’ caught my eye significantly throughout the reading. It has a multitude of implications. Firstly, it implies that humans, or humanoids, or whatever species descends from our present day homo sapiens adapted and eventually evolved specifically to have significantly smaller brains. It begs the question; why is this more practical?

Perhaps the answer can be found in a man who never lived to see the end of humanity as we know it, or even to set sight on the islands themselves: Roy. One of the final few phrases he utters on his deathbed is to his wife Mary:

I’ll tell you what the human soul is, Mary,” he whispered, his eyes closed. “Animals don’t have one. It’s the part of you that knows when your brain isn’t working right.”

He goes on to admit that he knew something was wrong all along but that there was nothing to be done about it. Is this the flaw of a “big brain”? Knowing that we have the capacity to be wrong and yet arguing to the very end that we are always right; that we are superior because we have intelligence matched by no other?

I believe this to be the fatal flaw of humanity: we are too “smart” for our own good. We mistake intelligence for always doing what is best. It cannot be denied that we are the brains that invented modern medicine. We are the brains that can cure a plague that once killed millions of people. However, we are also the brains that created nuclear bombs, and guns, and have been single-handedly responsible for the death of just as many human beings, among other species.

We are too intoxicated by the power of human intelligence to admit that even it does not hold all of the answers. This novel brings a fresh perspective to ego and the anthropocentric lifestyle that is a central concept in dark ecology. I am curious to see how far the narrator and ultimately the author will go with this idea of “big brains” destroying our fitness and being replacing it with a far “simpler” central nervous system and how by destroying humanity as we know it, we ultimately save it.

Where is the Narrator?

In Galapagos, we have a first person narrator telling us this story from the outside looking in. However, where exactly he’s looking in from is complicated. He often refers to 1986 as “a million years ago,” in a literal rather than hyperbolic sense, so in one way he’s an unreal person reaching back into the far-off past. However, he also asserts that he was someone who had died working on the Bahia de Darwin:

“If I may interject a personal note: I myself had been working as a welder in Malmo for about a year, but the Bahia de Darwin had not yet materialized sufficiently so as to require my services. I would literally lose my head to that steel maiden only when springtime came.” (33)

Our narrator wasn’t even alive when the story he’s telling us takes place. Then further on, we get a hint as to what he might be:

“So…I got into the head of Captain Adolf von Kleist as he rode in a taxicab from Guayaquil International Airport to the Bahia de Darwin.” (132)

This introduces us to a section where our narrator shadows Captain von Kleist’s thoughts, following his footsteps and coincidentally becoming a witness to the fate of the Bahia de Darwin‘s passengers on Santa Rosalia. There are also many references to the “blue tunnel to the Afterlife,” which many of the characters at some point or another travel down. This implies that our narrator is actually a ghost of some sort, stuck watching the fate of the people left stranded on Santa Rosalia. It explains not only his dying in an incident related to the Bahia de Darwin and why he might follow that ship’s story, but also how he is able to continue watching how humanity has adapted to living on the Galapagos.

However, this also raises some questions. For one, what exactly is a ghost doing in a book focused on Darwin and the evolution of humankind? How does this ghost know about the events going on outside his purview, like the name of the man who dropped the atomic bomb which affected Hisako’s later birth or the lives of the Kanko-bono girls before they arrived at the Hotel El Dorado? It’s not very clear what the rules are about this ghost, or even who he’s telling his story to, since all of the humans in his time have evolved without English. His position in time, space, and motivation are all rather obscure and none of this is made clearer despite his prominent position in the text as narrator.

Hubris = Humanity = Nature

“Becoming a geophysical force on a planetary scale means that no matter what you think about it, no matter whether you are aware of it or not, there you are, being that… One cannot be hubristic about one’s heartbeat or autonomic nervous system.” (22)

The intersection of happy nihilism and hubris is where, Morton argues, our views of nature have been all along. It’s a strange and deadly combination, where simply the existence or our consciousness translates to inherent goodness. We understand that this is happening now– but that’s enough, right? We now understand, we are conscious, and our importance as humans makes us see our passive consciousness as goodness. This translates to happy nihilism and apathy for the sheer amount of work requires to transcend this nihilism, hubris, and apathy is astronomical. To conceptualize the magnitude of the Earth and the existence of different time scales is a large task for humans, and we have never seemed to grasp the ability to see past ourselves and our bodies and our creations.

Morton brings this back thousands of years, arguing that this passivity and hubris is not a new concept, but one that is finally destroying our world and directly affecting our futures. Even Nature, the ultimate wildness, freedom, was destroyed after the birth of agriculture. We locked Nature into a box and created what it is now, – small “n” nature- partitioning and sectioning and molding it into what we need for our uses.

“The ecological value of the term Nature is dangerously overrated, because Nature isn’t just a term– it’s something that happened to human-built space, demarcating human systems from Earth systems. Nature as such is a twelve-thousand-year-old human product, geological as well as discursive.” (58) We are so constrained by our contemporary thoughts and ways of looking at the world, thousands of years of agriculture and molding our world to the human way of life– the human-flavored world, if you will. That’s all we see. That’s all that nature is to us– a product of us, a commodity utilized by humanity. Not even nature is truly Nature.

This totally counts as a blog post

So during Poem Play last Saturday we made a bunch of water balloons, and on each water balloon we inscribed one word, many of which were directly inspired by Dark Ecology. These balloons were thrown at a tree in the middle-distance, and each word that exploded on the tree was written on the left. If the balloon missed, it was written on the right. Balloons that hit the tree but did not explode were written in the middle. These words in sequence created two separate poems, with the words in the middle used for both poems.

IMAG0872

I could transcribe how I viewed the poem, but I think it would be more fun if everyone had their own interpretations!