I’ve mentioned in previous essays the idea that people are stuck in their own lives until something brings them out of it. Rachel Carson calls it “ignoring all else.” She says that humans tend to ignore everything in front of them until it’s an immediate concern. TC Boyle’s 1995 edition of the book the Tortilla Curtain shows an example of this when the book starts out with the main character, Delaney, hitting an unexpected Candido with his car. The best part of this book is how the story starts with such an exaggerated life changing event because, in reality, that’s when our own stories start – when we realize something life changing. We wouldn’t be telling it unless it made us change in some way or view something completely different. Delaney is a character stuck in his own world, when suddenly a new world collides with him.
I like this idea of collision. It brings with it the idea of snapping out of where you once were and being thrown into something new. That’s what we need as a society sometimes to understand that there are other perspectives in the world. It’s what we need to understand the beyond human world.
In TC Boyle’s novel, The Tortilla Curtain, the wall serves as an important metaphor in both a positive and negative context in relation to society. While a wall can symbolize shelter for something or someone and provide protection from enemy threats, a wall can also become a metaphor for a self-absorbed attitude and withdrawal from the outside world similar to how the inhabitants of the Arroyo Blanco Estates attempt to separate themselves from the rest of the world. Additionally, walls also represent how a fear of outside influences and culture can result in distrust and ignorance.
Physical barriers are a major element in Boyle’s novel. In the scene depicting Candido and Rincon’s illegal crossing of the United States and Mexico border, both illegal immigrants discover that the United States does not offer the kind of safety that they were expecting. Due to their illegal status and the different culture in the states, both travelers were viewed as invaders who should not be accepted into American society. This section of Boyle’s text shows how many Americans view immigrants as a detriment to society since they do not fit into the perceived landscape of an ideal, traditional American culture. In addition to their inability to fit into a new society, the lack of employment opportunities that are capable of providing for a family (even when Candido finds a job). This element of the book shows that the American Dream is not available for all citizens which illustrates the inequality in American society. The inability of Candido and Rincon to find employment is also represented by their living location-Arroyo Blanco Estates can be found in a distant canyon which is a constant reminder of how far away the American Dream truly is.
Society’s conflict with walls and barriers in Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is also noticeable in the depiction of Delaney’s life in a gated neighborhood and his reluctance to accept the situations that illegal immigrants face in the United States in contrast to Candido’s struggle to realize the authenticity of the American Dream. While both characters come from different economic and social situations, both Delaney and Candido live their lives defined by a physical barrier.
T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is a book about nature and the American Dream. The perspective of this story is told through the lives of the 4 main characters; American Delaney Mossbacher and his wife Kyra Mossbacher, and Mexican Candido Rincon and his lover America Rincon. The story compares views of some Americans to non-American people, mostly illegal immigrants, who are viewed as wild animals. This book shares many ideas similar to other stories that we have read throughout this class. The idea that a type of people are not civilized and live as they do, or viewing wild animals as being unrelated to humans. “They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.” -John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The story begins as Delaney hits Candido with his car. “Delaney felt the relief wash over him- the man wasn’t going to die, he wasn’t going to sue, he was alright and it was over. “Can I do anything for you?” he asked, feeling charitable now.” I mean give you a ride someplace or something?” Delaney pointed to the car. He held his fists up in the front of his face and pantomimed the act of driving. “(8) Candido, being an illegal Mexican immigrant, only takes 20 bucks from Delaney, as not to get in trouble, and they part ways. Delaney returns home and tells his wife Kyra of this situation that had occurred earlier that day. “I told you- he was Mexican”. (15) Here in this passage Kyra worries for the man as he might try to sue Delaney or go talk to a lawyer and is alarmed that all Delaney did was give the man 20 dollars, and not alert any officials about the matter. “What are you thinking? Are you out of your mind? DO you have any idea what one of these shyster personal-injury lawyers would do to get ahold of something like this?” (15) This bothers me because neither of the characters Delaney nor Kyra feel any sympathy for the man. Delaney slammed into this man with his car and all he did was give the man 20 dollars. Clearly Delaney felt bad for hitting this man like a coyote that ran in the middle of the road but Candido is a human being just like Delaney and his wife Kyra.
Much of this story carries on this message about illegal immigrants and people that live lives that are dissimilar to the lives of us Americans. But also the message of this story can viewed much deeper, rather than viewing the illegal Mexicans in this book as who they are they can take the perspective of animals in the natural world. Many humans in today’s world do not view ourselves, the human race, as a part of nature. We have disassociated ourselves from our roots and ties to nature. “He flung open the door and shot through the courtyard, head down, rounding the corner of the house just in time to see a dun-colored blur scaling the six-foot chain-link fence with a tense white form clamped in its jaws. His brain decoded the image: a coyote had somehow managed to get into the enclosure and seize one of the dogs, and there it was, wild nature, up and over the fence as if this were some sort of circus act.” (37) This passage is about a coyote coming into the Mossbucher’s property and killing one of their pet dogs. Throughout the story the coyote is an animal that Delaney associates with the Mexicans, and blames the two for being around because of the actions of his neighbors. “This didn’t have to happen. It didn’t. If it wasn’t for those idiots leaving food out for the coyotes as if they were nothing more than sheep with bushy tails and eyeteeth… and he’d warned them, time and time again. You can’t be heedless of your environment.” (39)
Many people in our world today as I have already mentioned have dissociated themselves from the natural world. Their views of themselves and humans are that we are our own type of nature unlike the creatures we find outside of our towns and cities. But what many people need to realize is that as we continue to build or infrastructure and alter the form of the Earth we are invading its habitats and sooner or later they’re going to start crossing over back into our own world.
Later in the story Delaney writes in his column to spread awareness of the coyotes and how they have taken a second one of his dogs. “We cannot eradicate the coyote, nor can we fence him out, not even with eight feet of chain link, as this sad but wiser pilgrim can attest. Respect him as the wild predator he is, keep your children and pets inside, leave no food source, however, negligible, where he can access it… The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where the living is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry, and unstoppable. (214)
A lesson that Delaney and the rest of the real world need to realize is that we live in ta world where there are many referent players in the game of life. All of these players require different things to survive and once we begin to take those resources from other people, animals, and the natural world, there are negative effects. In this story as Americas thrive and build their wealth by living the American dream there are m any other people who suffer and wish to live the same life as us. Candido is the coyote in this story who is fighting to survive by any means that he can. As we as a human race deplete the world for materials that we require to survive, we are knowingly killing many of the other creatures that live here on Earth that deserve the world just as much as we do.
The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle was first published in 1995 and yet still, in 2017, it possess a moving narrative of us vs. them that is very prevalent within today’s society. This novel takes on the point of view of two immigrants from Tijuana who are living in the US void of proper citizenship and juxtaposes their daily life struggles with that of an affluent, white couple living in none other than suburbia. The Tortilla Curtain does an incredible job of intertwining the two very different lives of these couples in order to show how insignificant the problems of the first world are compared to that of immigrants who are cheated out of a healthy and prosperous life in their own countries. This novel also incorporates themes of environmentalism within this juxtaposition of the different worlds which illustrates how environmental thought can be pushed aside due to the constant focus on, in my opinion, minute problems such as immigration in the US. This novel is proof that many people’s priorities are jumbled up in that of the “illegal immigrant” debate and it is my contention that this has an enormously negative affect when it comes to dealing with the real problems that contribute to climate change and the need for illegal immigration in the first place.
If The Tortilla Curtain does one thing perfectly, it would be that the representation of these two couples is done without bias. Boyle shifts back and forth between both of the perspectives and does not get caught up in showing how the “better half lives” at all. In fact, a novel like this makes me realize even more so, how very ungrateful many well off US citizens are for the life of privilege that they have been given. By so vividly depicting Delaney’s inner turmoil between being a liberal humanist and a blatant racist just goes to show how contradictory many can be within their thoughts. In doing this, Boyle showcases Delaney’s privilege to even form conclusions on another’s life simply because they are without first world accommodations like housing or a toilet. Delaney is the perfect example of a person who struggles with their privileged existence in relation to the other 80% of the population who live in poverty, and who do not have the same chance for success and happiness the way in which we do in the United States.
Poverty is a huge problem one that is very much related to climate change so it seems only natural that these two issues be tackled together rather than seen as separate issues entirely. This brings me to another point that I would like to bring up, and that is the fact that within the immigration debate, people who think that migrants from other countries are not welcome because they only want to mooch off our economy are completely ignoring the REAL issue. I think that so many people, including the very president of our United States have simply categorized immigrants as being bad people who cause crime and take jobs away from other more deserving people, when in all actuality, people like Candido and America would not have felt the need to illegally cross into the US to work for a mere fraction of minimum wage if their own country was not being robbed of its ability to provide for its citizens by institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These international organizations may masquerade as institutions that are intent on combating poverty within countries like Mexico but actually, they are sustaining the existence of poverty within these third world countries by indebting them further. During my sophomore year, I took a class called “A Just World?” and in it we learned about and discussed every injustice that you can think of that exists within this world, and the The World Bank and the IMF are two international institutions that hold up this division of power. (All information about these organizations was extracted from the textbook Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World)
The World Bank, or the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is a bank that has the job of giving loans to countries for the purpose of constructing roads, airports, dams, and other such infrastructure projects. The World Bank is also responsible for promoting private foreign investment through the participation in loans and other similar investments. The IMF was created with the intent to simplify world commerce by reducing the restrictions of foreign exchange. This is not the only job of the IMF however, it also has created a pool of money that can be used by any country who is unable to pay off their debts; this money lending makes it so that any country who has debt can pay it off, and therefore can continue to trade without any issues. Structural Adjustment Policies, or SAPs, are policies created and enforced by the World Bank and IMF that impose certain rules on the countries who do participate in the money lending that the World Bank and IMF offer. There are typically six different kinds of SAPs, all of which are intent on cutting foreign countries’ social spending, which hinders the citizens of third world countries significantly.
The policies are as follows: 1) They cut a significant amount of worker’s jobs by privatizing state owned businesses (water companies, electrical companies, etc.) so that the local government will no longer have to spend money on employing the people who work in these state owned facilities. 2) Limit government spending by significantly minimizing the budgets of necessary social programs such as education and health care. By cutting the budgets of these programs, even more jobs are lost, and the well-being of the country’s citizens is jeopardized. 3) Freeze, or dramatically slow, the wages citizens can earn in order to increase more foreign investment and decrease consumer demands. 4) Devalue the currencies of these foreign countries so that prices rise immensely; by devaluing their currencies, exports become cheaper, and the imports become much more expensive, thus creating poverty due to the fact that their wages are decreasing while other costs are skyrocketing. 5) Foreign countries must devote different areas of land to growing only crops that will be exported. This is extremely damaging to the environment because a large amount of chemicals and pesticides are needed for production to be successful; not only this, but many indigenous people are also forced to leave their homes because of their land being converted into these export only farms. Many sweatshops are also created through this SAP because they need humans to be producing quotas not only for food, but for toys, clothes, and other manufactured exports as well. 6) Put an end to the use of subsidies that help citizens afford food to feed their families; without these subsidies, poor countries are not able to easily access the nutrition needed to survive.
As it can be seen The World Bank and IMF are the institutions who are contributing to the existence of poverty in the first place, and arguably, since they institute these harmful policies, they are ensuring “a race to the bottom”, as they are promising third world countries sustenance for their citizens but are only weakening the economies, and social programs that help the citizens of these countries to prosper. The SAPs hinder third world countries immensely because they make it impossible for citizens to remain healthy, for workers’ rights to be met, and for their land to be respected, so it is no wonder why people who live in these disadvantaged places want to move somewhere like the US where this kind of colonization is not happening.
A book like The Tortilla Curtain represents the immigrant debate in the light that is always shown, US versus THEM. No one is aware of the true causes of the need for illegal immigration in the first place because organizations like the IMF and World Bank are thought to be good and honest institutions, when clearly, they are only “good” in terms of making wealthy and powerful corporations and countries like the US more so. When we look at the environmental and social issues that are brought up within The Tortilla Curtain the only way that we can begin to solve them is by first calling attention to the manipulation that capitalism and globalization have on the overall way in which our world functions. People like Delaney blame people like Candido and America for being the cause for the issues like pollution and violence but he does not look to the overarching system of oppression that creates an unlivable situation for Candido and America in the first place. So, in order to combat the environmental issue, we first have to dismantle institutions that profit off of destroying habitats and entire countries all in the name of making money. Once we do this, the immigration issue will be diminished greatly because when these institutions are no longer using third world countries in order to make a profit, the third world will finally be able to exist independently from this new age colonization that makes life in their home countries impossible.
When the life we live is chosen by luck of the draw, where do we get away with judging the privilege or disadvantages of others? Some are born to families who live in hillside mansions with 401ks and life insurance and all the bells and whistles. Others are brought up in shacks with lives lived on less than a dollar a day. Yet, those in the hillside mansions will look down on those in shacks. Despite the demand for workers, their inherent ignorances make the mansion livers racist and hateful against the very people in which they rely on.
This sour observation of the dichotomy between these radically different at all: they just fail to recognize each other. Both couples are living in the constant fear of the landscape around them, justifiably so. However, Delaney and Kyra’s heightened and anxious response to fears they have stems from this type of ignorance. This is fear of the assumed nature of those who don’t look like them. So, the fearful take hold of excess objects to build strong capitalist walls around their privileged lives of economic power, to protect from robbers obviously. But the fearful have almost nothing to fear in comparison to others. Those in fight mode have no time to be fearful, life is moving too fast and unsteadily and those like Cândido and America have no choice but to do what they must to survive.
The real fear Delaney and Kyra have is one of unsafety and any deviation from the norm. The fears they hold could have been carried out by anyone regardless of color. Their fears are of moral dilemma. And this moral dilemma is one to actually impact those in real danger with minimal fears like Cândido and America. The violence knows no race, no age, and no gender, yet those who have the luxuries of choice feel most trapped and unsafe in the castles they’ve made up for themselves.
Despite living in a life of little economic standing, Cândido and America still have the moral decency to be humble. Instead of carrying out lives that fit the horrid stereotypes, the two work hard for little money: out of necessity. Their lives are extremely difficult, made even more convoluted by the social constructs of the overbearing post-colonial society. In societal eyes, Cândido and America are seen as the problem. These humans, however, live more morally than the consumer driven, protected world of Delaney and Kyra. But because Delaney and Kyra are of the perspective that domestication is the key to a successful society, they lack the ability to see how a primitive society is more sophisticated. Thus, they categorize people who are not like them as uncivilized.
The gap is in the ecological disadvantages of Delaney’s “environmental interest.” He’s a man who is entirely a product of his society, who notices key issues but lacks the ability to process and address them efficiently. The poor man knows no way else to see the world, for he wasn’t raised with it, but was raised to use it. This raises giant red flags for our world today with our current crisis.
If there’s any hope for real environmental change, we as humans need to open our minds to each other first. In our own world: the US is the only country to have not signed the Paris agreement for environmental standards, our current POTUS openly perpetuates wildly outdated and inhumane stereotypes based on skin tones, and climate change is melting the glaciers and raising the average temperatures yearly. But before real change happens, or even can begin to happen, it’s time for environmentalists to become humanists, too. It’s time to be kind.
“And there it was, wild nature, up and over the
dense as if this were some sort of circus act.”
The parallels one can draw between man and animal are unparamount. The destruction each can have in the world around us, and on each other is frightening. But, the strength of each creature is also empowering. T.C. Boyle crafts his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain around the manmade and animal made destruction happening in California, just north of the Mexican border. He attempts to take a lot on in this book. The dancing back and forth between the voices of Delany, an upper middle class man living in a gated community with his real estate agent wife and child, and Candido, a illegal immigrant camping in the desert with his pregnant wife America, trying so hard to make a stable lives for themselves, gives a lot of perspective. The project of the wall, the Tortilla Curtain, that the whites are trying to build take on the issue of race and socioeconomic problems. The climate in which the book is set and the activities these characters participate on takes on the issue of environmentalism.
That’s a lot, and for the most part, it is executed nicely.
The words of Ramachandra Guha echo in my head again and again. “Nature became a source of cheap raw material as well as a sink for dumping the unwanted residues of economic growth.”
Delany calls Kyra out on the trying to cover her tracks by simply being worried about the dangers of the coyotes when really she is subliminally talking of an entire group of people. “This isn’t about the coyotes, don’t kid yourself. It’s about Mexicans, it’s about blacks. It’s about exclusion, division, hate.” Her comeback is honest and evil. “I don’t ever want one of those things on my property again. I’d move first, that’s what I’d do. Bulldoze the hills. Pave over it. To hell with nature.” Delany’s simple response to her inherent racism is, “You’re crazy.”
In the context of this novel and Boyle’s character Kyra, the immigrants about become her unwanted residues in the way of her economic growth. She is originally portrayed as someone that does value the earth and like to feel and build that connection and closeness to it, but how can that be possible if you do not see all living beings on the earth as equal?
This question has fluttered throughout my head throughout my time in my Writing in an Endangered World class that I have been taking during my last semester here at Keene State. What a send-off into the real world it has been. I have been studying literature and time periods for four years, and up until now, nothing has fundamentally altered my outlook on life. I don’t want to think I have been a selfish person or anything like Kyra is in this section of the book, but I have been naive to the utter lack of respect humans have on the earth and other humans that are all equal being upon this earth we take for granted. I had never asked myself what made me better than the trees that provide us oxygen to live or the animals that provide my family and strong healthy meal. Nature is not a source of “cheap raw material,” and it’s scary to know that some people see it that way.
I think Boyle can be praised for his two-sided display of Kyra. Yes, she is at the Sierra Club, yes she is health conscious and works with the natural earth to provide good food and exercise to herself and her child. BUT, her profession as a real estate agent allows her to have another, more self-centered and accepting side. She chooses money and her career over the lives of other humans. AND instead of coming right out and saying it she uses the coyote to hide behind. The Mexicans become this filthy dog killing creature to her. Allowing Delaney to not give into this insanity was a clever move for Boyle. “You’re crazy” was the perfect response and I think it is one that many of us say inside our heads.
When I hear politicians dismiss global warming, I think “you’re crazy!” When I hear someone dismissing the harm pesticides have on humans and the work of Carson, I think “you’re crazy!”
When I hear “the head-heavy power-hungry politic scientist AaaaaaaaaaaaGovernment two-world Capitalist-Imperialist aaaaaaaaaaaaThird-world Communist paper-shuffling male aaaaaaaaaaaaNon-farmer jet-set bureaucrats aaaaaaaaaaaaSpeak for the green of the leaf” I feel pissed off. I say, “you’re crazy!”
Candido also personalizes mankind and personifies nature to exemplify the destruction man has on man. After a horrible incident with a man abusing his wife, he expresses severe hate for the land to release his anger on mankind.
“There was no choice now, no doubt but that they were going to have
to leave this prison of trees, this dirt heap where she’d been robbed
and hurt and brutalized, where the days crept by like eternal years.”
A part of me wanted to feel anger at his calling the trees and the forest a prison, but then I had to reason with it a bit. He was doing this out of love and frustration for America. Unlike Kyra using the coyote as a stand-in for Mexicans because of her distaste for their illegal status bringing down the housing market.
I would have let out my frustration in the same way as him. It’s easy to blame the closest thing when you get angry. It’s easy to overlook the bigger picture when your peripheral vision is clouded with hate. It’s easy to not know everything that is happening, but none of these are excuses for at least making an effort to try and ask the important questions out there, and search for answers to them. I have talked in lengths about the questions presented to me by an array of environmentalist authors. I have yet to answer any of them with great strength, but allowing the space in my head to slowly fill with ideas and knowledge of the world is a good place to start to tackle them.
“My dream is that people will find a way back home, into their bodies, to connect with the earth, to connect with each other, to connect with the poor, to connect with the broken, to connect with the needy, to connect with people calling out all around us, to connect with the beauty, poetry, the wildness”
“Fucking Beaners. Rip it up, man. Destroy it.”
Jack Jr’s comment, when he and his friend stumble upon Candido and America’s camp in the arroyo can be difficult to read. We know more than this young man precisely because Boyle has described the lives of the people, America and Candido, whose belongings are being destoyed. The passage will also bring to mind for most readers the evening meeting at which Jack Cherrystone offers his disquisition on what is “real,” and it will anticipate the later conversation he has with Delaney Mossbacher in what can only be described as a surreal scene in the supermarket.
Jack Jr’s comment throws us out of the novel as well. It brings to mind the early 1990s in California when proposition 187 was passed, and then later repealed. His angry and confused words suggest a literary predecessor as well, John Steinbeck, who Boyle uses as an epigraph for his novel, and whose novel The Grapes of Wrath Boyle pays homage.
On Tuesday I asked us how this novel brings us back full circle to the writings of Ramanchandra Guha. His distinction between omnivores (consumers) and ecosystem people (workers)–as well as the massive asymmetries between abundance and scarcity, richness and poverty, is useful as we talk about this novel.
Guha is one among many thinkers who can help us think beyond the necessary but not sufficient forms of environmental concern in what he calls environmentalism’s first wave, including the emphasis on conservation, of “going green” and heading “back to the land; on preservation of resources, including land (parks, wilderness areas) and biodiversity; even on the movement beyond the suggestion that we engage, to circle back to Gary Snyder’s words in the “Preface to The Practice of the Wild, “in more than environmentalist virtue, political keenness, or useful and necessary activism. We must ground ourselves in the dark of our deepest selves.”
That passage in Practice goes on to say that a good part of that grounding takes place in “communities,” which exist whether we know it or not within the ‘natural nations’ shaped by mountain ranges, river courses, flatlands, and wetlands.” These places are inhabited, in more ways than many want to believe.
The Tortilla Curtain is up to a number of things. One of these things that readers find compelling is the way the story foregrounds the comfortable space in which environmental concern exists alongside a radically disconnected culture of consumerism predicated on social values (racism) that define “the way things are.”
One of the really interesting lessons here is the idea of thinking differently about the individual as a part of the world (ecological or systems or intersectional thinking, whatever modifier) and thinking this thought through the inevitable questions of access / equity / justice having to do with quality of life—for the individual thinking, and for others. This idea forces one to grapple with the patterns of production and consumption that have become so normative that we forget even how to question this pattern.
“Where is the justice?” Candido asks later in the novel, as he desperately tries to make some sense of the world around him.
I want to suggest that the “dream” in the words of Eve Ensler might find its place in a world less determined by the so-called “American dream” that has never been one accessible to all–as some people so desperately want to believe, and as The Tortilla Curtain so deftly makes clear.
Ensler’s word is “connect.” It is worth remembering that the very idea ecology rests on a capacity to think not of simply things, but of the ways things are only possible in a context of relations. The writer Timothy Morton has explained quite well on the radical implications of this idea, what he calls the “ecological thought.” The idea is in one sense found in words from environmental writers such as John Muir, who writes in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
However, the meanings and the history of the term ecology —both its origin and use in the scientific community as well as its resonance in the wider culture might take on a different hue when one considers Morton’s argument in The Ecological Thought (2010) :
“The ecological thought is difficult because it brings to light aspects of our existence that have remained unconscious for a long time; we don’t like to recall them” (9).
The ecological thought “forces us to invent ways of being together that don’t depend on self interest. . .the ecological thought can be highly unpleasant” (135).
“The ecological thought is about considering others, in their interests, in how we should act toward them, and in their very being” (123).
Which brings us back to the questions posed for this week:
How does this novel contribute to our understanding of environmental literature, and the discourse of environmentalism?
How do we read this novel into-and as a culmination of-the reading / thinking / discussion / writing we have done this semester?
On what terms might the people in this novel share a common future?
How do multiple voices share equal status (in an unequal society) in defining the future?
Writing about The Tortilla Curtain is one way to begin answering these questions.
Candido and America, Eddie From Ohio, from the album Quick (2001) and on the live album Three Rooms (2003).
The narrative strategy of the novel The Tortilla Curtain makes visible a number of contradictions that lurk within the environmental movement in North America. Years ago Ramanchandra Guha, author of Environmentalism: A Global History, during his time as a graduate student at Yale, published an essay entitled “Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique” (1987). Here is an abstract of the essay:
I present a Third World critique of the trend in American environmentalism known as deep ecology, analyzing each of deep ecology’s central tenets: the distinction between anthropocentrism and biocentrism, the focus on wilderness preservation, the invocation of Eastem traditions, and the belief that it represents the most radical trend within environmentalism. I argue that the anthropocentrism / biocentrism distinction is of little use in understanding the dynamics of environmental degredation, that the implementation of the wilderness agenda is causing serious deprivation in the Third World, that the deep ecologist’s interpretation of Eastern traditions is highly selective, and that in other cultural contexts (e.g., West Germany and India) radical environmentalism manifests itself quite differently, with a far greater emphasis on equity and the integration of ecological concerns with livelihood and work. I conclude that despite its claims to universality, deep ecology is firmly rooted in American environmental and cultural history and is inappropriate when applied to the Third World.
The frank and polemical and controversial essay has been assessed by the author more recently as revealing his own chauvinism; still, the essay is a helpful introduction to a way of thinking that focuses attention on both the insights and the blindness of the environmental movement in North America.
Guha’s essay from the 1980s is productively read alongside a collection of his essays I recommended earlier in the course, How Much Should a Person Consume: Environmentalism in India and the United States (Berkeley: U California P, 2006). The title essay focuses attention on the focus of the environmental movement on threats to human health caused by pollution and threats to wild habitats, and to species by economic expansion. But as Guha reminds his reader, “consumption continued to be the great unasked question of the conservation movement” (223).
The Tortilla Curtain places these contradictions and this unasked question about abundance and profligacy at the center of its unfolding. The novel constructs a narrative that both reinforces the two worlds (consumers and workers, citizens or so-called “natives” and non-citizens or so-called “aliens”) at the same time that it merges these two worlds. The catastrophic (or what a former student of mine called the “downward spiral”) of the story is inexorable, or so it seems. Candido and America’s lives are slowly and painfully falling apart at the same time that the fiction of life Delaney has constructed (Boyle deftly foregrounds the slow unraveling of his “liberal humanist guilt”) around privilege and exceptionalism. In brief, the racism that serves as the catalyst for dehumanization in the novel is deeply entwined with the relationship between ecological entitlement and economic status.
When Delaney, the liberal humanist and environmentalist, reflects on the contradictions of his own actions following his confrontation with the Mexican men the night of the fire, a possible redemptive moment merely flickers in an increasingly desperate situation. Rather than reading this as an indictment of liberal humanism, or environmentalism, the novel allows a reader to experience the fracturing of the world view on which such commitments are often based–a world of abundance, richness and privilege as well as, when the fire leaps into the treetops on the Santa Ana winds, the moment when the two worlds become one.
To think ecologically is to think of one world–a world deeply and inextricably imbedded and interrelated. The radical openness of this kind of thinking is challenging, for it requires seeing the ecological crisis that animates the environmental movement as an inescapable condition. It also demands that the conceptual distinctions that proliferate under the banner of environmentalism (or that lie lurking beneath its ideals) become visible. That is to say, social and environmental questions are the same questions. The moral demands of this becoming, as Wendell Berry’s writing has pressed its readers to realize, require more humanity than we appear able to give. You can’t think of our environment and our environmental predicament without asking the question Candido asks, “Where was the justice”?
Before we talk this week I would like you to think more broadly about a question this novel asks: on what terms might the people in this novel (in this world) share a common future? How can these voices share equal status in a debate about a common future? How might the final image in the novel suggest that such questions are questions that can be asked? “He was beyond cursing, beyond grieving, numbed right through to the core of him. All that, yes. But when he saw the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles, he reached down and took hold of it” (355).
literature and environmentalism at keene state college