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I'm just back from a book discussion held at the local public library. It was the first in a four-part series sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The series is called Pushing the Limits, and tonight we discussed When the Killing's Done by T. C. Boyle.

The novel is a fictionalized account of an attempt to by the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy to remove non-native animal species from the Channel Islands off the California coast and restore the ecosystem to its previous state. Their proposed means involve poisoning rats, shooting pigs, and capturing and relocating golden eagles.

Animal rights activists want to stop them, and one of those activists, Dave LaJoy, an odious character with deep pockets, uses underhanded and irresponsible means to sabotage the park service's efforts, culminating in the accidental death of a young activist.

LaJoy has a particular grudge against the biologist in charge of the operation, Dr. Alma Boyd-Takesue, who once walked out on a date with him after he was rude to a waiter and to the owner of her favorite restaurant. Someone repeatedly spraypaints racist slurs on her car, and while the author never confirms that LaJoy is the culprit, his guilt seems to be implied.

LaJoy, who is the mouthpiece for PETA and animal rights activists generally, has some valid concerns. I was torn as I read the novel because the author undermines those concerns by embodying them in LaJoy, a wealthy local businessman who is self-important, vindictive, abusive to people in service jobs, and, above all, irrationally angry. At the same time, I've had encounters with militant vegans which made LaJoy's character seem quite plausible and authentic.

The novel explores a few thorny issues that intrude on any effort at eco-system management. Is the life of a ground-nesting bird worth more than the life of a rat simply because the bird is a member of an endangered species and the rat is not? Why does the adaptability and robustness of rats give them less claim on the right to live than the inflexibility of a bird that is adapted to live in an environment devoid of ground-based predators?

LaJoy never expresses any overtly libertarian ideology, but he does bristle at the arrogance of government employees who expel the public from public lands while spending millions of dollars at public expense to murder animals en masse. One of the women at tonight's discussion group voiced similar concerns and grew visibly angry as she expressed solidarity with LaJoy's hatred of "nature cops."

I too bristle at being bullied by cops of any stripe, and it seems as though petty tyrants are feeling emboldened here at the end of the first month of 2017, but that doesn't make LaJoy and his minions right. Their bedrock belief is that humans just need to butt out. The only morally justifiable action open to us, according to their way of thinking, is to withdraw from "wilderness" areas and let "nature" take its course, regardless of what humans have done to that environment in the past.

But what is nature? What is natural? Is any human involvement with an ecosystem inherently "unnatural?" Is wise environmental remediation always and utterly impossible? Is LaJoy's conception of nature a smokescreen for misanthropy?

Do we need professional technocrats to make decisions for all of us when it comes to our interaction with non-human life? Those technocrats certainly screw up from time to time, but would anarchy (literally a lack of rulers) produce better results? If so, judged by what standard?

What strikes me in hindsight is the unconscious motivations at work in these characters and the liberal reflex to form circular firing squads. LaJoy and his nemesis, Dr. Boyd-Takesue, are both vegetarians. They both love animals and love the Channel Islands. How absurd that she should be the focus of his rage and the target of his perpetual hostility. Such is the nature of the narcism of small differences.

The next book in the series is The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 31st, 2017 04:10 am (UTC)
Edit - "body love animals" to "boldly love animals"?
The Water Knife! OMG!
Jan. 31st, 2017 02:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Edit - "body love animals" to "boldly love animals"?
Thanks, Mark.

That's a weird typo. Actually, what I meant to write was, "they BOTH love animals."
Jan. 31st, 2017 11:21 pm (UTC)
The Water Knife depressed the crap out of me.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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