Human Misbehavior

Lucky Mud & Other Foma: A Field Guide to Kurt Vonnegut's Environmentalism and Planetary Citizenship BY Christina Jarvis. New York: Seven Stories Press. 368 pages. $29.
The cover of Lucky Mud & Other Foma: A Field Guide to Kurt Vonnegut's Environmentalism and Planetary Citizenship

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos is fundamentally about the human species and the promises and perils of human nature. Although Vonnegut published Galápagos fifteen years before scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer first proposed the idea of naming our current geological epoch the Anthropocene, the novel’s environmental parables become even more relevant as we experience the effects of humans acting as geological agents on the planet. 

Galápagos is able to tackle these topics successfully because it is grounded in science. The novel simultaneously employs Darwin’s theories of natural selection with scientific integrity while critiquing social Darwinism. Vonnegut’s 1982 trip to the Galápagos Islands, careful study of Darwin’s writings, and additional research on evolution, in fact, earned him praise from renowned evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who thought the novel was “a wonderful roman à clef about evolutionary theory” and study of “how random the selection is.” Despite its elements of plausibility, the novel does not attempt to imagine the possible evolutionary paths of multiple species in different parts of the globe. Instead, Vonnegut returns to the site of Darwin’s inspiration to explore the fate of the species most profoundly altering the surface of the planet: Homo sapiens. As we peer one million years into the future, we discover a dramatically altered, benign form of humankind, evolved from a tiny band of colonists on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia. The “whole rest of the animal world,” by contrast, “has done strikingly little to improve its survival tactics in all that time,” leaving little doubt that it’s our species that needs to contemplate its planetary role.

For Vonnegut, the enormous stretch of time and narrative perspective of the novel presented a far greater challenge than envisioning possible evolutionary paths. After all, how can anatomically modern Homo sapiens think within a million-year time frame when we’ve only existed as a species for about 200,000 years and can only point to approximately 5,500 years of recorded history? Or, to borrow the language of journalist Alan Weisman’s famous title, how do we imagine “the world without us”? As historian Dipesh Chakrabarty points out, “we have to insert ourselves into a future ‘without us’ in order to be able to visualize it.” Vonnegut brilliantly solves these problems by creating the ghostly narrator Leon Trout, who can draw on his former human experiences to interpret human and planetary conditions, but who also possesses an omniscient narrative capacity due to his phantom wanderings. Like the residents of Vicuna, Leon Trout can slip into the bodies of humans to explore their thoughts, emotions, and histories. And because his curiosity about the fate of the Santa Rosalia colonists prevents him from crossing over into the “blue tunnel to the afterlife,” his one-million-year sentence to wander the Earth allows for the appropriate “deep time” framework. The biological offspring of Kilgore Trout and his far more optimistic mother, Leon can also see the best and worst in humanity and raise important questions about our species.

As a Vietnam veteran and son of Kilgore Trout, Leon is especially well equipped to see the dark side of humanity and the particular environmental problems human beings are causing in November 1986, the pivotal time frame when a series of “lucky” accidents gathers the ten future colonists and send them on their way to Santa Rosalia. Vonnegut assigns both particular and species-level blame for these widespread ecological woes. Embodying the worst of these behaviors is Andrew MacIntosh, a fifty-five-year-old “American financier and adventurer of great inherited wealth.” We learn, for example, of MacIntosh’s “mania for claiming as his own property as many of the planet’s life-support systems as possible” and of the fact that he “found ensuring the survival of the human race a total bore.” MacIntosh’s environmental crimes are rendered more sinister as we watch him masquerade as “an ardent conservationist” while his companies act as “notorious damagers of the water or the soil or the atmosphere.” Vonnegut underscores the huge economic disparities between MacIntosh, the urban poor, and Indigenous rain forest tribes of Ecuador, but he ultimately emphasizes the broader anthropocentric devastation of Earth.

Leon sets up these collective impacts early in the novel, noting that the worldwide financial crisis in 1986 A.D. “was simply the latest in a series of murderous twentieth-century catastrophes which had originated entirely in human brains.” With the broader vision afforded by expanses of time and space, Leon carefully mentions human causes for the famines, wars, and environmental damage “to all other living things”—not a scarcity of natural resources. By attributing this damage to people’s “oversize brains,” he goes beyond the economic policies, national conflicts, and greed immediately underlying the problems, to address one of the most distinctive features of our species. This vision of our big-brained species destroying “the earthling part of the clockwork of the universe” aligns with what biologist E. O. Wilson bemoaned for decades: “Humanity has so far played the role of planetary killer, concerned only with its own short-term survival.” As Vonnegut learned in his physical anthropology classes, it was indeed our large brains, along with our bipedalism and dexterous hands, which helped our hominid ancestors develop tools and alter their environments.

True to his career-long pacifism, Vonnegut uses Leon’s war experiences as a filter to underscore the ecological damage done by weapons. Galápagos is littered with descriptions of destructive twentieth-century military technologies, which, Leon notes, can rival even the mechanisms of evolution. After explaining the origins of new explosives used in the fictional Peruvian-Ecuadoran conflict of November 1986, Leon concludes, “And the Law of Natural Selection was powerless to respond to such new technologies. No female of any species, unless, maybe, she was a rhinoceros, could expect to give birth to a baby who was fireproof, bombproof, or bulletproof.” To heighten the bite of this observation, Leon mentions that “the best that the Law of Natural Selection could come up with” was people who weren’t “afraid of anything, even though there was so much to fear”—people like Andrew MacIntosh.

Despite all the planetary dangers posed by humans and their large brains, Galápagos suggests that although we have become geological agents capable of altering the planet on a large scale, human beings are still governed by the same natural laws and life-supporting systems that affect all species. Ultimately, it’s not a human-caused catastrophe that wipes out everyone except for the ten Santa Rosalia colonists. It’s a microscopic bacterium that destroys human ova in women’s ovaries. This “new creature” emerges at the Frankfurt Book Fair and spreads around the globe, reaching every human population but the isolated Santa Rosalia colonists. Comparing the near total extinction of humans to that of “mighty land tortoises,” Leon again uses his macro views of time and space to place the pandemic within the broad history of many David-Goliath stories. Leon’s dry sense of humor and lack of details about the pandemic minimize the brutal realities of human extinction outside of Santa Rosalia. The biological stakes of Vonnegut’s literary experiment, nevertheless, are all too real. As environmental historian Dan Flores reminds us, if we refuse to recognize the “selfishness and short-sightedness” apparently “built into our very evolution” and “stop the steady destruction of the world . . . then externally delivered checks are what we can expect.” The Law of Natural Selection, Leon points out, can easily repair the planet’s “clockwork,” bringing “humanity into harmony with itself and the rest of Nature.”

In Galápagos that “harmony” comes at the expense of losing virtually all the traits that make Homo sapiens “human.” In the year 1,001,986 A.D., the descendants of the Santa Rosalia colonists have evolved into amphibious “fisher folk” with a silky, seal-like pelt, arm flippers, streamlined skulls, and much smaller brains. With adaptations in keeping with the rich marine life surrounding the isolated volcanic islands, these future hominids spend much of their thirty-year life span catching fish or simply frolicking like sea lions on shore. The shorter life span has reduced childhood to nine months, and “people” identify each other by their distinctive odors, since their sense of smell has been dramatically increased. Although Leon contemplates possible evolutionary paths had the Santa Rosalia colonists been composed of the wealthy celebrities originally scheduled for the Bahía de Darwin’s maiden voyage, he concludes that the outcome still would have been the same: “In the long run, the survivors would still have been not the most ferocious struggler but the most efficient fisherfolk. That’s how things work in the islands here.”

Because the novel is fundamentally about modern Homo sapiens and our dangers to ourselves and the planet, Vonnegut offers comparatively little narrative space to our species’ successors. Rather than provide any detailed portraits of them, Vonnegut instead has his ghostly narrator reveal individual characteristics of these new hominids one at a time over the course of the novel. In another experiment with time, the narrative symbolically simulates evolution on the very human-centered time scale it takes for the reader to finish the novel. The future “fisherfolk” come into focus trait by trait as Leon’s tale first sweeps back to 1986 A.D. and then returns to the “present” of a million years beyond that. While this technique forces readers to contemplate the deep time of evolution and geology, Vonnegut’s primary purpose is to explore the ways natural selection has put destructive human characteristics in check. As Leon reminds us at the start of his story, “this was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.”

Excerpted from Lucky Mud & Other Foma: A Field Guide to Kurt Vonnegut's Environmentalism and Planetary Citizenship. Copyright 2022 Christina Jarvis. Used by arrangement with Seven Stories Press. All rights reserved.