Just pause for a moment to consider a world — our world — past and present, long inhabited by animals that look and act like people. I once asked an acquaintance to help me explain this phenomenon. He said he could answer with two words: Walt Disney. Of course, a generation ago children and adults were captivated by images of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and all the other humanly named and clothed creatures that populated animated films and cartoon clips. Long before the immense popularity of Disney creations, small children were enraptured by tales of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin, Benjamin Bunny, and a myriad of other talking animals invented by Beatrix Potter. After more than a century, Ms. Potter’s universally appealing works are still in press and readily available. In modern times intentionally mature versions of animal worlds continue to fascinate and sell. George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Richard Adams’s Watership Down leap immediately to mind. And when it comes to film, few recent productions can meet the enormous success of Pixar’s Ratatouille and Finding Nemo, plus blockbusters produced by film studios here and abroad.
Add to this mix Ralph Nader’s newest volume, Animal Envy: A Fable (Seven Stories Press 2016, 217 pp, $23.95). Until the appearance of this extraordinarily original volume, no one had created a fictional world in which the entire animal kingdom, from cockroaches and spaniels to bats and baboons, all acquire the ability to communicate with one another. From the very first page, this genre-bending work (classified by the publisher under the categories of Fiction and Current Events) asks readers to assume the existence of a Human Genius. This Genius has invented apps that enable all living creatures to acquire the entirety of scientific knowledge and wisdom produced by our species. Moreover the apps enable all animals, human and otherwise, to enter into cross-species discourse and reason with one another on rational terms. Human beings play a central role in this inter-species mix, as they listen to, argue with, and promote their own material interests in conversation with creatures large and small, familiar and exotic.
This conversation takes place over what Nader terms a one hundred hour TALKOUT, shown on screen and proceeding through use of an unspecified, but mutually intelligible, language. The core of the book consists of a series of episodes focusing on representatives of each species reasoning with one another, discussing the sensible and just interspecies relationships that would provide positive alternatives to present circumstances, issuing complaints about their often precarious state of affairs (occasionally leading to near-extinction), and offering suggestions as to how to achieve a co-existence advantageous to all. While the episodes, one by one, expose environmental troubles of near catastrophic proportions, they almost always simultaneously show a path to solving these problems.
Herein lies the political dimension to the book. Nader unobtrusively sneaks into the narrative a plethora of practical policy proposals, which offer hope that the earth’s magnificent floral and faunal variety can indeed be saved. In fact the book ends on entirely optimistic note, as Human Genius looks back on the one hundred hour TALKOUT, in which the mutual airing of grievances and search for ecologically wise solutions yield hope of a “coming vitalized natural world.”
What any reader will find fascinating about the hundred-hour conversation is that it not only contains an abundance of thoroughly up-to-date scientific knowledge, but that it is also filled with heartfelt expressions of species-specific suffering and exploitation. When the locust representative complains that members of his species are victims of disastrous pesticide treatment in southern Israel, we empathize with the locusts. When we become aware of elephants victimized by greedy Chinese poachers lusting after tusks for ivory, or the Chinese demand for mink fur coats, our hearts go out to the elephants and mink. However, when Asian beetles known as emerald ash borers complain about human efforts at extermination, we can sympathize with their fate as an invasive species, brought to our shores through no fault of their own; but their widespread damage to North American ash trees leaves readers uncertain as to whether these insects deserve our full sympathy. There is no shortage of ecological and economic dilemmas in this book, too. Wind farms, producing sustainable energy, also wreak havoc on migrating bird populations, aircraft and birds collide causing immense human and financial loss.
Animal Envy is a highly original combination of genres: fiction, ecology, politics, and hard science. TALKOUT conversations are grounded in up-to-date scholarship, as reported in literary and journalistic sources listed at the back of the book. We learn an enormous amount about the animal kingdom from this book (how many readers have heard of stink bugs or midges, or know that there are some 5,000 species of cockroaches?). We learn a lot as well about mating behavior, which Nader delights the reader in presenting through graphic sexual descriptions. We learn an awful lot about species interdependence, the devastating impact of human activity on animal survival and suffering, but also about excess in the treatment and expense that humans extend to pets. The novel is laced with a good bit of humor as well. The snakehead, a fish found in the Potomac River, complain that they are defamed for their looks when in truth, they say, “We find each other attractive.” Beetles and flying insects sprayed en masse for destroying U.S. crops suggest delicately to humans that they be rounded up and exported to Mexico where they are appreciated as “crunchy, delicious food.” To persuade humans further, they point out that they should at least be used “to feed hungry Mexicans” and on top of that these insect exports will improve the balance of payments.
One can only marvel at Nader’s ability to identify with such a wide variety of animals to the point where he empathizes with all of them, and pleads their case for survival through expressing each species’ unique point of view. Animal Envy is a wise book, an instructive book, an entertaining book, and a book that any person interested in the fate of our planet should read.
Stanley Brandes is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.