Worse in the Future: John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up”

The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoin with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spreads.  –Milton, “Lycidas”

 In his brilliant, shocking novel, The Sheep Look Up, published in 1972, John Brunner imagined Earth’s toxic future.  The planet is in bad shape.  Very bad shape. 

Not only are lakes, rivers, and seas contaminated in Brunner’s classic novel, but there are Don’t Drink the Water Days, fines for not washing your hands, and a water shortage in Denver, where the the water level of lakes and rivers has dwindled. (That is happening now in Denver.) In California,where the air is the most toxic (especially in L.A.), people wear oxygen masks to breathe.  

Living conditions are far from satisfactory.  Lice, cockroaches, rats, and vermin have become immune to all pesticides, even to banned poisons like DDT (which, in The Sheep Look Up, is still illicitly manufactured).  And the antibiotics in chicken and other food are making humans immune to antibiotics. (Sound familiar?)

There is yet another twist with the toxic food chain:  Puritan, the costly organic grocery store where people  pay inflated prices out of terror, is selling much of the same food one buys at the traditional supermarket.

At the center of the novel is a radical movement, the Trainites, founded by Austin Train, who got disgusted with the direction of his followers – “I am not a Trainite,” he tells a friend – and disappeared to live under the name Fred Smith and earn a living as a garbage man.

No worries:  there are countless imposters who say they are Austin Train and fuel the Trainites’ voracity for action.  But Train himself is a gentle genius, the author of “The Great Epidemics” (1965), “The Resistance Movement in Nature” (1972), “Preservatives and and Additives in the American Diet” (1971), “You Are What You Have to Eat” (1971), “Guide to the Survival of Mankind” (1973), and “A Handbook for 3000 A.D.” He wanted to spread awareness without pointless riots.  Think of him as the scientific American Gandhi. 

Peg, a radical journalist, sets out to find Austin after their friend, Decimus, another leader in the movement, dies, apparently crazy and on drugs. The media go viral with this story of the fallen hero.  Peg is convinced that Decimus, who was not a drug user, was deliberately given drugs in his food or drink to destroy his reputation.  Her editor doesn’t like her take on the story.

She muses,

It must have been done to discredit Decimus.  Must have.  These stereotyped interchangeable plastic people with dollar signs in their eyes couldn’t bear to share their half-ruined planet with anyone who climbed our of his ordained grooves.  A black JD dropout was meant to die in a street brawl, or better yet in jail partway through a spell of ninety-nine.  For him to be loved and looked up to like a doctor or a priest, by white as well as black – that turned their stomachs!

The Americans in Brunner’s novel are constantly ill.  Endless colds, diarrhea, flu, cholera, rashes, nearly incurable gonorrhea, and violent hallucinations ravage the population.  In small country in Africa and in the Honduras,  a foodstuff manufactured by a rich philanthropist in Colorado is  laced with a hallucinatory drug that makes both countries go crazy and kill one other.  Was it genocide? Was it a plot to keep third-world countries from establishing a stable government?  The philanthropist says no. He says it was not drugged.

And then a huge mob of young people demonstrate in front of the factory to procure batches of the foodstuff. They say they want to be crazy.

An Irish major on a U.N. mission tells them: 

“But you can’t want to go insane!  You can’t want a-a bum trip that goes on for life?”

“Can’t I, baby?  Are you ever wrong!”  Fritz, his voice cold, dead serious, dead.  “Listen, Mike, because you don’t understand and you ought to.  Who’s going to be sane in this country when you know every breath you draw, every glass you fill with water, every swim you take in the river, every meal you eat is killing you? And you know why, and you know who’s doing it, and you can’t get back at the mothers. 

Brunner has sketched a huge cast of vivid characters, and made most of them sympathetic. Bewildered families struggle to get by in Colorado, one man working in life insurance, a company about to go out of business because the death rate is so high, and then working with friends to run an air filter company whose air filters prove to be faulty, easily clogged with bacteria.

Many people become toxically, horrifyingly crazy.

The thing is:  John Brunner was not crazy.  And this novel reminds us of the long-ignored writers and advocates of environmentalism. The Sheep Look Up is a historically important novel. An environmental classic.

Meat Is Politics: A Memoir of Steak

It was actually p0litical science!

In our tiny kitchen, with bright yellow walls, a yellow formica table, and a hopscotch of a green-and-white-tiled floor, my parents debated the merits of hamburger and steak – a transparent ploy to persuade me to eat steak. There was plenty of beef in the freezer: it came from a meat locker on the edge of town, where Mom drove to select packages of beef, wrapped in white paper, marked with our grandfather’s last name.  He owned a farm, where he raised crops, cows, pigs, and chickens, and kept a pony for us (named Frisky), whom we sometimes rode, despite Mom’s conviction that we would be thrown and killed.  

“We love Frisky! We have to ride Frisky!” 

Let me admit that the farm was not entirely hospitable.  The savage children of the people who rented the farmhouse, who were rather like the Snopes in Faulkner’s novels and deemed improper companions for us, jeered at our beloved equine and called him “Pony Meat.” 

“Your grampa’s going to kill him and make him meat.” 

My retort was, “Nincompoops!” I wasn’t too bothered: they were just so mean!

Bu back to the kitchen: meat was politics. 

Mom asked, “Why don’t you try steak?”

“I like hamburger.” I was wearing a bib, eating a burger with my tiny hands.

“If you eat steak, you’re for Kennedy.”

“I don’t vote.”

Sighs from Mom. I placidly knew I would not be forced to eat steak, but I wonder in retrospect, Was it too difficult for me to eat?  Was it too chewy?

Ten or fifteen years later, chain steakhouses popped up and flourished across the nation.  They had names like Bonanza and Western Sizzlin’: there was a buffet where you could pile your plates with potato salad, cole slaw, green bean salad, and other side dishes, and then go back for soft-serve ice cream, chocolate pudding, or cake.  Our parents dragged us to such restaurants. Even as adults, we had to accompany them.

Independent steakhouses had a more celebratory appeal, I learned later. One Christmas, when my husband and I were staying at a hotel, the only restaurant open in town was the Greek steakhouse.  All the rebellious urchins, some ponytailed, some punk, others with impossibly big hair, still others long-haired and bearded, as I pictured hobbits before the Peter Jackson films, poured in for a convivial breakfast.  We devoured eggs, bacon, sausages, pancakes and hash-browns, our sole meal of the day. We toasted one another with orange juice.  It was so much fun! 

When was the last time we ate steak?  I don’t remember.  The politics of meat have overtaken the glamour of steak. What we didn’t know when we were growing up:  cows, pigs, and chickens are a major source of air pollution, because their farts and manure emit methane gas.  Some studies calculate that this accounts for 18 percent of emissions of greenhouse gases.  According to study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization,  a half pound of ground beef is the equivalent of driving an SUV ten miles. 

These statistics are daunting, and put my husband and me off fast food, at least.  One less half-pounder at McDonald’s… cheers! Of course we realize that many independent farmers struggle to make a living, while the factory farms that have replaced small farms are based on so ugly a premise – raising animals in a tiny enclosure, then on to the slaughterhouse – that we struggle not to think about it.  

Do we eat meat?  We do.  Not often, but we do.

 M grandparents, who were raised on farms and farmed, tired of living in the country and moved to town, but continued to enjoy the fresh food from their farm.  They survived two World Wars, the Depression,  the Korean War, and vehemently opposed  the Vietnam War, but then things became even bleaker: their golden wedding anniversary party coincided with the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Despite so many tragedies, the lives of women improved in the twentieth century, I think.  My grandparents and Mom moved happily from the farm to a house in town, where they enjoyed modern conveniences, grocery-store delivery, restaurants, stores, and the proximity of friends and Bridge clubs.  My grandmother continued to cook delicious country food, but neither she nor my mother were sentimental about the country. 

I romanticized living in the country, but that was the result of reading Thomas Hardy and seeing the movie Far from the Madding Crowd.  The farms I knew did not look like Bathsheba  Everdene’s farm. When I visited friends in the country, the fields were scrubby, their houses were freezing, and huddling around a wood-burning stove (another source of pollution) was overrated.  I could not have survived one winter night in the attic where Willa Cather slept in Red Cloud, Nebraska, which I saw on a tour of her house. As for that dugout in My Antonia – I will never reread that book!

Perhaps I was lucky not to grow up on a farm, but to enjoy fresh food and good meat from a farm.  This was the time of the organic food movement, and the revival of Adele Davis’s cookbooks. But in 2022, we do not belong to a food co-op, nor do we buy organic food unless it is on sale. (Whole Foods is in the suburbs, and my husband thinks it’s a rip-off!)  We do eat lots of fresh vegetables, though.

 I fondly remember my mother’s politics of meat:  only a former political science major would have tried to coax her child to eat steak by mentioning the Democrats!  There were so many comic moments back then.  It was a good time to grow up, and Mom loved it, too – though she mysteriously blamed The Graduate, a movie banned by the Catholic church, for changing mores and morals. 

Why the Planet Can’t Be Saved

Something positive for the planet!

Last week, we pulled over at a rest stop. Sheet lightning was flashing and the wind was so strong it shook the car. We sat in our shuddering car wondering what to do. A woman in a car beside us looked out her window anxiously.

We couldn’t save her, we regret.

No one could save us, either.

This is the way it’s going to be.

Storms come up suddenly. Furious storms, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes.  We’ve never seen so many.

This week, it’s raining. Everybody has water in the basement. Everybody hopes it won’t flood, though there has been terrible flooding this spring in Nebraska and western Iowa.

After 2030, climate change will be irreversible. But it could be reversed now. Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  NASA and other agencies around the world have fixed it by phasing out the industrial production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). They signed an international agreement in 1987.

Now, we need to stop burning  fossil fuels.  We need to go VERY green.  Yet there’s resistance to green energy like wind turbines (which spoil the landscape or kill the birds, according to rich men of different political parties, among them Trump (it spoils the view on his Scottish golf course), Robert Kennedy, Jr. (it spoils the view on Nantucket or wherever), and Jonathan Franzen (who worries about the birds, which will all be dead if we don’t change to green energy).  There is similar resistance to  the huge solar farms:  rich people in a gated community in Virginia oppose them because the solar panels spoil their view.

HERE’S WHAT HUMAN BEINGS CAN DO:  Every time you DON’T drive you help.  Take the bus or bicycle. According to the EPA, motor vehicles  cause 75 percent of carbon monoxide pollution in the U.S.   And yet people cannot make the connection that driving is killing the planet.  They blithely move to the ex-urbs, which means even MORE driving. And the next generation is being trained to do the same. The driving age here, if you can believe it, is 14.

We have all known for decades that walking, bicycling, and mass transit are good alternatives to driving.  After a lifetime of NOT driving a car because of environmental concerns, I begin to wonder why I’ve done it. I despair over the stupidity and greed of human beings.  But what about the plants and animals?  Yes, they are worth saving.

Drivers do not want you to save the planet.  Pedestrians and bicyclists are viewed not as role models but as eccentrics IN THE WAY.  Drivers become more and more hostile:  road rage.  A car hit my husband  last year (the driver veered suddenly left into the bike lane) and broke my spouse’s collarbone and punctured his lung.   A car also hit the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year (I voted for him) on his bicycle and he will not walk without a walker for six months.

In the Netherlands, drivers are trained to watch out for bicyclists.  The New York Times said last October that they’re trained in a maneuver called the Dutch reach.:

When you are about to exit the car, you reach across your body for the door handle with your far or opposite hand. This action forces you to turn toward the side view mirror, out and then back over your shoulder to be sure a bicyclist is not coming from behind. Only then do you slowly open the door.

This is one of many things which should be stressed in the U.S.

So now we’ve almost killed the planet, you might as well read a dystopian novel.  I strongly recommend John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up, which I wrote about here at my old blog, Mirabile Dictu.  In this terrifying post-modern SF classic,  pollution has rendered the U.S.  a wasteland.  The poisoned air blows into Canada and sometimes across the ocean to Europe (sound familiar?);  everyone is sick; antibiotics no longer work; fleas and rat infestations in houses and apartment house can no longer be controlled because they are immune to poison; the acid rain in NY is so bad that you need to wear plastic outside; the water is poisoned (there are frequent “no-drink water” days); intelligence levels are dropping (lead in the air and water); a virus causes spontaneous abortion; the oceans are so polluted that people vacation in Colorado rather than California; and big businesses are profiting by selling air filters, water filters, etc.

John Brunner was prescient.

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