The Novel That Asks, ‘What Went Wrong With Mankind?’

Richard Powers’s climate-themed epic, The Overstory, embraces a dark optimism about the fate of humanity.

Dawid Planeta

“People see better what looks like them,” observes the field biologist Patricia Westerford, one of the nine—nine—main characters of Richard Powers’s 12th novel, The Overstory. And trees, Patricia discovers, look like people. They are social creatures, caring for one another, communicating, learning, trading goods and services; despite lacking a brain, trees are “aware.” After borers attack a sugar maple, it emits insecticides that warn its neighbors, which respond by intensifying their own defenses. When the roots of two Douglas firs meet underground, they fuse, joining vascular systems; if one tree gets ill, the other cares for it. The chopping down of a tree causes those surrounding it to weaken, as if in mourning. But Powers’s findings go beyond Dr. Pat’s. In his tree-mad novel, which contains as many species as any North American forest—17 are named on the first page alone—trees speak, sing, experience pain, dream, remember the past, and predict the future. The past and the future, it turns out, are mirror images of each other. Neither contains people.

Powers is the rare American novelist writing in the grand realist tradition, daring to cast himself, in the critic Peter Brooks’s term, as a “historian of contemporary society.” He has the courage and intellectual stamina to explore our most complex social questions with originality, nuance, and an innate skepticism about dogma. At a time when literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience, Powers’s ambit is refreshingly unfashionable, restoring to the form an authority it has shirked. A former computer programmer and English major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Powers has written novels about the history of photography, artificial intelligence, nuclear warfare, race and miscegenation, the Holocaust, neuroscience, virtual reality, the chemical industry, and genetic engineering. It was only a matter of time before he took on the greatest existential crisis human civilization faces: the destruction of the natural conditions necessary for our own survival.

W. W. Norton

“What the Fuck Went Wrong with Mankind” is the central question of The Overstory, as posed by Douggie Pavlicek, a Vietnam War veteran who reinvents himself as a radical eco-activist. Powers has assembled a cast of impeccably credentialed characters to come up with an answer. Douggie himself participated in the Stanford Prison Experiment as a college student, which led him to conclude that “the greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.” Adam Appich is a psychologist who studies the ways in which people blind themselves to catastrophes, particularly those that unfold gradually. Ray Brinkman is an intellectual-property lawyer who asks whether trees can be said to have legal rights. Nicholas Hoel is the heir to a family art project—several generations committed to photographing, once a month, the growth of a chestnut tree—that has instilled in him an awed appreciation of human transience. (The Hoel Chestnut photographs may have been inspired by a similar project undertaken in Norwich, England, from 1914 to 1942, while Patricia Westerford’s discoveries resemble those of the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, and of a German forester with the same initials, Peter Wohlleben, whose 2015 best seller, The Hidden Life of Trees, appears to be the basis for Patricia’s book, The Secret Forest.)

Powers’s dominant mode of narrative is synopsis, a necessary crutch given the novel’s mob of characters and epochal chronological scale. The opening section proceeds through five generations of Hoels; three generations of another family, the Mas; and the entire youth of most of the other main characters. Five of them later converge in a series of tree-saving “actions” that imitate the tactics of Earth First (a group itself inspired by a novel, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang) and the more radical Earth Liberation Front: human barricades, tree-sitting, sabotage, arson.

By the end of the novel, all but one of the nine have become committed activists. Two end up in federal custody, one dies, one commits suicide, two go into hiding. But all of them earnestly embrace the same platform: Forests must be preserved, or nature will have its revenge. The argument is divided democratically among the book’s voices, but it is unerringly consistent. Each of the following reflections belongs to a different character:

“Some of these trees were around before Jesus was born. We’ve already taken ninety-seven percent of the old ones. Couldn’t we find a way to keep the last three percent?”

“We don’t make reality. We just evade it. So far. By looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay.”

“It’s so simple,” she says. “So obvious. Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it.”

The towering, teetering pyramid of large living things is toppling down already, in slow motion, under the huge, swift kick that has dislodged the planetary system. The great cycles of air and water are breaking. The Tree of Life will fall again, collapse into a stump of invertebrates, tough ground cover, and bacteria, unless man …

Reefs blanch and wetlands dry. Things are going lost that have not yet been found. Kinds of life vanish a thousand times faster than the baseline extinction rate. Forest larger than most countries turns to farmland. Look at the life around you; now delete half of what you see.

Each might also just as easily belong to Powers, whose authorial voice speaks in unison with his characters. When enormous ancient trees are chopped down, the sound is “like an artillery shell hitting a cathedral.” The tree-ramming bulldozers are “the color of bile.” The police are uniformly faceless and brutal, swabbing a protester’s eye with a Q-tip laced with chemical agents and beating others senselessly. The life of a tree-sitter, by contrast, is idyllic. After Nicholas spends weeks in the branches of a redwood, his senses clarify, his thoughts deepen, his spirit rises—he no longer minds that he has to use his feces as compost for the wild huckleberries that serve as the foundation of his diet. “Who could stay on the ground, once he has seen life in the canopy?” Nobody in his right mind is the tacit rejoinder.

The most rhapsodic prose is reserved for the trees themselves. Powers writes of a character being “drugged” by the glory of the green world, but every one of his characters becomes an addict. Many have visions. One is visited by beings of light, another by a ghost, a third by premonitions—all urging solidarity with threatened trees. When Patricia travels to the Brazilian rain forest, she overdoses:

There are trees that flower and fruit directly from the trunk. Bizarre kapoks forty feet around with branches that run from spiky to shiny to smooth, all from the same trunk. Myrtles scattered throughout the forest that all flower on a single day. Bertholletia that grow piñata cannonballs filled with nuts. Trees that make rain, that tell time, that predict the weather. Seeds in obscene shapes and colors. Pods like daggers and scimitars. Stilt roots and snaking roots and buttresses like sculpture and roots that breathe air. Solutions run amok. The biomass is mad.

Why would anyone want to destroy all this? Powers’s characters blame the usual human motivations: greed, ignorance, inertia, primitive instinct. Nicholas rues the fact that every tree visible from his canopy perch “belongs to a Texas financier who has never seen a redwood but means to gut them all to pay off the debt he took on to acquire them.” We never meet this Texas financier, however, or anyone else who might profit from development or deforestation, apart from several anonymous voices making threadbare arguments about well-paying jobs and preserving their “way of life.”

Such frail opposition is easily overwhelmed. When Patricia gives expert testimony in court, a skeptical judge quickly comes around. “I never imagined!” he marvels, as if ready to cast off his robe and climb the nearest ponderosa pine. “Trees summon animals and make them do things? They remember? They feed and take care of each other?” Patricia and the rest of the activists are right, of course. The great cycles of air and water are breaking, the Tree of Life is collapsing, things are going lost that have not yet been found, and people don’t see it. The bill is coming and we won’t be able to pay.

But why make these points in a novel and not, say, a tract, journalistic report, or polemic? Powers addresses this question within the pages of The Overstory. Ray, the intellectual-property lawyer, blames the collapse of human civilization on fiction itself: “The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” Adam, the psychologist, throws a novel against a wall because he is tired of reading “about privileged people having trouble getting along with each other in exotic locations.” (That does, in fairness, sound like a crappy novel.) But Adam’s critique is extraliterary: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” There is a term for stories written with the purpose of converting minds to support a cause. And it is the opposite of literature.

When Douggie sees from the air the effects of clear-cutting in the Pacific Northwest, he observes that “it looks like the shaved flank of a sick beast being readied for surgery. Everywhere, in all directions. If the view were televised, cutting would stop tomorrow.” Would it? If more people understood what was at stake, would they cease to consume fossil fuels or, as one character urges, “become indigenous again”? Is all that stands in the way of enlightenment the lack of a robust public-information campaign or a climate-themed Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

You’d think Powers, if not his characters, would recognize the flaw in this argument. The climate problem is a human problem. A short-term species cannot adequately prepare for the long term—and won’t, if doing so means sacrificing present convenience. No amount of bad news will change that. No amount of bad news has changed it. That the culprit is misinformation, or a failure to excite the imagination, is a persistent, but self-defeating, fantasy.

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Most Americans do not understand the perils of climate change—or of deforestation, clear-cutting, habitat loss. But those who perpetuate the disinformation campaigns, including the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the House and Senate majority leaders, and the president of the United States, likely do. It is easier, politically, to claim scientific murkiness than to tell the truth: They value their self-interest over the condition of the world their grandchildren will grow up in. Whether this self-interest is venal or foolish is irrelevant. It’s human nature. And that raises a more difficult question: not whether we should take action, but how to come to terms with the fact that our species has proved itself incapable of doing so.

“Humankind is deeply ill,” Adam concludes. “The species won’t last long.” This is the consensus among Powers’s characters, and it’s a darkly optimistic one. Optimistic for the planet, pessimistic for the fate of humanity. Once man clears out, nature will return. “Hang on,” Douggie thinks, addressing his beloved Douglas-fir seedlings. “Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over.” The best way to cure man’s “endless suicidal appetite” for growth is to hasten the inevitable suicide. From death, life will burst. It’s the foundational lesson of forest science.

Powers’s characters embrace the urgency of activism and the passivity of fatalism, but he rarely places the two forces in opposition to each other. The only character who is consumed by this kind of self-questioning is the novel’s most convincing one. Neelay Mehta, paralyzed in a childhood tree-climbing incident, becomes a Silicon Valley mogul after he creates one of the most popular computer games on the planet—a world-building enterprise that resembles SimCity. Its millions of players sit cocooned in their bedrooms, bathed in the glow of verdant pixels, creating new Earths. With time, however, the game’s exoticism fades. The virtual Earths come to resemble ours, ravaged by gluttony, overdevelopment, and rapacious, short-term profiteering.

“We have a Midas problem,” Neelay tells his indifferent project managers. “There’s no endgame, just a stagnant pyramiding scheme. Endless, pointless prosperity.” He argues for land-use regulations and consumption taxes. His project managers think he’s gone nuts. What’s the fun in limits? And why jeopardize the game’s profitability? Let the obsessed players keep building infinitely, earning ever-increasing profits. The name of the game, after all, is Mastery.

This article appears in the June 2018 print edition with the headline “Rhapsody in Green.”