By Alex Kerner
In early January, Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, took office. It is not a stretch to describe Bolsanaro as a fascist, someone who pines for the days of military dictatorship and torture of leftist opponents. In addition to his desire to reverse even the most moderate of reforms enacted under the previous government and his embrace of the most radical of neoliberal economic programs, Bolsonaro has also set his sights on accelerating the exploitation of the Brazilian rainforest.
As reported in The Guardian, huge new regulatory powers have been transferred to the Agriculture Ministry, that most declare beholden to agribusiness interests. Deforestation is at the forefront of the agenda and considering how significant a sinkhole of carbon gases the rainforest plays, any further attacks on its integrity will be detrimental not only to the inhabitants of the Amazon but also the global fight against climate change.
It’s in this bleak shadow that Richard Powers’ The Overtory, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Pulitzer for Fiction, offers a powerful cri de coeur on behalf of The Trees.
The Overstory is a work of fiction structured like a tree. Powers first introduces eight characters in the first eight chapters, each representing a root of the larger structure. Each discrete story involves people in someway touched by the world of trees, pessimistic about the damage humans have ravaged upon the beautiful creatures of wood, eager in some way to save them from destruction. The second part, the trunk, brings the characters together as their stories begin to overlap and influence one another as their journeys turn to activism and challenging industries insatiable need to destroy. The third part, the cover, jumps ahead 20 years as the consequences of their actions come to fruition, before concluding with the seeds, the hopeful promise of some sort of salvation for the wonders of forests.
Powers uses beautiful prose to disclose the mysteries of the tree—from the scientific to the mystical—exploring how the trees’ own language to one another conveys not only something truly magical, but also more powerful than even the most promethean desires of capitalism. And though Powers has great sympathy for the trees (more so at times than his human subjects), he manages to convey the power of human compassion and empathy, with his subjects driven to save these creatures at great personal cost.
Although incredibly ambitious in scope and structure, this is not a perfect novel. Not all storylines work well, and shedding a couple of the more pointless characters may have led to an even more powerful work. It is also an incredibly pessimistic take, almost nihilistic in the end game Powers sees as likely. And while some of that pessimism is understandable as forces of capital and the far-right seem intent on continuing a path of destruction, a cri de coeur should also inspire those to take action, to stop the destructive path we head in.
But while there is a heavy dose of pessimism in The Overstory, Powers elsewhere evokes some hope that we can avert catastrophe if we are able to imagine a world free of capitalism’s maniacal pursuit of growth and profit. In an interview conducted after winning the Pulitzer, Powers state:
I have zero hope that our current culture of consumer individualism will survive. How could it? Its basic principles are at war with real life, and fantasy can’t defeat inexorable biological truths. There is no place for a system predicated on endless growth in a world of finite resources being infinitely recycled. Anyone who can’t conceive of a way for humans to exist other than capitalism will find herself pinned under overwhelming despair.
This anti-capitalist message has resonated, with Naomi Klein recently tweeting:
Friends, I am overwhelmed by a desire to entice you all to read Overstory by Richard Powers as soon as you possibly can. I’ve never felt such urgency about sharing a book, let alone a novel. It’s transformative and wise. Who’s in?
Climate change poses an existential threat to the species and we need all forces, including the voices of literature, to take up that fight. The Overstory tries to play its part and hopefully many can take up Klein’s challenge: read it, and be energized to stop the climate catastrophe head on by challenging the capitalist system responsible.
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