The American author T. C. Boyle’s satiric dystopian novel A Friend of the Earth
(2000) takes place in a near future where global warming has disastrously affected the environment. The novel is set in two timeframes, each from the life of its militant, environmental activist protagonist. In the novel’s past, Boyle uses a third-person narrator to tell us about the man’s time at the forefront of the eco movement and the terrible price he has paid for his involvement. In the novel’s present, we hear from the protagonist himself, now that he is an elderly man whose best efforts were not enough to avoid catastrophe.
The novel’s present is the year 2025. Environmental degradation has eroded so many habitats that many animal species – and also many plant species – are extinct. The surface of the earth is ravaged by extreme winds and storms, and the weather alternates between months of overwhelming rainfall and months of drought and unbearable heat. Agriculture takes place in enclosed farms, meaning there is much less variety of food available. The Earth’s population has exploded since human life spans now regularly crest one hundred years. This has fueled the constant building of more and more housing by a timber industry that has cut down most of the old-growth forests and rainforests around the globe. At the same time, the social security system has collapsed and these long-lived old people are left to fend for themselves.
The protagonist is Tyrone O’Shaughnessy Tierwater, known as Ty. We learn about his life in the early 1990s and the years 2025-2026 in alternating chapters, but this summary will recap the events chronologically.
In 1989, Ty, who runs a rundown shopping center, is the widowed father of Sierra, whose mother died when she was three and who is now a young teen. He meets and falls in love with Andrea, a deeply committed member of the radical group “Earth Forever!” (a lightly fictionalized take on the real-life militantly environmentalist group Earth First!). At first, he is a hesitant participant, but soon Andrea’s enthusiasm influences Ty – and also Sienna – into becoming fully engaged in the movement. The trio moves to California, becoming full-fledged activists whose mission is to disrupt the timber industry’s logging efforts in the Pacific Northwest.
One of their radical protest actions involves sabotaging an ongoing logging operation by digging a huge pit in the middle of the night in the road used by the trucks. After Ty, Andrea, Sienna, and a few other people from EF! make the trench, they fill it with cement and stick their feet into the cement while it’s hardening to become human shields against the loggers. They expect trouble, media exposure, and lots of publicity and notoriety. But instead, not only does the stunt put Ty’s custody of Sienna in danger, the media entirely ignores their protest. After being mocked by the company whom they have merely slightly inconvenienced, the group is arrested.
Sienna is taken away by Child Protective Services who charge Ty with child endangerment. After she is placed in foster care, even Ty’s visitation privileges are revoked – he is not allowed to contact her in any way. Desperate, Ty begs Andrea to help him find where Sienna is. They locate her, and she escapes from foster care with them – they are now all fugitives. To protect their freedom, they stay in an isolated cabin that belongs to Philip Ratchiss, an EP! funder.
Andrea and Sierra can’t bear the boredom of the cabin, and Ty is unable to keep his rage under wraps. After he covertly sabotages nearby logging machines, Andrea convinces Ty that he must turn himself in for his daughter to be able to eventually live a normal life. Ty and Andrea stage one more public stunt before he does: they spend a month living in the wilderness without clothes or supplies, living just on their wits. A journalist accompanies them to document and verify that they are really doing what they say – after dealing with hardship and privation, they succeed. Ty achieves fame and glory just before being sentenced to a year in prison.
When Ty is released on parole, he is again unable to cope with his anger, resuming his covert sabotage activities. Meanwhile, Sienna stages another high-profile action, setting up a dwelling in an old-growth redwood tree that she inhabits for more than three years (an idea based on the real-life activist protest of Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent over a year and a half in a redwood tree encampment). Tragedy strikes – Sierra dies in an accidental fall. Ty and Andrea stop speaking for about twenty years.
In the novel’s present, in 2025, Ty is now a seventy-five-year-old groundskeeper on the sprawling Santa Barbara estate of Maclovio “Mac” Pulchris, an uber-rich pop star. Mac has spent some of his wealth preserving some of the almost-extinct species of animals, especially the ugly ones people don’t tend to like: hyenas, warthogs, lions, and a Patagonian fox named Petunia. Ty and the other caretaker, Chuy, have no choice about this job, which they both find miserable – Ty is an unemployable ex-con and Chuy is a refugee.
Out of the blue, Andrea gets in touch with Ty. April Wind, a journalist friend of hers would like to write a biography of Sienna, who is now considered an environmentalist martyr. Andrea and April move in with Ty.
The environmental situation of the world worsens, and the animals’ cages are destroyed by the constant windstorms. They are housed in the mansion’s basement, but one of the lions escapes and kills Mac. The rest of the lions are shot as a precautionary measure – an entire species is now extinct.
Mac’s children kick Ty out, and he and Andrea head back to the isolated EF! cabin where they had spent time earlier. They take Petunia the fox with them, which they pretend is a dog. The novel ends on a hopeful note that nature will find a way to return.
The novel received a generally positive reception, with Kirkus Reviews
writing, “There's a lot to like in this bold accusatory book, in a daring story that blends the contrasting extremes of Boyle's energetic sensibility in a way that bodes well for his always interesting and highly readable fiction.”