Earth Day: Environmental Villains of Literature

21 Apr

readgreen

We’ve been exploring great books about people who love nature and want to protect the earth, but in any good story there’s also a villain.  It’s a cliche for any villain to say they want to destroy the world, but there are certain ones that are doing their best through environmental degradation.

Let’s take a break from the books and talk about three fictional characters that are the big bads of environmental destruction.

Serena Pemberton from Serena by Ron Rash – Serena is a cold-hearted killer.  She and her husband run a timber company in 1920s North Carolina, but let’s be honest, it’s Serena that calls the shots.  Nothing can stop her ambition to turn all the lumber in the Appalachia forests into pure profit.  One of her primary conflicts is with the real-life founders of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  In the midst of allowing her employees to work themselves literally to death harvesting logs for her lumber empire, she’s also nefariously blocking the preservation of the forest.  The book will be made into a movie this year, but all reviews suggest to avoid it.  Stick to the gothic environmental novel instead.

Saruman from The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien – If the hobbits are peace-loving, living-off-Middle Earth, nature-dwelling hippies, then Saruman is their antithesis.  He turns against the people he has sworn to protect and instead starts messing with nature by creating Uruk-hai and destroying the ents.  The scenes of underground smelting pits in the movies pretty much sums it up.  There are lots of images of the Industrial Revolution woven throughout the trilogy and Saruman is the best example of Tolkien’s criticisms of the era.

Kurtz from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Like many of our villains, Kurtz is a representative of another entity.  In this case, he represents an ivory trading company.  In any analysis of Heart of Darkness, you’ll see Kurtz bandied about as the epitomization of European imperialism.  That imperialistic bent reflects his role in the subjugation of nature as well as people.  Kurtz uses his superior technology to secure the area’s resources at the expense of the local inhabitants.

The Once-ler from The Lorax by Dr. Seuss – The poor Once-ler will always be remembered for the destruction of the Truffula trees.  To be fair, he did allow his greed to destroy a pretty Utopian place and turn it into a polluted wasteland.  Unlike the other villains, he finds redemption at the end by turning over the last of the Truffula seeds to our young protagonist.  Let’s all hope this child with no horticultural experience manages to keep this one seed alive long enough to revive a whole species of trees.  I know if the Once-ler gave it to me, the Lorax wouldn’t be returning anytime soon.

There are hundreds more titles with even worse environmental villains.  I haven’t read much Dickens, but since my images of his novels are always populated with smokestacks and street urchins, I imagine he has some worthy contenders.  I also considered Captain Ahab from Moby Dick since he was on a one-man whale killing mission, but decided his anger was too targeted at a specific whale.  Michael Crichton (the author) almost made my list for his climate change-denying ways, but I felt too much guilt at including a real human being.

Who are your favorite (or least favorite) environmental villains?

~April

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2 Responses to “Earth Day: Environmental Villains of Literature”

  1. wanderdrossel April 24, 2015 at 9:23 pm #

    Personally, I kinda wish these environmental allegories were a little more nuanced. The environmental havoc being wrecked on this planet isn’t solely caused by a handful of evil black hearted capitalist. (Although now that I think about it, the Koch brothers do sound like the bastard children of Kurtz and Serena.) A lot of the responsibility is shared by uneducated or uncaring consumers.

    • aprilinautumn April 30, 2015 at 11:52 am #

      No one wants to read about the guy who refuses to buy a Kleen Kanteen though. I think cli-fi is more effective and being “y’all are screwing up collectively”. These guys are individual villains so of course they’re going to be over the top.

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