Flight Behavior: Climate change, poverty, and butterflies

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Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel is a beautifully written and compelling account of working people responding to the local effects of a global crisis

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Barbara Kingsolver
HarperCollins: New York, 2012

Barbara Kingsolver

reviewed by Ian Angus

Dellarobia Turnbow, the central character in Barbara Kingsolver’s beautifully written new novel, is an intelligent but poorly educated young woman living in rural Tennessee. Married at seventeen, she now has two young children, a well-meaning but dull husband, and a hard life in a part of the U.S. that comedians mock as backward and urban liberals condemn as mindlessly religious and conservative.

At one level, Flight Behavior is an insightful story of one woman’s belated coming-of-age, her efforts to cope with and perhaps escape the limits that life has imposed on her.

But Kingsolver gives us much more than that. Flight Behavior is a complex picture of the reality of poverty and class divisions in the world’s richest country, of rapidly changing social values even in the reddest of red states, and above all of the impact of climate change on the daily lives of ordinary working people.

A radical change in Dellarobia’s life is triggered by the arrival of millions of monarch butterflies in the woods above the Turnbow farm, their age-old migration patterns disrupted by drastic environmental change. This leads to another invasion – her family and community are disrupted by scientists and reporters and tourists and assorted greens who are drawn by the spectacle and mystery. She’s excited by the attention, intrigued by a brilliant scientist who sets up operations to study the monarchs, and appalled by how ignorant many of the supposedly educated outsiders are about life in her world.

In one particularly telling scene, a well-meaning environmentalist asks her to sign a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint, starting by reducing her family’s intake of red meat.

“Are you crazy? I’m trying to increase our intake of red meat.”

“Why is that?”

“Because mac and cheese only gets you so far, is why. We have lamb, we produce that on our farm. But I don’t have a freezer. I have to get it from my in-laws.”

Every point in his green lifestyle pledge is just as irrelevant. He tells her to invest in socially responsible mutual funds and stocks, take restaurant leftovers home in Tupperware, and fly less – this to a woman who can’t afford to travel or to eat in restaurants, and who will never play the stock market. Dellarobia and millions like her are not causing climate change: they are victims of forces outside their control, and a green movement that doesn’t realize that is surely doomed.

The butterflies on the mountain get massive media coverage, but the outsiders pay no attention to the destruction of human lives in the valley. The heaviest rains in memory have destroyed crops, including the hay Dellarobia’s family needs to keep their sheep alive through winter. Unprecedented floods are washing the soil away. It’s a whole new world, “different from the one that has always supported them.… a world where you could count on nothing you’d ever known or trusted.”

Butterflies can’t change the hard-wired behaviors that have kept them alive for millennia, and it’s killing them. Human beings can change the way they live: the question is whether they will.

In less accomplished hands, this might have been a preachy book, and indeed there are passages when Kingsolver must put scientific explanations into the mouths of her characters, but she never falls into the trap of writing a tract instead of a novel.

In Flight Behavior there are no noble heroes or demonic villains. No one saves or destroys the world or even tries to tell us how we might do so. It’s at once a moving story about a young woman trying to change her life, and a deeply humane account of working people responding to the local effects of the global climate crisis. It is, very simply, a joy to read.


  • So you have chosen to be vegan. That’s your decision, and I respect your right to make it.

    What I don’t respect is your holier-than-thou insistence that your lifestyle choice is a moral litmus test by which people and movements – and even book reviews! – must be judged.

    To return to the actual subject of this post … Barbara Kingsolver’s book Flight Behavior is a brilliant account of the intersection of a global crisis with the day-to-day lives of working people. These are the people who must be mobilized if we are to save the planet: we cannot do that from the outside, by requiring them to accept our preconceived judgements about them and their lives.

  • So one cannot point out the inherent cruelty in the breeding, “raising”, and slaughtering sentient beings (in this case babies) without being accused of giving a lecture akin to that of the scientist in the story (clearly implying being insensitive to someone’s -in this case fictional- circumstances)? Surely we should reject such relativism. What people describe as the necessity of exploiting animals (even by poor rural folks) is questionable and often amounts to nothing more than tradition, as is the case of my poor rural illinois family. Furthermore, stories of people relying on animal use and killing for actual sustenance is often romanticized by folks who look for justifications for their unnecessary use and killing of animals, and Kingsolver is certainly no exception.
    Note that I’m not referring to someones “carbon footprint”. This is an important issue of violating the rights of sentient individuals, the morality of which must be called into question if we are concerned about justice.
    If Kingsolver is concerned about climate change and “tiny carbon footprints”, perhaps she should write about the largest and perhaps lonest running vegan commune in the US, which happens to be in rural Tennessee.

    • Even the vegan commune you mention would be involved in the killing of some animals (e.g. pests) on a large scale. So to approach this from a moral standpoint always involves some form of double standard in the end. I’m against any cruel or degrading treatment of animals, and agree the current livestock system is hugely destructive. For a sustainable world we’d need to have far, far less livestock overall. But that’s a systemic issue, that won’t be solved by telling poor people with few choices that they are immoral. for a sensible look at meat-eating and ecology, read George Monbiot’s review of Simon Fairlie’s book Meat http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/06/meat-production-veganism-deforestation

      • I’m familiar with Monbiot’s review and I feel he is as wrong about animal exploitation as he is about nuclear power. Here is the vegan society of the UK’s response: http://www.vegansociety.com/feature-articles/Murder%20a%20benign%20extravagance.pdf
        I reject moral relativism. Given the extensive work done by biologists and ethologists demonstrating nonhuman animal (including fish) sentience, cognition, and rich emotional lives, I’m quite comfortable stating unequivocally that using other animals exclusively as means to humans ends is wrong, just as it would be to use humans exclusively as means to human ends. http://www.jonathanbalcombe.com/ http://www.literati.net/authors/marc-bekoff/
        I question the validity of your comment about vegans killing other animals on a large scale. In this current system of large scale “conventional” mono-culture agriculture, which you and I agree is unsustainable, perhaps this is true to an extent (although much less than one that incorporates animals), but veganic agriculture (systems that use no animal input- employing methods that have been used for quite some time by poor rural folks around the world who cannot afford “livestock”) offers much promise and was designed with the intention of minimizing harm to other animals in food production http://veganorganic.net/information-for-growers/von-standards/. Nonetheless, some animals will probably always be harmed in food production to some extent, but surely you see a difference between exploiting and intentionally and unnecesarily killing animals for food (or any other purpose) and unintentionally killing animals in a system of food production that is itself a way to minimize harm to animals and to avoid intentionally killing them.

        My main issue here is how folks use examples of other folks exploiting and killing other animals out of desperation and perhaps even circumstantial necessity to justify their own participation in wholly unnecessary exploitation and killing of other animals.

        Here’s a native Appalachian woman challenging the “excuses of necessary animal use” (particularly hunting) by impoverished people there:


    • Question then, Lucas: In your worldview, all animals have the same rights? Yes? Why or why not?

      • I haven’t spoken about rights theories here, but I do feel that all sentient beings should have one right, the right not to be exploited and killed for unnecessary human purposes. The reasons why I have stated below. There are different rights theories, such as that of law professor Gary Francione, who speaks of all sentient beings having the right to not be property, or the right not to be used exclusively as means to human ends.

        • Was just wondering if you make any allowance for brain size and structure and their huge effects on perception, awareness, self-consciousness, etc. FWIW, I think animal rights people almost always go way to far and adopt indefensible positions. They tend to make me think of Gordon Gekko’s steam-room remark to Bud Fox about WASPs…

          I also find your verbiage to be rather slippery, I assume because you want to have your cake and eat it, too. What, for instance, is “exclusive” use of an animal. If a horse gets to wander a field, does that mean riding it and using it to haul things is ok? Why? Have you interviewed the horses on this topic, and they say it’s fine?

          One also wonders if you folks are aware that a great many animals we “exploit” would not exist, but for our “exploitation” of them. I assume you do, but that fact seems to make no dent in your fixation on a tertiary issue.

  • sounds like a nice novel, but the reviewer’s positivist defense of proletarian ‘lamb production’ is questionable… so the only option open to turnbow and her family is to eat lambs on the one hand or mac & cheese on the other? to eat lambs is not cruel? please.

    • Thank you for unintentionally confirming that Kingsolver wasn’t making this stuff up!

      Faced with a desperately poor woman whose carbon footprint is tiny and whose way of life is being destroyed by the actions of giant corporations and politicians, you would … lecture her about the morality of her diet??

      I can’t think of a better way to ensure that working people like Dellarobia Turnbow reject environmentalism as an alien and hostile force.

      • i refer you back to the post by lucas above ^^. it is not about a ‘lecture.’ people should be able to discuss questions of morality/ethics/justice without this being construed as leninist-authoritarian diktat.

        it would seem that both you and turnbow need to educate yourselves on nutrition. eating lambs is NOT necessary for human health, even and especially for poor rural people.

      • While I think Kingsolver tries to make some delicate points about the crisis of class and ecology, you seem to conflate this precise point with a bourgeois sentimentalism: “Oh, look at the working poor. They can’t afford environmentalism. Let’s pity them. Shame on you, environmentalists. You are making everybody feel bad.”
        The narrative of the “outside environmentalism” is stacked by corporate PR machine and political cronyism—”Don’t trust them, they’re not even from your community.” “But half our community has had to leave, because they are getting cancer.” … Do you remember when a similar thing was said about syndicalists? “Those poor workers. Look how they just barely get by. Shame on those radicals who don’t even work. With their strikes and labor disputes, they will get everyone fired, beaten up, and driven out.” If you don’t recall this sort of discourse, check in with Emile Zola and Germinal.
        Of course, I hardly have to mention that there is terrible cynicism underlying this kind of sentimentalism, which sublates the voice and narrative of the poor in your own “outsider” victimizing tone.

        • No syndicalist ever told workers that they were to blame for their own poverty. They organized the oppressed to fight for their rights.

          But all too many liberal greens let capitalism off the hook by blaming working people for environmental problems — they have too many babies, they drive the wrong vehicles, they eat the wrong food, shop in the wrong stores. That’s what my review criticized.

          I definitely didn’t say the poor “can’t afford environmentalism.” On the contrary, the poor very much need an environmental movement that helps them fight for real change. What they can’t afford are lifestyle lectures that blame the victims.

          C&C has written about this frequently. For example:

          Green lifestyle choices won’t solve the climate problem

          Why ‘living simply’ isn’t the answer