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Environment > Humans

isabell.the.polyglot's picture

            The definition of the word environment is both “the surroundings in which an organism lives” and “the natural world, as a whole or in a particular geographical area” (Merriam-Webster). Through these definitions, it could be assumed that environment is a physical entity, the literal physical world that surrounds us. However, as seen in the novel All Over Creation by Ruth Ozeki, this may not necessarily be the case. Environment is merely an umbrella term for all the outside influences that can shape identity. While the usual perception of the environment is that it is there to serve us, the reality is that the environment is much larger than we can conceive. We are merely a microcosm of the environment and we have no control over it whatsoever, as our lives merely mimic the natural processes.

            Firstly, the most obvious analogy between nature and humans is monoculture. Geek explains this perfectly when he says that “engineers have decided that potatoes all have to be the same size. Diversity is inconvenient to mechanized farming” (125). In the same sense, diversity is inconvenient to an organized group of people, also known as a society. Diversity can cause conflict and makes it more difficult for people to get along. Ozeki includes an example of this by describing Yumi’s experience in her almost all-white town. Yumi felt like she “was a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes” (4). While it could be said that she benefited from being different and that it allowed her to flourish, her mixed-race background also caused a divide between her and the rest of her classmates. It seemed as though people didn’t truly understand her, which is why she was so intrigued by Elliot when he came along with his ideas of cultural appropriation and exoticism. Through Elliot, Ozeki not only allows the townspeople to be criticized for their reactions to diversity, but also highlights how even some people who are well-versed in cultural appropriation can fetishize non-white (typically Asian) women. By drawing the parallel between the standardized potatoes and the white people in Idaho, Ozeki is simultaneously criticizing monoculture in farming and in some American societies.

            Moreover, Ozeki furthers this claim by pointing out the hypocrisy in the typical American outlook on foreigners. On the topic of crops, she says:

“And while we are on the subject of Exotics, there is an idea in circulation that these so-called “aggressive” non-native plants are harmful, invasive, and will displace “native” species. How ironic to hear these theories propounded by people of European ancestry in America! Just consider this: Not a single one of the food crops that make the U.S. an agricultural power today is native to North America. Our plants are as immigrant as we are!” (67)

Once again, a parallel is drawn in which Ozeki highlights how ridiculous white Americans are for being so scared of immigrant plants and humans, when the foundation of the country was based on immigrant plants and humans. The history of plants is much like the history of humans on this continent.

However, one point on which Ozeki seems to be inadvertently contradicting herself is in her opinions on life and death in nature and in humans. On the one hand, she claims that humans are a part of these natural processes, and she argues that we should not interfere with nature in this way. She depicts the Seeds of Resistance as sympathetic characters, thus allowing us to align ourselves with the anti-GMO side of the argument. This means that we end up supporting those who don’t believe in human intervention in the natural processes. At the same time, she describes how Yumi’s abortion was the catalyst to the entire destruction of her family, but also allowed Yumi to free herself of Elliot. In a sense, Yumi had the Terminator gene (a synthetic, man-made gene) to go through with her abortion. She had the patent that “permits its owners to create a sterile seed by cleverly programming a plant’s DNA to kill its own embryos”, which is essentially what abortion is (301). She was definitely far too young and not ready enough to have a child, so she benefited from the technology that allowed her to control reproduction, much like how corporations benefit from the new Terminator technology. Earlier, Ozeki drew connections between Yumi and non-manipulated nature, yet at this point, Yumi is herself one of those who manipulate nature. 

Perhaps by describing Yumi as benefitting from both non-manipulated and manipulated nature, Ozeki is arguing that a balance must be found between environmental effects on humans and human attempts at controlling nature. The changes that humans have made on nature are perhaps irreparable, and some changes have been advantageous while others have not. The key to navigating this relationship is to realize that we are merely small actors in the much larger environment, and that we should not falsely deceive ourselves into thinking that we can completely manipulate things to our benefit without any negative consequences. 


jccohen's picture


Your second paragraph lays out some rich insights about monoculture – both for nature and for humans.  I especially like your point about how the author uses Elliott to critique mainstream society, while also showing us how Elliott himself falls into some of the same stereotypes.  The contrast between how Phoenix and Ocean fit into their new school might be another provocative example to work with.  After that you go to the point about “invasive species” and immigrants.  Note that this is Lloyd speaking.  So both he and Elliott (as you note) contain some contradictions about these questions of diversity and control…

What an intriguing point about Yumi’s abortion as a kind of human “manipulation of nature”!  I’m speculating that this may not be an “inadvertent contradiction” on Ozeki’s part, but rather that she’s a novelist and thus trying to bring forth all the contradictions and complexities (instead of making a single argument)…  what do you think? 

So you have two very interesting lines of thinking here: the analogy between nature and humans in terms of diversity vs monoculture, and the question of how much humans can/should try to “manipulate” nature.  I see that you’re trying to bring them together in that last paragraph, with the notion that Ozeki is “arguing that a balance must be found between environmental effects on humans and human attempts at controlling nature…”  I agree that she sees humans as not having as much control as we think we do, and/but do you think her novel suggests that within our human realm we could and should be making some other kinds of decisions about how we live?  I think that addressing this question could help you knit together the two parts of the essay…  And when you get clear about what you’re saying about this, I’d suggest taking that clarity back to your intro paragraph.