Hot Time in the BioCity: On Char Miller’s “Natural Consequences”
By Peter Sebastian ChesneyJanuary 20, 2023
Natural Consequences: Intimate Essays for a Planet in Peril by Char Miller
Miller gives us 40 quick, digestible, and multidisciplinary scientific essays about the Greater Los Angeles area. He is an expert science writer and naturalist who draws fluently from biology, fire ecology, geology, hydrology, and oceanography. His knack for collapsing the disciplinary gaps that divide the social sciences is reminiscent of UCLA’s “BioCities,” a graduate seminar about plants, animals, and organic processes in urban environments. The illustrations at the start of each chapter, hand-drawn by Santa Cruz–based artist Sophie Wood Brinker, mirror the artistic style of a naturalist’s notebook.
Eco-consciousness is clearly driving science writers to take such principled stances as Miller’s against the so-far secretive practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, right here in California. Until reading this book, I had only known of this terribly polluting and reputedly earthquake-inducing process in Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. Not so — smaller oil exploration operations have been fracking the Monterey Shale deposit for years. Governor Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on new fracking permits in April 2021, but it will not go into effect until the beginning of 2024.
Miller calls for higher education institutions to fully divest from fossil fuels, but he holds a chair in the name of an oil executive. William Myron Keck, founder of Superior Oil, left his fortune to the W. M. Keck Foundation; oil money from this mid-20th-century outfit has funded medicine, astronomy, and other sciences at private universities and liberal arts colleges. I can’t help but expect Miller to extend the logic of divestment from Big Oil to a demand that his own Claremont Colleges give back the residual profits of climate catastrophe.
Should we then read Natural Consequences as greenwashing? Do Miller’s useful anecdotes and pious admonitions ultimately amount to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? The revelation of Keck patronage did lead me to rethink certain passages in the book. For instance, I revisited the chapter on a citizen-science fieldwork program that brings Los Angeles public school kids from Los Feliz to the Angeles Crest National Forest’s Tujunga Canyon for a day to remove invasive grasses. This kind of place-based learning is great pedagogy, especially for the kinetic learner. The day away from the city will cement memories of public land at the urban-rural interface in the minds of countless young Angelenos. But why is the funding for this program spent on busing volunteer child labor when it could be used to hire adult landscape workers? How does an afternoon picking weeds register for families just one or two generations removed from farm work in the Central Valley or other agricultural regions?
These concerns must not detract from Miller’s precise and repeated warnings about looming crises. More discriminate than an alarmist “ecology of fear,” this book better deserves to be called an “economy of fear.” Mike Davis would have thundered that the dams holding back megaflood waters upstream from the basin are failing; Miller specifies which ones are rated secure versus which ones need the most immediate work. As it turns out, dams with the most powerful downstream champions — let’s say the City of Los Angeles — are doing fine. It’s San Antonio Canyon, Whittier Narrows, and Prado Canyon that are at risk of becoming the next Johnstown. And suburbs like Upland, Downey, or Anaheim, downstream from the dams and catch basins, hardly have the clout to get the needed repair work pushed to the top of the priorities list. This passage thus provides an excellent illustration of the ways communities benefit from the presence of small liberal arts colleges. We hear so much about elitist professors, arrogant students, and strained town-gown relations, but Miller is doing his best to make the Claremont Colleges a voice for forgotten places. I hope his book at least helps those dams get fixed.
Colleges are fond of the liberal gesture known as the Indigenous land acknowledgment; Miller exceeds this trend by citing Tongva people by name. While Natural Consequences might have begun with vague credit to Indigenous peoples as rightful stewards of the land, Miller instead quotes the University of Utah’s Charles Sepulveda. This professor of ethnic studies uses the term Kuuyam (Tongva for “guest”), which all guests on this land should learn. It is central to an ethics of being here in a more just and less damaging way. Miller also cites the Claremont College Elder-in-Residence, the late Julia Bogany, who analogizes the rising and ebbing of the sacred in Tongva water lore to the pulsing of blood in the human circulatory system. These rearticulations of Indigenous voices register Tongva as a people of the present making substantial observations of those of us who are settlers.
Miller elaborates on this advice: Californians need to work harder at learning how to be good guests. In fact, we need to care for the land and its waters like we would care for our own bodies. On this “planet in peril,” the number of places where we will be able to flee to next, after exhausting the colonial landscape of Southern California, is shrinking.
Peter Sebastian Chesney earned his PhD in history from UCLA. He is a historical consultant and a visiting professor at Pepperdine University.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.