Parts per Million: A Review

Is it odd to start your review of one book by discussing another? Perhaps. But if it wasn’t for Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, I would never have read Julia Stoops’s Parts per Million. So there you go.

It’s no secret that I love Abbey’s novel about a group of environmentalist misfits who use ecotage to protect their beloved American West. In this day and age the story’s message – protect nature right now or its beauty will be lost forever – needs to be heard more urgently than ever before. So far, so good. But there are aspects of The Monkey Wrench Gang that rub me the wrong way. I’ve written about them here and I’ll talk about them there in July.

What bothers me is this. The Monkey Wrench Gang’s environmentalism relies on a problematic gender bias that promotes violent masculinity as the best possible protector of a feminized “semi-virginal landscape” (Abbey’s words, not mine). This causes the novel to maintain a traditional view of gender roles which undermines its ability to function as an effective call to arms. After all, how can you build a genuinely better future if you don’t eliminate harmful stereotypes?

Fortunately a new novel was recently brought to my attention by Forest Avenue Press. Julia Stoops’s Parts per Million updates The Monkey Wrench Gang’s environmentalist message to the present, although it would be inaccurate to classify the former as a mere retelling of the latter. Parts per Million tells the story of a group of activists trying to save the planet from their Portland-based headquarters. Sounds like The Monkey Wrench Gang, you say? Well, this is where the similarities end.

Parts per Million offers a much more fluid, and therefore much more interesting, depiction of gender roles and relationships. Jen, one of the novel’s main characters, is not a sexy accessory but a vital member of the group with specific and indispensable talents. She’s a brilliant hacker, for starters, and blatantly refuses to be pushed into a caring or motherly role based on her gender alone.

Furthermore, both novels feature Vietnam veterans, but the characters could not be more different. Unlike The Monkey Wrench Gang’s George Hayduke, Parts per Million’s Fetzer is anything but a violent alpha male. His war experiences seem to have mellowed him more than anything, and he often functions as the voice of reason when other characters are intoxicated by anger or love.

Omnia Mundi, the official name of Parts per Million’s activist collective, lives by the motto that the pen is mightier than the sword. Instead of fighting their war by blowing up bridges, the group chooses to document acts of ecotage and environmentalist protest through its radio show. This narrative choice allows for much-needed discussions about the ethics of violence, which avoid falling into the trap of presenting environmentalism as a black and white matter.

Talking about black and white, the novel also covers the racial bias that occasionally plagues environmentalism. Although all the novel’s main characters are white, their encounters with African-American activists and Iraqi refugees make them uncomfortably aware of their own privileged position. As Nancy, their African-American ally, points out: “You think when a person of color gets arrested for protesting they get out of jail the next day suffering nothing more than lost sleep and needing a shower? Think again.” An important point that’s often overlooked in real-life environmental discussions.

Parts per Million does not just offer very relevant statements about gender and race, and paints an inspiring picture of a collective trying to do good, it is also a great read. I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, as some twists caught me pleasantly by surprise, but I will say that it has a moving love story at its core, which keeps it human and relatable.

That, for me, is what makes this novel valuable. It does not offer readymade solutions to complex problems but depicts the everyday struggle that is environmentalism. It shows the practical issues that complicate Omnia Mundi’s project – money, mostly, but also deliberate acts of sabotage committed by its powerful enemies – and discusses the ethical implications of the seemingly straightforward desire to save the planet for future generations.

At no point I felt like the novel was trying to shove a message down my throat. Instead, I felt invited to consider its wealth of ideas and ask myself some difficult questions: is violence ever justified? Is environmentalism too white and too masculine? And if so, how can we fix this? I haven’t found the answers to these questions yet and doubt I will anytime soon. Meanwhile, Parts per Million offers a nuanced voice to an often polarized and oversimplified debate, along with a gripping story.

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