The social and environmental ills that Bradbury so deftly draws to the fore are so clearly rooted in the vagaries of capitalism.
The 20th century undeniably bequeathed environmental catastrophe to those forced to live in the 21st. There are the big, flashy, material issues: Climate change, mass extinction, absurd levels of pollution, clear-cutting of rainforests and on and on. There are also non-physical cultural issues: The unfettered spread of an increasingly neoliberal global capitalist world order, the transition to an economy of disposability and the bifurcation in our thinking that says that distant place X over there is “wild” and this backyard spot Y right here is not. It is towards this final issue that Kate Bradbury is making her heartfelt plea that we must change in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway.
Even in the most paved-over, herbicide-promulgated backyard—“garden” in the book’s British parlance—life still continues. In such spaces, the proliferation of weeds is inevitable, as are ants, beetles and caterpillars. Weeds mean wildflowers, which bring bees and butterflies. Ants and other insects bring spiders and birds. If a garden has trees, that usually lures squirrels and chipmunks and more birds, which often bring foxes or raccoons around. This means every garden/backyard is a miniature ecosystem, with an operating food chain. When humans are engaged in wanting to save the planet, they cannot afford to divide the world into discrete zones of wilderness and civilization, where the former must be saved at all costs (usually meaning that all human activity must be purged from it) and the latter can be disregarded, paved over or polluted. It is all connected; the rain that falls on the bedecked backyards of subdivisions in Philadelphia will just as inevitably wind up in “nature” as that which falls in Glacier National Park.
This is the basic premise of the environmental ethic that Bradbury expertly demonstrates in her book, down to an impressive appendix cataloging the variety of life witnessed in her own modest inner-city back garden. However, the book’s intended audience will find this central thesis completely obvious, while it is doubtful that the book will persuade anyone not already inclined to agree with it. This shortcoming could be overcome if the book provided more than a definitive proof that every back garden is part of the global environment. But Bradbury does not offer any treatise on structural change, implying implicitly—incorrectly—that the impending environmental apocalypse is a personal issue, i.e., is something that the individual could avert or soften simply by changing their behavior. The book does not dare even utter the “C” word, even though many of the social and environmental ills that Bradbury so deftly draws to the fore are so clearly rooted in the vagaries of capitalism.
For instance, she fills several (too many) pages describing the chopping down of the buddleia bushes in her neighbor’s yard, lambasting the ignorance of the teenage boy hired to do the task, the myopia of the landlord who commissioned it and the stupidity of an entire generation that allows such things to happen without comment. But chopping down buddleia bushes to “pretty up” a back garden and make a property more lucrative on the housing market is not just a series of individual decisions: It is a structurally-determined result of capitalism and the commodification of literally everything. Bradbury assaults people and their poor choices throughout the book, but never sets her crosshairs on the much more heinous and important systems which govern such choices. In fact, she even pokes fun at the lack of refinement of the locals when she visits the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, a place where more native species live than in the south of England precisely because the local population values culturally-important habitats as something more than a commodity to be used for profit. Bradbury does not see their attitude that the bottom line is not the only thing that matters as the solution, but rather as a punchline. No book of environmental activism will make even a bumblebee-sized dent in the big scheme of things if it refuses to engage in structural critique.
One reason this is the case is because books of environmental activism that focus only on the isolated actions of individuals almost inevitably fall into the trap of making the author an enlightened savior battered by the follies of her barbarous neighbors. It is an ethos problem; by the end of The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, Bradbury-the-narrator (a distinct entity from Bradbury-the-person) is very hard to like. If the solution to environmental issues is individual behavior, then this pitfall cannot be avoided, because Bradbury has to appear more informed than others; she has to become self-righteous and self-aggrandizing, as a fundamental part of the book’s argument. Readers need to aspire to be like her. Late in the book, even her language becomes toxic and paternalistic: she narrates that “I can help you” do better regarding the environment, that her town would be better were all the gardens “all linked together, all designed as mine.” She is the answer. Bradbury does not mean for this happen and certainly does not actually believe she is some grand gardening messiah come to deliver the depraved masses to eco-nirvana, but the book increasingly reads that way, because it does not look beyond individual behavior as the solution.
In spite of the flaws of its limited argument and the fact that the only people who will read this book don’t need to, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is enjoyable and worthwhile. For those who avoid hacking down their thistles because they are crucial to the butterflies, are easily distracted by the chicanery of urban songbirds out the window or dream of building beehives in their backyard, it is essential, because Bradbury (the person, not the narrator) is a kindred spirit and gifted writer.