Douglas Coupland takes on Generation A

Suppose you go to the market one brisk fall afternoon to get some apple pears, and there are none to be found.  Imagine craving the sweet taste of honey in your morning tea, only to find it no longer exists. Do we need to worry about these possible scenarios? Sadly, yes. Various bee experts elaborate on the questions raised throughout Douglas Coupland’s Fall 2009 release of the novel Generation A. 

What do bee experts have to add to Coupland’s novel? Well, the piece of science fiction deals with Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is a mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees abruptly disappear. This term was first applied in North America as the disappearances were on the rise. And the issues surrounding mites and CCD affecting our bees are becoming more prominent.

Coupland’s Sci-Fi Version of CCD 

So, here we are, close to nineteen years after the release of Generation X which is the tale of three undoubtedly familiar middle-aged characters whose lives are simply spent in Palm Springs, explaining their cynicism towards life, and their McJobs (a word Coupland coined himself which has been published in the Oxford English Dictionary for many years now.). Then comes Generation A, a time when bees are extinct, all fruits are hand pollinated, and the twenty-somethings are “v-logging” naked tractor rides. This fictional novel is a tale of five people hailing from Iowa, New Zealand, Paris, Sri Lanka, and Ontario. None of which are particularly interesting except for the fact that they are the chosen ones – chosen by the bees, that is. 

My first reaction was apicultural nerd sweats. My second was to ungratefully return the early release copy to its owner. That was until I began to understand the full ramifications that were generating from the very extinction of bees, and this generation, A, as Coupland calls it. The term “Generation A” comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s address to Syracuse University “Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all such tremendous favours when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago.” 

The way the book is written caters to a can’t-listen-to-a-full-album, A.D.D diagnosed generation. This is done in short stories told by the characters, as their brains fuse together to understand the reality of their situation, which is being trapped on an island off the coast of Northern British Columbia held captive by a scientist. The scientist runs dubious experiments on each individual holding them captive for months at a time. The final experiment being that they each tell one another stories. This is still a storytelling of storytelling. 

Douglas Coupland is almost a pop-culture icon in Western countries. And his one liners are quoted in teen angst MySpace ‘About Me’s,’ which is a good sign that he’s still completely relevant to the young generation. Growing up in Midwestern America, I can sadly testify that his Abercrombie and Fitch knowledge of Amber Henley’s and tunics is completely up to par. Applause to Coupland, for he once again captures the nostalgia, and attention of a young indescribable generation to come, with phrases such as “Hipsters in Cargo pants & vintage early 90’s sound garden t-shirts.” So, young adbusters haters, close your eyes and picture your future. Do you see... cargos? 

From Hipsters to Bee Genocide 

Coupland’s novel not only paints an interesting futuristic image but also brings up a fundamental problem, our honeybees. So our worry ensues – “The rate of loss isn’t close to extinction,” notes Dr. Mark Winston, a professor in apiculture and social insects at SFU. When asked why bees are becoming extinct, Dr. Winston needs to remind me that I read a science fiction novel. Yes, there are problems, but they are not to the point where we can claim extinction. Endangered? Yes, at least in some cases. “Each winter, farmers lose a third of their colonies which can lead to many ecological ramifications”.  

When asked about what CCD(Colony Collapse Disorder) is exactly, I am told that “It is a big ol’ mystery” by Stacey McLachlan, Store Manager at the Honeybee Centre in Surrey, BC. You see, much like in Coupland’s novel, the colonies of bees are just mysteriously disappearing. “It's likely a mutated virus but it could also be caused by overwork, pesticides, or genetic deficiency. Mostly, it's affecting America and Eastern Canada; BC is relatively okay with regards to CCD. We haven't heard of too many cases,” says McLachlan. When asked what the main concerns in regards to our BC bees are, she tells me: “BC beekeepers' real problem is the Varoa mite. These parasites have been plaguing the bees since the seventies, and we're running out of ways to medicate against them. As they [the bees] seem to now develop tolerance and resistance to the chemical treatments more quickly.” While this seems bad enough, Mark Winston informs me that if bees were to become extinct, “A third of our crops would be lost, which would lead to less diversity in our food.” So imagine a dinner always consisting of meat and potatoes. In Generation A, the characters long for the taste of fruit, and it is a rare occasion when one might eat a peach, but one made by hand pollination, of course. In reality, if bees were to disappear, even our Sheppard’s pie and meatloaf would be at risk because they too rely on vegetation. “We wouldn't just be out of honey, we'd lose fruits, veggies, crops…plus the food bees pollinate and feed other animals which we use for milk and meat” McLachlan added. 

Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the globe, man would only have four years of life left.”  Not to say that Einstein’s prediction is correct, but this does beg the question on whether we could even possibly recuperate? And I have to wonder what we can do to prevent the loss of our precious honeybees.  

Bee keepers, emphasis on ‘keep’ 

“The best thing we can do is to encourage more urban beekeepers; the more bees out there, the better. Many municipalities are allowing beekeeping now where there were restrictions before and encouraging apiculture in any way they can” McLachlan states. Is bee keeping our new key to sustainability? Maybe so. This makes sense if our production of food is so high at risk. New bylaws allow residents in Burnaby, Richmond, and North Vancouver to keep beehives on their properties under certain circumstances.

Coupland does a fine job of shedding light on what could be a future generation’s major problem through a fictional novel. He also made me laugh with a mocking tone towards a generation that includes my peers. For this, I give the novel three out of five little honeybees.

//Ashlyn Behrndt


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