Kurt Hollander’s Several Ways to Die In Mexico City
Nathan C. Martin
It’s a well-known fact that, at some point in the 2000s, the number of humans living in urban areas eclipsed the number living in rural areas. Meanwhile, those machinations of industry and recreation that enable humans to exploit and enjoy natural resources leave fewer and fewer places on earth undisturbed. Philosophers such as Timothy Morton argue for abandoning the concept of “nature” altogether, in order to reach a more realistic understanding of ecology—one in which “the environment” does not stop at city limits or recede in the presence of architecture, but proceeds to encompass the messy mesh of organic and inorganic, living and nonliving, animal and vegetable and mineral and chemical realms in which everything in the world exists.
In this context, Several Ways to Die in Mexico City: An Autobiography is environmentalist literature. Refreshingly, though, Kurt Hollander’s brand of environmentalism disregards the typical hallmarks of that tradition, its bucolic ideals, and calls for grassroots organizing and, crucially, environmentalism’s focus on the more sparsely populated places on the planet. Instead of unquestioningly celebrating nature and bemoaning man’s impact on its life-giving agents, Hollander, a native New Yorker who has lived in the Mexican capital for more than two decades, examines our relationship with our surroundings through a darker prism—a paranoid stream of facts and figures, descriptions of Aztec cannibalism and cosmopolitan gut flora, reflections on his own unsentimental march toward death.
While many great environmental writings illuminate the ways in which life forms weave together in a delicate dance of existence, Hollander recognizes the ubiquitous potential for death as he picks through the tangle of elements in his daily urban environment that are conspiring to kill him. This, then, is environmental writing from a nearly post-environmentalist perspective: its urgency issues not from the fact that humans exist as part of an elaborate tapestry, but from the fact that we’ve poisoned the tapestry so much that it threatens to envelop and smother us.
Hollander’s concerns resemble those of many environmentalists—pollution, deforestation, over-exploitation of resources—and his naturalist’s sense of interconnectedness lets him move smoothly from aquifers to amoebas, conquistadors to high-fructose corn syrup. But, less commonly for the genre, he aims not to offer counsel but to map the many mortal pathways of his own environment and spread them out on the table for us to examine. The foundational chapters of Several Ways to Die are titled Air, Food, Water, and Alcohol; each is a subjective catalog of the deadly potentials of the titular substance, with particular emphasis on how human interference made them lethal. His method of spellingout one menace after another gives the text a sense of accruing weight—as they pile up, his project begins to seem absurd in its scope and attempt at inclusivity, but also ominous: just as scientific discoveries tend to bring forth as many questions as answers, Hollander’s explorations indicate that there are many more ways to die in Mexico City than a single book’s research and reckoning can uncover.
Hollander’s decision to frame the book as an autobiography, meanwhile, couches him in a tradition of narrators who leverage their own experiences to make broader points about the environment. Like Thoreau at Walden or Edward Abbey in the Utah desert, Hollander presents himself as largely alone in his book, a man grappling with the complexities of his relationship to his surroundings (particularly those aspects that led to his contracting colitis). Other humans appear most commonly as a collective, undifferentiated part of the environment—hordes stricken with degenerative diseases or scraping together pesos to buy uncontaminated water, their plights akin to those of salmon spawning in a toxic stream.
But unlike environmentalists writing on behalf of fish, the author is among the afflicted. His stakes in the situation give the discussion a tangible thrust, a gravity that texts describing horrors in faraway mountain streams lack. His matter-of-fact focus on human folly— “Great civilizations ineluctably cause widespread destruction of their environment,” he writes—brings Hollander in line with rock-star eco-activist Bill McKibben, who argues in Eaarth that it’s too late to stop global warming from altering our planet for the worse. But there remains an important difference in where the two writers stand: while McKibben tweets about climate change from a zero-impact cottage in Vermont, Hollander lives as the majority of the world’s city dwellers do, steeped in the noxious muck of a hypermetropolis.
McKibben and his contemporaries are commonly referred to as part of a green movement, fighting to save the environment. In Mexico City—or, per Several Ways to Die, “Make Sicko Shitty”—Hollander and his nineteen million neighbors see green through a din of air pollution so dense it saps colors of their intensity and casts a pallor on everything in sight. They might be thought of as part of a “gray movement”: the true avant-garde in the struggle over the environment, who fight not to save it but to save themselves from it.