Review: Ziya Tong’s “The Reality Bubble”

Our inability to act is sadly, once again, at the core of Ziya Tong’s The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World, an exhaustive account of what we do not see. Some of what Tong records in her powerful analysis of our collective blindness (climate change, for example) we choose not to see—or at least act upon—but others we literally cannot see because of their size. And Tong prepares us for the latter by repeatedly listing the minutia we have permitted to clutter our minds (“…the average American kid is able to recognize one thousands corporate logos but can’t name ten plants or animals native to the area in which they live.”)  That’s pretty scary for those of us who were not born with an iPhone connected to our bodies, who still read newspapers that are delivered to us and continue to get most of our information from traditional forms (printed books, for example).

For years, Tong “anchored Daily Planet, Discovery Channel’s flagship science program” and worked at other science channels, during which time she apparently read every scientific article and book she could lay her hands on.  Thus, some of what she writes about in The Reality Bubble we may already be familiar with; but with a President and a political party that have negated the value of scientific inquiry, her book takes on special urgency. This review cites some of those urgencies but also many of the absurdities that I think it’s fair to say sustain our lives—truth especially.

In the first section, “Biological Blind Spots,” Tong begins with hard facts, such as this one because of size and our sight: “95 percent of all animal species are smaller than the human thumb.” No problem understanding that but then we encounter this: “An average human body has thirty trillion human cells and about thirty-nine trillion bacteria cells,” both necessary for life and still something that probably doesn’t disturb us. But we also read, “Nestled in the beds of our pores and tucked into our eyelashes… nocturnal creatures [i.e., tiny mites], emerge each night, moving at a rate of eight to sixteen millimeters an hour, to feed and search for mates on our faces.” Reading what follows that sentence ought to make you want to scrub your face more thoroughly—perhaps in the middle of the night—but that’s not going to do much to change the cycle because “Fifty percent of life on earth is ‘invisible’ yet responsible for making the planet habitable.”

There’s a lovely passage in the book you may already be familiar with: chimpanzees greeting each other, joining hands, and then sitting down to watch a beautiful sunset. Tong’s take on this? “Indeed, we are not the only problem-solvers, not the only communicators, and not the only animals capable of love or the appreciation of beauty.” And then she continues, “But the other way of looking at the chimps’ behavior may be even more astonishing, because, though we can guess at the thoughts or emotions of our fellow primate on that hillside, the truth is their experience is completely unknowable to us. That is, even our closest evolutionary relative might see and perceive a world completely different from our own.”

Mostly, Tong wants us to stop seeing ourselves under the guise of “human exceptionalism.” That’s difficult, of course, for people who believe in “American exceptionalism.” We think we can see everything because “We have the technological lenses to see into vast distances of outer space, to see the tiniest microscopic organisms, to see right through the human body, to see the very atoms that make up the material world. But there is one fundamental thing that we do not see. When it comes to how our species survives, we are utterly blind.”

Part II, “Societal Blind Spots,” is loaded with equally startling commentary.

The beef and the pork we eat, for example, come from cows and pigs that are artificially inseminated. Hence, they have no idea what sex is. Water, as we all know, is needed in massive amounts for food production. Nestle “has calculated that if everyone on Earth ate like the average American, the planet would have run out of fresh water fifteen years ago.” Don’t even dare put pet food into the equation. Human beings are a “trash-making species,” but that’s no surprise. What might be more startling are Tong’s remarks about fish eating plastic and therefore human beings consuming plastic. Plastics, she reminds us, “can’t be digested, [but] they can’t be ingested.” And this revelation: “There is now so much plastic waste, it’s been estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean by weight than there will be fish.” Our water is filled with particles so small “to be undetectable to the human eye…. every day billions of people are eating and drinking plastic.” If we are what we drink, what does that mean?

Forget about things we don’t eat or drink, and consider appliances, for example. Home appliances (including computers and other electronic gear) total “close to 45 million metric tons of waste every year.” When we see an appliance carted off because it’s been replaced by a new one, the results are, again, largely meaningless. And “the world produces approximately three million tons of garbage every twenty-four hours. That number is expected to double by 2025. And if business continues as usual, by the end of the century it will be an unfathomable ten million metric tons of solid waste a day.” Yet no one seems to be much concerned about where we put this stuff.

Do you begin to get the picture? “Humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system of survival.”

That last remark takes us to “Civilizational Blind Spots,” the final section of Tong’s dystopian novel. Forget that; I wish it were a novel, but this is reality. Again, here we encounter distressing examples, strange juxtapositions, and crazy facts and figures. Poultry “workers urinate and defecate while standing on the [processing] line; they wear diapers to work; they restrict intake of liquids and fluids to dangerous degrees; they endure pain and discomfort,” all so they can keep their low-paying jobs and we can purchase chicken in our supermarkets for a low price. And a page later, “In 2018, billionaire Jeff Bezos made $8.96 million an hour, even while he slept.” Far as I know, he doesn’t raise poultry. Yet.

Crazy, by any standards.

Or—just to nail home our societal inequities—Tong tells us, “In England, nearly half of the country is owned by just o.o6 percent of the population,” and then she quotes Simon Fairlie, “Most of the rest of us spend half our working lives paying off the debt on a patch of land barely large enough to accommodate a dwelling and a washing line.” Bringing it back to the USA: After the 2008 financial collapse, “for every homeless person there were five empty houses.” If that isn’t insanity, I don’t know what is.

Finally, Tong turns to surveillance, citing an IBM report, in 2012, that stated “each day, the average person leaves behind a five-hundred megabyte digital footprint.” That was six years ago, so what about today? Our lives, she claims, “have become open books,” mostly because of the invisible collection of everything we do. Thus—in this most extraordinary of books—she implies a number of simple questions: Do we intend to do anything about any of these problems? Do we just continue to accept, accept, and accept?  What will we leave for our children? Our grandchildren? Future generations? Can’t it be said that most of us—other than those, perhaps, at the bottom—are complicit in the robbery of the future?

“In the grand scheme of reality, you have arrived on Earth, at the right place, at the right time, only to appear exactlyon the eve of the planetary apocalypse.”

Do something.

The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions that Shape Our World.
By Ziya Tong 
Penguin Random House, 376 pp., $26

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.