“A Sound of Thunder” explores the human relationship to ecology and the natural environment. Through the device of time travel, Bradbury is able to show the potential impact of human interference in the environment on seemingly unrelated events. In Bradbury’s world, humanity is inextricably intertwined with the environment, which human beings foolishly often influence with little care for the future. Even with precautions in place, damage is always possible. The story points to the idea that people may not realize the impact of their actions on the environment until it is too late.
Time Safari, Inc., as represented by safari leaders Mr. Travis and Lesperance, appears to have an understanding of the potentially disastrous impact of their safaris. The company has a number of safety precautions in place to avert harm to or contamination of the environment, and Travis takes care to explain the need for such care to Eckels. Precautions against altering the ecology of the past include both technological solutions and rules for safari-goers’ behavior. For example, the Machine and all its contents must be sanitized prior to the trip, and the time travelers wear special oxygen helmets to prevent them from introducing future bacteria into the past. The safari team also relies on a floating metal pathway to prevent physical contact with any plants or animals in the jungle.
Travis emphatically warns the group to stay on the path, and when asked why the path is necessary, launches into a detailed explanation of ecological dependencies, the food chain, and the possible impacts of stepping on the wrong plant or animal. He clearly understands the chain of events by which killing “an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even” could lead to “infinite billions of life forms [...] thrown into chaos and destruction.” He goes on to detail the potential impacts on human civilization, such as preventing cities or whole countries from ever being founded. This explanation underscores the idea that all life on the planet is connected, and every life form is potentially of equal significance. Humans must be good stewards of the environment in order to preserve this delicate balance upon which both the natural and the civilized world depend.
Knowing the risks, it would make more sense not to travel to the past at all. Time Safari, Inc., however, is interested primarily in making money, a detail through which Bradbury condemns short-sighted human concerns that come at the expense of the natural world. When he enters the office at the beginning of the story, Eckels hands over a check for ten thousand, a hefty sum for a brief journey. The company’s official informs him that there is an additional ten-thousand-dollar fine if he disobeys instructions. This detail suggests that a price can be put on the potentially irreversible damage to the environment. Eckels must also sign a liability waiver before the journey, ensuring that the company cannot be sued for any harm that befalls the safari guests. Clearly, Time Safari, Inc. is intent on protecting their profit margin.
Later, when Eckels goes off the path, Mr. Travis’s initial concern is for the financial impact on the company: “That ruins us! We’ll forfeit! Thousands of dollars of insurance!” Indeed, in this moment Travis also expresses what one could read as a possible motive for killing Eckels at the end of the story: “I’ll have to report to the government. They might revoke our license to travel.” With Eckels alive and expressing his horror at the changed future, it would be impossible to cover up what happened. As the company official makes clear prior to the safari, however, deaths on these hunts are extremely common. There is a distinct possibility, then, that killing Eckels is part of a plan to cover up what happened in order to stay in business. Regardless, it is clear that Time Safari, Inc. engages in business practices that threaten the balance of the natural world on a large and dramatic scale, and their employees focus on preserving their profit margin above all else.
Bradbury suggests not only the importance of protecting and respecting the environment, but the finality and irreversible nature of environmental destruction. For instance, in spite of the primary financial motive explored above, Mr. Travis does react strongly when Eckles wanders off the path. His reaction, however, is too little, too late. Having failed to prevent this error, Travis attempts to punish Eckels, but he cannot undo the environmental destruction Eckels has already caused. After considering the option of leaving Eckels behind, Travis instructs him to retrieve bullets from the dead Tyrannosaurus, leading to further unnecessary contact with past: Lesperance even protests that Travis “didn’t have to make him do that.” No one fully realizes what Eckels has done until he notes the changes in the future and finds the dead butterfly on his shoes. By this time, there truly is nothing to be done. No one responds to his pleas to “take it back” or “make it alive again.” Instead, the only thing left is retribution and/or a cover-up, which Travis sets in motion by shooting Eckels.
In “A Sound of Thunder,” Bradbury ultimately paints a picture of humanity’s partial understanding of ecology, and people’s failure to preserve the natural environment. Although Bradbury wrote in a time before the major advances of the modern environmentalist movement, his story resonates with many of the lessons of conservationists. If people meddle with the natural world, they may not know what they have done until it is far too late.
Environmentalism Quotes in A Sound of Thunder
Out of chars and ashes, out of dust and coals, like golden salamanders, the old years, the green years, might leap; roses sweeten the air, white hair turn Irish-black, wrinkles vanish all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits into hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning.
Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species. […] The stomp of your foot, on one mouse, could start an earthquake, the effects of which could shake our earth and destinies down through time, to their very foundations.
The jungle was wide and full of twitterings, rustlings, murmurs, and sighs.
Suddenly it all ceased, as if someone had shut a door.
A sound of thunder.
Out of the mist, one hundred yards away, came Tyrannosaurus rex.
“It can’t be killed.” Eckels pronounced this verdict quietly, as if there could be no argument. He had weighed the evidence and this was his considered opinion. The rifle in his hands seemed a cap gun. “We were fools to come. This is impossible.” […] Eckels, not looking back, walked blindly to the edge of the Path, his gun limp in his arms, stepped off the Path, and walked, not knowing it, in the jungle.
We can’t take a trophy back to the Future. The body has to stay right here where it would have died originally, so the insects, birds, and bacteria can get at it, as they were intended to. Everything in balance
This ruins us! We’ll forfeit! Thousands of dollars of insurance! We guarantee no one leaves the Path. He left it. Oh, the fool! I’ll have to report to the government. They might revoke our licence to travel. Who knows what he’s done to Time, to History!
Eckels felt himself fall into a chair. He fumbled crazily at the thick slime on his boots. He held up a clod of dirt, trembling. “No, it can’t be. Not a little thing like that. No!”
Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.
“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.
“Who won the presidential election yesterday?”
The man behind the desk laughed. “You joking? You know very well. Deutscher, of course! Who else? Not that fool weakling Keith. We got an iron man now, a man with guts!”
… “can’t we take it back, can’t we make it alive again? Can’t we start over? Can’t we—”
He did not move. Eyes shut, he waited, shivering. He heard Travis breathe loud in the room; he heard Travis shift his rifle, click the safety catch, and raise the weapon.
There was a sound of thunder.