Breakfast of Champions takes place on Earth, “a planet which is dying fast.” As protagonist Kilgore Trout hitchhikes across the American Midwest, he is confronted by a barrage of pollution and waste. Vonnegut refers to Earth as a “poisonous, festering cheese,” and he speaks pointedly about the depletion of the ozone layer. He claims the destruction of the planet is largely due to overpopulation and industrial pollution, which he further blames on greed, but Vonnegut’s initial argument is clear: the planet is in serious trouble. Vonnegut’s environmental message isn’t particularly optimistic or encouraging; instead, he points a finger at humankind and shows little sympathy. Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s warning to the world of the environmental state of the planet, and even though he is convinced it is too late, it serves as an environmental call to action in which he urges readers to be more mindful of their own contribution to a dying planet.
Vonnegut claims that the planet is “being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what is being manufactured is lousy, by and large.” In other words, industrialization is ruining the planet, and for no good reason. This is clear in the interactions between Kilgore and a truck driver who picks him up while hitchhiking. The driver used to enjoy hunting and fishing, but now it “breaks his heart” to see the state of marshes and meadows compared to how they must have looked just one hundred years before. “And when you think of the shit that most of the factories make—wash day products, catfood, pop—.” To the trucker, it is hardly a fair trade; the forests have been cut and the streams are all contaminated, and the only thing they have to show for it is a choice between Pepsi and Coke.
The devastating effects of man-made pollution are also clear when the Sacred Miracle Cave, a tourist attraction owned by Dwayne Hoover and his twin stepbrothers, Kyle and Lyle, begins to fill with “some sort of industrial waste which forms bubbles as tough as ping-pong balls.” The bubbles threaten to consume the Cave and ruin their business, so Kyle and Lyle open fire on them with Browning Automatic Shotguns. The bubbles “let loose a stink you wouldn’t believe,” similar to the smell of “athlete’s foot.” Vonnegut twice references athlete’s foot in relation to environmental pollution, which directly points to humans as the cause of pollution; it is an undeniably human footprint left on the environment. What’s more, the twins don’t meet the problem in the cave head on. They address only the problem of the bubbles, and then absurdly shoot at them, which only compounds the issue. Lyle and Kyle care about the cave because they profit off it—not because they care about the environment—and this reflects those in American society who refuse to confront the deeper problem of environmental damage and instead treat only the symptoms.
Furthermore, when Kilgore wades through Sugar Creek, a small patch of running water in Midland City, it is horribly polluted by the industrial waste of Barrytron, a local factory. Incidentally, the waste floating in Sugar Creek, Vonnegut writes, is the same pollution “fucking up Sacred Miracle Cave.” Manufactured products in Breakfast of Champions are often described as worthless, and they have a negative impact of the environment. Vonnegut thus implies that the cost of manufacturing laundry soap and carbonated beverages far outweighs its worth. Here, Midland City pays with the Sacred Miracle Cave and Sugar Creek, and Vonnegut emphatically implies that it is not worth it.
The people in Breakfast of Champions are aware that their planet is dying, yet they simply choose to ignore their contribution to environmental pollution. When Kilgore asks an aging coalminer how he feels about destroying the planet, he replies that he is “usually too tired to care.” His life as a poor coalminer means that he has bigger, more immediate problems than pollution. He doesn’t care about the environment because he is poor and overworked. The life of the coalminer reflects that of countless Americans—they are often too poor to worry about what environmental damage their job causes and are often just happy to have a job. They also may feel at once numbed to pollutions’ effects and powerless to stop them. Indeed, Kilgore tells the truck driver that a river over in Cleveland catches on fire yearly because it “is so polluted,” but now he laughs at pollution. Ignoring a river that spontaneously bursts into flames seems impossible, but it has become so commonplace that Kilgore has no other response. Kilgore continues, “When some tanker accidentally dumps its load in the ocean, and kills millions of birds and billions of fish, I say, ‘More power to Standard Oil,’ or whoever it was that dumped it. […] Up your ass with Mobil gas.” While Kilgore’s comment is obviously sarcastic, it is nonetheless true. Gasoline and other fossil fuels are burned without thought or concern in Breakfast of Champions, and Dwayne’s Pontiac dealership is just the tip of the automotive iceberg in Midland City. Using Kilgore as a mouthpiece, Vonnegut highlights how many people choose apathy when it comes to environmental issues, believing that they might as well continue to harm the planet since it’s so far gone.
Ultimately, Vonnegut argues that the characters in Breakfast of Champions know full well that their actions are harming the environment, but this does little to change their behavior. Thus, he maintains that they deserve their planet’s rotting condition. While Vonnegut’s call to environmental action is more commonplace in the twenty-first century, in 1971 when his book was written, it wasn’t quite as popular. Vonnegut argues that all choices have environmental consequences, and this message becomes particularly significant in modern times, where new and future generations don’t shoulder the same blame for the urgent condition of the Earth.
The Destruction of the Planet ThemeTracker
The Destruction of the Planet Quotes in Breakfast of Champions
I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there—the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes—there is a picture in this book of underpants. I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows.
I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.
I suspect that this is something most white Americans, and nonwhite Americans who imitate white Americans, should do. The things other people have put into my head, at any rate, do not fit together nicely, are often useless and ugly, are out of proportion with one another, are out of proportion with life as it really is outside my head.
The motto of Dwayne Hoover’s and Kilgore Trout’s nation was this, which meant in a language nobody spoke anymore, Out of Many, One: “E pluribus unum.”
The undippable flag was a beauty, and the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted them some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
A lot of the people on the wrecked planet were Communists. They had a theory that what was left of the planet should be shared more or less equally among all the people, who hadn’t asked to come to a wrecked planet in the first place. Meanwhile, more babies were arriving all the time—kicking and screaming, yelling for milk.
In some places people would actually try to eat mud or suck on gravel while babies were being born just a few feet away.
And so on.
[The truck driver] had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.
Then Trout made a good point, too. “Well,” he said, “I used to be a conservationist. I used to weep and wail about people shooting bald eagles with automatic shotguns from helicopters and all that, but I gave it up. There’s a river in Cleveland which is so polluted that it catches fire about once a year. That used to make me sick, but I laugh about it now. When some tanker accidently dumps its load in the ocean, and kills millions of birds and billions of fish, I say, ‘More power to Standard Oil,’ or whoever it was that dumped it.” Trout raised his arms in celebration. “‘Up your ass with Mobil gas,’” he said.
The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it. Its mountains, which had once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.
The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.