Posts Tagged 'books'

The Experiment

For more than a century now, the planet has been under chemical attack. At first, we directed this attack at insects, then at humans, then again at insects, and now again, by default, at humans. It was war, literally and figuratively. Now it is war of another sort, a profit-driven war against life itself.

I recently explored the intertwining of technology, industry, and metaphor in the chemical war on insects and the chemical war on humans at Jstor Daily.

And I have been reading Kristin Lawless’s Formerly Known As Food: How the Industrial Food System is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture. This an excellent place to start digging into the terrible experiment life is being subjected to, with nobody’s consent. Contrary to industry’s leading argument, there’s no “choice” involved here, not when a handful of corporations control most food brands (and, perversely, are subsidized by tax-payers) and refuse to actually tell us what is in that can, plastic wrapped package, or box.

Thousands of types of human-introduced chemicals are in our food, air, water, soil, bodies. Most have never been tested. The testing that does take place is done by the very industries trying to sell the stuff. They use methods and tests that supposedly prove that low dosages are fine — while ignoring peer reviewed experiments showing that low levels are far from harmless, especially at the crucial hormonal/endocrinological level, where tiny amounts essentially create us.

DDT was banned, but not everywhere, and it still persists in the environment, which means we carry it too, all these years later. Glyphosate has been on the market since 1974; in 2015, the WHO declared it a possible carcinogen. It’s probably an endocrine and gene-expression disrupter as well. This weed-killer is poured on the foundation of the world’s human food supply: corn, soy, wheat, oats, barley, canola, barley. GMO and non-GMO; human feed and animal feed; soy and corn are also the sources of ingredients of much processed food. It’s also used to dry crops, to hasten their harvest. We know how Trump’s monstrous pirate gang is perverting the EPA and FDA so a few people can make a killing, literally, for profit, but both agencies have long been adjuncts to industry under the bipartisan corporate system. We have no idea how much glyphosate is in the food system. And that’s just one substance — as Rachel Carson pointed out long ago, almost nobody looks at how all these many introduced substances in the environment (in us) interact with each other.

So what is all this: the explosion of obesity; the lowering of the age of puberty in females; the drop in sperm counts; formerly adult diseases arising in children; cancers exploding in younger age cohorts; attention deficit disorders and autism; the well-known brain damage and psychological distortions caused by lead poisoning?

And here’s the thing: we’re colonized by both the substances in food (sugars, sodium, bad fats, in addition to all the chemicals), which act much like addictive substances, AND advertising from day one. From before day one, actually, since the food a mother eats very much sets the pattern for the baby to come. (Lawless also explores the diminishment of our gut biota after millions of years of co-evolution, by antibiotics, the growth in C-section births, and the decline of breast feeding).

Lawless takes on a lot of topics in this urgent book. On eating, she stresses her “Whole Egg Theory,” that is food that isn’t processed or adulterated. Remember how we were supposed to give up butter and egg yolks and drink skim milk? Well, now we know those were terrible ideas. (Most aisles in the supermarket are worse than unnecessary, very much filled with terrible ideas whose only point is to make someone money.) Michael Pollan‘s mantra maybe helpful here as well: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — with food being defined as what your great grandmother ate; by this definition, the vast majority of the supermarket isn’t food. (Lawless has some excellent arguments on Pollan’s essential weaknesses.)

Of course Lawless realizes it’s not just a matter of being a “foodie,” or buying organic (a category which is itself undermined by corporate control). This is a huge issue mixing social, cultural, and political factors, notably our virtual serfdom under corporate power and the vast wealth (and health) disparity produced by it.

But consider what industry has succeeded in doing: “it has completely upended American food culture to the point where simple, unadulterated foods are un-American or elitist and foods are are processed and full of environmental chemicals are true American fare.”(They’ve been exporting this pernicious notion, too, of course.) They’ve thrown us the rope of convenience, and in our desperation, we’ve tied it around our necks.

This is a hard book to read: we’ve really dug ourselves and allowed ourselves to be stuffed into, a terrible hole.

There Were Whales

D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century is a whale of a book. He traces the… evolution (?) of whale science from the cutting room floor of factory ships by scientists who were more or less creatures of the industry, flensing their way through interesting collections of oils (which lubricated ICBMs, among other things) and data, ever so much more data, as species were hunted to the brink, to a rather sudden transformation, a re-mystification in many senses, of whales in the late 1960s.

By the 1970s, Greenpeace and other factors had made saving the whales a rallying cry, the focus of environmentalism. Weirdo-weird guy John C. Lilly, he of the dolphin “mind” and, uh, other parts, best (?) represents the transition: from Defense Department funded explorer of brain-washing and sensory-deprivation to Navy-funded (briefly) dolphin evangelist to LSD-dropping freak babbling about alien consciousness. (The Navy still exploits dolphins for war.) Lilly gave LSD to dolphins, too, by the way, but, as Burnett points out, researchers were doing to that to a lot of animals, including the two-legged kind.

The wretched International Whaling Commission, an entity of whale industry states designed to perpetuate the industry, was finally beaten to submission to a whaling moratorium (with too many exceptions) in 1982.

I started this book some time ago. Here’s what I wrote about it then. It’s a deep dive. I got out of the water for a while and only just recently returned. I’m glad I did. The last chapter is fascinating. You could do worse than just reading the conclusion, which breachs one of the great questions of history writing.

The Anthropophiles

Some animals have learned to live and even thrive alongside the greatest ecosystem engineers on the planet. In Darwin Comes To Town, Menno Schilthuizen tells some their stories. On the basis of the non-ant animals that live inside ant colonies, called myrmecophiles as a group, Schilthuizen uses the term anthropophiles for those animals that adapt to our colonies/hives, or cities. It is a thrilling story, very well told. Evolution is, after all, “the greatest show on earth” (as Richard Dawkins put it in one of his less jerky moments).

Real-time evolution. By real time, I mean observable in human life-spans. The Grants in the Galapagos, measuring finch beaks through drought and famine, are one of the paradigms of this, but Schilthuizen is on the urban beat. Of course, as he points out, cities are very much like islands, isolating and fragmenting populations into genetically separate sub-species and even species. Just consider the challenges these creatures (yes, including us!) face: heavy metals and other poisons, fast cars, light pollution, noise, junk food, stress, heat island-effects, habitat destruction.

Urban birds have learned/developed to sing so they can be heard in the urban cacophony. Urban fish can tolerate heavy metals to a much greater extent than non-urban fish. Seaside plants are spreading inland because they can tolerate roadsides sprayed with salt all winter. Urban mammals can handle a higher-fat diet. And of course you know that Rock Doves are geniuses compared to their country cousins. (The country and the city mouse are really things.)If you’re like me, a non-biologist, you probably grew up learning what Darwin thought: evolution happened over long periods. But ever since D, humans have been following things like the peppered moth; mosquitos in the London Underground; Starlings in the Americas; Cliff Swallows at their highway overpasses; Hawksbeards; Anolis lizards (there are 500 and counting species in this amazingly adaptive genus); Cichlids; Eurasian Blackbirds…

I’m only skimming the surface of this excellent book. Read it. The world is becoming increasingly urban (here in the U.S., however, our politics remain hostage to the non-urban) so this is the shape of the future. 

Three Books: Paths Not Taken

“One could be an environmentalist, or a social activist, but not both, and the recent rise of environmental justice helps underscore just how little justice has historically meant to environmentalism.”

Daegan Miller’s vital This Radical Land: The Natural History of Dissent explores the paths not taken since Henry David Thoreau mixed it all up. Thoreau is one of the founders of environmentalism, but a funny thing happened on the way to the present: we lost sight of him. “Instead of Thoreau’s multifaceted radicalism, mainstream American environmentalism has followed the lead of Theodore Roosevelt — a man dedicated to wilderness and whiteness and wealth and martial manliness and the market — the nation’s ‘eugenicist in chief'[…].”

Miller digs into the dissenting, counter-modern tradition, not to be confused with the antimodern. Things like the abolitionist settlement of African American farmers in the Adirondacks, and communards in the red woods long before the 1960s, two histories I wasn’t aware of.

The fiction that “nature” is some kind of thing outside human history erases the genocide and ethnic cleansing that depopulated the lands that became our national parks. These weapons also set the stage for the colonial settlement and exploitation of land, minerals, water, even the air. I bet most Americans still remain ignorant of the Gold Rush-sparked genocide in California.

All this is important not least because the big conservation groups are creations of capitalism. Is it any wonder they have proven themselves so impotent against climate change? Of course, they’ve done some good things, but they have also helped lock up what Miller calls a “free-ranging green imagination” into a capitalist box whose walls are closing in. For “progress,” this thing that is always supposed to be moving ahead and expanding possibilities, is quite plainly thinning out and reducing the Earth’s life systems.

Be sure to read Miller’s final chapter.
Here’s another, echoing book. Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by A.H. Deming and L. Savoy, can serve as an further opening into these themes. It’s a collection of essays exploring the question “why is there so little ‘nature writing’ by people of color?” As you can imagine, the category “nature writing” is itself interrogated by the thirty contributors. Nature was as segregated as society, and in some cases still is (take that train up to Breakneck Ridge). Poisons are still disproportionately dumped on the poor: lead in cities; pesticides on farms; toxic dumps next to black communities. The black bird watcher still has the cops called on him or is threatened more directly by the racism-twisted, who’ve been so savagely unleashed by Donald “neo-Nazis are fine people” Trump.
Let’s explore another text: Gina Crandall’s Tree Gardens: Architecture and The Forest. A study of trees used in parks and memorials, the book uses Gateway Memorial Park as one of its case studies. Maybe you’ve been there? The Gateway Arch was built on land fronting the Mississippi in St. Louis. That space was created by “urban renewal,” which James Baldwin more appropriately called “Negro removal.” The so-called “blight” was home and workplace of thousands. It was wiped clean off the map. Then the space was left abandoned as a big empty lot for a decade because WWII stymied plans for the arch. The ground-level erasure of history was complete. The ironies are bitter indeed: this ethnic cleansing was done to celebrate westward expansion. Then the construction unions building the arch and surrounding park refused to hire black workers. None of this is mentioned in the book. You may argue that this is not the book’s topic. My point here is that history must be a part of such stories.

Miller organized his history around “witness trees,” — “green, enchanted, ungovernable, wild-talking” trees rooted in living history. The trees in Gateway have entirely too shallow roots.

Go Forth This Fourth

There have been, on occasion, squawks of outrage in the comments here by people upset that I bring politics into the mix along with pretty pictures of nature. How anyone can separate the two is beyond my understanding. This is the Anthropocene: humans are geosystem engineers on an unprecedented level, transforming the planet as we breathe. We are an “infrastructure species.” And we’re reducing the number of species and thinning the number of those that survive. We’re radically changing the chemical composition of the very atmosphere! And the sea, for fuck’s sake, source of a good portion of the world’s oxygen. And we garbage everything, from heavy metals at the poles to gyres of plastic in the most remote oceans. And always, toxins in our very bodies.

Take a smaller example: a few hundred people own half the private rural land in Scotland. This land is made up of estates, long ago (well, not that long ago) cleared of the indigenous population by laws made by rulers and the force of arms backing up them up. Clearances and enclosures did similar things south of the border in England, but Scotland is particularly screwed by the relics of feudalism. These estates are maintained for the benefit of wealthy grouse and deer hunters: banksters, tax cheats, oil barons, Russian gangsters, and the other examples of the awful 1%.

Every year, “game keepers” employed by these estates illegally slaughter raptors. The Hen Harrier, for instance, is touch and go in Britain as a result. These killer-keepers believe the harriers are taking grouse; that is, they think these raptors are competition for massa’s power-given right to grouse. Yes, that’s right, the oligarchs are afraid of the competition! But then, those who fetishize competition as the only way to go about ordering our universe are talking bollocks and always have been.

I have been recommending Mike Wallace’s incredible Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919. It takes as its foundation Consolidation, the political unification of Brooklyn and Manhattan and the rest of what become the boroughs into a supercity. It was the age of consolidation. For the capitalist class also hungered for consolidation. Those who had made their piles as robber barons HATED competition. They wanted massive corporations, trusts of oligarchs if not outright monopolies. They wanted order in business and in their control of the nation. They wanted a state that took care of troublemakers for them or at least didn’t bother the private armies that did their head-breaking and killing for them.

The reason to read Wallace’s book isn’t just for the pleasures of history, however many there are; the reason to read it is as a mirror on our own time. We’ve returned to the days of yore, the new Gilded Age, of corrupt gangster-like oligarchies the world over dismantling liberal democracy in the name of their profits, property, and wealth transfers from the rest of us. That’s what “tax cuts,” corporate-written international trade deals, and outright theft amount to.

Ah, that word “liberal.” It has meant so many things. “Neoliberalism” for instance, seems to confuse a lot of people. It means a return to the classical 19th century liberalism of “free markets.” Of course, that “free market” talk was always nonsense: the reigning free market state, England, was fueled by slave sugar and slave cotton, and THEN it ensnared the economy of India to suck it dry. Neoliberalism most definitely does NOT mean a return to New Deal liberalism (which had to save capitalism from a descent into what now seems the inevitable result of unfettered capital: fascism).

“Neoliberalism claims that we are best served by maximum market freedom and minimum intervention by the state. The role of government should be confined to creating and defending markets, protecting private property and defending the realm. All other functions are better discharged by the private enterprise […] By this means, enterprise is [supposedly] liberated, rational decisions are made and citizens are freed from the dehumanizing hand of the state.” This succinct definition is from George Monbiot, in How Did We Get Into This Mess: Politics, Equality, Nature, his collection of snapshots from our collective (but mostly British in his case) neoliberal hell.

Oddly for a creed that is always going on about “freedom,” the first great neoliberal experiment after the high tax post-war era took place in Chile under a dictatorship. Thatcher and Reagan were the great tribunes of this anti-statist ideology, lavishly bankrolled by oligarchs (many of them inheritors of wealth), who also set up think tanks, university chairs, and bankrolled existing parties to defeat democracy, common wealth, public life, community, and civilization. All the parties: in the UK, Labour, and in the US, the Democrats, followed slavishly behind the Conservatives and Republicans in kowtowing to the plutocrats.

And so today we have the massive wealth disparities caused by these policies and, it follows like day following night, rapidly diminished democracy. Democrats actually get more votes in the US, but have fewer representatives; and the Supreme Court — having been returned to its horrible traditional role of defending wealth — recently ok’ed wholesale voter list purges.

Here’s an elegy for a great city, hollowed out by the bandits and their bipartisan toads.

And on top of all this, indeed, it’s apotheosis: the deranged rampages of Donald Trump leading a party that has made no bones about its yearning for authoritarianism and a fundamentalist white ethno-nationalist state in the service of corporate power.

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Tom Paine’s the only Founder worth reading today, and he’s not even one of the official ones. Who will make a musical about him? But we’ll end on Franklin, even if he might not actually have said to the lady who asked him if the boys in the backroom had come up with a monarchy or a republic: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Olof Rudbeck

Some plates from den svenska ornitologins fader. Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660-1740), sometimes Latinized as Olaus Rudbeckius junior, is considered the father of Swedish ornithology. He was also one of Linnaeus’s teachers (whence Rudbeckia). While visiting Sverige recently, I was gifted a sumptuous reprint of Rudbeck d.y.’s Svenska fâglar. It’s a wondrous tome; I’m struggling to translate bits for my own edification. The plates are usually contrasted with earlier illustrations, mostly woodcuts, done by others, as in the case of this Ruff, which certainly stands on its own.

And now, because we live where we live:

Here Be Worms

A selection of J. R. R. Tolkien’s hand-drawn dragons from The Hobbit. The ones below are from the included map. The one above, not in my 30th printing of the 1966 edition, was added as a frontispiece to later editions.The collective noun for dragons is a desolation, unless you’re referring to the Asian versions, in which case it is a charm, like goldfinches. (Yes, I’m making this part up.)We have shrunk the wyrm down to the worm, but originally it meant serpent and seems to have been interchangeable with dragon. Hence Great Worms and the Worm Ouroboros. But not the Diet of Worms.


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