Thursday, August 6, 2009

The environmental index

Orion magazine is, I believe, unjustly neglected. I go to a number of liberal and left blogs, and I hardly ever see any recognition that one of the finest journals in America is a sort of environmentalists New Yorker. Like the New Yorker, it has nurtured certain essayists, most notably Rebecca Solnit. I pity you, reader, if you haven’t read Rebecca Solnit. High thee to google and repair your illiteracy.

In the issue before last, there was an article by biologist Sandra Steingraber entitled 3 bets.

The article has two themes. One is personal hazards. When Steingraber was an undergraduate, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. But she survived, and the cancer went into remission, and she has had thirty years to do work, marry, raise a kid – and be confronted with another test from her urologist that something was wrong.

The personal hazard made her do some research:

“I also learned that, in spite of all this evidence, the words carcinogen and environment rarely appeared in the pamphlets on cancer in my doctors’ offices and waiting rooms. Nor were these words used much in conversations I had with my various health-care providers, who were interested instead in my family medical history. I was happy enough to provide it. There is a lot of cancer in my family. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age forty-four. I have uncles with colon cancer, prostate cancer, stromal cancer. My aunt died of the same kind of bladder cancer—transitional cell carcinoma—that I had.

But here’s the punch line to my family story: I am adopted. I’m not related to my family by chromosomes. So I began to ask hard questions about the presumption that what runs in families must necessarily run in genes. I began to ask, what else do families have in common? Such as, say, drinking water wells. And when I looked at the literature on cancer among adult adoptees, I learned that, in fact, the chance of an adopted person dying of cancer is closely related to whether or not her adoptive parents had died of cancer and far less related to whether or not her biological parents had met such a fate. But you would never know that based on the questions asked on medical intake forms.
So thirty years ago, as a college undergraduate, I made a bet. I bet that my cancer diagnosis had something to do with the environment in which I lived as a child. And I think I was right about this.
As I learned years later, while researching my book Living Downstream, the county where I grew up, along the east bluff of the Illinois River, has statistically elevated cancer rates. Three dozen different industries line the river valley there, and farmers practice chemically intensive agriculture along its floodplains. Hazardous waste is imported from as far away as New Jersey, and the drinking water wells contain traces of both farm chemicals and industrial chemicals, including those with demonstrable links to . . . bladder cancer.

Bet two had to do with the hazard to Gaia.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, in the fall of 1988, when I was a graduate student in biology at the University of Michigan, I made another bet. I was working as an opinion writer at the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper there. My editor and I laid bets as to which system would collapse first—economy or ecology. I said ecology. I think I was wrong. I think we were both wrong. They seem to be crumbling simultaneously.

Her third bet is an optimistic one – a wildly optimistic long shot. And that is that the developed world can actually pull out of the shell of comfort in which it hides, a shell that is manufactured out of the future disasters to a number of species, among them homo sapiens, and do something about what they are doing. That someone – perhaps mothers who absorb the shits bodily in the system, perhaps fathers who don’t want their kids to enjoy the fabulous reconstruction of the Eocene era we are foisting upon ourselves – will stand up and say, goddamn this is too much. Someone will cast an eye over the era we are living in, the era of Gogol’s devil, the era of the evil of banality rather than the banality of evil, and get sick from the non-culture, and pass that sickness on. Until fear and dread leads to a confrontation with the artificial paradise as a whole.

To this end, she has a great suggestion.

“As part of my work, I visit a lot of college campuses. Lately, I’ve been asking students to engage in a thought exercise: Imagine that ecological metrics were as familiar to us as economic ones. Imagine ecological equivalents to the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P that reported to us every day—in newspapers, on radio, on websites, on the crawl at the bottom of TV screens, on oversized tickers in Times Square—data about the various sectors of our ecological system and how they are faring. What are the atmospheric parts per million of carbon dioxide today? Has the extinction rate become inflationary? What is the exchange rate between sea ice and fresh water? What is the national deficit of topsoil?”

That would be lovely. The ticker in Times Square that ticks off the numbers of the National Deficit: what if it ticked off the number of days until the acidification of the oceans destroyed the ability of shellfish to make shells – a point estimated to arrive between 2040 and 2050 – and we say good bye to the lobster? We are a democracy. Don’t we deserve a countdown to our Armageddon? We paid for it.

1 comment:

yoni said...

ah, but many people ARE trying to find metrics for the value of the environment, roger. the point is that these ideas of gaia, the earth, "environmentalism," are so tied up to economy, personhood and culture that they are not reducible to something that can easily be reduced. remember latour's delineation of why certain epistemologies take reign (i think it's in "drawing things together") - one is the ability to scale well. caring for the environment doesn't scale well.