Book Review: Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle, Henry Holt, 1963

•April 11, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Introduction:

Overview of the Book’s Themes and Purpose

University of New York Professor Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle recounts, from the first-person perspective of a journalist named John [but who calls himself “Jonah”] of the end of the world and of life, as we know it by means of a substance he calls “Ice 9”. The story begins with John writing a biography of fictional physicist Felix Hoenikker, whom the book calls its fictitious “Father of the Atomic Bomb”, who invents the “Ice 9” which ultimately destroys the world in the end. The novel ends with John as the President of the fictional Caribbean Republic of San Lorenzo with the death of its Military Dictator called “Papa” Monzano, which in turn results in the release of the “Ice 9”, left by Felix Hoenikker upon his death to his three children, including his eldest son Franklin Hoenikker, the Major General of San Lorenzo.

It should be noted that the concept of Ice 9, arguably the primary antagonist of the story, is not first introduced until the twentieth Chapter, on page 46, when it is first mentioned to John by Felix Hoenniker’s Supervisor at Vonnegut’s fictitious General Forge and Foundry Company in Vonnegut’s fictional town of Ilium, New York, a man named Asa Breed.

 

Summary:

Key Points of the Chapters

Much of the book is spent as an exploration through experience of Vonnegut’s fictional religion of “Bokononism”. Most if not all of the characters and situations in Vonnegut’s book are labeled using terms from the Books of Bokonon. The Ice 9, as the novel’s antagonist, is labeled as John’s “Wampeter”, or “pivot” defined in the novels’ 24th chapter on page 52 as an object around which revolve the lives of otherwise unrelated people. Such a group of thereby related people Vonnegut identifies as a “karass”, or “team” linked in a cosmically significant manner. As such, very nearly all of the characters in Vonnegut’s novel form John’s “karass”: Breed, Felix Hoenikker and his three children, Monzano and his daughter Mona, as well as Bokonon himself, a man born by the name of Lionel Johnson who co-founded the Republic of San Lorenzo and invented both the religion of Bokononism and its terminology. The sacred scriptures of Bokononism consist of, according to the book’s 110th Chapter, no fewer than fourteen Books of Bokonon [Page 245]. The “wisdom” of Bokonon is communicated in the form of poems called “Calypsos”, of which according to the novel’s 102nd Chapter, there are no fewer than 119 [Page 227]. Bokononists practice their religion through a ritual Vonnegut calls “Boko-Maru”, defined in Chapter 73 as being “the mingling of awareness” [Page 158], and constituted by contact between the soles of the feet. Much of what the reader learns of Bokononism comes from John’s reading of a book on the subject of San Lorenzo written by the character of Phillip Castle, son of the multi-millionaire owner of Castle Sugar Corporation

In spite of John investigation into Felix Hoenikker, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb” constituting the first 35 chapters and 77 pages of Vonnegut’s novel, and the fact that the title of the biography John is writing about Hoenniker, The Day the World Ended, could very well just as easily be the title of Vonnegut’s novel itself, the August 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima itself actually plays a relatively background role; What Vonnegut’s Bokonon calls John’s “kan-kan”, or “instrument”, defined on page two as that which brings a person into those who form their “karass”. It should also be noted, in stating that Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is a novel about the end of the world, that the destruction in question, at the hands of Ice 9, does not occur until the novel’s 116th chapter on page 261, and that the novel itself only continues onward thereafter for another 11 chapters and 26 pages.

The death of San Lorenzo’s dictator “Papa” Monzano, which will in turn lead to the unleashing of the lethal life-and-world-destroying “Ice 9”, takes place in the novel’s 105th Chapter on page 235. In the 110th Chapter On Page 244, Vonnegut, through the voice of John, identifies this event as the beginning of what he calls a “pool-pah”, or “Shit Storm”. “What hope can there be for mankind when there are such men as Felix Hoenikker to give such playthings as “Ice-Nine” to such short-sighted children as almost all men and women are?” Vonnegut writes. “What can a thoughtful man hope for mankind on Earth, given the experience of the past million years?” The character of John then quotes the answer to this question given in the Fourteenth Book of Bokonon: “Nothing”.

 

Conclusion:

Evaluate the Book’s Overall Argument and Its Writing

For all of its demonization of science, scientism and scientists, whether in the form of the atomic bomb or Ice 9, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is equally unforgiving of anti-intellectualism: “She hated people who thought too much.” Vonnegut writes in of a woman John meets at General Forge and Foundry. “At that moment she struck me as an appropriate representation for almost all of mankind.” [Chapter 15, Page 33].

Two hundred pages later, Vonnegut offers an equally profound insight in his discussion of John’s forced and rushed romantic relationship and marriage with “Papa” Monzano’s daughter Mona, when he quotes one of the “Calypso” poems from the Books of Bokonon:

A lover’s a liar.

To himself he lies.

The truthful are loveless

Like oysters their eyes.” [Page 233]

Indeed, the theme of liars, lies and lying is a ubiquitous one throughout the book, which begins with the precautionary proclamation by Vonnegut that “Nothing in this book is true” [Epigraph, Page VII] and that “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” [Chapter 4, Page 5].

Vonnegut, however, embraces what he calls “foma”, “harmless untruths” intended to comfort simple souls, which Bokonon claims make a person “brave and kind and healthy and happy”. [Epigraph, Page VII]. The character of Lionel Johnson, too, like his creator Vonnegut, sees nothing wrong with such dishonesty, inventing his imaginary made-up religion in his Books of Bokonon on the thin justification that “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.” To which he replies laconically: “So be it.” [Chapter 4, Pages 5-6]. Johnson makes no secret of the fact that his religion is invented, even going so far as to refer to Bokononist cosmogony as being “foma” [Page 191].

It is from Johnson’s invention of his own religion wherefrom the novel gets its title. The character of Felix Hoenikker’s youngest son Newton points out the problem with the titular simple string trick to John thusly:

For maybe thousands of years, grownups have been waving tangles of string in their children’s faces…No wonder kid’s grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of x’s between somebody’s hands…No damn cat and no damn cradle.” [Chapter 74, Pages 165-166]

Later, Newton describes religion in a strikingly similar manner; holding his hands up and asking Castle “See the cat? See the Cradle?” [Chapter 81, Page 183]

Since he describes “karasses” as ignoring “national, institutional, occupational, familial and class boundaries” [Chapter 2, Page 2], Vonnegut reserves some of his harshest hatred for what he calls “granfalloons”, or false karasses: proud associations of human beings that are “meaningless in terms of the ways god gets things done”. Under this overarching umbrella, Vonnegut encompasses “any nation, anytime, anywhere”.

John, like his creator Vonnegut, is from Indiana, and in Chapter 42 meets other characters from Indiana; namely Hazel Crosby, the wife of a bicycle repair shop owner from Evanston Illinois, who has an unhealthy obsession with locating fellow “Hoosiers”, through which the concept of a “granfalloon” is introduced. Vonnegut describes the meaningless of such associations through the voice of Bokonon, writing that:

If you wish to study a granfalloon;

Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.” [Chapter 42, Page 92]

That is to say: saying someone is a “Hoosier” is as empty as the inside of a balloon.

The thing that puts the twist on Vonnegut’s, and in turn John’s distaste for state and national identification is their embrace of the “karass”, the members of which find their lives tangled “for no very logical reasons”, and which Vonnegut says “do god’s will without ever discovering what they are doing”. [Page 2]

Like lies, however, Vonnegut, in the voice of John, equally embraces this ignorance as well. “My god—Life!” John says to Castle. “Who can understand even one little minute of it of it?”

Don’t try.” Castle answers. “Just pretend you understand.” [Chapter 81, Page 182].

Book Review: Walker, Brett. Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, University of Washington, 2010. 352 Pages. Part II: Preface-Chapter 2, Pages X-16

•March 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

Evaluate the Book’s Overall Argument and Its Writing

In his 2010 book Toxic Archipelago, Montana State University Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies Professor Brett Walker [Ph.D., Japanese History, University of Oregon] explores hybrid spaces and causations through which human health and industrial pollution are intertwined. He describes his principal argument as being that “at a certain level, the Earth has become a gargantuan hybrid environment in which we are deeply embedded, one interlaced with complex, historically constructed ecological pathways” [Page 16] and that, as Walker writes “at certain moments in history, historical and natural drivers come together…to form what I label in this book as “hybrid causations.” [Preface, Page XIII]. His simple overriding assertion is that physical pain associated with industrial pollution emerges from intertwined ecological and technological systems. “Physical pain caused by industrial pollution is the product of toxins that navigate naturally occurring ecosystems;” Walker asserts; “And technological systems that are seamlessly intertwined and indicative of highly engineered environments.” [Page 16]

He contrasts this physical pain against its polar opposite, opining “Pleasure, while rooted in the body, often eludes out consciousness of its bodily origins and finds a comfortable spot in ordinary social practices such as eating and talking.” [Page 6]

Embracing analysis of complex causal webs offers a far more compelling explanation than an overly simplified history does.” [Preface, Page XIV] Walker writes. “They are, in effect, the product of complex hybrid causations and obey no single reductionist trajectory of reasoning or disciplinary methodology.” [Page 16]

Walker makes a compelling case for environmental toxicity as a condition of history. University of Wisconsin—Madison Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies William Cronon’s Foreword summarizes Walker’s book’s argument simply: “toxicity was an inevitable outcome of cultural innovations that viewed nature as a resource waiting to be exploited toward useful human ends.” [Foreword, Page X] Cronon writes that “what seemed like a new age of toxicity exploded into public view with the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, followed in turn by countless nuclear tests and the radioactive fallout they generated” but cautions that “Environmental toxicity was hardly limited to radiation” [Foreword, Page IX] and that “to really understand the rise of environmental toxicity one has to go much further back in time, to the dawn of the industrial era.” [Foreword, Page X]

Walker convincingly argues that humans know the nation state in a visceral way through pain. “Pain has long been part of Japan’s national experience;” Walker writes, qualifying that a “careful distinction must be made between premodern and modern…notions of sacrifice.” “Loyalty both to lords and to extended families held together Japan’s premodern state structure.” He explains. “Loyalty to the medial and early modern states was measured by the endurance of individual pain”. [Page 9] Walker enumerates that the Kyoiku ni Kansuru Chokugo [Imperial Rescript on Education] signed by 122nd Emperor of Japan Mutsuhito, or “Meji-taitei” [“Meji the Great”] on October 30, 1890 ordered subjects of the Yamato Dynasty Imperial Family of Japan to:

Offer themselves courageously to the State.”

Walker explains that in 1890 “mass sacrifices to the state would be measured in collective pain.” [Page 10] “All modern nations, including the Japanese one, require pain and acceptance of that pain from their subjects and citizenry, particularly at key historical moments. The act of interpreting and contextualizing such pain as dignified national sacrifice is critical to state legitimacy”; Walker argues; “But Pain caused by industrial pollution is less easily interpreted and contextualized as dignified and so can prove…dangerously subversive to the nation”. [Page 9] “The interpretation of pain;” Walker explains; “occurs only after it has been inflicted and so the imagined community, insofar as pain is concerned, is an attempt to make sense of the suffering that occurs in national contexts.” [Page 10]

Pain is an important part of participation in national communities, including the Japanese one.” Walker writes, arguing that it “ranks even higher than national myths and a shared language in creating Japan’s national community” because “Japanese do not have to learn in school to feel pain, as they learn shared myths and language, but they do have to learn how to interpret its meaning as a form of dignified…sacrifice on behalf of their nation.” [Page 9] “Nations are not entirely culturally determined, invented entities;” Walker argues; “The effects of ecological transformation and pollution demonstrate that people really do physiologically experience nations’ policies and priorities.” [Page 11]

Walker argues for recognition that the complex intertwined natural system. “Humans tend to recognize pain in the weapon itself that than in or on the victim’s body.” [Page 14] Walker argues. “To destroy factories or nations, or even to recognize them as weapons, as opposed to icons of modern progress, is to defy Japan’s entire modern experience…In Japan and elsewhere, therefore, the price of this recognition is simply too high and so the pain of the victims of industrial disease is transformed into a form of less-than-dignified and certainly not always empathetically shared sacrifice for the nation.” [Page 15]

 

Overview of the Book’s Themes and Purpose

According to Professor Cronon’s Foreword, Walker’s Toxic Archipelago is a story about hybrid spaces, environments simplified by engineering. “The ability of engineers to redesign productive processes so at to maximize desired outputs almost always involved simplifying those processes;” Cronon offers; “And turning a blind eye toward the biological contexts within which they took place.” [Foreword, Page XI].

Walker then contextualizes this within the history of Japan, convincingly arguing how engineered hybrid environments are inextricably woven into state-led industrialization and masterfully intertwining empathetic narratives of human pain and sacrifice at the altar of state-led industrial development. “Toxins sicken bodies because industrialization, with the id of the modern state, simplifies and…this simplification requires engineering the environment… Once environments have been simplified, toxins move through them more easily and, in effect, directly into human bodies.” The author adds. “By contrast, toxins move less easily in less simplified environments, such as naturally occurring ones.”[Page 6]

Walker states that his themes are the “ultimate causes of the colossal toxic pollution that saturates our modern landscapes and the manner in which pain caused by pollution insults our always-porous bodies” and the “relationship between pain and the nation”. [Page 5] “Pain;” Walker concludes; “Creates the cultural milieu we inhabit.” [Page 14]

Walker states that his books purpose is to assemble the web of cause and effect involving toxic agents, engineered landscapes, human and nonhuman beings, opining that “the critical moment in Japan’s environmental history is the nineteenth century, when the manner in which Japanese interacted with themselves, nonhuman organisms and the environment was transformed. With the nineteenth century came the advent of Homo Sapiens industrialis on the Japanese islands;” Walker explains. “A new breed of human utterly penetrated, engulfed and transformed…by the engineering, industrializing and poisoning of the environment in and around it.” [Page 6] “Industrial toxins that flow through engineered Earth and its technological systems;” He articulates; “Render useless academic ruminations on the differences between wilderness areas and cities, organic and inorganic, nonhuman and human, biology and technology or even nature and artifice. Industrial toxins, when finding their way into human bodies, reject such boundaries” [Page 16].

According to Walker, Humans and nonhuman species seek to thrive in hybrid environments increasingly saturated with poisonous toxins, which transcend the boundaries of human bodies. “Toxins cause pain in bodies;” Walker reiterates; “And certain kinds of pain serve as internal “biological indicators” of a poisoned landscape.” [Page 6]

Walker focuses on the complex causations of environmental crises, opining “Parsing the differences between natural and artificial agency in the creation of environmental pollution is a fool’s errand because the circumstances that produce, transform, transport and concentrate deadly toxins are usually the result of a complex mixture of agencies.” “Some agencies are naturally occurring and others are anthropogenic;” Walker continues. “Both remain relevant to understanding how industrial toxins function, sicken bodies and cause pain.” [Page 16]

Again according to Cronon’s Foreword, the lesson is that “modernity’s promise to liberate humanity from the constraints of nature was a lie, plain and simple.” Indeed, Walker himself goes onto proclaim precisely that, first quoting University of Tokyo Professor Emeritus Masao Maryuama’s 1974 book Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan:

True modernity provides individuals with autonomy by liberating them completely from nature.” [Page 7]

Walker then goes on to disagree with Muyama, writing “modernity and its technologies and engineered landscapes have not distanced us from nature, as Muyama and other theorists imagined they would.” [Page 8] “Modernity, for all its lofty promise;” Walker concludes; “is a cruel fantasy.” [Page 7]

 

Brief Summary of Key Points of the Chapters

In Chapter One: The Agency of Insects, Walker looks at how age-old Japanese predilections for keeping insects, historically and culturally mediated human relationships with an invasive beetle pest and the fly that preys upon it [“Buddhist attitudes towards insects…informed how Japanese viewed insect emergences in paddies;” Walker says; “Historically, Buddhist cosmologies constructed the notion of agrarian entomology as much as the biological sciences or applied chemistry did”], the rise of sericulture as a cash crop and the concomitant displacement of traditional grain production in areas once used to produce grain for Tokyo via the rise of monocrop mulberry plantations to feed hungry silkworms [“Here the hybrid causation in question takes the form of biotechnologies, such as certain insects;” Walker argues; “Insects such as silkworms better fit the taxonomies and categories of technology than biology”], crop failure and finally rampaging wild boars outcompeting humans for the crops that survived triggered a cascade of unintended consequences that led to a devastating famine caused by industrial agriculture in 1749. About this “wild boar famine”, Walker paraphrases University of Chicago Associate Professor of History and East Asian Languages Susan Burns’ January 1, 2003 book Before the Nation: Kokugaku and the Imagining of Community in Early Modern Japan in reiterating his assertion that:

Pain that occurred because of nationwide ecological shifts that caused large-scale starvation…witnessed during the wild boar famine provided a far more physical reminder to Japanese…of their membership in a new form of national community.” [Introduction, Page 11]

According to Professor Cronon’s Foreword, in Chapter Two: The Agency of Chemicals, Walker describes the evolution of insect pest-control technologies from the rather innocent applications of whale oil, curses and prayers to the horrific introduction of compounds based on toxic elements such as lead and arsenic during the western-oriented Mejii period and finally the massive use of synthetic pesticides such as the chemical parathion during the latter half of the twentieth century. “Before DDT was used to control insects;” Cronon explains; “It had precursors, like copper sulphate and lead arsenate, whose biological effects and long-term accumulation in the environment were hardly benign.” [Foreword, Page X]. Walker also considers the effects of insecticides, quoting Yale University Professor of Sociology Charles Perrow’s 1984 book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies:

You could stare under a microscope at a sample of the biocide parathion for weeks and never fully understand how it kills people or facilitates insect evolution…When sprayed, insecticides become part of insect bodies and alter their evolution by inducing resistance. Even more germane, these toxins become part of the paddy ecosystems that insects inhabit, leading to systemic…accidents”.

Book Review: Weinberg, Steven. “To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science”. 2015

•March 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A historian has many duties. Allow me to remind you two of which are important. The first is not to slander; the second is not to bore. I can excuse you for neglect of the first for few will read your work. I cannot, however, forgive you for neglecting the second, for I was forced to read you.”

-Francois-Marie Arouet [Francois Voltaire], French deist historian and philosopher [1694-1778]

 

Introduction: What Makes a “Good” Historian?

 

Voltaire accurately portrays the common conceptualization, in the popular press as well as within the academic and scholarly literature, of what makes history “good”. Written history must be factually accurate in very nearly every detail, but at the same time actively engaging to the reader. In the magazine Bookforum in March 2007, University of Georgia Professor of Humanities William McFeely appears to agree with Voltaire, writing that “well written” is a “cliché used for history that is readable rather than turgid”.

However, in the first decades of the 21st century, scholars such as the subject of McFeely’s review, Cornell University History Professor Aaron Sachs, and Montana State University Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies Professor Brett Walker have complicated Voltaire’s simplistic instruction to historian “not to bore” by introducing concepts such as Walker’s analytical model of “hybrid causation” and Sachs’s “unification ecology” in the spirit of the subject of the 2006 book of Sachs’ that McFeely was reviewing, Prussian geographer Alexander Von Humboldt. These new conceptual models force historians in the second decade of the 21st century to largely discard the common conceptualization of history as a simplistic sequence of chronological cause and effect. With Walker’s analytical model of “hybrid causation” especially, in which even environmental events, conventionally considered natural, have multiple causes both internal and external, anthropogenic and otherwise, any historian following the twentieth-century tradition of attributing effects [events] to their singular cause could, by such reductionism, quite easily fall into the trap of perpetrating precisely the sort of “slander” that Voltaire warned historians against in the Eighteenth century.

Though both Sachs and Walker mange marvelously in their respective works, it is not difficult to imagine how such a multiple-cause, multiple-effect model might make much more complicated the task of fulfilling Francois Voltaire’s assignment “not to bore”.

This is, it should be noted here, not entirely, if indeed at all, the fault of the historians themselves, but rather instead is easily attributable to inextricable elements of human nature: Namely, the nature of the human mind and its evolutionary origins. As Doctor Phillip Mason, also of Cornell University, explained in November 2013, at its simplest, the human brain is little more than a probability calculator. For example, if one were to step off the edge of a cliff, the probability of one’s survival is extraordinarily low. The human brain, in effect a supercomputer, calculates this probability, and thus instructs its fellow muscles to keep the body well away from cliff edges. While this provides a clear evolutionary advantage in terms of survivability to those whose brains are best at calculating such probabilities, the inevitable downside of such calculations is of course their tendency to reduce the world that surrounds us to as simple of terms as possible: in this case, to a sequence of causes and their direct effects. This is, in turn, what makes adapting the brain to such radical conceptual complications as Walkers “hybrid causation” so extremely challenging.

This raises the practice of studying and writing about history to a whole new intellectual level, as it requires historians to not only be able to themselves conceptualize events as having multiple causational correlations, but also be able to express such a seemingly counterintuitive concept as this in an easily understandable way as well to their readers, and not only just their fellow academics and historical scholars but also to the broader popular public.

All too often, especially when dealing with effects and events which are unpleasant or even abhorrent, there exists an impulse, deeply-seeded in the subconscious if not the conscious mind, which even academics are by no means entirely immune from, to try to track down a presumably singular someone or something upon which or whom to place responsibility and blame. Walker warns against this impulse, however, as in an intricately interconnected ecological ecosystem such as the one in which we live our lives, the effects or events for whom it can accurately be said a single person or thing is entirely responsible, if indeed any do even exist at all, are extraordinarily few and far between. This is how historians participating in the traditional tracing of human history from one event to the next, from cause to direct effect, easily, even unknowingly, violate Voltaire’s first prohibition “not to slander” by fallaciously misattributing events, especially if anthropological or environmental atrocities are involved, to causational agents who were, at the very least, not solely or exclusively responsible for them.

As Walker shows, however, even the act of attempting the task of locating and corralling all of the often innumerable agents involved in any event’s ancestral origins can quite easily effectively draw even the most astute academic down a proverbial rabbit hole [of the sort envisioned by English logician Lewis Carroll in 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland] of its own, and this in turn can lead to difficulties in avoiding violating Voltaire’s second prohibition “not to bore”. Making counterintuitive concepts such as effects without singular readily-identifiable causes actively engaging to readers, especially outside of academia is part of what lead Professor McFeely to note in his review the “readability” of Sachs’ magnum opus on Humboldt, as it all too often makes much written history what McFeely would most articulately identify as “turgid”, and even such an inspirational Enlightenment luminary as Voltaire would very nearly invariably find to be “boring”.

 

Thesis: Is Steven Weinberg a “good” Historian?

In his 2015 book To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, Nobel-Prize-winning Harvard University Higgins Professor of Physics Steven Weinberg writes “As is natural for an academic, when I want to learn about something, I volunteer to teach a course on the subject” [Page IX]. This statement is telling about how Weinberg approaches the writing of history. From Voltaire’s twin prohibitions, we can extrapolate that the duties of a historian and a teacher are strikingly similar. Both have the professional responsibility “not to slander” and the positivity of the reception of both depends upon their aptitude “not to bore”. Weinberg’s critique of the writing in his own field closely mirrors Professor McFeely’s criticism of “turgid” history. “Much of the writing of physicists;” Weinberg writes; “Barely reaches the level of prose.” [Chapter 1, Page 16] It is this conversational tone, which Weinberg himself describes as “irreverent”, that makes Weinberg’s book not only “readable”, as McFeely may say, but actively engaging.

Furthermore, Weinberg justifies his choice of the title for his book in a distinctly Humboldtian manner that is reminiscent of Sachs’ “unification ecology”: “I chose “Discovery” instead of “invention” to suggest that science is the way it is not so much because of various adventitious acts of invention, but because of the way nature is.” Weinberg explains; “With all its imperfections, modern science is a technique that is sufficiently well tuned to nature so that it works—it is a practice that allows us to learn reliable things about the world. In that sense, it is a technique that was waiting for people to discover it.“ [Page XI]

However, whilst fulfilling Voltaire’s requirement “not to bore”, Weinberg’s narrative frequently treads dangerously near the realm of violation of Voltaire’s second requirement “not to slander”. For example; In discussing Italian astronomer, mathematician and physicist Galileo Galilei’s summer 1610 move from Padua to Florence, leaving behind his appointment to the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Padua under the patronage of Cosimo De Medici, to whom Galileo dedicated his March 13, 1610 treatise Siderus Nuncius [Sidereal Message] and placing him at the mercy of Pope Paul V and the Inquisition under Catholic Counter-Reformation Confessor Cardinal Robert Bellarmine; Weinberg opines that “A modern University Dean might feel that this danger was a just punishment for Galileo’s evasion of teaching duties.” [Chapter 11, Page 97]. To his credit, Weinberg readily admits to this particular danger of slander, making his agenda crystal clear: “In telling this story, I will be coming close to the dangerous ground that is most carefully avoided by contemporary historians, of judging the past by the standards of the present.” Weinberg warns the reader. “Some historians of science make a shibboleth of not referring to present scientific knowledge in studying the science of the past. I will instead make a point of using present knowledge to clarify past science.” [Pages XII-XIII]

The peril Weinberg refers to here Cambridge University Regius Professor of History Sir Herbert Butterfield coined “Whig History” in his 1931 book The Whig Interpretation of History. This “Whig history” was criticized both by Butterfield and later by John Schuster of the University Wollongong in Chapter 3: The Problem of “Whig History” in the History of Science of his 1995 book The Scientific Revolution: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science. Weinberg here once more gets credit for presenting both sides of the “Whig history” debate with equal accuracy and clarity. In summarizing the case against the Whig interpretation of history, Weinberg quotes University of Wisconsin—Madison Hillsdale Professor Emeritus of History of Science David Lindberg from his 1992 book The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Context, 600 B.C.E to A.D. 1450, expressing the sentiment that:

The proper measure of a philosophical system or scientific theory is not the degree to which it anticipated modern thought, but its degree of success in treating the philosophical and scientific problems of its own day.”

To this, Weinberg expresses his own response with equal articulateness, writing, succinctly, “I don’t buy it”. And again, Weinberg’s reasoning echoes Sachs’ Humboldtian “unification ecology”: “What is important in science [I leave philosophy to others] is not the solution of some popular scientific problems of one’s own day, but understanding the world.” He says. “In the course of this work, one finds out what sort of explanations are possible and what sort of problems can lead to those explanations.”

The progress of science has been largely a matter of discovering what questions should be asked.” Weinberg adds. “This sort of judgment is indispensable if one wants to understand how science has progressed from its past to its present”. [Chapter 3, Page 24]. Indeed, in his 1931 Whig Interpretation of History Professor Butterfield writes that:

History is not the study of origins; rather it is the analysis of all the mediations by which past has turned to present”.

Alas, ultimately, it is in this respect that Weinberg comes to the defense of “Whiggish” history. “Science is now international, perhaps the most international aspect of our civilization, but the discovery of modern science happened in what we may loosely call the West.” Weinberg writes. “The West borrowed much scientific knowledge from elsewhere—geometry from Egypt, astronomic data from Babylon, the techniques of arithmetic from Babylon and India, the magnetic compass from China, and so on—but as far as I know, it did not import the methods of modern science.” [Page XII].

Again to his credit, Weinberg goes to great lengths to give credit where credit is due, especially when it comes to arithmetic and mathematics. “The Babylonians had achieved great competence in arithmetic, using a number system based on 60 rather than 10.“ Weinberg appraises. “They had also developed some simple techniques of algebra, such as rules [though these were not expressed in symbols] for solving various quadratic equations.” [Chapter 2: Music and Mathematics, Page 17]. In discussing Plato’s student, Fourth Century BCE Greek astronomer and mathematician Eudoxus of Cnidus, Weinberg writes that “he is credited with solving a great number of difficult mathematical problems, such as showing that the volume of a cone is one-third the volume of the cylinder with the same base and height [I have no idea how Eudoxus could have done this without Calculus]. But his greatest contribution to mathematics was the introduction of a rigorous style, in which theorems are deduced from clearly stated axioms.”

He goes on to identify this as being by no means small praise by effusively singing the praises of arithmetic and mathematics. “Mathematics is the means by which we deduce the consequences of physical principles.” Weinberg states. “More than that, it is the indispensable language in which the principles of physical science are expressed.” “The distinction between mathematics and Science is pretty well settled.” Weinberg concludes. “It remains mysterious to us why mathematics that is invented for reasons having nothing to do with nature often turns out to be useful in physical theories.” Weinberg quotes the May 11, 1959 lecture by University of Munster Professor of Mathematics Richard Courant at New York University, published by Weinberg’s fellow Nobel Prize-Winning physicist Eugene Wigner of Princeton University in the February 1960 Volume 13, Issue 1 of the New York University Courant Institute of Mathematical Science’s peer-reviewed scientific journal Communications on Pure and Applied Mathematics: “In a famous article, the physicist Eugene Wigner has written of The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics.” [Chapter 2: Music and Mathematics, Page 19].

This he contrasts against science, writing, “Scientific theories cannot be deduced by purely mathematical reasoning. Science and technology benefit each other, but at it’s most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason.” [Page XIII]. What may be Weinberg’s most telling statement in terms of his outlook on science is when he writes that “Nothing about the practice of modern science is obvious to someone who has never seen it done.” [Chapter 3, Page 25]. “I want to show how difficult was the discovery of modern science, how far from obvious are its practices and standards.” Weinberg explains. “This also serves as a warning, that science may not yet be in its final form.” [Page XII]

Furthermore, in Weinberg’s defense, he largely steers well clear of ascribing any arbitrary value judgments upon the past as opposed to the present, going out of his way to emphasize the differences between the two. “Again and again in preparing the lectures for my courses I have been impressed with how different the work of science in past centuries was from the science of my own times.” Weinberg writes, quoting British novelist Leslie Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go Between, writing that:

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

[This sentiment was echoed even more strongly by astrophysicist and cosmologist Neil Degrasse Tyson in the May 4, 2014 Episode 9: The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth of his Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey in which Tyson says that “The past is another planet—so is the future… Actually, many… But most of us don’t really know this one.”]

Weinberg makes clear repeatedly that he does not regard the people of the past as being inferior, but merely fundamentally and substantially different in how they approached the world. “My focus in this book;” Weinberg writes; “Is how we came to learn how to learn about the world.” And in Weinberg’s eyes, that is exactly what Ancient and Classical philosophers did: they “learned how to learn”.

Weinberg begins with the Ancient Greek philosophers, from the pre-Socratic seventh-century BCE astronomer and mathematician Thales of Miletus through Classical Greek philosopher Plato. Here he draws what is his clearest differentiation between past philosophy and the science of the present. “There is an important feature of modern science that is almost completely missing in all the thinkers I have mentioned, from Thales to Plato: none of them attempted to verify or even (aside from perhaps [Fifth Century BCE Pre-Socratic Philosopher Zeno of Velia]) seriously to justify their speculations.” [Chapter 3, Page 15] Weinberg summarizes, opining, “The Early Greeks had very little in common with today’s physicists. Their theories had no bite…It seems to me that to understand these early Greeks, it is better to think of them not as physicists or scientists or even philosophers, but as poets…I have in mind here poetry in a broader sense: language chosen for aesthetic effect, rather than in an attempt to say clearly what one actually believes to be true.” [Chapter 1: Matter and Poetry, Page 16].

To be perfectly fair, Weinberg makes his critique of this philosophical “poetry” as being “science” quite clear, even going so far as to include a certain measure of what could be interpreted as sardonic self-deprecation. “We simply do not find anything in the laws of nature that in any way corresponds to ideas of goodness, justice, love or strife.” [Chapter 5, Page 32] Weinberg gripes: “Whatever the final laws of nature may be, there is no reason to suppose that they are designed to make physicists happy.” [Chapter 11, Page 90]

So on the question of whether or not Weinberg altogether avoids violating Voltaire’s prohibition “not to slander”, Weinberg makes what is perhaps the most earnest effort such a Whiggish historian conceivably could towards avoiding denigrating the thinkers of antiquity altogether undeservedly or unnecessarily.

However, what is readily evident throughout Weinberg’s work is his steadfast dedication to adhering to the responsibility proscribed to him and to historians by Voltaire “not to bore”. And at this his iconoclastic, self-described “irreverent” narrative perseveres and ultimately succeeds in spades.

 

Conclusion:

So is Steven Weinberg a “good” historian?

Whether Weinberg, before writing To Explain the World in 2015 had read Walker’s 2010 book Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, in which Walker coins his analytical model of “hybrid causation”, or not is unknown.

Nevertheless, the spirit of historical events having not one causational correlation but many is deftly disguised in Weinberg’s nuanced view of past philosophical “poetry” as being “clarified” by modern science, rather than the philosophers themselves being unjustly judged upon contemporary knowledge; such as when he writes of English astronomer, mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.” [Calling to mind d’Overbroeck’s College—Oxford chemistry professor Michael White’s 1999 biographical book Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer].

It is not unreasonable, therefore, to conclude that the hostility and vitriol shown toward Weinberg’s “Whiggishness”, such as in Weinberg’s colleague, Harvard University Franklin Ford Research Professor of the History of Science Steven Shapin’s February 13, 2015 Wall Street Journal review entitled Why Scientists Shouldn’t Write History is not entirely deserved. Schuster’s critiques of “Whiggish” history in his book on The Scientific Revolution are not devoid of merit. Neither, however, is Weinberg’s compelling and engaging full-throated defense of it. Weinberg does himself credit by preempting unqualified outside critiques of his Whiggish work in its Preface, forewarning in the very first page’s first paragraph “I am a physicist, not a historian.” [Page IX].

So the conclusion to this review would be that, for a physicist, Weinberg’s iconoclastically, irreverently and unabashedly Whiggish history of modern science performs at least one of its Voltairian duties very well indeed, if occasionally not so much the other. The answer to the question of whether Weinberg is himself a “good” historian is obvious, as it is given by Weinberg himself in his own words right from the get-go: He is, admittedly, not a historian at all.

Book Review: Walker, Brett. “Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan”, University of Washington, 2010. 352 Pages. Part I: Chapters 1-4, Pages 38-228

•March 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

In his 2010 book “Toxic Archipelago”, winner of the 2011 George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history, Montana State University Department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies Professor Brett Walker [M.A., East Asian History, Portland State University; Ph.D., Japanese History, University of Oregon], the leading practitioner of the environmental history of Japan, explores the hybrid spaces and causations through which human health and industrial pollution are intertwined in the “longue duree” of Japanese industrial and environmental history, documenting how cultural practices, social institutions and biochemical pathways have intertwined with the toxic byproducts of modern industry to produce devastating pollution incidents and arguing for a nature-centered societal development that recognizes that human societies are part of the complex, intertwined natural system, his simple overriding assertion being that physical pain associated with industrial pollution emerges from intertwined ecological and technological systems.

By focusing on the complex causations of environmental crises and tracing multiple paths of causation, Walker avoids pinning the blame for Japan’s toxic, engineered environment on any one historical actor.

Toxic Archipelago is a story about hybrid spaces; environments simplified by engineering and the channels for contamination along routes unforeseen by the engineers who made them, where humans and nonhuman species seek to thrive in a milieu that is increasingly saturated with the poisonous byproducts of industrial society. These hybrid environments are conduits through which toxins transcend the boundaries of human bodies.

To assemble the web of cause and effect involving toxic agents, engineered landscapes, human being and nonhuman beings, Walker develops his own analytical model, which he names “hybrid causation”. Walker mentions that his model of hybrid causation is “reminiscent of actor-network theory, where nature is viewed as an actor in hybrid environments and social networks” [Walker, Page 228]. These “co-evolutionary processes between people and their bugs” [Walker, Page 38] carry the human partners along a path with both light and dark sides.

In Chapter One: “The Agency of Insects”, Walker looks at famine and outbreaks of encephalitis caused by industrial agriculture and details how historically and culturally mediated human relationships with an invasive beetle pest, the fly that preys upon it, silkworms and mosquitoes all triggered cascades of unintended consequences that fundamentally altered “nature” on the archipelago, along with humans’ place in it by tracing age old Japanese cultural predilections for keeping insects, the rise in sericulture as a cash crop, the concomitant rise in mulberry plantations to feed hungry silkworms in areas once used to produce grain for Tokyo, displacement of traditional grain production to monocrop plantations in northern Hachinohe and finally crop failure and rampaging wild boars that outcompeted humans for the crops that survived, leading to a devastating famine in Hachinohe in 1749.

In Chapter Two: “The Agency of Chemicals”, Walker considers the effects of insecticides and describes the evolution of insect pest-control technologies in Japan since the 1700’s: from the rather innocent application of whale oil, curses and prayers used during the Edo period and Tokugawa period to the horrific introduction of compounds based on toxic elements such as lead and arsenic during the Western-oriented Meji period and finally the massive use of synthetic organic pesticides such as the chemical parathion during the latter half of the twentieth century.

In Chapter Three: ”Copper Mining and Ecological Collapse”, Walker explores how the Ashio mine complex was embedded not only in regional and global geopolitics as early as the 17th century, but also in the rice paddies downstream that were watered by the adjacent Watarase River watershed and the human and nonhuman communities connected to those paddies. In the pages devoted to the devastating pollution caused by the Ashio copper mine, Walker’s section on the famously outspoken local politician, diet member and proto-conservationist Tanaka Shozo is marvelous and offers not only a brilliant synthesis of his leadership and mobilization of farmers but also a strong portrait of his pioneering ecological vision, “predating the thinking like a mountain conservationism of Aldo Leopold by decades” [Walker, Page 106].

In Chapter Four: “Engineering Pain in the Jinzu River Basin”, we are asked to think about what it must have been like for the farmers in Toyama Prefecture who unwittingly poisoned themselves by irrigating their rice fields with the water from the cadmium-polluted Jinzu River:

Where are the lines that separate miners deep in the bowels of the Earth, high-tech smelters on the surface, atmospheric and hydrologic currents, oxidation processes, carefully tended rice paddies, human and nonhuman stomachs and the bone and liver disorders that killed hundreds of farmers when arsenic, cadmium and sulfuric acid crippled their already malnourished bodies?” [Walker, Page 91]

Tailings of rock from the Kamioka lead and zinc mines deposited at the surface got washed into the river, weathering processes chemically transformed the cadmium into a bioavailable form, one that could be incorporated into the bodies of living organisms, allowing toxic cadmium in the tailings to make its way into adjacent rice paddies and from there into the kitchens and bellies of miners, their families and nearby residents.

He concludes his book by arguing how even those who argue for a stronger coupling between environmental protection and economic activities in the form of ecological modernization have failed to capture in their thinking the natural systems that humans are a part of. Walker’s close studies of the “co-evolutionary partnerships between people and their bugs” [p. 38] allow him to make a compelling case for environmental toxicity as a condition of history through life way assemblages, which forge hybrid causations, and he convincingly argues that understanding how engineered, hybrid environments are inextricably woven into state-led industrialization and militarization is key to comprehending how human know in a visceral way the nation state through pain.

Walker’s study adds an important new ecological dimension to our understanding of Japan’s modernization. He is calling for a greater sensitivity to the natural ecological order and the place of humans within it and is very good at highlighting science and ecology as culture and history.

Walker excels at analyzing the complex interactions between chemical and biological factors, humans and nonhumans. The author masterfully intertwines empathetic narratives of human pain and sacrifice at the altar of state-led industrial development with examinations of the biochemical, physiological and socioeconomic pathways of industrial disease.

Book Review: Sachs, Aaron. The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century and the Roots of American Environmentalism. Viking Penguin. August 2006. Part Four: “North: George Wallace Melville and John Muir”. Chapters 8-10, Pages 273-353

•March 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Overview of the Book’s Themes and Purpose

Presumably the purpose is the same as in Part One: to “overthrow white Anglo-Saxon dominance, capitalism and imperialism” [Worster, 2006]. Whether Sachs ultimately accomplishes this must be deferred to more expert reviewers than this one to decide.

The theme is presumably the same as Part One as well: that “American history of the 19th century is dominated by the civil War, the expansion to the Pacific and the push to industrialization” [Publishers Weekly] and “the course of the American empire [Summers, 2006] was many-sided and intensely contested, rather than monolithic and preordained” [Sachs, 2006, Page 18].

The Humboldt Current springs from the Ph.D. doctoral Thesis of the same title written by Sachs at Yale University at Yale University in 2004.

 

Brief Summary of Key Points of the Chapters

As the subtitle of Part Four suggests, the Chapters are divided between Sachs’s two primary subjects: Rear Admiral George Wallace Melville [in Chapter 8] and famous American conservationist John Muir [in Chapter 9]. Chapter 10: “The Grounding of American Environmentalism” is by far the shortest chapter of Sachs’ book at just 17 pages and, much like Chapter One, appears to be primarily focused around the first-person personal narrative of Sachs himself. Just as Chapter One fed off of the book’s Prologue, so too does Chapter Ten appear to feed fairly directly into the book’s Epilogue: “Humboldt on Chimborazo”, beginning on Page 355.

Chapter 8: In the Lena Delta: Arctic Tragedy and American Imperialism” begins with the voyage of the USS Jeannette under Commander George Washington De Long in 1879, twenty years after the death of Alexander Humboldt. Sachs ends Chapter 8 on pages 300-304 with a lengthy description of the 1905 portrait by Thomas Eakins of Admiral Melville, an engineer aboard the Jeannette. In between, Sachs recounts the sinking of the Jeanette on page 276-279 and 289-292 and Melville’s remembrances of his shipmates on page 292-296. The title of the chapter, “In the Lena Delta”, is that of the 1884 book written by Melville about De Long and the Jeanette, as well as the hardships experienced by the crew and his shipmates.

Sachs begins Chapter 9: “The Cruise of the Corwin” on Page 307 with an article in the November 1875 Volume 51 Issue 306 Harpers Magazine by Muir on California glaciers. Later on Page 309, Sachs cites another article by Muir, in the September 1877 Volume 55 Issue 328 of Harpers Magazine, on Black Butte [also called Muir’s Peak] of the active volcano Mount Shasta in California’s Cascade Range. Sachs ends Chapter Nine on page 331 with the death of John Muir on Christmas Eve in 1914. As with Chapter Eight, the title of Chapter Nine, too, is the title of a book, written by Muir but published posthumously in 1917. Like Muir’s book, Sachs’ chapter concerns a voyage by the USS Thomas Corwin in search of the Jeanette. Sachs begins Chapter Nine on page 305 and 311 with the Corwin’s departure from San Francisco on May 4, 1881.

 

Evaluate the Book’s Overall Argument and Its Writing

As a writer oneself, it is difficult for one to describe the writing in Sachs’ book as anything better than “Well-written”: a “cliché used for history that is readable rather than turgid” [McFeely, 2007].

Upon reaching the end of Chapter Ten, however, it is difficult for one to find a way not to agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment oft-expressed by classmates that, as fascinating as detailed tangents are, Sachs could have and should have condensed and shortened his work. The book’s chapters average out at nearly thirty-two pages per chapter. Nearly as many, 29 pages are spent on Sachs’ self-described “Excursions”, which while not technically speaking chapters in the strictest sense of the term nevertheless average out at nearly six pages apiece. If each chapter could be consolidated down to even the length of the shortest among them: chapter Ten at seventeen pages; the book’s 345-page length could have easily been reduced by more than half with even a couple of pages to spare.

Sachs’ argument, especially in Chapter Nine, appears to be that modern-day environmentalism models itself too much on Muir conservationism later in his life and not enough on his earlier Humboldtian writings such as in his Cruise of the Corwin. Sachs seems to argue, quite convincingly, that environmentalism could benefit from Humboldtian unification universalism.

Book Review: Sachs, Aaron. “The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century and the Roots of American Environmentalism”. Viking Penguin. August 2006. Part I: East: Humboldt and the Influence of Europe. Chapters 2-3, Pages 41-108

•March 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Overview of the Book’s Themes and Purpose

In his September 1, 2006 review “Environmentalism for Outsiders” for the literary magazine American Scholar, University of Kansas Professor of American History Donald Worster writes that the “agenda” of Cornell University History Professor Aaron Sachs in writing his 2006 book The Humboldt Current is to “overthrow white Anglo-Saxon dominance, capitalism and imperialism”. In his review in the Summer 2006 Volume 34 Issue 4 of History: Reviews of New Books, University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point Department of History Associate Professor Gregory Summers writes that Sachs “argues persuasively that the course of the American empire was “many sided and intensely contested” [Sachs, Page 18], even by those whose explorations led the way.” [In the passage in question, in Chapter 1: The Chain of Connection Sachs writes about “the extent to which the “current objectives” of nineteenth –century American society might have been many-sided and intensely contested, rather than monolithic and preordained.” “American history of the 19th century is dominated by the Civil War, the expansion to the Pacific and the push to industrialization;” adds Publishers Weekly; “But it is worth recalling the prominent interest in natural history in the U.S.”

 

 

Brief Summary of the Key Points of the Chapters

Sachs opens Part I of his book at the beginning of Chapter 2: Personal Narrative of a Journey: Radical Romanticism on Page 42 with the then-32-year-old eponymous titular Prussian geographer Alexander Von Humboldt on his stomach on the edge of the caldera of active stratovolcano Rucu Pichincha near the Ecuadorian capital city of Quito in January 1802. Sachs closes Part I at the end of Chapter 3: Cosmos: Unification Ecology on page 105 with Humboldt’s death in Berlin on May 6, 1859 at the age of 89. In between, Chapter 1 ends on page 72 with Humboldt in Kazakhstan on his sixtieth birthday on September 14, 1829.

As such, Part I of Sachs’ book is written in approximately chronological order, with chapter two being named after Humboldt’s 1814 Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent and chapter three being named after Humboldt’s 1845 treatise Kosmos. There are exceptions to this, however, such as when on pages 59-60, when Sachs backtracks in time to Humboldt’s voyage to Venezuela in 1799-1800. Sachs also begins Chapter 3 on pages 73-75 with a lengthy discussion of the lifetime of 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, ending on page 77 with a brief anecdote about Sachs’ own experience teaching ecology at a community college in the 1990’s.

As with Emerson, much of Part I of Sachs’ book is dedicated to the people for whom Humboldt served as inspiration, such as on pages 98-10 with his detailed discussion of 19th century American painter Frederic Church’s 1859 landscape The Heart of the Andes. On pages 97-98, Sachs follows up his story about Emerson with a discussion of Emerson’s contemporary, 19th century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

 

Evaluate the Book’s Overall Argument and Its Writing

In his March 2007 review for the magazine Bookforum, former University of Georgia Professor of the Humanities William McFeely writes that “Well-written”, the cliché used for history that is readable rather than turgid, won’t do for this luminous work.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson is famous, among many other reasons, as a renowned figure in Unitarian Universalism. In Part 1 Chapters 2-3 of his book, Sachs’ primary argument appears to be that the ideology of Unitarian Universalism, as well as that of 21st century ecology: namely, that of an interconnectedness between the Earth and all life, owes much to the contributions of Humboldt, as is strongly suggested by the subtitle to Chapter 3: “Unification Ecology”.

Book Analysis: “The World Without Us”, by Alan Weisman, July 2007

•December 17, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Introduction:

 

I remember Paul Cibaric, my Advanced Placement European History teacher at Stevens Point Area Senior High School announcing on the first day of class: “The answer to every question in this course will be “Greed”.” This, I believe, epitomizes better than any other single anecdote the primary reason why I have always found the subject of Sociology so baffling and challenging to grasp. As far back as I can remember, I have always seen the world from what theoretical astrophysicist Doctor Neil Degrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space famously refers to as “the cosmic perspective”.

The known recorded history of human civilization dates back only a few millennia, but even the lifespan of a species as relatively new and young as our own can be measured on the scale of tens of thousands of years. And from this perspective, much is not most of what the social science of sociology studies, the majority of which is concerned very nearly to the exclusion of all else with the interrelationships and resulting sociocultural problems of the world as it is today, has the tendency to seem somewhat superficial to say the least. This can be attributed in no small part to the fact that much if not a majority of the science underpinning sociology is, consciously or not, social psychology: the study of not only how people interact with one another but each individual person’s conscious, subconscious and unconscious motivations for interacting with others in the way that they do. This is where the shallowness and superficiality inherent in the study of sociocultural interaction comes from, since as Cibaric said so many years ago, people’s motivations for behaving the way that they do can all to often be succinctly boiled down to one word: “Greed”, by far and away the pettiest of all human impulses.

 

Problem:

 

Much of the science of sociology, like all social sciences, because it studies human cultures and societies and the interactions between them, has the tendency to be restricted in its focus to the present. However, in the study of global phenomenon such as globalization, it is important to recognize the reality that civilization as we know it is a relatively recent development, and so it is only relatively recently that humanity has become a significant player, as it were, on the scale of global events. It is equally important to recognize, however, that beyond even that, humanity itself is newcomer to the world as well. From this wider perspective, it is most helpful to conceptualize humanity not as the dominant species on the planet, but merely as one generation in the much longer history of life on Earth. Like all such generations, humankind’s had a beginning and will have an ending. From this broader worldview, what is truly most important about a phenomenon such as globalization is not the sociocultural motivations underpinning interactions between cultures and civilizations, as sociology has the tendency to gravitate towards studying, but rather instead what those civilizations, including the modern one in the developed industrialized western first world, will leave behind when they, and on a broader scale humankind, inevitably disappears.

This is the theme of the 2007 book “The World Without Us” by University of Arizona Professor Alan Weisman and the History Channel documentary series “Life After People” based on Weisman’s book. It is notable that neither Weisman nor any of the History Channel documentaries in the series make any attempt at all whatsoever to explain any way that humans may disappear. As they explain, this is because how the human generation comes to an end is largely irrelevant. Even if mankind is exterminated by a thermonuclear war, for example, the world after humans will still be left with not only nuclear power plants but also undetonated atomic warheads. As Weisman discusses in Chapter 15, when their casings corrode, their plutonium will be released.

Nor will the motivations that humans had for building the structures that they did last beyond the demise of the human species. The earth after humans will not have international trade, for instance, but if, as the History Channel series posits, every person vanished tomorrow, the physical alteration of the Earth that is the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District would be left behind, and would last for millennia.

 

Summary:

In Chapter 2: “Unbuilding Our Home” and Chapter 3: “The City Without Us”, Weisman explains the effect of climate on all types of housing materials. He explains how nature breaks down the materials found in our homes: “In the day after humans disappear, nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house—our houses, that is. Cleans them right off the face of the Earth.” [Weisman, Page 15] Things will crumble because of water: “Most of all, though, you are beset by what in other contexts is the veritable stuff of life: water. It always wants in. After we’re gone, nature’s revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne.” [Weisman, Page 16]. Then animals will come in and start chewing and nesting, adding to the destruction. Weisman explains that people in advanced societies are not as motivated to keep their houses up as much as people did in Europe two hundred years ago, and predicts that nature through animals and weather will reduce our homes to rubble in fifty to a hundred years. [Weisman, Page 17]

Chapter Three uses Manhattan as an example. Before the land was settled, Manhattan was 27 square miles of porous swampland covered by pine and oak trees and meadow grasses. Whatever of the 47 inches of annual rainfall the living roots didn’t siphon would drain to lakes, marshes and the oceans via forty streams. [Weisman, Page 23] Central Park us to have hundreds of streams that ran through it. Weisman predicts that if New York were deserted for a hundred years, there would be a couple hundred streams running through the city. According to Weisman, because there is little soil to absorb the rainfall and vegetation to transpire it, if it rains hard, sewers clog with debris and the water, with buildings blocking the sun from evaporating it, will flow down to add to a rising underground river corroding the subway lines. [Weisman, Page 24] Eventually the subway lines will corrode and buckle and become a river. It is essential to constantly pump the thirteen million gallons of water daily uphill and to monitor manmade water management tools such as special dams that hold back the flow of water every time it rains. After they’re gone, the pumps would fail with no power, the water would crash through and destroy the support pillars, the subway tunnels will flood and cave in within 20 years. [Weisman, Page 26] As the oceans continue to warm and rise, at some point the water will not subside.

Season 2 Episode 5 of “Life After People”, entitled “Home Wrecked Home” deals with the destruction of suburban homes in Levittown in Hempstead, Long Island, New York and the San Remo, a 27-floor apartment building located at 145 Central Park West in Manhattan opened in 1930. The episode also deals with the fate of Cooperative City in Baychester, the Bronx in Northeastern New York city. According to the documentary, the Hutchinson River would reclaim the former marshland the Bronx and the City was built on within 100 years “after people”.

In Chapter 15: “Hot Legacy”, Weisman begins writing about Global warming. He then moves on to the subject of the world’s more than 450 thermonuclear power plants. If humankind was to depart, he writes, the plants would run on autopilot until the reactors overheat and after two weeks without us, all of the world’s nuclear reactors would explode. Weisman then explains the effects of a nuclear explosion, which would first cause a wave of radiation that would kill anything that was living within a certain radius. “Whatever the correct measure of human mortality may be, it applies to other life-forms as well and in a world without humans the plants and animals we leave behind will have to deal with many more Chernobyl’s.” Weisman writes. “Little is still known about the extent of genetic harm this disaster unleashed: genetically damaged mutants usually fall to predators before scientists can count them.” [Weisman, Page 217] In his interview with Scientific American, Weisman predicts that nuclear reactors could burn and melt down as soon as seven days after people as their water-cooling systems fail. The same is true of the basins of cooling water that serve as storage locations for spent fuel rods. When the water evaporates, the temperature in the basins rises.

Then the radiation would form into clouds that would travel around the globe. The radiation radii of the world’s more than 450 nuclear power plants, , such as the 30-kilometers around Chernobyl, cover such a large area of the world that the damage that this radiation would cause to the Earth’s ozone layer Weisman likens to that of chlorofluorocarbons such as Freon. The holes in the ozone layer created by these radiation clouds would expose whatever remained living on the surface of the planet to even more radiation, since the ozone lessens and even blocks exposure to cosmic rays.

In Season 2, Episode 2 of the history Channel series “Life After People”, without human intervention, spent nuclear fuel rods spontaneously burst into flame.

 

Intent

 

`           Weisman published an article in the Sunday February 6, 2005 issue of Discover Magazine entitled “Earth Without People”. In the article, Weisman speculated on what might happen to human civilization’s structures if the humans who built and maintain them vanished. In the article, as in Chapter 3 of “The World Without Us”, Weisman referred to “rising groundwater” as a “problem that already plagues New York”, writing that if New Yorkers disappeared “sewers would clog” and “natural watercourses would appear”. At the end of his Discover Magazine article, Weisman provides a timeline strikingly similar to that in the History Channel’s “Life After People”, in which he predicts that within twenty years after human vanished from New York “water-soaked steel columns supporting subway tunnels corrode and buckle” and that oaks would re-cover the land with a hundred years.[1] In researching the article, according to an interview published in the July 2007 Scientific American[2], Weisman discovered there was more material, enough for a whole book. So began what became Weisman’s work on his book “The World Without Us”, published in July 2007.

 

Reception

 

The two-hour pilot the History Channel series “Life After People” aired on Monday January 21, 2008 and had an audience of 5.4 million viewers, the most-watched program ever on the History Channel[3], which launched on January 1 1995.

Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” reached number one on the San Francisco Chronicle nonfiction bestsellers list on September 23, 2007[4], ranked number one on TIME Magazine’s top ten nonfiction books of 2007[5] and on the same list from Entertainment Weekly[6] and placed number one in the nonfiction category of Amazon’s Best Books of 2007 in Canada.[7] The book placed number four on the same list in the United States [8], peaked at number three on the Globe and Mail’s nonfiction bestseller list on August 11, 2007 on its way to ten weeks on the list. It was number six on the New York Times Best Seller list from August 12 through September 9, 2007 on its way to nine weeks in the top ten.

In an August 11, 2007 review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Chauncey Mabe of South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel called Weisman’s book “one of the most satisfying environmental books of recent memory, one devoid of self-righteousness, alarmism or tiresome doom saying”, writing “Weisman’s book transcends gimmickry to attain a kind of brilliance”.[9] On July 23, 2007, Gay Kamiya of Salon called Weisman’s book “brilliantly creative” and “an audacious intellectual adventure”, writing that:

The World Without Us” taps into one of our deepest, if only furtively acknowledged, pleasures…It also appeals to out love of looking the cosmic rearview mirror: Like “A Christmas Carol” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”, it sucks us in with a vision of what is, what has been and what is yet to come…Just a few pages into it and I was as enchanted as I was by the imaginative books I loved as a boy…“The World Without Us” makes saving the world as intimate an act as helping a child.[10]

 

Time’s Lev Grossman called Weisman’s book “a mesmerizing and grandly entertaining meditation” writing “I don’t think I’ve read a better nonfiction book this year.” In the September 2, 2007 New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Schuessler calls Weisman’s book “a fascinating nonfiction eco-thriller”, writing that “Weisman’s gripping fantasy will make most readers hope that at least some of us can stick around long enough to see how it all turns out.”[11] At the same time “we are taught through the course of this book;” wrote Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian; “to feel good about the disappearance of humanity from the Earth”.[12] Anthony Doerr of the Boston Globe called the book “a beautiful and passionate Jeremiad against deforestation, climate change and pollution”, writing that “Weisman has an extraordinarily farsighted point of view, and he is actually at his best when exploring the past, tracing the world as it was.”[13] Jerry Adler of Newsweek wrote “journalist Alan Weisman has produced, if not a Bible, at least a Book of Revelation.”[14]His research is prodigious and impressive;” wrote Janet Maslin of the New York Times in an overall negative review; “So is his persistence.”[15]

 

Analysis and Discussion

 

Having taken courses in Anthropology and Archaeology, History; Philosophy, Political Science and Psychology; as well as Sociology, I can now confirm that what my high school AP European History stated was indeed true. Very nearly everything that humans have built since the beginning of the known recorded history of civilization has been motivated in one way or another by some form of greed.

This is what makes my study of Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” both fascinating and challenging. Like the History Channel series “Life After People”, which I also studied, Weisman makes no attempt at explaining the cause or reason for human disappearance from the surface of the planet Earth. As such, unlike much of sociocultural sociology, his book and the documentary series it inspired look less at Human greed in and of itself than at the monuments, both figurative and literal in nature, to our greed that we as a civilization have erected throughout the few millennia of our history.[16] This applies even to things that the majority of laypeople would never think of as being greed-driven, such as roads and writing.

As early as 8,000 BCE in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, accounting was being done with clay tokens in the shapes of different good that were later wrapped up in clay balls. These clay balls were later marked with shapes representing those of the tokens inside, indicating the number of each token contained. By the late fourth millennium BCE, these token had been done away with all together in favor of only the drawn shapes and the clay was flattened into tablets. The shapes were imprinted into the clay with sharpened reeds, lending this writing system its name: “Cuneiform”, meaning “wedge-shaped”.[17]

In so many words: Capitalism invented writing. When people had more wealth than they could physically hold onto, they needed a way to keep track of how many of what things they had. So they invented writing for the purposes of trade…for the purposes of attaining ever more material wealth for themselves. So even writing, as an invention of western civilization, was a product of human greed.

As for roads, which according to both Weisman’s “The World Without Us” and the History Channel’s “Life After People” will be among humankind’s longest-lasting creations. The purpose of roads in trade is obvious, so the construction by different civilizations throughout the Old World of roads was conducive to the accumulation of both the wealth of society as a whole and that of the wealthiest members therein. In the case of the Ancient Roman Empire, the clichéd proverb that “All roads lead to Rome” was literally true in many cases due in no small part to the fact that many of the Empire’s famous roads were patronized either by the Emperor’s themselves or by the Empire’s aristocracy, because they understood that roads benefited not only the treasury of the empire as a whole but their own pocketbooks as well [albeit, more often than not, the two were one and the same].

 

Conclusion

 

Like Weisman, I possess what Tony Doerr from the Boston Globe called an “extraordinarily farsighted point of view” and what Degrasse-Tyson calls a “cosmic perspective.

The phenomenon of globalization can be succinctly summarized, in a word, as the erasure of the borders and boundaries between the countries of the world and their cultures. The sociological study of globalization has, however, continued to present a challenge for me, since from the dispassionate objective outsider’s perspective that Weisman and I take, the borders and boundaries being erased by the globalization process never existed in reality to begin with in the first place. Good social science, however, like all good science, strives to see all sides of a given phenomenon. Throughout my sociology courses, I have been requested, and expected, on numerous occasions to conceptualize and articulate the negative harms of globalization. Needless to say, it is difficult for me, as it would be for anyone, to come up with any way in which erasing imaginary borders and boundaries that never existed anywhere within the physical universe of perceptible reality outside of our own minds might potentially be a bad thing.

The process of globalization is, in a word, the process of humans around the globe becoming one species in one shared world. What makes imagining potential negative ramifications to this difficult is the fact that a single species on a single planet is what humans are and have always been.

I started off this project with the stated “Problem” of exploring and investigating how globalization has impacted the planet Earth, the problems that it has caused and the threat that it poses. The conclusion that I have come to, however, is very nearly the opposite: that, if indeed any solutions do exist to the problems our planet is experiencing and the threats that we face, then there can be little or no reasonable doubt that whatever solutions exist lie within globalization. The one commonality that all problems and threats facing our planet, from climate change to pollution to thermonuclear war, share amongst them, it is that if, when and where they happen, none of these are any great respecters of arbitrarily drawn imaginary national boundaries. If solutions to these problems and threats exist, therefore, they are not to be found at the state or national level. Both climate change and thermonuclear war pose a danger to the survival of the human species regardless of nationality, and are threats that can only and should only be addressed by the human species, not by nations. The damage we have done to the planet has not been the sole exclusive responsibility of any one nation, and the legacy that we leave behind won’t be either.

[1] Weisman, Alan. “Earth Without People”. Discover Magazine. Sunday February 6, 2005: http://discovermagazine.com/2005/feb/earth-without-people

[2] Weisman, Alan. “An Earth Without People”. Scientific American, Volume 297, Issue 1, July 2007, Pages 8-104: http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v297/n1/pdf/scientificamerican0707-76.pdf

[3] Tucker, Neely. “Depopulation Boom”. Washington Post. Saturday March 8, 2008: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/07/AR2008030703256.html?hpid=artslot

[4]San Francisco Chronicle Best-Sellers”. San Francisco Chronicle. Friday September 21, 2007: http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/San-Francisco-Chronicle-Best-Sellers-2539363.php

[5] Grossman, Lev. “Top 10 Nonfiction Books”. TIME Magazine. Sunday December 9, 2007: http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1686204_1686244_1691768,00.html

[6] Reese, Jennifer. “The Best Books of 2007”. Entertainment Weekly. December 20, 2007: http://www.ew.com/article/2007/12/20/best-books-2007

[7]Editor’s Picks: 2007’s Top 25 Nonfiction”. Amazon. December 20, 2007: https://www.amazon.ca/gp/feature.html?docId=1000175351

[8] Harrison, Kate. “UA Journalism Prof Collect Year-End Kudos For book: Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us” Continues to Attract Attention from Readers and Critics Alike”. University of Arizona. December 14, 2007: https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/ua-journalism-prof-collecting-year-end-kudos-for-book

[9] Mabe, Chauncey. “Don’t Think About Us When We’re Gone”. Pittsburg Post-Gazette, August 11, 2007: http://www.post-gazette.com/book-reviews/2007/08/11/The-World-Without-Us-by-Alan-Weisman/stories/200708110131

[10] Kamiya, Gary. “What Would the Earth Look Like If Humans Suddenly Disappeared? An Audacious New Book Imagines a People-Free Planet and Restores Our Sense of Awe”. Salon. Monday July 23, 2007: http://www.salon.com/2007/07/23/weisman/

[11] Schuessler, Jennifer. “Starting Over”. New York Times. September 2, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/02/books/review/Schuessler-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

[12] Lezard, Nicholas. “Goodbye To All This”. The Guardian. Friday May 2, 2008: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/may/03/society1

[13] Doerr, Anthony. “Alarms, Ideas to Help Save a Damaged World”. Boston Globe. July 15, 2007: http://archive.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2007/07/15/alarms_ideas_to_help_save_a_damaged_world/

[14] Adler, Jerry. “After We Are Gone: If Humans Evacuated, the Earth Would Flourish”. Newsweek. July 23, 2007.

[15] Maslin, Janet. “A World Without Humans? It Falls Apart”. New York Times Sunday Book Review”. August 13, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/13/books/13masl.html?_r=2&ref=books&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

[16] For more information on this topic, see the 2001 book “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Academic” by Duke University Professor Thomas Naylor

[17] Heise, John. “Cuneiform Writing System”. Netherland Institute for Space Research. May 4, 1995: https://personal.sron.nl/~jheise/akkadian/cuneiform.html

 
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