Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, 2nd Edition. By Sandra Steingraber. Da Capo. $16.95.
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War. By Matt Gallagher. Da Capo. $24.95.
Worried Sick: Break Free from Chronic Worry to Achieve Mental & Physical Health. By Karol Ward. Berkley. $15.
It is only when big, macrocosmic events are brought down to the human, microcosmic level that those not directly involved in them start to feel their effects. Hence the quotation usually misattributed to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” But when you, personally, are threatened with being the one, those one million loom much larger – in the most highly personal way. That was the situation facing Sandra Steingraber, who at age 20, nearly three decades ago, was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Knowing that the odds against that form of cancer at so young an age are very small is not helpful when you are one of the very few to contract the disease. And Steingraber, whose cancer was cured and has not recurred, was determined not to be simply a statistic, in any case. A biology major who eventually got a graduate degree in field biology, Steingraber started on an exploration of the environmental factors considered causative for bladder cancer after learning that this particular cancer has a particularly strong link to pollutants. Living Downstream is Steingraber’s account of what she learned – expanded, in this second edition, to include new scientific information and toxicological findings. As a book with a strong personal as well as societal orientation, Living Downstream is hard to fault, and its writing (and rewriting) was surely cathartic for Steingraber. Indeed, the book’s language is more plainspoken and thus more accessible than that of many other books warning of environmental hazards. But the problem is that there are so many books (and news stories, and magazine articles) warning of the dire consequences of this, that and the other thing. The drumbeat of doom beats so constantly that it is hard to dredge up enthusiasm for yet another book saying that our way of life is destroying us. Steingraber correctly notes that “the process of exploration that results from asserting our right to know about carcinogens in our environment is a different journey for every person who undertakes it,” but she has no convincing argument for why other individuals – ones not themselves touched directly by environment-related cancer – should go through a process so arduous and time-consuming. “Going in search of our ecological roots has both intimate and far-flung dimensions,” Steingraber explains. “It means learning about the sources of our drinking water (past and present), about the prevailing winds that blow through our communities, and about the agricultural system that provides us food. It involves visiting grain fields, as well as cattle lots, orchards, pastures, and dairy farms. It demands curiosity about how our apartment buildings are, and have been, exterminated, our clothing cleaned, our golf courses maintained.” And more – much more. But it demands all this in addition to handling the realities of daily life – and without any way, ultimately, to have a significant influence on the extremely complex and interrelated issues that Steingraber raises. This is an insuperably large order for the vast majority of people – and delegating their concerns to environmental groups that spend all their time on such issues is at best an iffy proposition, since those groups have their own agendas and their own ways of spending money that people give freely. Ultimately, Steingraber’s book is yet another indictment of pretty much everything that we, as a society, are doing and have done in the past with regard to the environment. Despite her accessible prose and her interweaving of personal elements with wide-ranging ones, this sort of doom-and-gloom scenario is simply a tale too often told, with too little that anyone who reads the book can do directly about the issues it raises.
There is even less that an average citizen can do about the issues in Kaboom, for this is a book about war – specifically the Iraq war – and how it has been managed and (frequently) mismanaged. Yes, yet another war-is-hell book; and in truth, Matt Gallagher has little to say that has not been said as well or better before. Catch-22 remains the ultimate book about the idiocies of war and warmakers, despite being a novel rather than a nonfictional account, and the “Suck” of Gallagher’s subtitle is a kind of 21st-century Catch-22. It is whatever happens to lower-ranking members of the military that they need to endure and accept – such as senseless orders, miserable assignments or a blog shutdown. The last of these happened to Gallagher, whose blog – called, not surprisingly, Kaboom – was closed by the Army in June 2008 even though, Gallagher says, he had committed no security violations or done anything else justifying its cancellation. Kaboom, the book, is based on Kaboom, the blog, and is full of the everyday experiences of ordinary soldiers during Gallagher’s 15-month deployment in Iraq. Not surprisingly, Kaboom offers a mixture of the horrifying, the gritty and the surreal, all told in forthright language that makes it easier (although not much easier) to read about some of the more frightening events. “I sometimes felt my compassion for fellow human beings leaking out of me like oil leaving an engine,” writes Gallagher, “so slow it was barely evident and yet dripping with enough regularity that I knew the problem was severe in nature.” Yet Gallagher never actually loses his compassion or his capacity for connection, and that is what gives Kaboom most of its impact. For instance, when he is told that he will be moved out of his platoon to become an executive officer elsewhere, he comments, “Surplus officers crawled around every staff office on Camp Taji, and the thought of a line platoon going short in such an environment lit my already short fuse. …I told [the captain] how I felt about this reactionary method to [sic] filling officer slots, describing it as ‘self-important chimpanzees making a square peg go into a round hole, logic be damned.’” Readers who find Gallagher’s language and perspective on Army life refreshing, and who want to know what it feels like to slog through the Suck in Iraq, will certainly find Kaboom worthwhile (if not easy or pleasant) reading. Readers who have seen books filled with similar anecdotes before, from many other wars – too many other wars – will likely wind up with the feeling of having been here before, often, with only the names of the towns, the soldiers and the victims changed. And that is the Suck for civilians.
What to do? The reasons for the war in Iraq – for any war – are always complex and sometimes self-contradictory, no matter how simple politicians and interest groups try to make them. No single person can hope to change the events in Kaboom, or whatever Kaboom-like events are occurring right now in Iraq and other world trouble spots. Nor can any single person hope to reverse (or even fully understand) the extremely complex environmental interrelationships discussed in Living Downstream. It is this feeling that one should do something but cannot do anything meaningful that is a huge reason for the heightened stress levels in modern society, as the well-known (although not always well understood) flight-or-fight response causes chemical changes in the body without providing an outlet for the hormonal flow. The best most people can hope for in their everyday lives is to find a way to live with the stressors that seem to appear unceasingly from everywhere – home, family, work, politics, war, the environment, etc. This is where Worried Sick comes in. Psychotherapist and communication consultant Karol Ward discusses, simply and usefully, just what stress is, how the body responds to it, and what to do about that response. Her basic explanations are very clear: “We respond with our whole being whether a worrisome situation is actually happening or we anticipate it happening. …After we sense that a worrisome situation is not as bad as we first imagined, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over and helps us move from panic to calm.” But how can we make that move easier, quicker and more frequent, given all the stressors bombarding us day after day? That is what most readers of this book will want to know – and unfortunately, Ward has nothing to suggest that has not been recommended many times before. That does not invalidate what she says, but readers looking for something new – even if not for a magic bullet to kill all those stress symptoms instantaneously – will be disappointed to be told only that exercise, changes in diet, adequate sleep, good relationships with others, meditation and a few other techniques are the way to limit the effects of worry and stress. Ward has acronyms – all advice books have acronyms – to encapsulate her recommendations. For example, to wind down your keyed-up mind, she suggests “the three Cs” of calmness, clarity and community. If you manage worry with food, she suggests the acronym SANE – Stop for a while; Acknowledge that your eating or drinking is out of control; Normalize your coping mechanism by realizing that it is a common one; and Evaluate what you can do to handle stress in a better way. Again, there is nothing wrong with this – and nothing new. The best parts of the book, and the ones most likely to be useful to readers who have sought stress solutions many times, are the very specific suggestions that Ward makes. For instance, for people whose worries prevent them from sleeping, she suggests writing in a “worry journal” at night: “Create a list of your worries and rank them in order of concern. Then you can create a plan to address the most important one first and go down the list from there.” If you just cannot seem to shake off constant worrying, she suggests disrupting it by playing a favorite song and singing along; washing dishes or vacuuming; taking a walk; going to the gym; etc. These specific ideas are no newer than Ward’s general approaches, but because they are specific, they give readers explicit ways of trying to cope with stress and worry instead of becoming even more worried because they are not finding ways to cope. So even if Ward offers little that is original, she offers much that can, potentially, be helpful.