Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Annotation: Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss

In Tristes Tropiques (translated beautifully in this edition by John and Dorren Weightman), Claude Lévi-Strauss presents a nine-part exploration of humans and the environment, and the anthropologist’s role in deciphering that exploration. Though centered mainly on Lévi-Strauss’s trips and research in Brazil, the book also ranges widely over sociology (Fascism, Capitalism, Marxism), religion (Muslem, Islam, Bhuddism), urban development, and education, in such other locations as Martinique, France, Chicago, India, and points in between—the latter mostly on-board ship.

Part one—An End to Journeying—is both introduction and manifesto, beginning, “I hate traveling and explorers.” Right away we learn much about the anthropologist—not so much his curriculum vitae (though there is a bit of that) but more importantly his feelings, his fears, his responses verbal and otherwise to the world around him. We also learn that he is an eloquent writer, an amazing assembler of beautiful imagery, and through-and-through a social scientist, both of the era and beyond.
In part two—Travel Notes—we get a more traditional “How I came to be an anthropologist” story, juxtaposed against what may well be the most detailed essay of a sunset, at 7½ pages, ever penned. We too wonder if, “after all these years, I could ever again achieve such a state of grace.”

Part three—The New World—brings us to the beginning of the heart of the book, concluding with a brilliant essay on urban design in the Americas (North and South), “São Paulo,” that should be required reading for students of architecture and urban planning alike.

Part four—The Earth and Its Inhabitants—takes us deeper into Brazil, literally and figuratively. Except it also takes us to India, takes us deep into the life of true poverty, of the utter failures of the caste system in India. In addition to excellent description, Lévi-Strauss is not shy about his opinions of the place, its people, its political systems—in sum, providing a detailed anthropological review and, in some cases, thesis on the place and its culture.

Part five—Caduveo—brings us to the first of four parts of true, sustained anthropological field study, each dedicated to a different tribe in Brazil’s vast interior. Parts six—Bororo—seven—Nambikwara—and eight—Tufi-Kawahib—are the apex of the book, as Lévi-Strauss and his (some few) associates spend dedicated time with each tribe, learning in fabulous detail about the culture of each. Though geographically similar, the tribes were otherwise absolutely unique in marriage, family life, religious belief, rituals, village design (or lack thereof), and the like.

Finally, part nine—The Return—is just that: a return from Lévi-Strauss’s long days in the field, and a closing discourse (following an almost dreamlike, unfinished play/parable he created called “The Apotheosis of Augustus”) about religion, about anthropology, about witness and inclusion.

Tristes Tropiques, then, is both memoir and (social) scientific field journal, with more than a sprinkling of travel writing mixed in to which Lévi-Strauss, from the get-go, confesses so strongly against. It presents a series of additional paradoxes that may not seem interrelated, but all relate to the variable human condition and therefore are critically connected. The challenge is what can be done about these problems—like the destruction of habitat and cultures both by the westward march of “progress,” like the incredible overpopulation and utter poverty of India, like religious intolerance. There is no solution presented, of course, but there is a concluding seed of hope, a sort of cosmic understanding, that presents itself sometimes in large and more often in very small, detailed ways.

Lévi-Strauss’s stylistic devices are primarily three-fold: imagery, metaphor, and inference. He has a wonderful ability simply to describe. He has a keen sense of comparison, sometimes sweeping but more often using metaphor in specific circumstances, sharp phrases. And, as a scientist, he has the important capability to infer from observation, at least partly answering the great scientific question: What does it all mean? Or at least: What does it mean in this particular situation, in this specific place? These are all his greatest strengths—that and timing, and by that I mean getting to these tribes before they too evaporated.

He may have two literary weaknesses: too much description (he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and all that), and too strong opinions, which can contradict scientific validity. But as Tristes Tropiques is both memoir and field report, and accordingly social criticism, certainly he is entitled to that. Fortunately, we are too.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

EarthTalk : December 3, 2006

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I’m concerned about all the talk of using hydrogen for fuel. Isn’t hydrogen what caused the Hindenburg blimp to explode back in the 1930s?
-- Doug

The explosion of the Hindenburg blimp in Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937 killed 36 people and was one of the worst air disasters of the period, but hydrogen was probably not the culprit. Addison Bain, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) researcher, investigated the Hindenburg crash in 1997. He concluded that, while the Hindenburg did use hydrogen for buoyancy, the cause of the accident was an electrostatic charge that ignited the blimp’s highly flammable waterproof skin, made from a mixture of lacquer and metal-based paints that Bain likened to rocket fuel.

Others argue that a spark ignited hydrogen that was leaking from the ship. But witnesses described the fire as very colorful, whereas hydrogen burns without much of a visible flame. But whether or not hydrogen caused or simply contributed to the ensuing blaze, hydrogen is indeed flammable, and can burst into flames when it comes into contact with fire or another ignition source.

But gasoline, by far the most common automotive fuel in the world, is much more flammable than hydrogen. According to hydrogen proponent Daniel Emmett of Energy Independence Now, hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air and when it catches fire it disperses and extinguishes quickly. Gasoline, on the other hand, is heavier than air and stays flammable much longer. Many people don’t realize, Emmet adds, that hydrogen has been used safely for decades in many industrial and aerospace applications.

Besides being less flammable than gasoline, hydrogen has many other benefits. It is nontoxic, which is more than can be said for any petroleum-based fuel. Furthermore, the processing (not combustion) of hydrogen in fuel cells produces no harmful pollutants and emits only pure, potable water as well as heat that can be recaptured for other uses. In contrast, the combustion of gasoline and other automotive fuels leads to acid rain, smog and global warming, among other environmental problems.

Despite its benefits, the widespread adoption of hydrogen as an automotive fuel is not yet close at hand. Techniques for producing, storing and transporting hydrogen have to be standardized, and costs reduced substantially. Some hydrogen proponents see a future where hydrogen will fuel vehicles at service stations, as is now done with gasoline; others see a future in which people fuel their cars at home from appliances that make hydrogen from electricity or, further down the road, from solar energy.

In 2003 the Bush administration committed $1.2 billion to a hydrogen initiative in order to “reverse America's growing dependence on foreign oil by accelerating the commercialization of hydrogen-powered fuel cells to power cars, trucks, homes and businesses with no pollution or greenhouse gases.” Under the initiative, says the White House’s “Hydrogen Economy Fact Sheet,” “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by fuel cells.”

CONTACTS: National Hydrogen Association News, “Hydrogen Exonerated in Hindenburg Disaster,” www.hydrogenassociation.org/newsletter/ad22zepp.htm; Energy Independence Now, www.energyindependencenow.org; White House “Hydrogen Economy Fact Sheet,” www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030625-6.html.

Dear EarthTalk: I’m a hair stylist and am wondering about the health and environmental impacts of the styling products I use every day on my customers.
-- Misty Rohrbaugh, Asheville, NC

Millions of people around the world use shampoos, conditioners and dyes on their hair regularly without any discernable harm. But recent studies have linked some of the ingredients in these products to various human health problems, so hair care professionals and consumers are well advised to know their options.

Traditional shampoos and conditioners, the most commonly used hair care products, contain a synthetic detergent called Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), which generates a sudsy lather. But SLS can dry the scalp, stripping the skin’s surface of its protective lipids. It can also cause follicle damage, hair loss, skin and eye irritation, and allergic reactions such as rashes and hives.

Other problematic chemicals in most mainstream shampoos and conditioners are parabens--sometimes listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben or butylparaben--which are added as preservatives to ward off mold and mildew. Morris Shriftman, Senior Vice President with Avalon Organics, says that these chemicals are dangerous because they accumulate in the bloodstream where they can “mimic” naturally-occurring hormones like estrogen, and disrupt human endocrine function accordingly. Parabens are also of particular concern to oncologists, who report finding the chemicals in breast cancer cells.

Luckily, a number of manufacturers make available shampoos and conditioners free of SLS and parabens, making it easier for stylists and customers alike to do the right thing. Aveda, Avalon Organics, Aubrey Organics, Dessert Essence Organics, Jason Natural Products and Simply Organic, among many others, use organic herbal extracts to do the jobs normally associated with synthetic chemicals. These products are readily available at natural foods markets and increasingly in mainstream supermarkets.

Studies trying to prove links between hair dyes and cancer or birth defects have turned up mostly inconclusive results, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) National Center for Toxicological Research found that the majority of off-the-shelf hair dyes for black, red and blonde hair contain a known carcinogen, 4-ABP. Also, according to the FDA, some consumers have reported burning, redness, itching and swelling of the face from hair dyes, as well as hair loss and difficulty breathing. The FDA does not regulate hair products, but John Bailey, director of the agency’s color and cosmetics program, cautions consumers to “consider the lack of demonstrated safety” when considering a hair dye.

Most natural health care experts agree that going without hair dye altogether is the safest route. Hair color professionals should wear heavy plastic gloves and a mask to protect against fumes, and should schedule their color work with lots of breaks between applications to limit exposure. Consumers, when possible, should shop around for less toxic, all-natural coloring agents. Many of the companies listed above also make all-natural hair colorings; other popular brands include EcoColors, Naturtint, and Clairol’s Castings line. Hennas, which are available in most salons, are also a good safe, non-permanent option.

CONTACTS: FDA Office of Cosmetics and Colors, www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-toc.html.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.