What I’m Reading: 2 Feb.: Cancer causes, friends, redirected aggression, banishing plastic bags

OFFLINE: I’m reading The Oldie, my favourite magazine (thanks, R+C!). The January 2008 issue has this line quoted from ‘journalistic doyenne’ and fashion editor Felicity Green (by way of Katharine Whitehorn on Book of the Week) : “I have plenty of friends to do things with — I just have no-one to do nothing with.” Reading it I recognised that I’ve chosen and cultivated as friends primarily people that I can “do nothing with.” Even if we end up doing “things” together, I’m comfortable doing “things” with them because I’m comfortable “doing nothing” with them. I think I assume everyone is like this?


* By ‘bagging it,’ Ireland rids itself of a plastic nuisance by Elisabeth Rosenthal in the IHT yesterday. Would that the U.S. could summon the same will to tax plastic bags out of existence: “In a determined attempt to deal with litter, Ireland passed a plastic bag tax in 2002 — now 22 euro cents, about 33 U.S. cents — at the register if you want one with your purchases. There was an advertising awareness campaign. Then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts. Within weeks, there was a 94 percent drop in plastic bag use. Within a year, nearly everyone bought reusable cloth bags, which they now keep in the office and the back of their cars. Plastic bags became socially unacceptable — on par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after your dog.”

Which does beg the question: What do people use to clean up after their dogs now? I know there must be something other than plastic bags for this messy chore, but what is it?

* Theories of cancer: How paradigms shift and culprits change in the fight against the disease, and what concerned citizens can do about it, by Sandra Steingraber, reviewing two books at Times Online.Steingraber, in reviewing SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR ON CANCER by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist with the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, and Phil Brown’s TOXIC EXPOSURES: Contested Illnesses and the Environmental Health Movement, talks about her own bladder cancer diagnosis and the kinds of factors (environmental, genetic, lifestyle, etc.) that have been highlighted as likely causes of cancer in the late 1970s, the mid-1980s, the 1990s, and now.

The thesis of Davis’s book “is that 1.5 million lives have been lost, because Americans failed to act on existing knowledge about the environmental causes of cancer. This failure has been created by at least eight different factors, both acting together and independently of each other.” The factors: the cowardice of research scientists; exploitation of wishy-washy scientific consclusions by “those who profit from the status quo;” unresponsive regulatory agencies; shrinking environmental and public agencies whose work is “compromised by corporate interests;” the evolutionary history of epidemiology and its need for access to industry; the court system’s unwillingness to consider various kinds of scientific evidence; outright harassment of researchers; and bad timing.

Brown’s book “focuses on the ways in which environmental-health activists and their advocates in science are challenging the carcinogen-deniers that Davis writes about.” Brown is a medical sociologist at Brown University and a longtime researcher in the field of environmental health. Steingraber recommends that both books be read together as they’re complementary.

* The Targets of Aggression by David P. Barash in the 5 Oct. 2007 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed is about redirected aggression, first in literature (Sweeney Todd and The Iliad) and then in the real world (the bombing and subsequent invasion of Iraq, the correlation of lynchings and cotton prices from 1882 and 1930 in the U.S. South, the court system, and so on). He observes what people have long known, that when we suffer pain, we usually react by passing it on to someone else — the perpetrator if possible, but if not possible, then “others are liable to be victimized, regardless of innocence.”

Barash’s thesis is that while it’s not ‘ethically good,’ this behaviour is definitely an ingrained, natural phenomenon of (all?) animals. He cites as evidence several rat experiments in which rats in pain, if they can ‘take out’ their pain on a stick or, preferably on another rat, reduce the impact of the pain stress on their adrenal glands, reduce ulcers, and generally protect themselves from stress. “Redirected aggression does not simply derive from irrationality or human nastiness, but — along with retaliation and revenge — is entrenched in the very fabric of the natural world, part of a continuum involving nature’s response to pain. … It feels bad to be a victim, but the pain can often be somewhat assuaged by victimizing someone else in turn.”

Lots more worth reading here. He brings in the idea of forgiveness and the concept of pain in Buddhism and Christianity (with an interesting atonement theory twist), and asks questions about how to respond to “violent transgressors,” and what will best “provide order, security, and personal satisfaction, as well as minimizing subordination stress, without simply passing along the pain of the victimized … and without creating new victims?” And he wonders, if “people who seek to hurt others are doing so because they have themselves been hurt, does that diminish their responsibility or guilt?”


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