Sunday, September 16, 2012

Malfeasance - Michel Serres

Michel Serres has written a slim volume meandering around his thoughts about our pollution, and how we tacitly and overtly use it to claim the world. His position is that waste, refuse, in other words, death, is the foundation upon which we claim space, both physical and mental. Once a zone has been demarcated, it is a space of exclusion, of a certain identity, value, or role, at the expense of a multitude of possibilities. While certain waste is an inevitable by-product of our very beastly-ness, Serres recognizes that we pollute all of our senses in a way that is remarkable in human (planetary?) history. My vision is obscured by advertisements along the road, while simultaneously my ears are overrun by the sound of an airplane. This type of soft pollution, Serres writes, is the by-product of us having become a soft people. Largely removed from the practical business of survival, we live in a soft world of words and ideas and concepts which we mobilize. In essence even our labors are, so we conceive, removed from tangibility of the physical.

But, Serres also points out, a thing within no-place has a dubious existence, and our concepts, ideas etc do yield physical outcomes. We require space to live, and this means that we dis-place, we appropriate more and more. Rather than think about an ownership of the world (an idea that Serres believes as outlived its usefulness) we must think of ourselves as lessors of it, as renters, responsible for its safe passage into the future. A zone of exclusion leads to wantonness, whereas one of mutual responsibility and temporary residence, yields, potentially, a respect how one's impact will last. Our social compacts reach into the world, in many cases, over-power it. Our compact must respect that we are situated within the world, and that we have become a global force. Our pollution now knows no bounds, which, inevitably, means that we ourselves cannot escape it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Primate's Memoir - Robert Sapolsky

What comes across most in Robert Sapolsky's memoir of his time living with "his" baboon troop in Kenya, is the level to which he cares for his study subjects. As he ages Sapolsky becomes more at-peace with the idea that his care for these primates is not going to undermine his ability to contribute meaningful scientific insight. Rather, it is because he knows these primates so well, because he puzzles over them and worries about their well-being that he can reflect on the deeper aspects of what he observes. Does Sapolsky project? Of course - but his insight seems the stronger for it.

Interspersed with reflections gleaned from traveling across East Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, A Primate's Memoir is, truly, mostly about baboons. How they spend their lives. How they live and love and grow and die. While interweaving observations from his own life with those of the baboons gives a stronger feeling of kinship to Sapolsky's subjects, it also provides the reader with a localized, and thus fairly novel, insight into a changing African landscape of ecosystems and cultures.

Throughout Sapolsky does mercifully little soap-boxing - and when he does it seems eminently forgivable. By remaining introspective and self-deprecating, Sapolsky transparently exploits his own foibles and shortcomings. His wit and awareness make this work at turns humorous and heartbreaking, light and morose. Sapolsky has pulled off the neat trick of conveying his depth of care and appreciation for this one corner of the natural world, and the need for conservation, without sounding preachy or condescending to the unlettered audience. A fine read for anyone passionate about field work, conservation, or how we find our place in a complicated world when the answers are far from straightforward.