Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, by Sandra SteingraberReviewed by Marie Lorenzo
I loved reading this book. I have to admit a penchant, as I am a popular science writing junkie and would ask for the latest Stephen J. Gould for birthdays. And as is often said about her, this woman can write science really well. Of course, she is, after all, also a poet. Nonetheless, impressively, Steingraber seems to know exactly the right moment to pause the science to inject the passion, and the personal.
Because after all, as she strains to remind us, what statistics never reveal is that the experience of cancer, and all disease, is at bottom inescapably personal. To this end, she puts forward her own story, a very young victim of bladder cancer, now under control, but never quite behind her. But Steingraber doesn't stop there; she goes beyond the intimately personal to the personal experience of everyone who has faced cancer, and others who fear they may. She sets out to chronicle the data, focusing on several key chemicals likely to be carcinogens or associated with carcinogens, such as PCBs, atrazine and chlorine. She organizes the story along huge life lines, such as water, earth, fire, time, space, but also, war, animals, silence – always interjecting the personal stories along the way.
She reveals her evident sensitivity to the working people who are exposed to carcinogens at their workplaces, but also in their neighbourhoods by virtue of their ghettoization. And her sensitivity to the farmers who are increasingly hard-pressed to make a living yet are the first target of toxins, and first target of regulators and critics, too.
I read the first edition and the second edition (Da Capo Press, 2010) in quick succession: they are approximately 13 years apart, and yet there are those moments where your heart sinks as you realize how long the evidence has been around and how little progress has been made! The result is a great book that has been truly updated, as Steingraber skillfully inserts passages to re-date herself as well as the data in light of time passed. She equips the reader-would-be activist with both negative and positive data, evidence of the potential for changes, and stories of where change is happening. It is chock-full of information and evidence, but also plenty of hope.
And finally, she makes a plea for cancer survivors to take up this struggle. What struggle? you may ask. This is the end goal of the book: there is a struggle to be waged out there. The cancer will not stop increasing until we put our foot down, it will not stop until people cry out, enough!; it will not stop until there is REFUSAL. In Steingraber poetry, “It is time to play the Save the World Symphony. You're not required to play a solo, but you are required to know what your instrument is and play it as well as you can.”
“From the right to know and the duty to inquire flows the obligation to act.”