Animals Like Us, Part II: Bonobo Handshake

I first heard about bonobos when Peter Gabriel started making music with them, to mild ridicule from his peers, back in the early aughts. Then they came up again in the book I read last year, Sex at Dawn by Ryan and Jethá. To me, they're by far the most fascinating (non-human) ape, so I'm always surprised at how many people have never heard of them. Vanessa Woods' 2010 book Bonobo Handshake has hopefully helped somewhat to remedy that.

If you know anything at all about bonobos, it's probably that they have a lot of sex. Sex with relatives, troupe-mates and strangers of every age and gender, in various positions (including missionary, which researchers once thought only humans were "advanced" enough to employ), and in all sorts of contexts. Sex is used to diffuse tense or exciting situations, to greet others, to ease anxiety, and to express affection. It comes as easy as a handshake, hence the title of the book.

All this sex has produced a remarkably egalitarian society. There are no lack of violent chimp stories, but you simply don't find the same among bonobos. Alliances of females, not alpha males, keep the peace. Woods tells of her unwitting role as a guest and researcher at the world's only bonobo sanctuary in the Congo in the midst of that country's endless string of gruesome wars and the bonobos dwindling population.

She makes frequent contrast between the bonobos and the chimps she had previously worked with, but the more searching and central question probes the human capacity for both aggression and empathy in light of the horrific stories of war she hears from the staff at Lola Ya Bonobo.

When we call someone an animal, we believe they're cruel and unfeeling and acting on baser impulses. But by this definition, humans are certainly more animal than bonobos. It's difficult to read the accounts of genocide, greed, global apathy and mass rape and that pepper Woods' account and not come out deeply ambivalent about human cooperation. One need not even look to a place like the Congo for distressing examples. Just last week, a woman jogging on the trail I frequently bike to work on was knocked unconscious and raped in the woods not two miles from my house.

Knowing the book was going to be about war and traumatized baby bonobo orphans, I hesitated to pick it up at first, but Woods' story is still upbeat and entertaining, especially when she describes the personalities and intriguing relationships of all the bonobos and staff at the sanctuary. Her message is also ultimately a hopeful one: bonobos are the living example that apes like us can live harmoniously.

Animals Like Us

Today I sat across the glass from Kyle, a 16-year old orangutan at the National Zoo while he sporadically twisted pieces of straw as if pedaling a hand bike, regurgitated his food, scratched his arms and looked sideways at his onlookers. He rapped gently on the glass with his fist and I couldn't help putting my own hand up to meet his.

Kyle / Smithsonian Photo
Kyle became famous last year for sensing the DC earthquake before it hit: rushing to the top of the "tree" in his enclosure, but I came to visit the apes because I'm in the midst of reading Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy and wanted to see our cousins up close.

De Waal's gotten in debates with the likes of curmudgeonly atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene has, somewhat unintentionally, added fuel to the popular idea that animals are looking out for numero uno above all else. De Waal makes the case, much like the Cherokee legend of two wolves, that empathy is just as motivating a force as selfishness is for many primates. And that includes humans.

The book is filled with examples of self-sacrifice and evidence of empathy that de Waal's witnessed in his decades as a primatologist: chimps jumping into moats to save their zoo-mates despite an inherent fear of water, a Bonobo who collected a stunned bird that had fallen in its enclosure and tried helping it flap its wings, even dolphins saving dogs and humans.

De Waal's observations have a positive message for human cooperation, but they also serve to chip away at the ideological barrier between humans and animals. My friend Anoop, who got me into reading this book, wrote his undergraduate thesis on the topic. He quotes Paul Nadasdy:
It is perhaps not surprising that anthropologists should be reluctant to accept the notion that humans and animals might actually engage in social relations with one another. Despite the fact that humans are animals, Euro-Americans invest a great deal in maintaining a sharp conceptual distinction between humans and animals…the standard behavioralist assertion that animals are mindless automatons should be recognized as dogma that is not only unproven but that requires all sorts of theoretical contortions to maintain.
We like to believe, as we push our doublewide strollers through the great ape exhibit, flashing photos and  pointing out the "monkeys" to our children, that the creatures behind the glass are nothing like us. But researchers are closing the gap all the time, putting the "animal" in "human" and, as a consequence, making us a part of the environment too.

Book Review: The Great Inversion

Websites like The Atlantic Cities seem to publish new statistics on the Millennial generation's affinity for urban living at least once a week. Articles like The End of Car Ownership; It's Official: Downtowns are Booming; and Will Millennials Stay? Alan Ehrenhalt gives some context and nuance to this 21st century shift in urban thinking by profiling a number of unique American cities on the verge of change in The Great Inversion.

Ehrenhalt's thesis is that the post-war demographic shift is now seeing its inverse with young and affluent (largely white) people moving to the city while immigrants, minorities and poorer people are heading to the suburbs.

Despite this basic premise, the cities and neighborhoods Ehrenhalt visits are all facing unique challenges. There's New York City's Financial District that's seeing an unexpected conversion of office space to residential, but without the mom 'n pop shops deemed vital to a healthy community by famous urbanist Jane Jacobs. There's Phoenix and the suburbs of Denver, CO struggling to redefine themselves as "walkable, transit-oriented" in an era far removed from the post-war sprawl mentality they were born into. And there are places like Philadelphia ("Bostroit") that are thriving in the downtown core but remain crippled under a glut of abandoned buildings elsewhere.

It's clear that the urbanist revival of the past 15 years or so is still struggling to find its footing. Much of the development (in the suburbs especially) seems to capture the facade of city life, but not its heart. Reston Town Center in Virginia, West Hartford, CT's Blue Back Square and the rest of the new crop of polished suburban "downtown centers" seem more eager have people buy things than to foster civic engagement.

There are two factors that Ehrenhalt glosses over to the book's detriment. The first is the role that energy, climate change and resource scarcity play in the future of cities. He cops out by saying he's not an energy policy expert, a frustrating statement considering cities consume 75% of the world's energy and the enormous challenges they face in light of that.

And while race and inequality are part of his thesis, Ehrenhalt says that there's nothing much to be done about segregation by class, that it's "a fact of American life". In this way he brushes aside the idea that equality (or lack thereof) might be the most important factor determining the shape of our cities. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá (it's difficult not to quote a Colombian mayor these days) puts it best: "A city needs to show as much respect for a person riding a $30 bicycle as it does for someone driving a $30,000 car." American cities just aren't there yet.

Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges

China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

Lessons in a Foraged Past?

I tend to bring up my dad a lot on this blog - on the surface we don't often agree on politics and his sometimes negative reactions to my ideas on environmental issues allow me to confront my assumptions. During one particularly heated exchange a few months ago, he accused me of wanting to send modern human civilization back to living in huts, back to collecting "nuts and berries" as the Talking Heads lyric goes. Setting aside the possibility that our current consumptive lifestyle may be sending us in that direction anyway, is his charge correct? And if so, should I deny or embrace it? 

Like many people, my dad would characterize the hunter-gatherer condition as Thomas Hobbes did: "nasty, brutish, and short", full of conflict and poverty. A counterpoint to this argument is contained, interestingly, in a book about the evolutionary psychology of sex that came out in 2010: Cacilda Jethå and Christopher Ryan's Sex at Dawn. I haven't yet read the book but I've gotten the gist of it from a recent interview and some of Ryan's articles. While the book primarily examines how modern notions of monogamy and "proper" sexual behavior didn't exist in pre-agriculture societies, their research also draws broader conclusions about the central importance of cooperation and sharing in these societies - sharing sexual partners, yes, but also everything else:
What if—thanks to the combined effects of very low population density, a highly omnivorous digestive system, our uniquely elevated social intelligence, institutionalized sharing of food, casually promiscuous sexuality leading to generalized child care, and group defense—human prehistory was in fact a time of relative peace and prosperity? If not a “Golden Age,” then at least a “Silver Age” (“Bronze Age” being taken)? Without falling into dreamy visions of paradise, can we—dare we—consider the possibility that our ancestors lived in a world where for most people, on most days, there was enough for everyone? By now, everyone knows “there’s no free lunch.” But what would it mean if our species evolved in a world where every lunch was free? How would our appreciation of prehistory (and consequently, of ourselves) change if we saw that our journey began in leisure and plenty, only veering into misery, scarcity, and ruthless competition a hundred centuries ago?
My tweep GLEthnohistory (Great Lakes Ethnohistorian Megan McCullen who blogs here) tipped me to a more nuanced view of pre-ag societies in the book The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways. Here's an excerpt from a review of the book, which warns about the dangers of simplifying the past for good or ill:
Hunter-gatherers are not the alter ego of Western civilization; they are not simplistic societies; they are not humanity in a virginal state of nature; they are not Pleistocene relics; they do not preserve ancient ways of life; and we cannot reconstruct ancient human society by extrapolating backward from living hunter-gatherers (p. xiii). Throughout the text Kelly achieves his objectives by elucidating the variability which has been observed in the foraging lifestyle and by giving account of the factors which have led to variability; these include differences in subsistence activities, mobility, trade, sharing, territoriality, demography, and socio-political organization.
Aware of this diversity, anthropologist Greg Downey hesitates to endorse Sex at DawnAs appealing as Jethå and Ryan's findings are (our ancestors cooperated better, had a broader conception of the family than we do today), it may not be entirely accurate:
Although many of their innovative ideas are well worth considering, if for no other reasons to cleverly counter-balance other pervasive accounts of human sexuality in evolution, the book does run the danger of a competing partiality, however important the corrective may be.
I'm constantly looking for models of the future. If our present world isn't working for us, is the past a better model? If anthropologists reject a monolithic "past", or an overarching "human nature", how will we know what works, what kind of future we should be building together?


Book Review: Detroit: 138 Square Miles

There are many haunting images in this gargantuan photography book by Julia Reyes Taubman, but the one that devastates my dad is a picture of two disintegrating steam Bob-Lo boats docked next to a US Steel plant in west Detroit. For nearly 100 years, the boats carried generations of Detroiters to Bob-Lo Island amusement park on the Detroit River. I vaguely remember riding in one myself as a kid - if there was anything exotic and exciting about living there, that was it.

To my dad, the abandonment of these boats is nothing less than the desecration of our elders. The rusting stacks, the ghostly white sheets hanging off the sides: these images are hard to look at for someone with affectionate memories. That the boats are now docked next to a steel manufacturing plant is weirdly insulting.

Photos of abandoned Detroit, aka "ruin porn" are pretty cliche at this point. Everyone's seen a photo of the empty Michigan Central Railroad Station or crumbling ceiling in some old factory. On the other hand, it's hard not to take a photo of abandoned buildings in the city - they're everywhere. Taubman's book contains many pictures of these ruins, but they don't feel like a rehash. The color tones, the sometimes ethereal perspectives seem to come from a place more of empathy and history than exploitation.

The East Side's empty lots (Photo: Taubman)
As an environmentalist, I was drawn to Taubman's photos of heavy industry. From the Marathon Oil tank farm and piles of coal on Zug Island to the Detroit salt mine and Ford River Rouge Plant, there are some epic images of the guts of our country's manufacturing legacy. Even my dad, who's been to some of these sites at ground level was surprised at the extent of the operations in Taubman's areal views.

"US Steel's manufacturing operations entirely occupy Zug Island" (Photo: Taubman)
The book provides visual confirmation of why zip code 48217 was recently identified as the most polluted region in the state. Michigan Radio's Environment Report has been following the expansion of the Marathon Oil refinery (the only oil refinery in Michigan) in the last month, particularly the buy-out offer Marathon's given to people living in surrounding neighborhoods. The expansion would "upgrade" the plant to allow it to process -- surprise, surprise -- tar sands oil from Canada. In Taubman's photos, the refinery's impossible tangle of pipes and smokestacks is fascinating and creepy.

There are people in Taubman's book too, but they are usually overshadowed by their surroundings. For instance, there are a few grainy, snap-shot quality photos of smiling people hanging out in dim bar rooms. After being inundated with images of architectural emptiness, these informal shots feel more weighted than they might be otherwise because we want to know what it takes to live here.

In the introduction, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty. By documenting the results of this driving character, Taubman forces us to question our cultural values.