2004 Living Downstream (Sandra Steingraber)

living downstream coverExcerpts from the letter of transmittal written by the students who chose the text:

Living Downstream, written by biologist and ecologist Sandra Steingraber, addresses the issue of environmental awareness in a narrative that elegantly blends scientific documentation with personal interludes.  This book offers the reader a variety of ideas to consider, from safety concerns about our environment to ethical issues of pesticide manufacture, testing, and control.  How much circumstantial evidence must accumulate about the toxicity of a chemical before it is decisively declared unsafe? What can the average person do about the environment?  Living Downstream doesn’t provide all the answers, but we hope it will engage you in the questions.

In addition to the questions posed within the text itself, class discussions have a way of uncovering broader issues of presentation, bias, and what we like to call the “end goal” (or, “what’s the author REALLY trying to say here?”).  This book, which explores the prevalence of cancer-causing agents in our environment, was written by a cancer survivor.  What impact might her personal experience with the disease have on her writing or research? Does it strengthen or weaken her argument? Is the goal of scientific objectivity damaged by the author’s own experiences?  Does another side of the story exist that Steingraber’s account omits?  Considering these questions might enrich your experience with the book.

Among the criteria for the Honors Read are universal appeal, readability, and potential for discussion and controversy.  Many of our books met most or all of these requirements, and choosing among them was difficult.  We also highly recommend Accordion Crimes, written by E. Annie Proulx, and Mapping Human History by Steve Olson.  The first of these is a fictional account focusing on the immigrant experience. The second is a genetic survey of human migration.  Both of these received high praise.  As is apparent, our decision involved a lot of “apples vs. oranges” comparisons.

In the end, we chose Living Downstream because of the immediacy of its issues, the accessible blend of science and story, and the opportunities for discussion it provides.  We hope that you find it as enjoyable a read as we did, and that you find it a worthy introduction to the Honors College.