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Nonfiction in Brief

May 15, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

SOUL OF THE TIGER by Jeffrey A. McNeely and Paul Spencer Wachtel (Doubleday: $19.95)

The new travel writing featured on several young publishing imprints often seems less interested in probing other cultures than in offering fly-by-night adventures, vicarious wish-fulfillment for urbanites with fantasies of fleeing corporate culture. "The Soul of the Tiger" is a welcome departure from this trend, a book that travels through space--from the upbeat bustle of Bangkok to rich traditions in the Malaysian countryside--as well as through time, charting significant "ecocultural revolutions" that have shaped Southeast Asia. The first three revolutions--the harnessing of fire, the domestication of plants and animals to make cultivation possible, and new techniques of irrigation--dramatically increased population but did not significantly undermine the strength of traditional knowledge, mythology and folklore.

The fourth revolution--the spread of the world marketplace--has had a more jarring impact on the region, damming rivers to provide electricity for growing cities, converting rain forests into plantations and encouraging dependency on expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The authors, conservationists who have spent a combined 25 years in the region, discuss the practical problems of development in detail, showing, for example, how the nations are being forced into debt to "pay for progress." The authors' more mystical conclusion is this book's most captivating feature, however. During a fifth revolution, the authors predict, growing environmental damage caused by the First World's "technological arrogance" and spiritual impoverishment brought about by secularism will motivate many in the West to seek out rich traditions similar to those preserved in Southeast Asia. In the region, the authors believe, Westerners will find a culture that reunites man and nature, the sacred and the secular, "making the best of today while preparing for the unknown conditions of tomorrow."

NUCLEAR FEAR A History of Images by Spencer R. Weart (Harvard: $29.50)

The author's notion that fear of nuclear power is founded less on actual dangers than on suspicions about progress and hopes for magical, liberating transformations is sure to provoke the ire of anti-nuclear activists. And while "Nuclear Fear" succeeds splendidly on other levels, the activists have a point: Spencer Weart, a historian with a Ph.D. in physics, is too quick to discount disasters such as Chernobyl. Nuclear power plants are relatively harmless compared to, say, coal-fired plants, Weart argues, because they can be designed safely. Similarly, Weart writes, "nuclear weapons deserve less attention than they have received, for today, war between advanced nations could be intolerable even if they used only their non-nuclear weapons."

While internally logical, these arguments are unrealistic: Power plants are not always designed and operated perfectly and weapons have not always been used responsibly. Weart contends that "the objective physical consequences of nuclear technology" are relatively insignificant, citing damage to the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuel and comparing the figure of 30 killed immediately after the explosion at Chernobyl to the 2,000 dead and 10,000 injured during chemical leakage at the Union Carbide Plant in India. Weart's verdict seems premature, however, for the long-term effects of low-level radiation are still unknown: Hundreds of thousands of Soviets could have their life spans significantly reduced by Chernobyl, most scientists believe.

To dismiss this book for its underestimation of nuclear dangers, however, would be to miss its extraordinary value as a detailed, probing study of American hopes, dreams and insecurities in the 20th Century. Weart has a poet's acumen for sensing human feelings, from fears that God will be displaced to an almost primal need for "transmutation," a passage from destruction to rebirth. It's unfortunate that he rules out the political value of human emotions, for romantic visions of fairylands governed by science and fueled by the atom helped garner support for basic research, just as "irrational" fears helped check nuclear proliferation. "Nuclear Fear" remains captivating as history, however, and original as an anthropological study of how nuclear power, like alchemy in medieval times, offers a convenient symbol for deeply-rooted human feelings.

FIFTIES STYLE Then and Now by Richard Horn (Running Press, Philadelphia, Pa.: $14.98)

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