|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
Chelsea Green Press (2005)
Take your yellow storm slickers out of the closet and get your petrochemical rain hat on. A squall is brewing. You've got to read this book. But be warned, after reading it, you won't trust a politician, petrochemical company or government agency again. Nothing is ordinary about this story and many coincidences are mysterious. In An Unreasonable Woman, Diane Wilson gives us a personal and gritty narrative based on her life as a mother, shrimper and environmental activist in one of the most polluted regions of the United States, the South Coast of Texas. In the process, she emerges as a down-to-earth, reasonable individual floundering in a sea of corruption, graft and environmental degradation. The book’s title says it all. Her writing has biblical undertones and suggests an intelligence, knowledge and awareness on the author's part not necessarily reflected in the image she presents to us. There is a great deal she leaves out, but the main threads are woven like a net into a taught indictment and her first book length project oozes sincerity.
An Unreasonable Woman opens with Wilson shrimping by herself on a bay of reefs and mudflats. She is a fourth-generation shrimper in a male-dominated world. The first part of this book represents an evocative tribute to a disappearing way of life once practiced by generations of Creole shrimpers on the Texas and Louisiana coast. Reflecting these realities, a submerged, frank language emerges in the text, sometimes quirky, sometimes stubborn, but indicative of a part of the country burdened by lack of opportunity, isolation and environmental degradation. This might throw some readers off, but you should not be one of them.
Wilson's tribute and memorial to a passing way of life, in words and images, is crucial to her telling of the story as a whole. The second half of the book picks up in pace, direction and plot twists. You won't be able to put it down. How an individual with no stated prior interest, education or experience in environmental activism manages to do what Wilson does stretches belief and inspires us all.
Wilson's story is bigger than herself or the region she writes about. She focuses on the poisonous environment and polluters of the bays and estuaries of Seadrift, in Calhoun County, Texas. Every region in the U.S. and the world is polluted and no groundwater can be assumed to be safe. America is for sale and multi-national corporations are buying it up. State and federal politicians are involved in the sellout. We may have won the Cold War, but we have all but lost the environmental and ecological war for our very souls, and the world knows it. The last American generation has already been born who will know the environment as we once experienced it.
The poisonous legacy of petrochemical pollution is global. Petrochemicals are chemicals derived from oil and gas and they are in the food we eat and clothes we wear. They are in the sea, sky and earth and inside the bodies of every one of us. They cause cancers, tumors, autism, biological disruptions, endocrine imbalances, freaky sexual abnormalities and a host of other problems. To take a sentence in the book out of context, the petrochemical industry, “...howled from nowhere and sits frumpy and mean, clawing on the whole Gulf Coast like fire ants on a dead frog.”
The value of Wilson's story is that it particularizes aspects of the global problem of pollution and fixes it to a specific place and time. Calhoun County is on the Gulf Coast of Texas between Houston and Corpus Christi. In 2000 the county had a population of around 12,000 with Seadrift's population at approximately 1,350. In 1989 a government report listed it as the most polluted area in the country and Diane Wilson decided to try and do something about it. The Wilson family paid a high price for living there: one of the five children is autistic. Wilson organized meetings and educated herself about vinyl chloride, arsenic, cyanide, mercury, heavy metals, copper, lead, and other ultra-nasty pollutants.
Formosa Plastics, Alcoa, and Dow appear to be responsible for Seadrift’s problems, and discharges by these companies into Gulf Coast bays and estuaries are blamed. In particular, Formosa Plastics is portrayed by Wilson as a global company on the make, seeking a multi-billion dollar expansion of its facilities. Hounded out of Taiwan, with corporate offices now in New Jersey, Formosa Plastics is a conglomerate owned by the Wang family, whose immense wealth and influence reach into all levels of the government of Texas and of the federal government as well. Wilson gives us names and events. She tells us who did what, when and where.
Because of this book, a few politicos may be retiring. But some of them should be in jail. Formosa Plastics' economic importance in the Texas region resulted in sweetheart deals, water quality passes and environmental waivers. Wilson seemed to be the primary person standing in their way. With the help of her friend Donna Sue and an environmental lawyer named of Blackburn, she entered into a world of corrupt judges, manipulated workers, dead dolphins, betrayals and a natural environment exhausted and suffering, under continual assault.
It should be noted that Formosa has reached a settlement regarding cleaning up the bays it has polluted. The public announcement of the settlement reads like a marriage ceremony between the company and the E.P.A.
This underscores the importance of what Wilson has to say.
The fact is that the United States has become its own corporation and has taken a corporate point of view regarding its fellow companies. In the process, you and I have become their human resources, just another expendable economic variable. Please, warn your children regarding the new world order of Aspartame, petrochemicals, MSG and Teflon economics.
Wilson stands in for all of us in the recognition that we have a responsibility to the environment and can change things for the better. Yet according to the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, Wilson could be classified as a terrorist. She could disappear at any time from any place. If you witnessed her abduction and informed somebody of the fact, you would be a terrorist too.
Read this book and scratch your head, as I did, wondering what we as a people and a nation have come to represent when the best of us is vilified while the worst are propelled to success, wealth and influence. Wilson and her story suggest that there is still time to take a stand. Do something positive.