Diary of an Eco-Outlaw – Book Review

Diary of an Eco Outlaw Book CoverIn a way, Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth by Diane Wilson could be any woman’s story. A newspaper article and a telephone call changed the course of her life.

Diary of an Eco-Outlaw is one of the two books I chose to read this March in honor of Women’s History Month. After reading Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in March 2013, I decided to make it an annual tradition to read at least one book by or about a woman environmentalist every March.

Book Review

Readers you are about to become Diane Wilson’s time- traveling companion as you go back in time and accompany her to places near and far while carrying on a conversation that lasts for 243 pages.

Diary of an Eco-Outlaw recounts several interwoven stories involving Union Carbide, former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson, Texas jails, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Formosa Plastics.

The book opens with Wilson describing her upbringing and life in Seadrift, TX, a small town on a bay in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Wilson her transformation from shrimp boat captain to environmental activist began with a newspaper article claiming Calhoun County (where she lives) was number one in the country for toxic waste disposal and contained half the hazardous waste generated in Texas.

After an explosion at a Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) plant in Seadrift, Wilson received a phone call. Two weeks later she flew thousands of miles to witness a tribunal in Bhopal, India the site of a 1984 Union Carbide pesticide plant gas leak that exposed over 500,000 people to deadly methyl isocyanate gas instantly killing over 2,200 people and resulting in over 20,000 deaths since then.

Years later an email and a photograph from Bhopal landed in Wilson’s inbox and without a moment’s hesitation she embarked upon a month-long hunger strike and an act of civil disobedience at the Seadrift Union Carbide plant that landed her in jail.

Wilson’s tale of her efforts to bring Warren Anderson to justice is humorous and inspiring. Her story about protesting at a fundraiser attended by Dick Cheney and ending up in jail shows her ingenuity and fearlessness and gives a harrowing account of what it is really like to be in jail for several months.

Through Diary of an Eco-Outlaw, Wilson relays the stories of a seemingly unending stream of current and former chemical industry workers who make their way to her door armed with piles of documentation and real-life experience dealing with hazardous working conditions, knowledge of illegal company actions, and suffering from a myriad of illnesses and fear.

The book wraps up with Wilson’s trip to Taiwan to deliver Ethecon Foundation’s Black Planet Award to the Wang family during the 2009 Formosa Plastics annual shareholders meeting.

The Bottom Line

Diane Wilson is the author of An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas and was featured in the award-winning documentary, Texas Gold. She is a co-founder of the women’s antiwar activist group CODEPINK and founder of the Texas Jail Project an advocacy group for Texas jail inmate rights.

Diane Wilson strikes me as a courageous fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of gal with a seemingly limitless pool of compassion, creative civil disobedience ideas, and willingness to put herself on the front line of the fight for human rights and environmental justice.

One might expect a non-fiction book filled with tales of injustice, environmental degradation, corporate malfeasance, government indifference, and personal sacrifice to deliver a compelling, distressing, and sometimes shocking narrative. Diary of an Eco-Outlaw does that, yet readers will also find themselves smiling and sometimes laughing out loud.

Diane Wilson is a master storyteller.

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Living Downstream – Book Review

Living Downstream Book CoverLiving Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber, combines science and the author’s own story.

I heard Steingraber talk about fracking during the 2012 Bioneers conference and found her a compelling speaker. I decided to look for her books and came across Living Downstream. The title and cover photo gave me pause, it looked depressing and scary, but I thought Steingraber probably had something important to share. So I bought the book.

Book Review

When I opened Living Downstream, I expected to read about Steingraber’s own odyssey with cancer and I was shocked to learn it began in college when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. In the foreword to the 2nd edition, she writes, “Thirty years ago I had cancer.”

Readers of Living Downstream will visit Steingraber’s home county of Tazewell, Illinois, both past, and present. The stories illustrate the intersection of farming and industry. Tazewell is in America’s heartland and acts as a stand-in for any county U.S.A.

Collecting pamphlets about cancer as Steingraber did, may seem a weird habit, but it gives us a glimpse into the message the government, health organizations, and cancer treatment centers are delivering to people in waiting rooms across the U.S. Here is an excerpt from the book.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services brochure:

“You can control many of the factors that cause cancer. This means you can help protect yourself from the possibility of getting cancer. You can decide how you’re going to live your life—which habits you will keep and which ones you will change.”

Human Genetics: A Modern Synthesis book:

“Because exposure to these environmental factors can, in principle, be controlled, most cancer could be prevented….Reducing or eliminating exposures to environmental carcinogens would dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer in the United States.”

Steingraber estimates 33,600 people die in the United States each year from cancers caused by involuntary exposure to toxic chemicals. To put that figure in perspective, “33,660 is greater than the total annual number of homicides in the United States—a figure that is considered a matter of national shame.”

The Bottom Line

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. holds a doctorate in biology and a master’s degree in creative writing. Her science background and experience give her street cred, and her writing ability makes the information accessible to non-scientists.

Some of the stories are sad, heart-rending, tragic. Steingraber tells them in words that evoke empathy and even hope rather than crushing the reader with feelings of horror or hopelessness. This is a gift.

I walked away with the knowledge that synthetic and toxic chemicals are everywhere and in everyone. Cancer is linked to the environment, they are not separate fights.

I recommend Living Downstream to people interested in learning about how what we put in the environment affects all life, including our own.

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