When the first-draft manuscript of An Unreasonable Woman arrived in the mail from Diane Wilson, I had already resolved, sight unseen, to option her story for development into a dramatic film. Her larger-than-life heroine’s journey had all the makings of an electrifying Hollywood thriller. Visions of Erin Brockovich, Silkwood, China Syndrome, and The Perfect Storm danced before my eyes. It would be hard to make up a more dramatic and colorful mythic tale of archetypal heroism than Diane’s true story of her epic battle to stop the massive pollution of her beloved Texas Gulf Coast by Formosa Plastics and other giant chemical corporations.
All of us, worldwide, now contain industrial chemicals in our bodies unknown to our grandparents. A National Geographic advertisement by the American Plastics Council in 2000 celebrated plastic as the “sixth basic food group.” In fact, Americans now ingest an average of 5.8 milligrams a day of DEHP, a phthalate plasticizer used in everything from food wrappings to children’s toys, medical devices, and ubiquitous PVC products. DEHP is an endocrine disrupter, a gender bender whose adverse health effects are evident at parts per trillion. Such estrogen-mimicking chemicals are associated with early puberty in girls, some as young as one year old. In infants and children, they produce measurable neurological deficits and changes in temperament, including laughing and smiling less, feeling more fearful, and becoming agitated under stress. As Dr. Theo Colborn has said, these chemicals can change the very character of human societies.
The Texas Gulf Coast is one of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the world. The region’s biggest manufacturer of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is Formosa Plastics, a multi-billion-dollar global octopus that has systematically been plasticizing Lavaca Bay. PVC is one of the most toxic and noxious substances in the organochlorine family of chlorine-based industrial poisons. The international treaty on persistent organic pollutants recently banned these chemicals, and members of the European Union are phasing out their use. It’s easy to see how Formosa got its reputation as a poster child for villainous corporations. This leader of Taiwan’s petrochemical industry had environmental practices and safety violations so appalling that twenty thousand Taiwanese came out under threat of police violence to protest its proposed new $8 billion complex. That’s how Formosa ended up in Texas.
Texas and Louisiana regularly vie for which can lead the nation as the most toxic state, and Texas was willing to give Formosa $200 million in subsidies to retain a shot at the title. When Formosa announced its plans for a $1.3 billion expansion of a plant making the raw materials for PVC, it got the customary red-carpet treatment and chamber-of-commerce confetti parade for creating jobs in an economically depressed region.
All that changed when Diane learned of an EPA report that rated Diane’s little Calhoun County (population fifteen thousand) as the most toxic in the nation. Diane wondered if that might help explain the mass dolphin die-offs and alligators floating belly up on her beloved Lavaca Bay. And why the commercial fishing was dying off as well. She decided to ask some questions, and started holding meetings.
With only a high school education (and a dislike of chemistry) Diane taught herself to file successful legal briefs and decipher mountains of scientific and technical EPA records. Her knowledge of Formosa became so intimate that the company’s own lawyers routinely called her for information about their operation. After exhausting all other means, she resorted to nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action, ultimately leading her to a daring and likely fatal showdown on Lavaca Bay.
I knew Diane’s story because she had spoken at the 1997 annual Bioneers Conference, which I founded. We were doing a special program that year on water, from the myriad environmental threats against water to the hopeful raft of solutions that bioneers—biological pioneers working with nature to heal nature—were applying to cleaning up, conserving, and protecting the world’s imperiled waters.
Following talks by an impressive array of accomplished scientists and social innovators, Diane began to speak. She exuded authenticity and sincerity. She described how, as a mother of five and former head of the PTA, she came to challenge some of the largest and most powerful chemical corporations in the world. Growing up, Diane said, the bay was like her grandmother; she spent endless hours in private conversation with her. She took the destruction of the bay very personally. Call it family values.
Once Diane started turning over some political rocks, just about everyone in the tiny company town, who depended on the chemical plants for their livelihood, warned her to back off. She did not. Along the way she realized that when a system is so profoundly corrupt, sometimes upholding the law means breaking the law. The rest is history, or, in this case, her story.
Diane recounted her jaw-dropping tale in the plainspoken eloquence of South Texas. The audience was transfixed. She received a standing ovation. Being unnaturally shy, she practically ran off the stage.
A year later I tried to reach Diane to invite her back to speak at Bioneers, but she seemed to have fallen off the map. Then, two years later, I got a call from her out of the blue. I immediately invited her back to Bioneers, but soon discovered her reason for calling: she had written a book and wanted to know if I would mind looking at it. Like many writers, she was bashful and self-deprecating. Of course I wanted to see the book! I felt as if I were already watching the movie.
It had been an exceedingly long day by the time I plunked down to leaf through Diane’s manuscript. It was heavy, weighing in at over seven hundred pages, usually not a good sign. I figured I’d scan the first chapter or two and then call it a night.
Finally I looked up. Many hours had passed. To say the book was a page-turner is an understatement. The story was octaves richer than I could have imagined, filigreed with eye-popping characters and a gemstone narrative.
What I had not anticipated was Diane’s dazzling writing. It evokes the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez, replete with dreams and prophecies. It is richly marbled with the hardcore realpolitik of corporate skulduggery, power politics, and the grievous personal betrayals that can turn so bitter in a small, familial community. The numbing contrast between her generational connection to the breathtaking natural beauty of the Texas Gulf and its hideous ravaging by industrial corporations and their political handmaidens conjures powerful visual and visceral resonances.
As a profoundly shy child, Diane filled her solitude with a fertile inner life that included voracious reading. It shows. Her vivid, idiosyncratic prose and perfect pitch dialogue resides somewhere between Alice Walker and William Faulkner. She tosses off metaphors and imagery like a dog shaking off water in a thunderstorm.
I got up the next morning and played hooky to finish the book. It never let up. A literary voice like Diane’s surfaces only a few precious times in a generation. I’m sure she did not believe me when I called to tell her that.
When Diane returned in 2001 to speak at Bioneers, the gathering had grown to well over two thousand people. Backstage, she was mightily anxious. I assured her that all she needed to do was be herself and tell her story as if she were sitting with friends around the kitchen table. She braced herself, walked onstage, and turned it into a kitchen table. The audience was rapt, enveloped in deep communion with this uniquely brave, soulful, and unstoppable woman.
In closing, she read one of her favorites quotes, from George Bernard Shaw: “A reasonable woman adapts to the world. An Unreasonable Woman makes the world adapt to her.” She looked up, reached out her arms, and grinned. “So I’m telling all you women out there to be unreasonable!”
The hall literally shook from the standing ovation. In seismic California, you never know. In this case, it was raucous, stomping applause, but it felt like an earthquake.
Several days later, Diane called me back at home. She was bursting with excitement. Through the rest of the conference, she couldn’t walk ten feet without streams of women coming up to her, tears running down their cheeks, saying, “Thank you for saying that!” She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but she knew some kind of vision was unfolding before her eyes.
I pulled my partner and wife Nina Simons onto the call. Nina, who has co-produced Bioneers with me since its inception, has always advocated for strong women’s voices at the annual conference. Perhaps as a result, about half the audience are women, an anomaly among environmental and scientific conclaves. As Diane repeated her story, I could see the goose bumps rising on Nina’s skin.
The result was that Nina hosted a retreat of carefully chosen women from the Bioneers network. Loosely called Unreasonable Women for the Earth, the mission was straightforward: collectively imagine a movement capable of catalyzing women’s greater participation in taking a stand on behalf of the Earth and people. Survey after survey shows that the huge majority of women worldwide are ardently in favor of environmental protection. Yet for whatever reasons, there has been a historical disconnect between the environmental and women’s movements. What if women around the world could mobilize around environmental restoration? What if women could come together and show real leadership with the force of half the world’s people?
The retreat was a powerful experience—or so I’m told, since obviously I was not there. One immediate outcome was the birth of Code Pink: Women for Peace (www.codepink4peace.org), cofounded by Jodie Evans, an independent change-maker, and Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Global Exchange.
A month after the retreat, Diane announced her next action to the group: a hunger strike to protest Dow Chemical’s refusal to take responsibility for the tragedy of Bhopal, which sickened and killed many thousands of people when a chemical plant exploded. Spontaneously the group organized to support her, sending a relay team of women from around the country to join her, while also organizing protests and media events at Dow factories across the nation. Dow’s local PR representative was flummoxed at finding a daisy chain of women from out of town anchored with Diane on a daily basis. It was practically the first time anyone had come to support her over her many years of often dangerous civil disobedience.
I believe that Diane’s shared vision is just getting going. Her current mission is to launch a national zero-discharge campaign. Twenty years ago, the federal Clean Water Act mandated use of technologies that contain pollution in a closed industrial loop at the source. The technology is state-of-the-shelf: it’s here now. While up-front capital costs can be higher, it gives businesses subsequent cost savings as well as providing obvious environmental virtues. It has long been in use in regions such as the Middle East, where clean water is at a premium. And by the way, soybean and other vegetable oils make perfectly viable substitutes for PVC, phthalates, and plastics. The future of chemistry is green, as we learn how to model how nature does it harmlessly.
Of all the problems we face, transforming the chemical metabolism is perhaps the most doable in the near term. That is perhaps Diane’s highest purpose in writing An Unreasonable Woman. There is no good reason—legal, technical, economic, or ethical—that industry should be emitting any toxic pollution into the environment, our bodies, and our children’s bodies. Diane’s own son Crockett is autistic—a condition that could have resulted from the widespread toxic contamination his mother has been struggling to stop. Yes, it gets that personal. None of us is immune, and even gated communities offer no protection against the havoc caused by the pervasive, universal poisoning of the web of life.
Diane likes to say that she is “nobody particular.” If she could do what she’s done, then anyone can. It’s an inspiring message, and it’s true. Whatever our own path may be, each of us can rise to the occasion and act. Diane’s vision, courage, persistence, and absolute commitment are a beacon to us all. She speaks to our highest aspirations, and hopefully we will rise to meet her challenge.
Diane’s astounding journey shows just how great a difference one individual can make. She likes to quote Henry David Thoreau, grandfather of American civil disobedience, who on his deathbed said that his only regret was that he was “too well behaved.” Sometimes, as Diane puts it, it takes being outrageous, being “unreasonable.” After all, look where reason has gotten us.
You are now holding this book in your hands because of the vision and commitment of Margo Baldwin and Chelsea Green. What every writer hopes for in a publisher is an impassioned champion who truly “gets it.” Margo called back just a few days after receiving the manuscript. She, too, had been unable to put the book down. She was roaring to bring it into the world, which is a gift to us all.
Diane could hardly believe that her book was going to be published. In fact, her skeptical ninety-something-year-old mother had promised Diane she would stand on her head if it ever got into print.
I don’t know whether Momma is standing on her head right now. But I do imagine that Diane’s grandmother—Lavaca Bay—is rolling with swells a head higher and whitecaps a shade brighter. Her granddaughter is as unreasonable as she is, and did not forsake her.
Santa Fe, New Mexico