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Spring 2023: Comparative and Global Perspectives

Literary Resources

Frederick H Turner and Madeline June Kass


  • A review of the book “Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial.”
  • A look into the award-winning book “Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law.”
  • Sheds light on the challenges of plastic pollution in a review of the book, “Our Plastic Problem and How to Solve It.”
Literary Resources

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Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial

Corban Addison
Alfred A. Knopf, 2022

Reviewed by Frederick H. Turner

Halfway through T. S. Eliot’s famous poem, “The Wasteland,” he describes seasonal change along the shore of the Thames with these words: “the last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind / Crosses the brown land, unheard.” In Corban Addison’s riveting drama, Wastelands, the wind may cross the land of eastern North Carolina unheard, but it is definitely smelled. Indeed, for those living in close proximity to the area’s massive hog farms—also known as concentrated animal feeding operations—there exists a persistent malodor that is both “a cauldron of unpleasantness, and a vector for disease.” Addison’s book tells the story of how some of those neighbors banded together and, with the help of their attorneys, initiated and unexpectedly won several nuisance suits against the company that controlled the farms—Smithfield Foods.

Wastelands is a well-structured and lively recounting of the litigation that has the hallmarks of a legal thriller primed for adaptation into a movie or television show. It even has a Foreword by John Grisham that invokes Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action. But before diving into the legal landscape, it is worth pausing to highlight the social and historical landscape. As Addison points out, there is “a centuries-old fault line running dagger-straight through the coastal plain. That fault line is prejudice. Nearly all of the Plaintiffs are Black. The farmers . . . are, with rare exception, white.” For some of the plaintiffs, that fault line can be traced back to the end of the Civil War, when their newly freed ancestors acquired the land they now call home. In the late twentieth century, North Carolina agriculture experienced a tectonic shift, with pork replacing tobacco as the primary focus, and Addison highlights studies showing that minorities and those who are poor are more likely to live near hog farms and that those neighbors reported more illnesses. The connection between race and place is a central tenet of environmental justice, and Wastelands shows that although environmental injustices are often addressed through the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, they can also sound in nuisance law.

These nuisance cases turned on the question of whether Smithfield substantially and unreasonably interfered with the plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their property. To help persuade the jury, the plaintiffs’ attorneys needed a scientist who could show the connection between the “otherwise invisible pollutants in the air” and the nearby homes. They found Shane Rogers, an environmental engineer at Clarkson University in northern New York. He focused on a “chemical signature” known as Pig2Bac, which is unique to hog feces. Rogers’s tests revealed the presence of Pig2Bac at multiple homes. One of those homes had it on the stove and the refrigerator.

Another of those homes belonged to Woodell McGowan, who is the named plaintiff in two of the five bellwether cases. In both cases, the jury ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor and awarded damages. At the end of the book, we learn about the relative value of the verdict and the monetary awards when Addison drives to see McGowan. “Money can’t buy you clean air,” McGowan tells him. “Money can’t buy not having to smell all the hog trucks in and out.” For the McGowan neighbors, the verdict was important because it showed that the jury believed them.

The reader can feel a narrative energy when Addison turns the spotlight on people like Rogers and McGowan, but it is most pronounced when Addison is describing the work of the attorneys and the judges. He devotes many pages to the advocacy of Mona Lisa Wallace, the lawyer who first took on the cases and managed the legal team, and to the strategy of the lead trial counsel, Mike Kaeske, who eviscerated witnesses on cross-examination. Ironically, the heart of the book is also an Achilles heel because Addison is not as critical of those he spends so much time on and provides a one-dimensional view of those on the other side of the “v.” This is not meant to take away from the significance of this monumental story, which, as Grisham accurately notes, is a story of David versus Goliath; however, that story could have been all the more forceful if both David and Goliath were more fully fleshed out.

The book crescendos with Smithfield’s appeal of the jury verdicts to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Addison maneuvers adroitly through the oral argument and the opinions that uphold the jury verdicts. He highlights the concurring opinion by Judge Harvie Wilkinson, which weaves together environmental justice and nuisance law:

It is well-established—almost to the point of judicial notice—that environmental harms are visited disproportionately upon the dispossessed—here on minority populations and poor communities. But whether a home borders a golf course or a dirt road, it is a castle for those who reside in it. . . . [many of these plaintiffs] are exactly whom the venerable tort of nuisance ought to protect.

Throughout the book, Addison invokes religion. He uses terms such as “patron saint” and “baptism,” compares a complaint to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and dubs law “the liturgy of modern America.” But perhaps the most fitting is the title of the chapter in which he describes Wilkinson’s concurrence: “Final Judgment.”

Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law

Mary Roach
Norton, 2021

Reviewed by Madeline June Kass

During the days-long drive from Seattle to San Diego amid a January bomb cyclone, I passed many hours of tense driving solitude listening to audiobooks. Despite the torrential rain, the hail, and the scenic but often monotonous interstate 5 landscape, one book cracked my otherwise tense driving face with a joyful smirk. So, for my first NR&E audiobook review, let me share with you Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law written and narrated by Mary Roach.

Fuzz contains a considerable collection of facts, scientific research, and field investigative reporting “as evidence of the intractable nature of human-wildlife conflict.” Anyone interested in wildlife conservation challenges is sure to learn things new and interesting. For everyone else, Fuzz enlightens with goofy factoids (did you know . . .) and true-to-life but stranger-than-fiction animal behaviors of both the human and wildlife variety. And, for environmental lawyers specifically, there’s plenty curious wildlife regulations, dysfunctional policy choices, and distinctly unusual “criminal” acts. As introduced by the author herself,

The first half of the book considers the felony crimes. Murder and manslaughter, serial killing, aggravated assault. Robbery and Home invasion. Body snatching. Grand theft, sunflower seed. The perpetrators include the usual suspects, the bears and the big cats, and some less usual—monkeys, blackbirds, Douglas firs. The later pages explore acts less grievous but more widespread. . . . [J]aywalking ungulates. The vultures and gulls that vandalize property for no discernible reason. The littering geese and the trespassing rodents.

But for the violent nature of some of the wildlife human interactions, this could be a family road trip favorite. It’s perfect for the poop, pee, puke, and yuck humor crowd (which I am apparently still a member) and chock-full of what might be described as “dad joke” humor, as exemplified in this passage from chapter 2, “Breaking and Entering and Eating: How Do You Handle a Hungry Bear?”

You may be wondering: When you live off your own fat, do you need to use the toilet? If you are a bear, you do not. Hibernating bears reabsorb their urine and form a “fecal plug.” Cubs, on the other hand, let it go inside the den. Not a problem, because the mother bear eats it—partly as cleanup, but mostly as food. She is nursing, after all. . . . Surreally, black bear sows give birth halfway through their hibernation. They deliver a couple of cubs, snack on the placenta, then go back into hibernation, nursing and tending their cubs in a state of semi-alertness until spring. According to a scientist who has taken blood samples from hibernating black bears, they do not have sleep breath and their dens don’t stink.

Given the frequent graphic, grisly details of certain murderous wildlife encounters, I feel I must rate the book a solid PG-13 rather than family friendly. It’s at times disgusting, more often intellectually fascinating, and as they say on National Public Radio (NPR) thoroughly “disgustigating.”

Fuzz isn’t all fun and games. Below the humor, Roach has a serious message to convey. Conflicts between human and wildlife abound, and frequently it is we humans that cause and exacerbate such conflicts often for no good reason. In the chapter on “Futile Military Actions Against Birds,” Roach writes,

As far as I can tell from newspapers of the era, the practice known as crow-bombing reached its zenith near the tine town of Asa, Texas, on February 6, 1953. Joe Browder, “who hates crows,” took 150 pounds of dynamite and parceled it out to make 300 bombs. Half-sticks of explosive were packed, along with metal shards from a local foundry, into cardboard tubes and strung together in the scrub oaks along the Brazos River where the birds returned each night to roost. By one giddy estimate, 50,000 crows lay dead in an instant.

* * *

Why didn’t someone call the authorities? The authorities were already there.

* * *

And there was the birds’ crime: feeding. A common concern expressed in the newspapers of the time was that crows—“black bandits of the air,” “feathered gangsters,” the “menacing sable flood”—were raiding the nests of waterfowl, devouring eggs and chicks to the extent that duck hunters would not have enough of them to shoot. Crow-bombing, in fact, was a government sponsored conservation effort.

Roach goes on to point out: “Here’s the thing with killing as a wildlife damage control tool. It isn’t just mean. It doesn’t—barring wholesale eradication—work.

Fuzz the printed book secured many accolades. It wrapped up NPR, Washington Post, and Smithsonian best book of the year awards in 2021, as well as making the New York Times bestseller list. But Roach is not just an award-winning nonfiction science writer, she’s the perfect “straight man” narrator (comedic woman foil) of her own work. Read with composed deadpan no matter the outrageous scenario, the audio version does double duty for entertainment value (the only downside being you don’t get to see the illustrations from the book version).

Our Plastic Problem and How to Solve It

Sarah J. Morath
Cambridge, 2022

Reviewed by Madeline June Kass

In Our Plastic Problem and How to Solve It, author Sarah Morath details a history of plastic, explains the challenges of plastics pollution to our health, ecosystem, and economy, and proffers numerous potential solutions, all in a compact, easy to read, paperback.

Morath declares: “Plastic is everywhere.” We can find it in the ocean’s deepest depths and atop some of the tallest mountain peaks. So just how did this come to be? The early chapters provide answers. Morath traces the growth of the plastics industry, explains the importance and methods of plastics quantification and reasons for plastic persistence, and describes the resulting unsavory health and environmental outcomes.

I personally cringe when thinking about how plastic has invaded our daily lives in 24/7 fashion. From the time we wake, to the hours we sleep, we engage with it or see its detritus. A 2023 New York Times article, Trying to Live a Day Without Plastic, by A. J. Jacobs, describes the author’s herculean, but doomed, effort to avoid plastics for just a single day. He failed just 10 seconds into his day.

But what of solutions? A goal of the book is to help readers understand “the need for a multimodal approach to solving” the plastic problem. Multimodal solutions, according to the Morath, “reimagine existing approaches in terms of what is regulated and how regulation occurs.” They move beyond traditional legislative solutions and to concerted government, business, and public efforts. The later chapters detail such solutions considering factors explained in Part I, including type, size, origin, and life cycle stage of the plastic of concern. For example,

A ban on single-use plastics would be an upstream solution (i.e., it would seek to prevent plastic from entering the environment by reducing the amount of plastic produced), while beach cleanup efforts would be a down-stream solution (i.e., it would seek to remove plastic that has already entered the environment). Likewise, a law focused on illegal dumping from ocean vessels addresses water-based sources of plastic pollution and requires international cooperation, while a regulation focused on discharges from plastic producers addresses land-based sources and invokes federal law. Finally, the smallest kind of plastic pollution—microfibers released from vehicular tire wear and clothes washing—might not fall with current regulations at all thus making design and innovation even more important to solving plastic pollution.

In Part II, Morath examines traditional governmental solutions (e.g., potential new laws and ideas for strengthening existing laws), private governance solutions for businesses, nonprofits, and institutions (e.g., voluntary reductions, education, and certification programs), and individual led efforts to address plastic problems (e.g., citizen-consumer pressure campaigns and citizen-science projects). In Part III, the book’s final chapters examine innovative solutions for fostering product redesign and reuse of plastic. Morath concludes by offering “the circular economy—where waste is designed out of manufacturing processes—as the optimal way forward.” Morath asserts, and I agree, “[i]nvesting in and growing the circular economy is the next frontier for those seeking to solve our plastic problem.”