Earth A.D. (A Review)

When I first heard the title of Michael Lee Nirenberg’s new book Earth AD: The Poisoning of the American Landscape and the Communities that Fought Back, I was immediately reminded of an old R.E.M. tour poster that I had during their Green period in the late 1980s.  It read “Think global, act local.”  R.E.M. did not invent that though.  It is a fundamental phrase used in many different contexts attributed to environmentalism in the decades since.  However, in the 80s, it still seemed more of a bleak look into the future if not yet a total call to arms.  With a title as huge in geographical time and space as Earth A.D., Nirenberg takes these fundamentals of the microcosmic local by narrowing down the seemingly endless history of global environmental disasters to focus on two communities in the United States and the catastrophic price we pay for the destruction of natural resources.  Just as important to the global aspect of Earth A.D. is the book’s subtitle: The Poisoning of the American Landscape and the Communities that Fought Back…this, a testament to the idea that revolutions need to happen from the ground up, and that there is always strength in numbers, even at the local level….very often especially at the local level.

The earth is screwed up.  This we know.  At this point in the game, only a politically-motivated irrational mind would challenge or deny this fact as we’ve moved into the 21st year of the 21st century in this most consequential of millenniums. But in America, it isn’t as easy as simply accepting or even believing the science and validity of historical fact.  In recent decades it is common knowledge that in America, the Republican Party has been openly hostile to the environmental movement, though Nirenberg who has made it clear in recent interviews that he doesn’t want to paint one party responsible for environmental disasters, is fair when he needs to be, in recognition that both major parties have often been at fault over the decades.  One fact to take into consideration is that it was under the Nixon Administration that major environmental legislation was passed in a bi-partisan manner unheard of and impossible in today’s political civil war.  It’s an idea that seems alien today, that there was once a time when allegiance to political party didn’t take priority over protecting the earth.  How foreign such a concept here in 21st century America.  Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can paint those Nixon years as ghastly as we always have, but the truth remains that even during the paranoid early 1970s, the earth still belonged to all of us.  We all had to drink the same water and breathe the same air.  I personally in my 50 years began to notice a shift in the early 90s when Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance appeared and George H.W. Bush began mocking him as “Ozone Man.”  But somewhere between the earth belonging to everyone and the idea of clean air and water being condemned as a liberal thing, Congress in 1980 enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund Law.  This is a Federal “superfund” that provides resources to assist in cleaning up hazardous-waste sites containing pollutants and contaminants, and also in the containment of environmental accidents such as oil spills.  The law also holds accountable the parties responsible for said disasters while demanding their compliance and cooperation in the cleanup process.    

Earth A.D. (a title that came to Nirenberg following a Misfits concert and also the title of a Misfits song) is an essential oral history introducing us to two Superfund Sites that are not very widely known.  Aside from some limited journalism, Tar Creek, running down along the northeastern corner of Oklahoma, and Newtown Creek, located in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York have never been well-covered much outside of their own localities.  Even many locals weren’t always aware of the dangers brought about by both sites.     

The Tar Creek Superfund Site covers a 50 square mile area with some 40,000 residents exposed to a geographical wasteland made up of lead, manganese, cadmium and a nightmare of toxic materials.  Tar Creek also runs through the small town of Picher near the borders of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.  Picher was once prominent in mining for heavy metals during the early decades of the 20th century, making ammunition and supplying half the bullets fired in World War I.  It became one of the largest exporters of zinc and lead in the world, consequently bringing about dire conditions such as the lead poisoning that some 60 percent of children tested positive for by the mid 1990s.  The tri-state mining region’s toxic cocktail that was concocted from lead and zinc embedded in the gravel of every road and most of the infrastructure not only contributed to the poisoning of adults and children, but also to the unborn.  One of the more harrowing details we learn from Earth A.D. is how lead poisoning often works its way through pregnancy as women can transfer absorbed lead into a fetus’s developing skeleton.   This takes place as the mother’s bones literally dissolve in order to supply the fetus with much-needed calcium, while in the process existing lead mobilizes into the bones of her child. Nirenberg speaks to pediatricians, medical toxicologists and teams of environmental epidemiological researchers who conducted the studies that have informed much of what we know about the impact of these materials on children’s development.

In learning about Tar Creek and the now-deserted ghost town of Picher, the damage becomes eerily evident in the physical manmade landscape that has altered the town’s geography in the form of mountain ranges made up literally of toxic waste…actual hills compiled of chat, a gravelly waste coming from lead and zinc that has been disposed of, stacked and accumulated over a long period of years, forming off-white masses known as chat piles, that again, resemble mountains from a distance.  I was particularly fascinated by these chat piles because I had no idea that they existed, and was horrified to find out what they actually were.  Earth A.D. made me venture out into further exploration of the chat piles, first looking them up to find that they are completely visible on Google Earth.  What is even more chilling aside from finding out that the chat was used in much of the town and surrounding area’s sidewalks, driveways, and just the overall physical infrastructure, was the fact that the children of Picher used to ride their bikes and play on the chat piles, having no idea that they were being poisoned for years.  There is something very hauntingly Sci-Fi about these facts, though unfortunately there is nothing fictional about any of it.  As mineshafts eventually began to cave in and homes began to sink some 25 feet into the earth, developments were bought out and residents relocated, which in itself is somewhat a miracle considering the red tape and bureaucracy of government involvement in anything, especially the obstruction that became part of the Republican Party’s modus operandi.  On a semi-related note, it is no surprise that Oklahoma’s very own anti-environmental villain Scott Pruitt was chosen by Donald Trump as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Earth A.D.’s second Superfund Site is much closer to home for the book’s author.  Having been an 11-year resident of Greenpoint, Nirenberg came to discover the town’s past history, and pursue with great interest, conviction and detail the poisoned landscape that industry created around New York City’s largest borough…in particular, a four-mile long toxic waterway called Newtown Creek that could otherwise have been used for more human-friendly activities like swimming and boating.  As it turns out, residents were indeed using the creek for recreational purposes.  People were swimming, boating and even fishing in the polluted waters.  Newtown Creek has a history of pollution going back to the 19th century through countless oil spills in addition to the ones that we know about, namely the little disasters created by companies such as Exxon and BP in more recent decades. That said, the city itself was dumping raw sewage into the creek for as long as the creek’s history has been monitored, and was named as one of the parties responsible to pay for cleanup under the Superfund program.  Decades of unchecked pollution in addition to the everyday realities of a lovely incinerator, raw sewage, oil spills, truck fumes, waste transfer stations, and the cancers associated with prolonged toxicity, Greenpoint has been ripe for activism, and the community has left its own mark of pushback.    

With community involvement in the fight to take back waterways like Newtown Creek, Tar Creek is not as evolved in becoming people-friendly and is far from seeing a happy ending.  Though several tons of toxic soil is removed each day in a cleanup effort by the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, activists continue to fight for more thorough remediation projects conducive to a vision of Tar Creek being put toward agricultural use and thriving in the coming decades.  In fact, despite the progress of activists and community residents in response to years of persistence and demand for action, none of this story meets a happy ending.  Earth A.D. isn’t intended that way.  What Earth A.D. does is remind us that this fight…any fight…all fights…are ongoing because pollution and environmental destruction is ongoing.  Politics caters to industry, and industry to politics, and it is we the people who must keep it all in check.  Even in the case of Newtown Creek which continues to see PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls…aka toxic industrial chemicals) deposited now from the East River, it calls into consideration the fragility of our waterways in terms of their proximity to each other.  It begs further questions of whether the future might see the East and Hudson rivers and New York Harbor as Superfund Sites.                   

By doing this book in the format of oral history, Nirenberg has maximized the reader’s access to information by letting entire chunks of interview material from the experts remain as the body of the publication.  Some may find that problematic in that they might wish for a more traditional structure of an author’s narrative supplemented by only the most significant and carefully selected quotes.  Oral history works very much like documentary filmmaking though, and this content is all significant.  One who picks up Earth A.D. but is not familiar with Nirenberg might not be surprised that he has already done this sort of work before…and he does it masterfully, best exemplified in his 2014 documentary Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story…the kind of film that moves and smoothly swirls, juxtaposing talking heads with visually-stunning rapid fire editing against a loud and abrasive soundtrack.  Nirenberg’s work is much more subdued here but no less impactful.  This time there is nothing to watch, no soundtrack to hear other than the sound of the earth dying, and his documentary is set to the written word.  In other words, Earth A.D. is a book that moves to the beat of a film where the talking heads tell the story, and the writer acting as narrator, occasionally steps in whenever necessary to apply some seamless transitions.  But Nirenberg in his own estimation doesn’t really consider himself a writer (although I personally beg to differ), and is more attracted to the pastiche and collage-like nature of oral history as his chosen method of telling a story…at least for now.  He is no stranger to working like this, as his documentaries and written work have been highly dependent on a daunting number of interviews, many of which he’s often traveled great distances to do, and then is left to sift among the jigsaw pieces of dialogue from hundreds of conversations with the aim of stitching them into a cohesive narrative that conveys vital information, a clear delivery of a vision, and somehow in the process, in a profound and possibly inadvertent way, his latest piece of art.  He does this all magnificently. 

For Earth A.D., Nirenberg not only talked to residents, doctors, scientists, journalists, and environmental activists, but the politicians often responsible for the legislation or lack thereof that create the unchecked conditions leading up to these disasters.  The book presents these stories from both sides and makes every effort to objectively look at the issues at hand without unnecessary finger-pointing.  While there is no shortage of blame when it comes to environmentalism and politics, Earth A.D. avoids being an indictment of one party, although it inevitably becomes clear who has been the enemy to the environment in recent decades, at least in the United States.  Still, in view of the change that has slowly come to these two Superfund Sites, we are able to remain hopeful for their future as well as the overall future of the big picture itself.  There is something to be said of the persistence and call of activism that goes a long way in making politicians listen and eventually take action.  Ultimately, the most effective message of Earth A.D. to the reader is that activism indeed makes things happen, even if it takes a long time.  Change is always possible through the will and determination of the human spirit, giving further testament to the idea that people really do have the power.