Monday, 24 February 2014

Corporate greed and a righteous cause in Tom's River

From the Week of February 17th, 2014

Capitalism has built and furnished our world with the stuff of our dreams. In providing a tangible, monetary reward for the risks inherent in the creation of products, it has given us a society in which we travel on airplanes, entertain ourselves with televisions and and accumulate knowledge with networked computers, all of this in the span of little more than 200 years. The innovation it has spurred has literally transformed our planet, making it and the humans who live on it, unrecognizable to the generations who came before.

And yet, for all of capitalism's incalculable benefits, it sometimes extracts a terrible cost. For in incentivizing humans with the promises of wealth, and in valorizing the pursuit of that wealth, it has created conditions in which the societal costs of mass-production are, at best, minimized and, at worst, utterly ignored, its toxic consequences sloughed off for later generations to deal with, a point powerfully made in Dan Fagin's thorough account of one of the United States' most shameful episodes in its corporate history.

Tom's River, New Jersey has been, for much of its 300-year existance, an idyllic town. Nestled on the mid-Atlantic coast, it is part of the famed Jersey Shore, a stretch of American beach front popular amongst vacationers and tourists. In recent decades, its population has grown, elevating property values and turning tidy profits for those who bought when it was still a sleepy community.

However, for 30 years, a toxic secret lay beneath Tom's River's charm and beauty, one that oozed out of the ground and into the public consciousness in the late 1980s when parents and hospital workers began to notice an unusual preponderence of sick children within the town. Investigations of these clustering cancers would eventually lead to the doorstep of Tom's river chemical, a subsidiary of a Swiss dye manufacturer that had, at least since the 1960s, been dumping its carcinogenic waste products into the town's ground and the nearby ocean. This waste eventually seeped into Tom's River's wellwater, likely causing the statistically significant uptick in cancers from the 1970s onward.

An account of the dumping and the long, torturous battle on behalf of the concerned citizens to have tom's River Chemical held to account, Tom's River is a powerful and moving work of non-fiction. Mr. Fagin's history of the idyllic town, and the chemical plant that poisoned it, unfolds like a car crash in slow motion. Its linear narrative ruthlessly explores Tom's River Chemical's greed and negligence, the agonizing grief of the parents who paid the price for its malfeasance, and the many government inquests and scientific investigations that tried to sound out the when, where and why of what it had done. The gestalt is nothing short of a gut-wrenching tale of soulless capitalism butting up hard against the love of parents for their children who play in an increasingly polluted planet.

Peculiarly, Tom's River is made all the more potent for the messy and controversial resolution of its subject. Fearing the years of life-destroying litigation that would almost certainly result from trying to take on Tom's River Chemical in the courts, and lacking any sort of scientifically grounded smoking gun tying the cancer cluster with the chemical dumping, the parents of the affected children negotiated a controversial truce with the company, robbing this multi-decade odyssey of anything like a satisfactory conclusion. And yet, this is precisely why the work is so extraordinary. For it leaves the reader with no doubt that the concerned were forced by circumstances into such a peace. The limitations of science and the perfidy of politicians left them bereft of any muscle to bring to bear against the company , reducing them to two bad options, a foul-tasting peace or a Pyrrhic war in the courts.

This conclusion, however, in no way diminishes the heros who devoted nearly 20 years of their lives to bringing Tom's River Chemical to heel. From the concerned nurses to the EPA officials, from the determined parents to the stoic scientists, Mr. Fagin introduces us to a swath of honest and earnest Americans trying to right a wrong that no one else wanted to acknowledge. In doing so, we come to understand not only the frustration of the unheard but the pain of the healer who can only look on and watch as cancer, in all its varieties, eats away at the innocents in their care. If there's any flaw with the work, it is the absence of interviews from Tom's River Chemical and its Swiss masters who are utterly silent throughout. Whether this is due to bias on the part of the reporter, or heartless lawyering on the part of Novartis, is not at all clear.

Environmentalism, bureaucracy and science all have their moments here, but Tom's River leaves no doubt that, if we are to change our world for the better, it will have to come at the expense of unbridled capitalism. Regulation is a wretched tangle of thorns into which only the foolish wish to plunge, but we must also acknowledge that it is the nature of publicly traded companies to maximize profits at the expense of everyone and everything around them. Their soul drive is to earn. And over two centuries, that drive has given us an amazing world. But the price we pay for that world is too high, for us and for the people who come after us. Incentives must be put in place, penalties so cripplingly severe that they leave no doubt, in any boardroom, that it is more economical to do the right thing than to do the irresponsible thing. To ignore this truth, for reasons of politics or ideology, will devastate our planet which is, after all, the cradle of the generations to come. (4/5 Stars)

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