‘Better living through chemistry’ was an optimistic slogan of the nineteen fifties. But is that how things really turned out?

Tony Scalza, a former Green Beret turned military contractor, is trapped in a job he loathes by the health care costs for a son born ​badly damaged as the result of toxic chemicals in Desert Storm. Jana Cermak, a brilliant environmental political scientist at Wayne State University in Detroit, feels teaching is akin to fiddling while the world burns. A man they both hold in high esteem, Michigan State Senator Tyrone Jackson, also a Gulf War veteran, is now a crusader against the devastating harms of toxic chemicals and a man faced with painful political choices. Iris Fowler, a senior professor of genetics and biology, is working on a study that could blow the plans of the chemical industry, to pass critical legislation in Congress, to kingdom come.

As their personal struggles unfold, their paths converge when they come up against an enormously powerful trio of men – Wilbur Hayes, petrochemical czar, Donald Wagar, a powerful Congressional house committee chairman, and Gustav King, owner-CEO of a private contracting company that provides one-stop-shopping for oligarchs, criminal bosses and nation states alike for muscle and brain power to advance their global interests.

In Detroit, all their lives collide in ways that link them to events and people from as far away as the Arab East and the Alberta oil sands, and as close as the halls of the United States Congress and the chemical cities of Midland and Sarnia. From all these places, as well as from the boardrooms of the petrochemical industry and the community centers where activists meet in polluted, struggling, fence-line communities, Upstream tells the stories of the pain, sickness and violence that underpin the chemical economy and the love, courage and commitment of those fighting to mitigate the damage and create a better world.