steingraber, the abolitionist

May 1, 2013


Sandra Steingraber signs books after her lecture at UMBC Monday afternoon.

“Fracking is the DDT of our age,” biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber said Monday afternoon at a lecture at UMBC. Like DDT, “it is ubiquitous, heavily promoted and we have come to see it as … harmless.”

Steingraber said that all of her attention now—as a mother, scientist, writer, cancer survivor—is directed at halting fracking.

Only because she was on her best behavior in jail did she make it to UMBC, where she delivered the sixth-annual Korenman Lecture. Steingrager was sentenced April 17 to 15 days for trespassing in March at a planned Inergy Inc. compressor station and gas storage site near Seneca Lake and her home in Trumansburg, NY. She pleaded guilty, explaining to the judge that her act of civil disobedience was because of unjust laws. Inergy, she argued, is guilty of toxic trespass. After refusing to pay the $375 fine, she was jailed along with two other members of the Seneca Lake 12 but released after eight days.

Steingraber sees herself as continuing in the tradition of Rachel Carson, whose work a half-century ago led to the banning of DDT. Steingraber was 3 years old when Carson’s Silent Spring was published. Her father, a teacher who always voted Republican, used it as a textbook in his business class. Although she couldn’t read the book, Steingraber saw it go in and out of her father’s worn book bag. And when she went to the Laundromat with her mother, she noticed that the bus driver had the book under his windshield. And she saw it other places, too. “In the 1960s … it was the ubiquitous book,” she said. Because of Silent Spring, Steingraber’s father became an organic gardener. He had fought in World War II and suffered from what would now be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. “His garden was therapy for him,” she said. “He was not interested in bringing in a command-and-control military strategy to maintaining weed control and keeping pests out.”

Steingraber said her life has had many parallels to Carson’s. Both were women and biologists who had trouble choosing between a career in writing and one in science. And both had cancer. But Carson had to hide her cancer, so she wouldn’t be seen as biased or even hysterical, while Steingraber has been able to write about her experiences. ”I’ve always been forthright about my diagnosis, and I’ve never had to be afraid that my science would be impeached because I had cancer,” she said. The difference, she said, is that the feminist movement made women’s stories and autobiography matter.

Carson’s science alone did not bring about change, Steingraber said. Carson also was pushed by activists, in particular by a Long Island group called the Committee Against Mass Poisoning—a name Steingraber said needs to be revived. The group noticed that birds were dying after aerial DDT spraying. The members, mostly women, sued, lost, sued again, lost again, all the way to the Supreme Court, where they again lost, Steingraber said. But newspapers followed the story and asked Carson and other scientists to write about it. “A critical space was opened in the culture to talk about these issues and to do the science,” Steingraber said, “because the Committee Against Mass Poisoning forced the issue.” In addition, an activist group of scientists, the Environmental Defense Fund, eventually worked with lawyers to press for one of Carson’s goals: the creation of what became known as the Environmental Protection Agency. Eventually, DDT and other pesticides were banned. “We took an abolitionist approach,” Steingraber said, after finding “some chemicals so inherently unmanageable and un-regulatable that no laws could manage them sufficiently to prevent harm.”

And Steingraber takes a similar, abolitionist approach to fracking.

Steingraber was headed for medical school when her bladder cancer was diagnosed between her sophomore and junior years of college. Doctors asked her if she had ever vulcanized tires or worked in aluminum smelting, because bladder cancer is often caused by exposure to chemicals. Of course, she had not, she said, but she learned that her hometown had 30 industries, including an aluminum smelter, chemical manufacturers and coal-burning plants. In her research for the book that would become Living Downstream, she found dry-cleaner solvent, a cause of bladder cancer, in her town’s drinking wells.

And so, Steingraber said, she wanted to do for carcinogens what Carson had done for pesticides. Like Carson, Steingraber summarizes the science in her book, but unlike Carson she includes herself as a data point in the cancer cluster of her community. “It wasn’t seen as the opposite of doing good science,” she said. For 20 years she worked toward a Carson-esque bill of rights that would have made people secure from poisons applied by others. For a time, Steingraber said, she thought she was making progress toward persuading the EPA and state agencies that relying on these chemicals was a foolish violation of human rights and expensive. That is: Cancer, asthma, miscarriages are expensive.

“We were making slow progress. Until along came fracking,” she said. This technology “has upended everything … and contravenes all the good things we have put in place.”

When she was growing up, DDT was under every sink, and children often ran through a fog of DDT spray. Magazine ads proclaimed that DDT was good for you, even though it was also a “ruthless assassin” for bugs. “Fracking occupies that same space in our culture today,” she said.

She explained the now-familiar fracking process: the “petrified fizz of champagne bubbles” trapped in rock, the remains of sea creatures that died in an ancient ocean 400 million year ago; the drilling technique devised to extract this hard-to-get gas; the millions of gallons of water; the explosives; the silica sand to prop open the cracks; the gel to make it slippery—and the biocides needed to kill the living organisms deep under the Earth’s surface. “The underground that we had thought of as a place of inertia, death, lifelessness is actually completely alive,” she said. In fact, she said, scientists believe that more biomass, more living organisms are deep under the surface than on top and these play an important role in the carbon cycle and climate stability. Gasp, said the audience. “Fracking requires you kill off all those,” she said, so industry has to broadcast pesticides and biocides underground “to kill off anything that’s alive.” Fracking also requires places to store the butane and propane that comes up from the ground, such as at the salt caverns on Seneca Lake, where she was arrested in March.

Steingraber’s latest book, Raising Elijah, is both the name of her son and a call to raise up the spirit of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist in the 1830s who was assassinated for his stand against slavery. Lovejoy condemned slavery when it was being “regulated.” The slave trade from Africa had been halted, making each slave worth more. “He was motivated to do so as a parent,” Steingraber said, because he could see children being sold into slavery across the river in Illinois. Even though his work also put his own family at risk, he had to condemn this “homicidal abomination.” Today, she said, we are “ruinously dependent on another abomination”: fossil fuels, which are killing the planet and ourselves.

“And we are taking a regulatory approach to them when we should be taking an abolitionist” one, she said.

Responding to several questions after her talk, she criticized the mainstream environmental movement, as “playing a traitor’s role in fracking.” One of her letters in jail was to leaders of Sierra Club, EDF and others that view fracking as inevitable and so are cooperating with industry. “I’ve run out of patience with the mainstream environmental movement.”

In the audience, two representatives from Sierra Club also said they were dismayed with the compromises the large organizations were making. “I share every one of the frustrations you express,” said Richelle Brown, who is in charge of Maryland Sierra Club’s natural gas campaign. She said she hopes to push resources to communities on the front lines that are fighting the compressor stations and LNG export plants that go with fracking. “My approach to that is to try to go in and change the organizational culture,” Brown said. Also, Ruth White from Climate Change Iniative of Howard County said her group and Chesapeake Climate Action Network are pressing for studies to see if fracking can be done safely. Steingraber said that is an approach she is also taking in New York, where she is pushing for a health impact study—although she remains “sure [the] risks can’t be mitigated.”

Steingraber also said we need to modernize energy as much as we have the telecommunications industry. If her great-grandfather were brought back to life, she said, he would not know how to place a phone call. But he could put gas in her car. We are “frozen in the past” with our energy system, she said. Industry says abandoning fossil fuels is pie in the sky or unrealistic, but “it’s more pie in the sky and unrealistic to think that Earth’s system eco-services are going to carry on while we ravage them,” she said.

Plankton, which make about half the oxygen we breathe, are declining at a rate of 1 to 2 percent a year and have declined perhaps 40 percent since World War II. “Why don’t we know this? Why do we know more about the stock market even if you don’t have stock?” she asked. “How come we aren’t told on a daily basis how the plankton stocks are doing?” Same with CO2 levels, which are teetering at close to 400 ppm this week. “We don’t have public conversations about them.”

“It’s unrealistic to imagine we can keep the fossil fuel party going,” she said, “and [to] imagine realistically that we are going to have plenty of oxygen and plenty of fish in the ocean.”

–elisabeth hoffman


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