‘the moral crisis of our time’
April 9, 2014
Environmental activist Sandra Steingraber says her first kindergarten art project was a tiled ashtray. Children often made this “infrastructure” for adults’ tobacco addiction, she said. Her parents didn’t even smoke, but everyone needed ashtrays, if not for themselves then for guests. Marketing campaigns made smoking glamorous, pervasive, normal.
During her lifetime, tobacco has largely been “de-normalized,” Steingraber said. “We don’t try to regulate it into safety.” Because smoking is inherently unsafe, the goal is to have no smoking, to abolish it. When her son, then 4, first saw someone smoking outside a cafe, his reaction was, “There’s a man out there trying to light his face on fire.”
Now Steingraber is asking what de-normalizing fossil fuels would look like. Perhaps children of the future will ask: “Really? When you were a kid, you shoveled these fossils into your car to make you go? And you shoveled them into your house to keep warm … [and got asthma] and almost tanked the climate system? That’s just bizarre.”
Steingraber has devoted the last few years to de-normalizing fossil fuels, particularly fracked gas. Last week, she spoke at Loyola University about “The fracking of America: Ethics and Impact.” A scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College with a PhD in biology, Steingraber has “emptied” her bank account, donating her writing awards to form Concerned Health Professionals of New York and New Yorkers Against Fracking. She has testified in Albany repeatedly, analyzed data, written articles and books. A year ago this month, she was jailed for 10 days — becoming a gangsta’ mama to her two children and their friends — for blocking access to an energy company’s compressor station near her town on Seneca Lake. That company wants to store the byproducts of fracking — butane, propane, methane — in salt caverns under the lake, the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. To keep the “overhead costs low,” her family lives in a small house with unmatched dishes from Goodwill. She frequently leaves her children and husband, who is recovering from strokes. “My children have to grow up sometimes without me because I need to be able to tell them: ‘It’s my job as your mother to fight for your future and to make sure you are safe, and if there’s not a stable climate and if there are no pollinators, I can’t be your mother. … So I’ll see you on Friday.”
She is proud to be an activist in this battle, trying “to close the door on fossil fuels and to open the door to renewable energy. To me that seems like a remarkable honor to devote my life to that.” It is, she said, “the moral crisis of our time.”
She also was diagnosed at age 20 with bladder cancer, which almost always is linked to environmental causes. Turns out being a patient, undergoing MRIs and dragging an I.V. pole down a hall while holding closed a backless hospital gown prepared her well for days in a 7-by-7-foot jail cell and for negotiating stairs while wearing an orange jailhouse jumpsuit and ankle chains. Getting arrested and going to jail, she said, is less terrifying than cancer.
She describes our environmental crisis as two connected crises, like a massive tree with two trunks but a common root. “One trunk … represents what’s happening to our planet through the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.” That’s the climate crisis, discussed in dire detail in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Follow the branches from this trunk and find drought, floods, unpredictable growing seasons, pollinators arriving at the wrong time, dissolving coral reefs and mass extinctions.
“The other trunk of the tree of crisis represents what’s happening to us through the accumulation of inherently toxic chemical pollutants in our bodies,” she said. Follow that trunk and find increasing asthma rates in children, pediatric cancers, learning disabilities, birth defects.
The common root, she said, is our dependence on fossil fuels. “In an age of extreme fossil fuels,” she said, “both crises are now getting worse.” We have moved from the easy-to-get fossil fuels, which are nearly gone, to mountaintop removal for coal, tar sands mining and massive pipelines, deep-sea drilling for oil, and fracking for natural gas. Maryland, like New York, is at the epicenter of the fracking controversy, she said. Neither state has permitted fracking. Yet.
Since the start of the industrial revolution, she said, we have burned fossilized or vaporized plants and animals for energy and, over time, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere. By lighting coal, oil and gas on fire (and leaking unburnt natural gas), we have tripled the amount of heat-trapping methane and increased by 30 to 40 percent the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. Excess carbon dioxide warms the planet but also acidifies the oceans. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was before the industrial revolution. “We are on track, if we don’t cease and desist, for dissolving everything with a shell,” she said. Which is alarming not only for those who eat clams, she said. Microscopic zooplankton, the larval form of everything with shells, are key to the ocean’s food web. In addition, the extra heat in the atmosphere also warms the oceans, damaging phytoplankton, which are the food stock for the zooplankton. And phytoplankton? “Phytoplankton provide us with one out of every two breaths that we breathe.”
At the same time, methane — or natural gas — and oil are the starting point for petrochemicals, for plastics, fertilizers, and other toxic substances that alter chromosomes and hormones, that “place cells on the pathway to tumor formation.” And the fossil-fuel-derived pesticides, dioxins and dry-cleaner fluid also show up in human breast milk, which is “still far better than inferior pretender formula.”
Those addressing these crises, she said, have often worked apart. Typically men — such as Bill McKibben, Tim DeChristopher and James Hansen — dominate the climate change group. They look to the future and see climate change as an intergenerational inequality issue. The human rights issue is that we are destroying the climate for those who come after us.
Meanwhile women — she mentioned Lois Gibbs and Rachel Carson but certainly could include herself — have been most concerned with the world of chemical reform and “toxic trespass,” where the human rights issue is the right to bodily integrity and informed consent. “This movement looks to the past,” she said, “as chemicals brought to market years ago without any advance testing or demonstration of safety are now being implicated in human harm.”
The crises are entwined, she said, because “the chemicals that we use to make stuff out of we have available to us because we have chosen to use fossils for our energy system,” she said, and both are creating public health crises. As an example, she mentioned an ethane cracker facility proposed in Allegheny County north of Pittsburgh. The facility would take ethane and process, or “crack,” it into ethylene for plastic bags. “Why do we want to make plastic bags? We are not clamoring for plastic bags,” she said. “But the fracking boom that has blasted molecules of methane out of the ground for our energy has also liberated all this ethane,” she said. And so the cracker facility will make plastic bags that will end up as tiny bits of plastic in the ocean, where they already outnumber plankton by weight in some areas.
Emerging studies show that fracking, like lead paint, asbestos and smoking, can’t be made safe, that many risks are unmanageable. “We shouldn’t spend time putting filters on the cigarette of fracking,” she said. Studies, for example, show fracking connected with smog in otherwise pristine areas, low birth weights, asthma, birth defects. “These are all terrible, expensive problems,” she said. Other research shows 5 percent of the casings around fracking drills fail immediately, with more failing with age. In Pennsylvania alone, fracking has led to 161 cases of water contamination. Yet most of the scientific research has been done in the last year; it has not kept up with the pace of fracking.
Earlier in the day, Steingraber lent her support to Maryland health professionals asking for a delay in the state’s health study on fracking because it is behind schedule, underfunded, and science is just beginning to emerge.
The lateness of the hour and magnitude of the problem can cause despair, she acknowledged. But the good news, she said, is that if we solve the root problem — our dependence on fossil fuels — we will solve both the climate crisis and our health crisis: “We could divorce ourselves from our ruinous dependency on fossil fuels and not only solve our energy problem but detoxify our own lives.”
She highlighted the work of the Solutions Project, the Stanford University research that outlines 50 plans for 50 states to switch to renewable energy. Maryland’s solution, for example, includes a lot of offshore wind and solar power plants.
She acknowledges what psychologists call the “well-informed utility syndrome,” which makes people turn away from more knowledge as well as action because of “unbearable grief, unbearable rage or unbearable guilt.” But “not knowing about the problem isn’t going to engage our ingenuity to help us solve it, and being in despair is the opposite of taking action.”
She said she is “interested in writing in ways that overcome despair.” For inspiration, she looks to the abolitionists who took huge risks and made huge sacrifices to abolish slavery, even though the economy was as linked to it as ours is to fossil fuels. She also looks to 1930s Germany, where her adoptive father, then 18, went off to fight global fascism and parents often made the hard choice to send their children away. Her father knew that “you can’t pretend you don’t see the signs of atrocity all around you. And you can’t sit back on the sidelines and ask, ‘Can I win this fight or not?’ You simply have to do the right thing and put one foot in front of the other and inspire other people to do the same.”
“I didn’t start off intending to be a gansta’ mama,” Steingraber said, but she is willing to do all that she can, including civil disobedience and going to jail, to “redirect the destiny of our nation.”
“That’s what is required of us at this moment,” she said. “We can’t solve this with half measures and more dithering.” She urged everyone to figure out a role to play. And the question, she says, is not “How am I going to fit this into my schedule?” but “How can I change my whole life to address this?”