After helping to win a ban on fracking for natural gas in New York state, activist and writer Sandra Steingraber wants to “de-normalize” our dependence on fossil fuels
Sandra Steingraber opened her talk in Oberlin this week with a story from her childhood. An art project in grade school. Little clay bowls decorated with shiny bits of tile so they sparkled in the light. Gifts for Moms and Dads.
They were ashtrays. In the mid-sixties no one thought it was strange for children to be making ashtrays. Smoking was so normal. There were ashtrays in every house.
But, over time, the overwhelming evidence of harm turned our culture around. Despite massive and relentless advertising propaganda by the cigarette companies, the dominant culture now shuns smokers. They have become sad, unglamorous addicts huddled outside in the cold. And the cigarette companies are seen as dangerous, rogue actors. Smoking has been de-normalized.
Now Steingraber, a PhD scientist and scholar in residence at Ithaca College, believes a similar de-normalization process must occur with fossil fuels. She said that the current environmental crisis is like a tree with two trunks. One trunk is climate change, mass extinctions, and the other problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels and warming the planet. The other trunk is the toxic pollution from petroleum-derived chemicals that cause cancer, reproductive defects, learning disabilities, hormone disruption, and other health problems (this was the subject of her influential book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment).
Fossil fuels are at the root of both trunks of the crisis -- as a fuel and a chemical feedstock. Steingraber’s recent book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, explores how the domination of society by fossil fuels makes it impossible for parents to perform their two most fundamental duties: to protect children from harm (when toxic chemicals are ubiquitous) and to provide for their future (when civilization is being destabilized by climate change).
“We don’t have a public language to talk about this,” she said. For example, there’s a tremendous amount of talk about the stock market, but very little about the plankton stocks in the world’s oceans, the base of the food chain which is threatened by climate change and ocean acidification.
With her talks, Steingraber tries to help audiences find a new language -- a language to inspire action and hope. Standing in the pulpit of Oberlin’s historic First Church, a pulpit where Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists once spoke, she asked people to consider the parallels to past political movements.
“Think of all the people who had seemingly impossible fights -- where the way was unclear, the path uncertain,” she said. “They did not have the luxury of despair...They did not decide that the odds against them were so great that they would sit this one out...They decided that if our problems are huge, we need to make our actions huge.”
That’s been the lesson of her fight against fracking in New York. When she started several years ago, people told her it was a hopeless cause. But a movement grew big enough to force the state to enact a ban because of the dangers to air, water, and public health.
Now she is part of a group fighting the development of a natural gas storage facility that could threaten Seneca Lake, one of the scenic Finger Lakes. She and scores of other peaceful protesters have blocked the construction site and have been arrested. At first the local judge handed out harsh fines and jail sentences. But recently the protesters have argued that their civil disobedience was conducted “in the interests of justice.” Here is what they said in court:
We only have this planet. We must safeguard it for those who follow. Would that it not be necessary, but sometimes citizens of good conscience must engage in non-violent acts of civil disobedience to protect that sacred trust. As long as Crestwood Midstream Partners, or any other corporate or public or private entity, continues to threaten our way of life by the proven dangerous storage of highly compressed gas in the crumbling caverns at the Salt Point facility, I reserve the right to act as my conscience dictates in order to protect Seneca Lake, its citizens, and the surrounding environment. I reserve all rights to protest further at the Crestwood facility, although it is not my intent at this time to break the law in doing so.
In an historic decision last month, the judge agreed and dismissed all charges.
“There’s hope in action,” Steingraber concluded. “If we only have 20 years left [to address issues like climate change], all of our other plans for the next 20 years have been cancelled. We’re doing this now.”