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Sandra Steingraber: The Fossil Fuel Body Burden

Acclaimed ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber discusses the need for meaningful reform of toxics regulation and why extreme energy extraction must end.

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And so, I'm really interested in solving our toxic chemical problem by decarbonizing our energy system, and I think that will do two things for us at once. It will deal with the problem of toxic trespass, which a lot of us mothers care so deeply about, but it will also be the action required to divert us from this calamitous path we're on as we approach irreversible tipping points with our climate. And of course our children need an abiding climate in which to grow up. They need the ice caps to be frozen, they need the plankton stocks in the ocean to continue to provide oxygen for us—plankton provides us with half of the oxygen we breathe. Those plankton stocks, because of ocean warming and because of growing  acidification of the ocean thanks to climate change, those plankton stocks in trouble. So our ruinous dependency on fossil fuels is contributing to two major problems: climate change and toxic trespass. So I'm really interested in going right to the root of the problem, which as far as I can see is blasting carbon out of the ground in the first place.

Kari: So what are you doing and what would you recommend that others do about this? 

Sandra: I'm a big believer that we cannot shop our way out of this problem and that my job as a parent is not to race around and try to create a non-toxic bubble in an otherwise toxic world for my children to live in. First of all, sooner or later my children have to leave home and go out into the larger world. They are already doing that. They're already having sleep-overs; they go to school.

So I can struggle mightily to keep pesticides out of my own backyard and not put vinyl wallpaper in my own house, but I'm actually more interested as a biologist mother in this moment in history in changing the laws and in changing our way of thinking so that toxicity is not anymore a consumer choice. Making non-toxic choices isn't just something that you get to do because you have a computer and can check websites and have the money to go buy a more expensive option, but instead that we simply invest as a nation in green chemistry, green engineering, green energy to get us away from all of this. So I take a human rights approach to all of it.

Last year when I became the lucky recipient of a  Heinz Award for my research and writing on environmental health, it came with a $100,000 cash prize, and that became the seed money for this coalition, New Yorkers Against Fracking, which is now a coalition of more than 180 different groups and 1,000 different businesses. So we seek to close the door on a form of extreme fossil fuel extraction here in New York. And, if we have luck and hard work and victory then we seek to transform New York State into a kind of incubator and a showcase for renewable energy and for sustainable forms of agriculture and new kinds of materials that we can use in our homes and in our economy.

Kari: In your book, you address what a forceful public involvement in the climate crisis might look like, and you describe as a civil rights movement. Do you think  Hurricane Sandy has helped jump-start that discussion? 

The flooded South Ferry underpass in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Climate scientists have been warning about superstorms like Sandy for decades. (DOT)

Sandra: I think it's too early to tell about what Sandy has done. My hope is that it will and in a way that even Hurricane Katrina didn't. And I think that might be true for a couple of reasons. Lower Manhattan is an iconic place that so many Americans have deep familiarity with. I mean, how many of us have stood in Battery City Park waiting for a ferry to go out to the Statue of Liberty; how many of us have walked down Wall Street and Chamber Street? I myself was just walking those streets a week before the flood, and it's hard to imagine now that they're underwater. And I'm not sure we had that kind of relationship with New Orleans.

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