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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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We're also a state with a progressive history. This is where Harriet Tubman lived. And so we played a proud role in the abolitionist movement and in the Underground Railroad. This is where women's rights began. The national monument where the declaration of rights of women was signed by  [Elizabeth] Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony is just thirty minutes from my house. This is the place where Lois Gibbs came from, and the story of  Love Canal in 1979 brought us new national legislation in the form of right-to-know laws and  Superfund laws. And so out of that cultural history, I think we are poised to take a look at what happened in Manhattan and we're realizing that we really need a radical redesign of our infrastructure. We really do need to stop seas from rising, not just build walls.

And I think it's possible that—Hurricane Sandy and what happened to lower Manhattan and New Jersey—could become the beginning of a transformation. But that is not going to happen all by itself. That's going to happen with forceful engagement of the citizenry creating that narrative. Already we've seen surprising things happen. We've seen our governor speak the words "climate change" very openly. We've seen a Republican governor from New Jersey, Governor Christie, throw his support behind Obama. Now we need as citizens to kind of create the narrative and invite our leaders to be champions of climate change and of green chemistry, green engineering, green energy. That remains a huge job because the world's most powerful industry, the oil and gas industry, I'm sure they're working right now trying to create counter-narratives of some kind.

I'm particularly inspired by the abolitionist movement as a model for how I see us moving forward in this fight for environmental human rights. The environment is the human rights challenge of my generation. Just in the way that my dad had to go out and fight Hitler when he was eighteen and defeating global fascism was the animating task of his generation. He felt it the great shining moment of his life to have participated in that project.

And I feel, as a mother, it's part of my responsibility as a parent that the environmental crisis is really a crisis of family life. It undermines my ability to be a mother. All the tasks of parenting kind of boil down into two categories: one is to protect your children from harm, and the other is to plan for their future. And as long as toxic chemicals are freely allowed to circulate in our environment, in our economy, I can't protect my kids from harm. As I say in  Raising Elijah , I'm a conscientious parent but I'm not a HEPA filter. I can't stand between my child's body and the 200 or so different brain poisons that are allowed to freely circulate in our economy. And for me, I feel that we have so much evidence now that the energy pathway that we're on and the way we are creating materials that we use are degrading the actual conditions for a healthy life on the planet to the point where it's an emergency, and we're really required to take action. And there are actual enemies out there, there are things to resist, and that's in the form of an entrenched fossil fuel industry that has basically taken over our government through campaign donations, through lobbying and through writing its own legislation. And that's the task at hand—for us to urgently address these things.

So, I need better laws. And therefore, as a mother, I'm going to go out and work on that. And likewise, climate change is threatening my children's future, so I'm called upon as a parent to forcefully engage with that process. And I think that once you do that, it no longer seems so depressing. I guess that's the really hopeful message here. Because it's when you just sit back and worry about it and do nothing, you feel depressed. But there's something really ennobling and heroic about forceful engagement in it. And it also makes your children feel better. At least that's been my experience.

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