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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 I was really inspired by this—and I tell this story in  Raising Elijah —about a retired third-grade teacher whom I met, who shared with me the story of teaching during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and all her children in her class were terrified that there was going to be nuclear annihilation and that they wouldn't live until adulthood. And when she asked how many of them thought there would be a nuclear attack, all of the kids in the class raised their hands, except for one girl. And so she asked that girl, "Why don't you believe it?" And the child said, "Because my parents are peace activists and they're working to stop it."

So, my kids have to share me with the world, and I'm gone 150 days of the year. And it's not easy. But nevertheless, when I come home after giving Senate testimony, or leading a rally somewhere, or participating in a scientific conference about the health effects of fracking, I'll walk in the door and my kids will look up and say, "Oh hey, mom. Did you ban fracking yet?"  So a light bulb kind of went off above my head, and I realized that the way to deal with this issue is not to try to figure out how to tell the story of climate change in just the right way to your children so they're not too upset about it, but at least you're talking to them about it. The way to deal with it is just to take action, and let your children see that you are on the job. That's how they feel better.

They're so sure, in that way that kids are, that their parents are way more influential and powerful than we truly are, that it makes them feel better. It makes them feel safe. And so, I really want to live up to my kids' impressions that I have the power to change things. And I think that if we had more parents engaged in that way, we really coul

 
Sandra and her son Elijah: "You realize that you, as a parent, can't allow the world to be like this for your children to inherit." (Carrie Branovan for Organic Valley)

And so whenever I feel kind of exhausted or overwhelmed by it all, I'm reminded that my son's namesake—this abolitionist named  Elijah Lovejoy from the 1830s—that he became an abolitionist because he became a father. He lived in Missouri around slaves and slave owners, and it really bothered him. But when it became completely unbearable, was when he had a two-year-old son and his wife was pregnant with a second child, their daughter, and he saw children of slaves being sold away from their parents. And he realized that he was putting his life in danger for standing up as an abolitionist. But as he said in a letter to his mother, even though he worried about his children growing up with no father, that as a father he couldn't abide this anymore.

So sometimes, it's that funny contradiction that you have no time to do this because you are a parent, and also your children are entirely reliant on you, so really their well-being depends on you not going to jail or not getting hurt, and yet you realize that you, as a parent, can't allow the world to be like this for your children to inherit; that your forceful engagement is required and that actually becomes the bigger concern.

And I guess that's where I'm at right now with extreme energy extraction, especially fracking. Because my children's homeland, and everything they hold dear about living here, to the oil and gas industry—the most powerful industry on earth—when they look at where I live, it's a target. They just want everybody to leave and they want to get at the carbon in the bedrock under our feet. And so, that's it. Are we going to build a sustainable community on top of this oil, or are we going to let the Earth be turned inside out to keep the addiction going. So it is to me a very epic and profound struggle, and it's one I'm very proud to be part of. And I hope my dad, who passed away now seven years ago, who also had a fight in an epic struggle, would be proud of what I'm doing.

 
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