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Oct 01, 2013 12:00PM

'Despair is a luxury': Aclaimed environmental writer brings message to Q-C

By Sarah J. Gardner
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Ecologist Sandra Steingraber, author of "Living Downstream: An Ecologistís Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment," "Having Faith: An Ecologistís Journey to Motherhood," and "Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis."
A tireless ecologist and prolific writer, Sandra Steingraber has a talent for connecting the dots between environmental issues and human experience. Her investigation into her cancer diagnosis, chronicled in her book "Living Downstream," was turned into an award-winning documentary of the same name, and her subsequent books "Having Faith" and "Raising Elijah" have explored the intersections between parenting and environmental concerns.
On Oct. 22, Steingraber, a native Midwesterner who has described her home state of Illinois as her "first love," will be at St. Ambrose University in Davenport to talk about her life and work in a free public lecture. Radish recently caught up with her via email to ask about her writing, interests and upcoming Quad-Cities appearance.

Radish: Did you aspire to be an ecologist growing up? What sparked your interest to get a Ph.D. in biology?
Sandra Steingraber: My adoptive mom is a biologist, and my first memory is of the two of us looking at fossils together on our front stoop. I've had a microscope since I was 9. By temperament, I'm more inclined to literature and creative writing, but I felt like I wanted to carry her banner forward when I went off to college. At the time, my mom was struggling with metastatic breast cancer, and her prognosis was not good. (But now she's 82 and has beat all medical predictions!) When I myself was diagnosed with cancer a few years later, I decided to forgo medical school for research in ecology because I wanted to do science in beautiful places, far from hospitals and toxic sites. In fact, my focus on environmental health means just the opposite. (My other goals as a newly diagnosed cancer patient were these: have sex, ride a motorcycle, and smoke pot. I accomplished them all within six months of my release from the hospital and return to college. Then I went back to being a nerdy biologist.)

R: One of the things that stands out about your writing is the way your personal experiences drive the topics you investigate. Is it challenging to be so connected to your work?
SS: There is both a power and a vulnerability in autobiography. I'm committed to the idea that behind every data point on cancer lies a human life. As a science writer, I want to bring some plainspoken English to the statistical story of the data -- about, say, the rising rates of cancer among U.S. teenagers. As an memoirist, I want to tell the the human life story.

R: You've argued that we can't protect ourselves from environmental toxins merely by being informed citizens, we also need government intervention and regulation of hazards. Can you elaborate?
SS: Our most urgent task right now is to divorce our economy from its ruinous dependency on fossil fuels, the combustion of which is killing the planet and killing our kids. Because of climate change, the world's pollinators are in trouble -- and thus global food supplies. The world's plankton stocks are in trouble -- and hence the world's oxygen supplies. Petroleum in all its forms -- from oil to natural gas -- is also the source of most toxic chemicals. We can't shop our way out of this problem.

We need a whole new redesign of our energy and transportation systems. We need green chemistry and green engineering. We need legal frameworks that start with the idea that chemicals must be tested for safety as a precondition for marketing them, which is not the case right now. In short, we need bold political action. I'm not asking my readers to dutifully carry their recyclables out the curb. That won't keep the icecaps frozen. I'm asking them to join a human rights struggle. I'm asking them to act like citizens, not like consumers. It's too late for small actions. It's never too late for big ones. Now is the time to come to the aid of your country. It's a time for superheroes.

R: What are the projects you are working on currently?
SS: All of my efforts are focused on banning fracking, both in my rural village here in upstate New York -- where we were successful in passing a ban and are now defending that decision in an amicus brief for a lawsuit brought by the gas industry -- and across the whole nation. To that end, I'm a science adviser for Americans Against Fracking. I also work closely with some amazingly courageous and effective anti-fracking grassroots groups in Illinois: Illinois People's Action and Southern Illinoisians Against Fracturing Our Environment. They are the abolitionists of our time.

R: You have called "fracking" (a natural gas extraction process) the environmental issue of our time. Why is that?
SS: Because drilling and fracking operations and their attendant infrastructure and waste disposal practices pollute air, destroy water, exacerbate climate change, stifle investments in renewable energy, provide jobs that are toxic and temporary, use our land as a factory floor, destroy productive farmland, industrialize the rural landscape, bring light pollution and noise pollution into our rural communities, destroy roads, increase traffic fatalities, spread spiderwebs of potentially explosive pipelines and compressor stations across the landscape, trigger earthquakes, blow up the bedrock of our nation, and inject our subterranean landscape with massive amounts of carcinogenic chemicals. Fracking is also exempt from from most federal environmental laws. It's an outlaw enterprise that doesn't have to play by the rules that apply to everyone else. It should be abolished. Period.

R: When faced with pressing environmental concerns, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. How do you maintain your own sense of hope as you research topics for your books and lectures?
SS: Look, did David feel overwhelmed when facing Goliath? Maybe. But sometimes you just have to feel overwhelmed and fight on anyway. The oil and gas industry is destroying the conditions for life itself. My kids' lives are at stake. So, despair is a luxury I can't afford. When I was diagnosed with cancer at age 20, my mom had already been told that her cancer had spread to bone and liver. We were co-cancer patients together. Her advice to me: "Don't let them bury you until you are dead." We are up against some pretty big Philistines. But if more people would just get out there and fight with their whole hearts and stop fretting and wondering about our chances of winning, we would create the conditions for hope.

R: What do you hope attendees of your talk at St. Ambrose take away with them?
SS: That they have the opportunity to be part of a transformative human rights movement -- the environmental human rights movement. It's the big issue of our time and their generation. And that when your talents and efforts are joined to a powerful social movement, your life becomes purposeful and you feel immense happiness.

Oh, and I'll also tell some stories from my most recent sojourn in the Chemung County Jail. I hope my audience will laugh at the funny parts. That said, I'm aware that Midwestern audiences are not the most demonstrative. When I speak in places like Illinois and Iowa--to people I consider part of my cultural tribe--I know their reactions will be more low-key than what I experience here in New York. But still water runs deep. And I think I still know how to read the Midwestern code of social intercourse, where there are one hundred words for "nice."

If you go...
"Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment," a lecture by Sandra Steingraber
When: 7 p.m., Oct. 22
Where: St. Ambrose University Galvin Fine Arts Center, located on Gaines Street, between Locust and Lombard Streets, Davenport
How much: Free and open to the public

Sarah J. Gardner is the editor of Radish.

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