Heinz Award recipient Sandra Steingraber. (Photo: Dede Hatch)
I’m thrilled to receive a Heinz Award in recognition of my research and writing on environmental health. This is work made possible by my residency as a scholar within the Department of Environmental Studies at Ithaca College. Many past and present Heinz Award winners are personal heroes of mine – and Teresa Heinz herself is a champion of women’s environmental health – so, this recognition carries special meaning for me.
And it comes with a $100,000 unrestricted cash prize. Which is stunning.
As a bladder cancer survivor of 32 years, I’m intimately familiar with two kinds of uncertainty: the kind that comes while waiting for results from the pathology and radiology labs, and the kind that is created by the medical insurance industry who decides whether or not to pay the pathology and radiology bills. Over the years, I’ve learned to analyze data and raise children while surrounded by medical and financial insecurities. It’s a high-wire act.
But as an ecologist, I’m aware of a much larger insecurity: the one created by our nation’s ruinous dependency on fossil fuels in all their forms. When we light them on fire, we fill the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases that are destabilizing the climate and acidifying the oceans (whose plankton stocks provide us half of the oxygen we breathe). When we use fossil fuels as feedstocks to make materials such as pesticides and solvents, we create toxic substances that trespass into our children’s bodies (where they raises risks for cancer, asthma, infertility and learning disorders).
Emancipation from our terrible enslavement to fossil fuels is possible. The best science shows us that the United States could, within two decades, entirely run on green, renewable energy if we chose to dedicate ourselves to that course. But, right now, that is not the trail we are blazing.
Instead, evermore extreme and toxic methods are being deployed to blast fossilized carbon from the earth. We are blowing up mountains to get at coal, felling boreal forests to get at tar and siphoning oil from the ocean deep. Most ominously, through the process called fracking, we are shattering the very bedrock of our nation to get at the petrified bubbles of methane trapped inside.
Fracking turns fresh water into poison. It fills our air with smog, our roadways with 18-wheelers hauling hazardous materials and our fields and pastures with pipelines and toxic pits.
I am, therefore, announcing my intent to devote my Heinz Award to the fight against hydrofracking in upstate New York, where I live with my husband and our two children.
Some might look at my small house (with its mismatched furniture) or my small bank accounts (with their absence of a college fund or a retirement plan) and question my priorities. But the bodies of my children are the rearranged molecules of the air, water and food streaming through them. As their mother, there is no more important investment that I could make right now than to support the fight for the integrity of the ecological system that makes their lives possible. As legal scholar Joseph Guth reminds us, a functioning biosphere is worth everything we have.
This summer I traveled through the western United States and saw firsthand the devastation that fracking creates. In drought-crippled Texas where crops withered in the fields, I read a hand-lettered sign in a front yard that said, “I NEED WATER. U HAUL. I PAY. ” And still the fracking trucks rolled on, carrying water to the gas wells.
This is the logic of drug addicts, not science.
I also stood on the courthouse steps in Salt Lake City while climate activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison for an act of civil disobedience that halted the leasing of public land for gas and oil drilling near Arches National Park. Before he was hauled away by federal marshals, Tim said, “This is what love looks like.”
After two months of travel, my children and I arrived home to the still unfractured state of New York. After stopping at a local farm stand to buy bread, tomatoes, cheese and peaches for dinner, we celebrated our return along the vineyard and waterfall-lined shore of Cayuga Lake. I watched my son skip stones across its surface. Under his feet lay the aquifer that provides drinking water to our village.
This is what security looks like. Please join me in the struggle to defend the economy and ecology of upstate New York. Bring what you can.
2. “The Earth’s biosphere seems almost magically suited to human beings and indeed it is, for we evolved through eons of intimate immersion within it. Many of us are animated by moral and religious impulses to treasure and respect the creation that sustains us. We cannot live well without a functioning biosphere and so it is worth everything we have.” Joseph H. Guth, “Law for the Ecological Age,” Vermont Journal of Environmental Law, vol. 9.