Playing hardball with the fossil fuel industry: if not now, when? if not us, who?

Bittersweet sadness fills me this morning as I read an excerpt at Women’s E-News from Eve Ensler’s new memoir, In the Body of the World, about her long, determined, agonizing battle with uterine cancer.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Her TED talk, “Suddenly, My Body” is one that I have returned to watch several times over, and have recommended to many friends as a pulsating, powerful performance that makes perfectly clear what many of us are coming to realize: that there is no separation between our bodies and the world around us.

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

Not only is it true, as Joanna Macy and Brian Swimme tell us, that we are the most recent emanations of the stardust that created the life on our planet eons ago, it is also true that our fragile bodies are porous and open, made of the air, earth and water that we move through each day.

If we poison our environment, we poison ourselves.

So many of us are learning that the hard way.

Warrior lionesses like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Wangari Maathai and Eve Ensler—each one snared by her own body’s encounter with the internal malignancy of cancer.

How many powerful, active, full-of-life people do you know who are no longer with us, felled by cancer?

A quick look at the cancer statistics kept by the Centers for Disease Control shows cancer rates soaring, especially for Americans 50 and older, and especially in the South, Midwest and Northeast of the country.

In the South and Midwest, they make and use those toxic chemicals—the ones that lace our food supply and flow into our waters, creating a dead zone the size of the state of New Jersey at the mouth of the Mississippi River; the ones that ride the prevailing winds east to fill the skies of the eastern United States and Canada with sooty particulates and airborne toxins.

None of us is immune from this.  No matter how careful we are to buy organic produce or grow our own, to keep BPA plastics out of our kitchens, even to pull up stakes and move to an area of the country that appears to be cleaner—we cannot hide from the reality that we live in a contaminated country, on a planet that is crazily out of balance and on the verge of a major correction.

When the colonizers came to the Americas, they were careful to try to pick off the leaders among the native peoples they encountered, knowing that if you deprive people of their most charismatic, powerful leaders, you will demoralize them and leave them open to takeover.

Although there is no devilish intelligence at work in the cancer epidemic, this dynamic still applies: when cancer takes from us leaders like Rachel Carson, Audre Lorde, Eve Ensler or Wangari Maathai, it leaves the rest of us stricken and reeling, spinning like a rudderless boat.

Sandra Steingraber

Sandra Steingraber

There are those, like Sandra Steingraber, who have been fighting cancer for a long, long time, and using it as a spur to work harder to save our planet/ourselves.

Steingraber was recently put behind bars for two weeks as punishment for her protest of the fossil fuel companies’ plan to hydrofrack for gas in her home territory of upstate New York.

She wrote from prison that it was her love, for her children and for all livings beings on the planet, that drove her to civil disobedience:

“It was love that brought me to this jail cell.

“My children need a world with pollinators and plankton stocks and a stable climate. “They need lake shores that do not have explosive hydrocarbon gases buried underneath.

“The fossil fuel party must come to an end. I am shouting at an iron door. Can you hear me now?”

Yes, we hear you Sandra, and we’re with you!

And yet, so many of us do not act on what we hear and know.

A low-level depression seems to afflict a great swath of the American public, and I would wager that the feelings of powerlessness that come with being unable to control the health of our environment or our selves may have something to do with it.

No matter how many times we go down to Washington D.C. to protest, it seems that the fossil fuel and chemical industries have the U.S. Congress sewn up tight.

Even someone like me, living in what appears to be a clean, leafy rural place, has to contend with farmers who still spray Roundup on their cornfields every spring, or rivers, including the Housatonic, just blocks from my home, heavily contaminated with PCBs from the upstream General Electric plant.

Since there is no way to play it safe, what we need to do is forget about safety now, in these end times, and play hard.

It’s time to give everything we’ve got to the fight to preserve the capacity of our planet to support life on down the generations into the future.

If humans are to be part of that future, we have to rise to the challenges we face now.

Like Eve Ensler, wracked with cancer and yet still leading the charge of One Billion Rising to fight violence against women this spring, we cannot afford to take time out.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

Like Kenyan Wangari Maathai, felled so quickly by cancer even as she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in preventing the desertification of her country by teaching ordinary women to raise and plant trees, we have to be creative in our approaches, working at the grassroots when those at the top won’t listen.

Like Sandra Steingraber and so many other activists, we have to be willing to face the consequences of our disobedience to those in power.

Playing nice, following the rules, being polite—where has that gotten us?  When the polluters of the planet are playing hardball, we have to respond in kind—although our life-affirming version of hardball might involve planting trees, or raising flash mobs of dancers, or forming human chains of resistance at the boundaries of old-growth forests.

Rachel, Audre, Wangari, Eve, Sandra…we’re right behind you.  Fighting all the way.

Leave a comment


  1. dbs008

     /  May 5, 2013

    Thanks for including Sandra Steingraber in your post. I live on Seneca Lake, the lake they want to store natural gas under in old salt mines. The natural gas will come from what the fossil fuel industry hopes to get out of the ground via fracking of the Marcellus Shale formation. Seneca Lake is the largest of the glacial Finger Lakes in the state of New York, and the deepest lake entirely within the state. The lake takes its name from the Seneca nation of Native Americans. At the north end of Seneca Lake is the city of Geneva, New York, home of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, a division of Cornell University. At the south end of the lake is the village of Watkins Glen, New York, famed for auto racing and waterfalls.
    Due to Seneca Lake’s unique macroclimate it is home to over 50 wineries, many of them farm wineries. At 38 miles (61 km) long, It is the second longest of the Finger Lakes and has the largest volume, estimated at 4.2 trillion US gallons (16 km³), roughly half of the water in all the Finger Lakes. It has a maximum depth of 618 feet (188 m),[2] and a mean depth of 291 feet (89 m). It has a surface area of 42,800 acres (173 km2). Cayuga Lake is 2 miles longer, but not as deep. It is fed by underground springs and replenished at a rate of 328,000 gallons (29,520 m³) per minute. These springs keep the water moving in a constant circular motion, giving it little chance to freeze over. Because of Seneca Lake’s great depth its temperature remains a near-constant 39 °F (4 °C).[3] During the summer months however, the top 10 to 15 feet (3.0 to 4.6 m) does warm up to a pleasant 70–80 °F (21–27 °C). (Wikipedia information). This precious body of fresh water and the surrounding land is what the fossil fuel industry wants to exploit and poison. Many of us are standing up against them in as many ways as we can. But, our governor, Andrew Cuomo, has presidential aspirations and needs BIG money to pursue that goal. As you wrote, “No matter how many times we go down to Washington D.C. to protest, it seems that the fossil fuel and chemical industries have the U.S. Congress sewn up tight.” I agree, because it seems no matter how many millions of us protest the destruction of our planet and life on earth, as President Obama has said we must do to make him do what we want him to do, our voices are drowned out by the money and the power of the destroyers. God help us all……. and I am not even a religious person

  2. I couldn’t help but wonder while reading this post if *male* leaders were afflicted by cancer and fighting important issues, would more people pay attention to them, to their causes?

    Sandra often refers to Rachel Carson in her own writing and talks about how the latter kept her cancer silent, so it wouldn’t be used against her. Wangari was also quiet about her health. But Sandra uses her personal cancer battles as a tool in her fight. I am friends with Sandra and had the honor of knowing Wangari. All of these women are amazing beacons of hope, giving us strength to fight the various battles that we take on.

  3. Judith A Cartisano

     /  May 5, 2013

    I think it’s more than low-level depression. As our earth is wounded, it’s inevitable that our minds and bodies will also be wounded to the point of despair because we are made from the very substance of this earth. As she dies, we die. And if we don’t want to die we must fight against every force that is death rather than life centered.

  4. Liza

     /  May 6, 2013

    Thanks Jenny
    as always

  5. I too was blown away by Eve Ensler’s TED talk. So powerful. Thanks for writing this, Jennifer, and including other important women’s voices.

  6. Gerry

     /  May 10, 2013

    Here is food for thought. A bit long, but it says a lot.
    “Thoreau’s Radicalism and the Fight Against the Fossil-Fuel Industry”

  7. This gave me chills and left me wordless and crying. We must keep working. I hope my book can make even a small difference, but I know a small difference is no where near enough.

  8. Reblogged this on What a Heart Can Hold and commented:
    Lately, I have been sharing blogs that have particularly affected me. This one touched me to my core. How about you? What does it make you think, feel, or want to do? What is the action we can take to really make a difference?

  9. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  May 14, 2013

    Thanks for the reblog, Jan! Last night I stayed up late reading Eve Ensler’s new memoir from start to finish. An awesome book, and I want to immediately read it again, slower. She shows quite clearly how her activism has its source in pain, in deep feeling. She also shows how she went through a period of denying her feelings, and that was so much more (self)destructive. All great activism must be fueled by deep emotion, whether it be love or horror or a combination of both. This is hard for “a heart to hold.” But that is our work, and “if not us, who? if not now, when?”

  10. Judy Eddy

     /  May 15, 2013

    Great message, Jennifer. I feel depressed and frozen about what it going on. Signing petitions, writing letters and calling my representatives just doesn’t feel like enough anymore. I need to dig out my protest shoes and shine them up. Growing my own vegetables, refusing plastic bags and packaging, turning the lights off, it’s all important, but not enough. And as I am following on, the powers that be want to throw people in jail for peaceful civil disobedience and for revealing cruelty in the animal food industry. Enough!

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  May 15, 2013

      Good to see you here on Transition Times, Judy! Yes, we do have to get more active. It’s pretty clear that individual “green” actions, while satisfying and important in the personal sphere, are not going to be enough to turn global warming around and save the world as we know it. This is a very dangerous time, and among the dangers, despair is high on the list. For me, writing is the best antidote to despair, especially when I am able to share it and get responses from kindred spirits out there in the world. Hence my new motto: Writing to right the world. I already teach a class on this, and am working on a book & a workshop/lecture series to go with it. Stay tuned! I am just revving up!


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