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.

Bill McKibben, our environmental Pied Piper, is at it again

Bill McKibben

You gotta admire Bill McKibben. And you gotta wonder, where the frack does the guy get his indefatigable energy??

Off he goes again this week, starting a new campaign to protest hydraulic fracking in Ohio—you know, the state where natural gas drill rigs caused manmade earthquakes.

I think we all have a pretty good idea of how bad it is to have flammable toxic fumes coming out of your water faucets, earthquakes rumbling in your backyard, and tons of toxic waste building up above and below ground level.

Fracking sucks and we know it. It must be stopped. The question is, are we going to follow Pied Piper Bill to Ohio to occupy the Statehouse and make our demands known?

No doubt there will be plenty of Ohioans and even ardent out-of-state environmentalists who rally to the call, just as they did last summer when Bill led them down to Washington DC for sit-ins to protest the Keystone XL.

That battle did score some points, although more recently it seems that the southern portion of the titanic pipeline is going to be built after all, another huge investment in 20th century thinking and technology that can lead us in one direction only: over the nearest cliff.


In the Grimm fairytale, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the town suffers from a plague of rats, which only the Pied Piper can solve.  When the town councilmen refuse to give the Piper his just reward for destroying all the rats, he takes his revenge, leading all the children of the town into a mountain cave, from which they are never recovered.  The moral of the story: don’t cheat the Piper!

Today the rats we suffer from are precisely the fossil fuel industry and their military-industrial, Big Ag, Big Finance brethren, which are, as in the Grimm story, destroying our homeland and eating us alive.

Even if Bill McKibben could lead all those rats into the river, we would still be left with the greedy councilmen, our politicians, who would very likely continue playing by the old rules, and would bring further disasters upon us.

When the Piper wanted to punish the town fathers, he did so not by attacking them directly, but by attacking their children.

Truly, there can be nothing worse than being forced to watch your children suffer and die.

Sometimes I think that the only way the rich and privileged are going to listen to reason and stop their destructive, world-killing ways is if they are forced to confront the reality of what their children will have to live with in the future, because of the lifestyles they themselves are living now.

I say “they” but I should be saying “we,” because I certainly have participated in this destructive lifestyle my whole life.  We humans, especially privileged Americans and Europeans, have been the rats that have been destroying the global village for decades now.

Unlike rats, though, we humans generally respond to reason.  We can be persuaded to change our ways, especially if we can be made to understand that the future survival of our precious children is at stake.

What sort of tune would the Piper need to play to change the hearts and minds of the frackers, for example?  Or the loggers, or the tar sands extractors, or the nuclear power plant engineers?

Bill McKibben has been tireless in his efforts to hit the right notes to attract enough people to follow him—not over a cliff or into a mountain tomb, but into a sustainable future.

You gotta admire the guy.  You gotta think—maybe I should get on that bus for Ohio.

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