21 Questions for 2020: #7

7. How can we best help Mother Nature to heal herself from the desecrations of the Industrial Revolution? 

This question hit home for me in the past week, as local officials announced plans for dredging the Housatonic River, which runs through the heart of Berkshire County, MA, where I live, and creating a 20-acre toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood in the town of Lee, MA. 

Like so many other rivers across the country and the world, the Housatonic River was polluted with PCBs by industry—in this case, General Electric (GE), during its heyday as a manufacturer of electrical transformers. 

The river has been remarkably resilient—I see bald eagles, blue herons and many kinds of waterfowl there all the time. But the PCBs buried in the sediment remain a potent carcinogenic hazard, which the federal Environmental Protection Agency has ruled must be cleaned up.

At a recent informational meeting, an EPA official talked dispassionately about the “biota” that would be destroyed through the dredging. As he spoke, I had visions of the frogs, fish and crayfish sleeping quietly at the bottom of the river, not knowing that soon the steel jaws of giant machines would be coming to take them away. 

The EPA’s argument, which has been accepted by town officials, is that it is necessary to disrupt and essentially kill the river in order to clean it. Once the PCB-laden mud is out of the river bottom, they say, things will get back to normal. 

But under the EPA plan, the people of Lee will have to accept a dangerous new normal: a toxic waste site the size of five football fields, 20 feet deep, rising 50 feet high, holding up to a million cubic yards of contaminated soil, right in the residential neighborhood of Lenox Dale.

Local folks are especially angry that they were not given a chance to vote on this solution. It was presented as a done deal, although there will now be a period of public comment. There is a movement afoot to bring a vote to the town meetings, which could send the negotiators back to the table. 

What are the larger issues here? 

1. No one trusts the good intentions of the EPA. Especially in the Trump era, the EPA has become the handmaiden of industries with terrible records of environmental assault. Why should we trust them when they promise that the dredging won’t result in airborne PCBs, or that the plastic-lined toxic waste dump won’t leak poison into the groundwater?

2. People trust the good intentions of GE even less. This is the same company that created a toxic waste dump for PCBs right alongside an elementary school in its hometown of Pittsfield MA, which has been plagued with cancer since the mid-20th century, as the PCBs came home to roost in people’s bodies. After having built up Pittsfield as a factory town and carelessly disposing of toxic waste in the county river, GE decamped around the turn of the 21st century, and has spent millions in resisting the responsible clean-up of its poisonous leavings.

3. Shipping to a toxic waste site in another state is NIMBYism, no doubt about it; I can’t whole-heartedly support that solution, although it does seem obvious that a dump should not be located in a heavily populated area like central Berkshire County, which is economically reliant on its appeal as a scenic tourist destination.  

4. If the towns were to appeal this decision in the courts, it is possible that an even worse solution would be mandated. Would the anti-environmental Trump courts and EPA accept GE’s initial proposal of three toxic dumps in residential neighborhoods, instead of one big one? Full disclosure: one of those three was proposed for a beautiful patch of riverside forest, just a few blocks from my house—almost literally in my backyard. 

The case of the Housatonic River clean-up is a microcosm of similar issues all over the world, as we the people of the 21st century grapple with the damages wrought by 20th century industries. There are some important lessons to be learned here. 

1. We have to think of future generations in everything we undertake.

Yes, “GE brought good things to life” as it created its lightbulbs and transformers. But it did not sufficiently account for all the bad side effects it was also creating, such as PCBs. It flushed them down the river, like so many other New England factories and mills, without understanding the longterm effects of these chemicals on the ecosystem. Going forward, we have to insist that industry be more careful—for example, with fracking, one of the huge chemical scourges of the 21st century.

2. It is always best to work with Mother Nature rather than against her.

Why aren’t EPA officials paying more heed to the possibility of cleaning the river sediments with bioremediation techniques? There are many promising test cases of bacteria or fungi that can “eat” and neutralize hazardous chemicals, without harming the “biota” of the river—a dispassionate scientific term for the fish, frogs, birds, insects and plants that call the river home.

Human beings are so intelligent. We have or can create solutions to every problem we face today—solutions that will not, like a plastic-lined toxic waste dump in a residential neighborhood, end up causing as many problems as they purport to solve. 

Past generations did not realize the harm they were inflicting on innocent wildlife and people as industry grew in the 20th century. We are now reaping the results of that shortsighted negligence, and we can’t claim ignorance anymore. 

We know the harm these chemicals wreak. We owe it to ourselves and future generations, human and more-than-human, to clean up our act—and do it right.

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.

Turn those pink ribbons green

I’m going to make a confession.  I never could stand those pink ribbons.  I’ve never done a “Walk for the Cure” or bought daffodils for cancer victims or even picked a cancer-cure-themed postage stamp.

I’m glad to hear that the Komen Foundation has bowed to pressure and is restoring funding to Planned Parenthood, a worthwhile organization if there ever was one.

But in general, the idea of putting the energy and effort of well-meaning citizens behind “the search for a cure for cancer” just irritates me, because let’s face it, we know what causes cancer, and therefore we can do better than cure it, we can prevent it!  Maybe not 100%, but we can take it back to the modest rates that previous generations of human beings enjoyed.

For my grandparents’ generation, a diagnosis of cancer was frightening because it was so often a death sentence, but it was rare. Not one of my four grandparents came down with cancer, and I don’t believe their parents did either.  This isn’t due to some genetic serendipity, it’s just a fact that cancer rates in the first half of the 20th century (and every century before that) were way lower than they are now.

Cancer rates are skyrocketing now thanks to the environmental toxins that humans have introduced into our air, soil and water, and thus our agricultural crops, drinking water and the very air we breathe.  Rachel Carson saw the effects of DDT on birds, and gave the warning just before she succumbed to cancer.  

We may have removed DDT from the US market, but it’s still being used in other countries, and here it has been replaced by a whole host of alphabet-soup chemicals, each one more potent and carcinogenic than the last.

If you really want to make a difference in the war against cancer, forget about those ridiculous pink ribbons.  Use the power of your wallet and your ballot to insist that the government step up and do its job in regulating the industrial agriculture sector.

Or better yet, let’s allow the specter of industrial agriculture to fade away into the dustbin of the 20th century, and start a real “green revolution,” dedicated to the health and well-being of our planet and all her denizens.

What color is your ribbon?  Mine is green.

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