Interview with Ecologist and Anti-Fracking Activist Sandra Steingraber
By Maureen Nandini Mitra
Sandra Steingraber’s gentle voice belies her fierce outrage at the destruction of Earth and human life, a rage that has driven her to devote herself to combating the chemical contaminants that endanger our well-being. An ecologist, cancer survivor, poet, and mother, Steingraber has authored three critically acclaimed books that explore the environmental toxins that permeate our land, air, water and food. In Living Downstream she documented her struggle with bladder cancer at age 20 and supplied a data-driven analysis of the relationship between cancer and industrial and agricultural pollutants. Her second book, Having Faith, explored the ecology of motherhood and the alarming ways environmental hazards threaten infant development. With Raising Elijah, her latest book, she explains how our children face an environment more threatening to their health than any generation in history. Steingraber’s skillful interweaving of personal stories and lucid, almost lyrical explanations of chemical and biological processes has earned her comparisons to Rachel Carson.
Most recently, she has become a vocal opponent of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, which she believes is prolonging America’s “ruinous dependency on fossil fuels in all their forms.” Steingraber spoke with the Earth Island Journal about her transition from a field biologist to an environmental activist fighting for what she says is the “biggest human rights issue of our time.”
How did the experience of battling cancer and having children affect the way that you work and the kind of work that you do?
Having cancer at 20 derailed my idea about going on to medical school. I was always really good at biology in school and was part of this elite group of biology majors who were being groomed for medical school, and suddenly I was a cancer patient and had no desire to make a hospital my workplace. That was a kind of crisis for me. Then I discovered field biology and went into research. Eventually the women’s cancer movement caught up with me in the late ‘80s. It was a radicalizing movement in which women, especially with breast cancer, and especially lesbian women, were insisting that science address the role of the environment in causing women’s cancers.
As somebody who was very quiet at that point about my cancer but knew that my cancer, namely bladder cancer, is almost always attributable to environmental exposure to carcinogens, I just got very swept up in that movement. It kind of opened my eyes and gave me a voice. I ended up quitting my job as a biology professor. I wanted to build a bridge between what we in the scientific community knew about environment and cancer and what cancer patients are told about that connection. So that became my life’s work.
What’s the connection between the crisis of toxic chemical exposure and climate change?
The environmental crisis we popularly talk about is really two twin crises. One has to do with melting icecaps and rising seas and so forth that come with a destabilizing climate caused by us using the atmosphere as a waste dump for fossil fuel combustion. The other is the crisis of toxic chemicals where we have to worry about pollution, pesticide residues in food linked to learning disabilities in children, about toxic chemicals from oil and gas exploration, especially fracking, some of which are reproductive toxins and can lead to miscarriage risks. Really the toxic crisis and the climate change crisis are two branches of the same tree. They share a common trunk—and that is our ruinous dependency on fossil fuels. When you light [fossil fuels] on fire to make energy, you threaten to destabilize the climate; when you take those hydrocarbons and use them as feedstocks for pesticides, fertilizers, plastics and all kinds of other petrochemicals, then you poison kids, you poison animals and you have a toxic problem.
You talk about this also as a human rights problem.
It is a human rights problem because it’s poisoning and killing people through toxic contamination and it’s also degrading the ecology of the planet on which future generations will depend. We are violating the rights of future generations to have the biological resources that they need. They need pollinators. One-sixth to one-third of all the food we eat is brought to us by insect pollination and those systems are now falling to pieces. We need plankton in the ocean. Plankton provides us half the oxygen we breathe and those plankton stocks are now in trouble because of warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. It’s our responsibility as members of this generation to safeguard all these things for our children.
What led you to become concerned about fracking?
As with a lot of people, it arrived at my doorstep. Forty percent of the land in my county is leased to the gas industry, including some fields very near our house. And this is in a state [New York] where our governor has not yet lifted the moratorium on fracking. I don’t know how that battle’s going to turn out, but I’m in the middle of it. I live on top of the Marcellus Shale. The bedrock under my feet is full of bubbles of methane. The biggest industry in the world would like me to move away so that they can have it and turn the land inside out. The industry calls everything between the surface of the earth and their area of economic interest “overburden.” I call it my home, and I’m not going to let them come into my community.
Could you talk a bit about the toxic links between plastics and natural gas?
Natural gas is methane, some of which we burn and some of which is actually a feedstock for making stuff that can include plastic. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, begins as natural gas, although you just need a source of carbon as a starting point. (In China they use coal to make PVC, but here in the US it’s natural gas.) Natural gas is also the starting point for anhydrous ammonia, which is a synthetic fertilizer that is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and also a water pollutant that causes miscarriages and reproductive problems for people. In addition, the shale below our feet contains not only natural gas, but also bubbles up other hydrocarbons and those include butane, propane, and ethane. These collectively are called “liquefied petroleum gases” and are feedstocks for all kinds of stuff. Ethane is used to make ethylene, which is a building block for lots and lots of kinds of plastics.
PVC is especially dangerous because it’s full of chlorine and when you burn it you get hydrochloric acid, which can liquefy your lungs. You also get dioxin, which is very toxic. It causes cancer, is an endocrine disrupter, it messes around with our liver and enzymes and it lasts in the body for 35 to 50 years. Plastic in general, whether it’s PVC or not, it just never degrades.
You talk about how people feel helpless in the face of the scale of the environmental crisis. How do you try to move them from this “place of inaction?"
We can’t change the scale of the problem, so that means you have to change the scale of your actions. I don’t tell people what those [actions] should be or what they should do. Everybody has to find their own path. I use autobiography to talk about some of the big things that I’ve done and by doing something big I try to inspire other people to do big things, too.
When I became one of the lucky recipients of the Heinz Awards last year, I chose to donate the cash prize that came with it—$100,000—to the anti-fracking movement. I tell people that the check far exceeded my bank balance. In fact, it exactly equaled the amount of money that I paid for my house. I live in a little $100,000 house. My son shares a bedroom with me because we just don’t have enough space. But I’m not interested in buying a bigger house or a bigger car. (I never owned a car.) None of my plates match. My furniture comes from Goodwill. I’m not interested in acquisition because we are in the middle of a crisis. The people who come after us are going to be inheriting a planet that’s not suitable for life.
I’ve been moved by some of the writings of an environmental attorney, Joseph Guth, who wrote that a functioning biosphere is worth everything we have. So that’s what I’m going to be investing in. I’m investing my love, my money, my future in preserving the abiding ecology of the planet. And I think that’s a hard road, but it’s an inspiring road. I feel really honored at this moment in history to be playing this role. This is the human rights movement of our time. I’m getting on the bus and I want other people on that bus with me.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of the Earth Island Journal. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.