Below is a Q and A on my new book Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.
You’re an ecologist and a mother. Why did you decide to marry the two to write Raising Elijah?
Because the book is about a serious topic, I wanted a playful narrative structure. I thought it would be fun for readers to follow an ecologist, who once chronicled interspecies relationships in rainforest habitats, as she explores the habitat of her own household with two children—from the timing of labor contractions to the arrival of puberty, from the origin of food preferences to the environmental influences on brain development.
Field biology turns out to be good preparation for motherhood. Every day is different. Variables are multiple, hypotheses dashed, experiments non-replicable. You have to pay attention all the time. You’re awake in the middle of the night. And then, just when you think you might have the whole mystery figured out, everything changes. It’s humbling.
What were some of your discoveries?
When my three-year-old climbed to the top of a tree and began sawing off limbs with a tool he had spirited from his father’s collection of hand saws, I discovered that I still knew how to move quickly yet soundlessly so as not to frighten or distract the object of my observation upon approach. That’s a skill I brought from field work.
When our television set was stolen, my husband and I discovered that it’s actually more convenient to raise kids without screens. Of any kind.
With the help of local farmers and a Crock-Pot, I discovered that I can cook for my family 365 days of the year, even though I work full time and travel 100 days of the year.
I think I utterly failed on the bedtime front, but readers can decide for themselves.
Along the way, I reveal that the private, isolating world of parenting is profoundly connected to the public world of policymaking. In this way, Raising Elijah is both a memoir of a scientist mom and an exploration of the environmental threats to childhood.
What kind of threats?
Because of their rapid growth, children are more ecological than their parents. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water, eat more food. Their bodies are literally assembled from the environments they inhabit. Every minute, the whole ecological world is streaming through them and becoming them. This means that our children are also exposed to more toxic chemicals, pound for pound, than are we adults: mercury from coal, hydrocarbons from car exhaust, arsenic from pressure-treated play structures, pesticides in fruit, hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastics.
Is there hard evidence that these exposures are making children sick?
We know with certainty that lead, mercury, and PCBs interfere with the migration of fetal neurons in ways that extinguish IQ. We know for a fact that arsenic is a carcinogen and a neurodevelopmental poison. Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy is consistently linked to preterm birth, which itself raises the risk of a learning disability. Exposure to certain plastics is linked to asthma. Hormone-disrupting chemicals are likely playing a role in early puberty in girls. They are also linked to reproductive anomalies in boys.
For other disorders, the evidence is just coming in. Exposure to chemical agents in early pregnancy is one of several suspected contributors to autism, for example.
In general, toxic exposures cause more damage in children than in adults because, in early life, toxic exposures can alter pathways of development. Children who grow up near busy roads grow smaller lungs than children living in communities with cleaner air.
How much evidence for harm do you want before demanding precautionary action to protect a child? That’s a central question of the book.
You say that the environmental crisis is actually two crises. Could you explain that?
I see the environmental crisis as a tree with two main branches. One branch represents what is happening to the planet through the accumulation of heat-trapping gases, and the other branch represents what is happening to us through the accumulation of toxic pollutants in our bodies. The trunk of this tree is an economic dependency on fossil fuels. When we light them on fire, we damage the global ecosystem. When we use them as feedstocks for making petrochemicals, we create substances that tinker with our subcellular machinery and the signaling pathways that make it run.
Public policy should safeguard the healthy development of children and sustain the planetary life support systems on which their lives depend. This necessitates a new approach to chemical regulation.
How, in a time of budgetary shortfall, can you call for more regulations?
Chronic childhood diseases linked to toxic chemical exposures are rising in prevalence. This is not only an ethical problem; it’s a very expensive problem.
Premature birth, which now affects 1 in 8 U.S. children, carries a collective $26 billion per year price tag. Asthma, which now affects 1 in 11 children, costs $18 billion a year. Learning disabilities now afflict ten percent of children, as does attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. All together, special educational services consume nearly a quarter of U.S. school spending. Autism costs the nation $35 billion a year. While environmental factors are not the only cause of these various problems, they are unquestionably contributing to them, and they are preventable.
Your book makes chemical pollutants seem like a problem for mothers. Why not also for fathers and everyone else?
What I say is that the environmental crisis is, ultimately, a crisis of family life. To make my case, I weave the evidence into an autobiographical tale, and, as a result, the voice of this book is a mother’s voice. But I’m talking to all parents, mothers and fathers alike.
As I see it, our two fundamental responsibilities as parents are to keep our children safe and to provide for their future. The trespass of toxic chemicals into the bodies of our children is undermining our ability to carry out our first duty. And climate change—which is ushering in mass extinctions and erratic weather—is stealing the second.
Tell us about the book’s title. Elijah is the name of your son?
It is. And it’s also the name of one of my childhood heroes, the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy, who was assassinated in 1837. Although he knew his life was in danger, he kept speaking out against what he saw as the most pressing moral crisis of his time: the nation’s economic dependency on slave labor.
What fascinates me is that Elijah was the father of a young child with another on the way. He had family responsibilities—and yet he couldn’t remain silent. I feel that way, too.
I believe that we parents of young children today need to raise the uncompromising spirit of Elijah Lovejoy for the great moral crisis of our own age. I call for a new abolitionism directed toward ending our economic dependency on fossil fuels.
At the same time, I’m literally raising Elijah, my nine-year-old son, and the book focuses on my relationship with him at this particular moment in human history.
A few years back, Elijah wanted to be a polar bear for Halloween. So I sewed him a costume. But it was with the knowledge that it would very likely outlast the species. The streets of our village were filled that year with children dressed as butterflies, bumblebees, bats, and penguins. These animals are all in trouble. I kept thinking, as we walked door to door, what will happen to these costumes if their real-life antecedents disappear? Will children dress up as vanished species? And have mothers of any other generation entertained such thoughts and borne such terrible knowledge?
Do you talk to your children about the issues in this book?
Have I told Elijah that, because of warming ocean temperatures, the world’s plankton stocks have declined by 40 percent in the last 50 years? No. Have I mentioned to him that oceanic plankton provide us half of the oxygen we breathe? Yes.
There’s a whole chapter in Raising Elijah about how to talk to children about climate change, which is trickier than conversing about sex. But, really, the goal is not to figure out how to put together the perfect Big Talk on Planetary Calamity. The goal is to rise up and do something about it so that our kids can see that we’re fighting on their behalf. Our good actions, not explications of the problem, are what reassure kids.
So, what are parents supposed to do? Air dry the laundry? Mow the grass by hand? Argue with the school about what cleaners they use? All this after a day’s work, a commute, a parent-teacher conference, and soccer practice? I mean, let’s get real.
Okay, I do advocate for push mowers and clotheslines. But it turns out these things actually save both time and money. From a systems point of view, they are more convenient than their fossil fuel-consuming counterparts. A push mower can be used any time day or night, including naptime. It doesn’t fill your garage with carcinogenic fumes or create smog, and it doubles as an exercise machine. If you tricked out a push mower with a heart rate monitor and stuck it in a gym, people would pay money to use it.
Look, I’m not interested in cajoling busy parents into unpleasant acts of self-sacrifice. In fact, I see that approach as part of the problem. Psychologists even have a name for the helplessness we feel in the face of knowledge about a public problem that lacks a meaningful public response: well-informed futility.
Are you saying that the goal of a “toxic-free home” is just a pipe dream?
I’m saying that protecting children from dangerous chemicals should be on the national agenda, not left up to individual families. You can’t fill the world with brain poisons and then ask parents to police the results. I am a conscientious parent. I am not a HEPA filter.
A green home is a beautiful thing. But it can only exist within a green world—one with clean air, pure water, and some pollinators. It’s not a bomb shelter.
There has been a lot in the news about hydrofracking recently. For those who don’t know, what is it? And what are your thoughts about it?
Hydrofracking does to shale bedrock what mountaintop removal does to an Appalachian mountain: blows it up to get at a carbon-rich fossil fuel trapped inside. In the case of fracking, the quarry is not coal but methane bubbles—so called natural gas—trapped inside layers of shale a mile below the earth’s surface.
The topic of the book’s final chapter, hydrofracking is the single largest environmental threat to children’s health. It’s inherently leaky and relies on chemicals linked to preterm birth, asthma, cancer, and learning disabilities. It industrializes farmland and fills rural roads with tanker trucks hauling toxic materials. It degrades air. It poisons water.
As a science writer, I’m interested making visible for my readers the shale bedrock of our nation—which was once a shallow sea. Those bubbles of methane represent the bodies of once-living creatures: sea lilies and squids. This shale graveyard also contains radioactivity, heavy metals, and brine. It’s a place that we can’t see, and yet we are all invested in the integrity of the bedrock we walk over each day. Children get this.
What is the most important thing that parents can do after reading Raising Elijah?
Flip immediately to the “Further Resources” section in the back, which contains an annotated list of groups that are already engaged in smart, creative solutions, from green chemistry and green architecture to efforts to redesign the National School Lunch Program and reform our nation’s famously useless toxic chemicals screening program. Just scanning through this list gives me hope because all these organizations are led by other parents, who are already hard at work. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
This is your third book on environmental health. All three blend science writing with first-person memoir. How is this book different from the others?
From a writerly point of view, Raising Elijah is the first book I’ve written in the past tense. That feels like a big point of departure for me, a person who is drawn to the diaristic immediacy of present tense for narrative non-fiction. But Raising Elijah takes place over a long period of time—nearly a decade. I discovered that composing in the past tense offered me more flexibility to move through time and provide commentary on the action. The past tense is a roomier house. And we are a messy family.
More than my other two titles, this book is driven by storytelling and, of the three, I think that it’s my funniest book. If so, that’s all Elijah’s doing. He’s a very funny child, who values laughter above all else.
That being said, Raising Elijah is just as research-intense as Living Downstream and Having Faith. I simply shoved more of the technical details into the endnotes. And, I hope, it’s just as lyrical. I’m always trying to find a language that is as lovely as the biological systems I’m describing and that will keep readers turning the pages.
I have to ask: any recipes?
There is a recipe!—for cheese pizza, my children’s favorite food. It’s part of a chapter in which I trace the origins of all the ingredients in a slice of pizza—from garlic to olive oil—back to the farm in an attempt to answer two questions: Why is organic food more expensive than food grown with petrochemicals? And can I make a pizza from organic ingredients, mostly purchased from local farms, that costs me less than one assembled from ingredients sourced from the supermarket?
The answer to the second question is yes.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
- Climate Activists Prepare for November Election - EcoWatch ›
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Trump and Biden: Little Room for Climate Change in 2020 Election ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Simon Montlake
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
- Biden Commits to Banning Fossil Fuel Subsidies After DNC Dropped It ›
- As Biden Embraces More Ambitious Climate Plan, Fossil Fuel Execs ... ›
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
By Grayson Jaggers
- 15 Indigenous Crops to Boost Your Immune System and Celebrate ... ›
- 15 Supplements to Boost Your Immune System Right Now - EcoWatch ›
- Should I Exercise During the Coronavirus Pandemic? Experts ... ›
- The Immune System's Fight Against the Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- FDA Approves First In-Home Test for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- When Should You Get a COVID-19 or Antibody Test? - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Plans to End Federal Funding for COVID-19 Testing Sites ... ›
- Trump Insider Embeds Climate Denial Into Agency Reports ... ›
- Climate Denier Is Named to Leadership Role at NOAA - EcoWatch ›