Earlier this month, Orion friend and columnist Sandra Steingraber was sent to an upstate New York prison for blocking a facility used to store hydrofracked natural gas. Sandra has continued to write from jail; her most recent, and final, letter from Chemung County Jail is below. She was released today, shortly after midnight.
My book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, was released in paperback this week. But, being in jail, I was unable to grant interviews or otherwise to participate in its promotion. That’s not a situation that book publicists appreciate, although mine is being very good about it. But, being in here, I feel that I am walking my words.
The fundamental message of Raising Elijah is that the environmental crisis is a crisis of family life, as it robs parents of our ability to carry out our two most basic duties: to protect our children from harm and to provide for their future. When inherently toxic chemicals—including developmental toxicants linked to asthma, birth defects and learning disabilities—are legally allowed to freely circulate in our children’s environment, we can’t protect them. When heat trapping greenhouse gases create extreme weather events that slash the world’s grain harvests (this is happening) and acidify the oceans in ways that threaten the entire marine food chain, starting with plankton (and this is happening too), then we can’t plan for our kids’ futures—no matter how much we sock away in their college funds or Tiger Mom them into athletic or musical mastery.
This crisis requires our urgent attention. And by attention, I mean sustained political action, not intermittent, private worrying. Hence, unless the kids can get there and back, under their own steam, then piano lessons, karate, Little League, play practice, SAT prep, and Scout meetings are cancelled until further notice. Ditto for yoga, date night, and book club (with apologies to my long-suffering publicist).
Look, one in every four mammal species is headed for extinction. The world’s available drinking water is becoming less and less available. Insect pollinators, which provide us one-sixth to one-third of the food we eat, are in trouble. The price index for thirty-three different basic commodities is rising, and financial analysts are predicting shortages of the kind that lead to social unrest. Meanwhile, the world’s leading and most powerful industry is preparing to blow up the nation’s bedrock and frack out the last wisps and drops of gas and oil—releasing inherently toxic chemicals into our communities to do so.
In short, we don’t have time for out-of-town sporting events. Consider this commentary in the preeminent science journal, Nature:
I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. . . Recognition of the facts is delayed by the frankly brilliant propaganda and obfuscation delivered by energy interests that virtually own the US Congress . . . This is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave. (Nature, 491, Nov. 15, 2012)
The author, Jeremy Grantham, was speaking to the world’s scientists, but his message is equally applicable to mothers and fathers. Consider that the World Health Organization has identified climate change as the number one threat to public health for people born today. Otherwise known as our kids.
Now, do you have time to participate in a civil rights–style uprising? Protecting our kids, making sure they have a future: it seems to be a basic part of our job description.
I AM HERE in the Chemung County Jail on a charge of trespassing as a result of blockading a compressor station site belonging to the nation’s largest gas transportation and storage company. Inergy’s plan is to compress, liquify, and store fracked gases from out of state in depleted salt caverns under Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of New York State’s eleven Finger Lakes. This practice has led to catastrophic results in other states—including explosions and collapses. Even now, Inergy itself is chronically out of compliance with the maximum legal limits for its chemical discharges into this lake, which is the source of drinking water for 100,000 people.
This compressor station, which is less than twenty miles upwind from my house, is just one piece of fracking infrastructure among millions. I chose to take a stand here both because Inergy’s plans represent a direct risk to my children’s air quality and safety, and because my son was born nearby. The west shore of Seneca Lake is his birthplace, and the sound of green frogs twanging in the night was the theme song for my labor and delivery.
So, yes, my course of political action has taken me away from my own children in an attempt to redress this problem on their behalf, and during the first five days, when I was kept in twenty-four-hour lock-up, I had no access to them. But I am convinced the tears of my children now will be less than their tears later—along with the tears of my grandchildren—if we mothers do nothing and allow the oil, coal, and gas companies to hurdle us all off the climate cliff.
I’m also aware that human rights movements throughout history—from abolition to suffrage to civil rights—included many people who were parents of young children. They were surely just as busy as you and me. They, like I, probably also kept a list labeled, “Things to do before going to jail.” Their list, like mine, probably included: making meal plans, paying bills, cleaning the bathroom, and finding a costume for the school play.
To fight against Hitler, anti-fascist partisans sent their children away to safe places in case they were betrayed. They were busy parents, too. They loved their children just as much as we do. The difference is: Now there is no safe place for our children. We can’t hide them from the ravages of climate change.
And here are two observations from the inside: the jails are already full of mothers. Every single woman on my cell block has kids. One of them is trying, from behind bars, to find her son a kidney because he desperately needs one. That’s hard to do from a pay phone, but she’s doing it. And yet, what do you suppose Marlene (not her real name) spoke about with me as we walked around and around the walled-off, barbed-wire rec area at 6:35 a.m. this morning? The same thing that mothers throughout New York State are talking about this morning—how our kids are handling the state testing. Last week was ELA. This week is math.
The mothers in jail are fierce and proud. When the male guards insult them, they insult back. Their voices echo down the corridor, penetrate the iron doors and walls, carry messages through the heating vents and, when they can, out the windows. When another inmate, nicknamed Stingray, cussed out a guard for demanding she remove a towel from her face while sleeping, she received six days in “the box.” So she told me while we were all lined up against the wall to head out for rec. An hour later, when the guard ordered us to line up and come in, she did not walk meekly to the door. Instead she ran the other direction and then, in a stunning gymnastic display, turned a whirling series of cartwheels, round-offs, and flips, landing—Olympic-champion style—at the guard’s feet. Stingray has two kids and is six months pregnant with the third.
Imagine what we mothers could do if we brought that spirit of loud, uncompromising, creative defiance to the necessary project of dismantling the fossil fuel industry and emancipating renewable energy, which is its hostage? Imagine hundreds and hundreds of mothers peacefully blockading the infrastructure projects of the fossil fuel industry, day after day. Imagine us, all unafraid, filling jails across the land. Imagine the press conferences we would give upon our release. Imagine us living up to our children’s belief in us as superheroes.
As Stingray shouted down the vent to another inmate yesterday, “You know I’m loud. My words are my magic.”
Sandra Steingraber’s column in the May/June 2013 issue of Orion, “The Discontent of Our Winter,” discusses motherhood and climate change. Next year, her daughter will learn to drive on upstate New York roads that will or won’t be filled with fracking trucks. Photo by John Armstrong.