An internationally recognized authority on environmental links to cancer and reproductive health, Sandra Steingraber, PhD, is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, a new edition of which was just published by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press. It has been adapted into a feature-length documentary film by The People’s Picture Company. In 2001, Steingraber received the Rachel Carson Leadership Award for her “outstanding contributions to the conservation and environmental movement.” A columnist for Orion magazine, she has lectured before the parliament of the European Union, at various medical conferences, and on numerous college campuses, and is a scholar in residence at New York’s Ithaca College. Her new book is called Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you for joining me. I wanted you to know about a number of things. I recently launched a brand new nonprofit called Responsible Eating and Living. Our website is responsibleatingandliving.com. I hope you will check out this site, let me know what you think of it. I hope it grows into a community that makes eating and living a joyful, nourishing, happy experience without any dangerous side-effects. If you have any comments or questions during the show or any time during the week, you can contact me at email@example.com. Now, as you know, I talk very often about food, that’s my favorite subject, and how our food choices affect our health and the environment and the treatment of animals. So much of what’s related to what we put in our body through food and the air we breathe and the clothes we wear and the products that we put on ourselves, and through everything that is in our environment and around us – it gets into our bodies, and some of it’s good; some of it is not so good. We’re going to talk a lot about that today. I have a really incredible guest. I feel very privileged to be able to speak with her, biologist and poet Sandra Steingraber, PhD. She’s the author of Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (the Toronto Star said, “Lyrical, funny, toughly scientific, and unflinchingly truthful), and Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and Environment (the Chicago Tribune said, “An important, deeply-felt book”) and now the subject of an award-winning documentary. Steingraber has provided Congressional briefings, tested before the President’s cancer panel, and has spoken in the European Parliament. For her research and writing, she has received the Rachel Carson Leadership Award from Chapin College; the Environmental Health Champion Award from the Physicians for Social Responsibility; and from Healthy Child, Healthy World, the Mom on a Mission Award for prevention. A scholar and resident at Ithaca College, she is a columnist and contributing editor at Orion magazine. She lives with her husband and children in the region of upstate New York and has a terrific website, www.steingraber.com. Welcome, Sandra.
Sandra Steingraber: Hi, thanks for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh gosh, I am just overwhelmed, because you have done such amazing work. I just finished reading Raising Elijah. There’s just so much incredible information in here, and what’s especially good about it is you are a wonderful storyteller.
Sandra Steingraber: I worked hard on that, so thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: I can’t imagine how you wrote this book and the books you wrote prior to this one; there’s a lot of very difficult, upsetting information, and you bring it all with clarity and humor and make it readable, which is very important.
Sandra Steingraber: Well, I think there’s nothing worse than a book full of disturbing things that would just sit on a shelf somewhere. So I wanted to create a compelling enough story to seduce my readers through some fairly difficult science and keep them reading so they could see how the story turned out.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. And I want to believe that we all have happy endings, despite all these horrible things that are going on.
Sandra Steingraber: Raising Elijah is of course based on the life of my own nine-year old son, so the story starts with his birth and takes it up to his 9th birthday. He’s a very funny child, so some of the humor is provided just by his own life. Elijah himself is named after an abolitionist from Illinois, not far from where I grew up, Elijah Lovejoy, who was a very big hero of mine as a child. In the 1830s, he advocated for the abolition of slavery at a time where slaves were really a big part of personal wealth. It was like investing in real estate. To call for the end to slavery and to not compensate slave owners for all this wealth was a really radical idea at the time, and he was assassinated, ultimately, but his words lived on and actually were inspiration for other abolitionists who really did get our economy divorced from the ruinous dependency on slavery. So I call in Raising Elijah for divorcing our economy from fossil fuels. And I believe parents should be front and center in that battle.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. It just seems that so many of the battles we have are linked to the economy – slavery is one example. But the issues that we face today are, well they seem to me, so much more of a problem, might just be because they’re in my lifetime, but because they affect all of us in ways that we can’t avoid. Back in the days of slavery, I could have chosen, at the very least, not to have slaves, to not participate in that activity. But today, with all of the industry and products that are out there today, we can’t avoid drinking the water that may contain contaminants, we can’t avoid breathing the air that has things in it that aren’t beneficial to our health.
Sandra Steingraber: Well, it’s true. I think it is easy when we look back on the problems that used to exist because theirs are less pervasive. But at the time, I think, even people in the North knew they were benefiting from slavery, because it was keeping the cost of good down, in the same way that if you don’t live in Appalachia, you might heat your house with coal today. So even though you can choose not to be a coal miner yourself and blow up your own mountains, you’re still benefiting from fossil fuels. And so I think that the economic argument, which I’ve tried to deploy in Raising Elijah, is to talk about the hidden metrics in cost of how we do things. For example, one in eight US children is born premature now, and prematurity is actually the leading cause of death in the first few months of life. It’s the leading cause of disability in this nation. It’s the most expensive human health problem to have, because its effects last a lifetime. And it has a price tag of over 26 billion dollars per year in medical costs. And we know certain chemical exposures are linked to premature births, most specifically living near busy roads and breathing in a lot of traffic exhaust. So the more a mother is exposed to air pollution, the higher her risk for premature birth. And so, running an economy that involves a lot of diesel exhaust, it seem cheap, but it actually adds rocks to the pocket of our healthcare system. Then by the time you add up other morbidities of childhood like asthma, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, autism, early puberty in girls – all of these things have multiple causes, but the environment is demonstratively contributing to some proportion fo those. And they don’t have billion dollar price tags. So all fo a sudden, it doesn’t look so economically sensible to use fossil fuels to do things.
Caryn Hartglass: I know many people who have succeeded have had tremendous skill with playing around with their economic spreadsheet and making things look more attractive than they really are until finally some things fall apart. But do you see some change in the last few years where we’re not so shortsighted?
Sandra Steingraber: I do, and I see parents in particular realizing that we can’t be our own environmental protection agencies, we can’t be our own poison control centers. None of us, however conscientious we might be, are HEPA filters. We can’t stand between the bodies of our children and all the contaminants in the air and water.
Caryn Hartglass: By the way, I just wanted to say that’s my favorite line in the book: “I am a conscientious parent, I am not a HEPA filter.”
Sandra Steingraber: I think it shows us that we really need to demand a redesign of our materials economy and our systems of energy to align them with healthy child development. And happily, I think the news here is that it is very doable. So the funnest chapter for me to write were the food chapters, because organic agriculture has demonstrated that it can feed the world with high yields, on par now with conventional farms. So the old idea that we have to choose between poisoning people and people starving, that’s no longer the case. Maybe that was true in the 60s or 70s, but it’s certainly not the case now. So choosing to source with local organic farmers is something that is a personal lifestyle choice, but it also has political transformational implications, because we all have to eat anyway, and by redirecting our food dollars toward local organic growers, we are decreasing the amount of carbon that’s burned and we’re also protecting our own children from pesticide residues which are known to be linked to things like learning disabilities and small birth weight and other problems. As far as I could see, all the problems I deal with in the book, somebody somewhere has figured out a solution for. I was just in Boston yesterday and sat down with a lot of green chemists and other people who work in a field called Bio-mimicry, in which engineers design products that mimic animals in the real world.
Caryn Hartglass: I’ve been reading; I love some of that.
Sandra Steingraber: There’s just these elegant, beautiful solutions that don’t involve shoveling fossils into an oven and lighting them on fire. So the key is, how do we insist on those? How do we bring them out of the alternative world and into the mainstream? So I offer some ideas on that in Raising Elijah.
Caryn Hartglass: I love technology, and there’s so much that we’ve been able to do with it that has benefited all of us, but at the same time, technology has also come at a price, and there are numerous things that have come out of it that have been really harmful. So on one hand, I want to believe, yes, there’s so much creativity out there, and yes, we can solve any problem, and I really believe that – but the question is, will we be able to do it in time? Will something happen before it’s too late? There are so many different really depressing things that you bring up in your book about the fall of IQs in young children because of the chemicals that they’re exposed to in the womb in early development, and how their brains are so vulnerable and unprotected. And then you wonder – well, is the next generation going to be smart enough to solve any of these complicated problems?
Sandra Steingraber: Well sure, it brings up these kinds of questions. My hope is that people don’t get too hung up on the “Is it too late?” question to prevent them from putting one foot in front of the other and just doing something. It’s my experience that the most difficult problem to overcome is people’s sense of futility. People are looking for all sorts of reasons not to engage with these issues, and one of them is, it’s too late. Another of of them is, my voice doesn’t matter. And another one is, the government only listens to the corporations. So the people have all kinds of reasons to do nothing. And that’s harder for me, actually, to deal with than what I dealt with last month, which was debating a gas industry representative at the Cornell Law School. I feel like I can win on the science and I’m unafraid of industry opposition, but trying to convince people that this isn’t a losing battle, that there’s a place for heroism here, and we’re placing our children at such needless risk. Actually, the solutions are among us. We just have to insist on capitalizing them. That’s a harder battle for me to fight.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to talk about that a bit more, because I think that is our biggest obstacle. I too believe the solutions exist and I also believe that we can make them all work in the economy, and I think they will be good for the economy.
Sandra Steingraber: Exactly. I’m convinced of that too.
Caryn Hartglass: Because of all of these hidden costs that we accept and accept and carry the burden, and use “solutions” that are costly to solve some of these problems that don’t solve the problems, they’re just dealing with symptoms. I really think there’s a beautiful option out there.
Sandra Steingraber: Well, there are, for things big and small. In Raising Elijah, I try to deal with them on every level, and hopefully, with some amount of humor. In my own family, for example, I decided to get rid of the clothes dryer. I did it on a whim, and I’m the mother of two young children. I work full-time, and I actually travel a hundred days of the year. So I don’t think anyone can be busier than I am – and yet I figured out a way not to have a clothes dryer. So I’m not interested in making my life inconvenient; I barely get enough sleep the way it is. So it actually took more time to have a clothes dryer; there’s not a spare minute in my life for inconvenience. But what I discovered was that if you, for example, use clothes hangers rather than clothespins, and my husband came up with this brilliant sort of thing, where he strung clotheslines, these retractable clotheslines like violin strings, across our stairwell where we hang clothes at night. If I put them on the hangers and let them dry, they can dry while they sleep. So yes, it takes longer, but if they’re sleeping, that’s not any more time. Moreover, they’re already hung on the hangers, because when you actually take clothes out of they dryer, which I now see as a kind of clothing randomizer. You have clothes that have to be sorted and folded and socks that have to be matched, so there’s another 20 minutes at least, so I did this all ergonomic. I discovered that if you mate as you hang – put everyone’s clothes together and put the socks together on the hangers – then it doesn’t take any longer at all. What it does mean is that when the kids then take their clothes and put them in the closet, their pajamas are on hangers instead of neatly folded in little bundles. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s fine.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s fine. You’re preaching to the choir here. I’m one of these strange people here who lives in New York City and doesn’t use a dryer. I do it with joy. I find it’s kind of a zen-like experience when I’m taking the clothes out of the laundry machine and hanging them up on these racks inside the apartment. And of course, we have these crazy rules where we’re not allowed to hang clothes outside here, because it kind of makes the neighborhood look less classy or something, I don’t know.
Sandra Steingraber: Inf act, I just had a photographer right over, right before you gave me a call, and she wanted to photograph me in my yard, but I had laundry hanging, so she was trying to figure out how she could photograph me without showing my laundry. I said, are you kidding, this is not a sign of shame. Let them be in the photograph. I think the clothesline needs to be seen as less of a sign of poverty and shame and more of eco-chic and edgy and cool. SO the more of us who start to hang and normalize the clothesline, the better.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. And you know, it’s not hard and there’s a way to fit it into your schedule. But my question is, how did we get so soft? How did we get so lazy? The United States of America – now, I don’t want to go too much into our history, because some of it I’m not too proud of, like when we blew away all the Indians – but the DNA of the people that came over to America were courageous and energetic and adventurous and risk-takers. And we’re not that anymore. There was a time with President Kennedy when he decided we should go to the moon, and everyone geared up and focused on this task and we got there. We’re just not doing that anymore. Everything is just too much trouble…it’s too “difficult.” I don’t know how to inspire people otherwise, because it really isn’t too difficult. I live this life and I enjoy it. I don’t know how to get people to change. You say that you want government to change some of the rules of the EPA and whatever so we’re not using fossil fuels in the way we are, we’re not creating all these toxic chemicals – but individuals are so much a part of this equation.
Sandra Steingraber: They are, and that’s the good and bad news of it, right? When it comes to fossil fuels, a thousand molehills really do a mound make. So a lot of the carbon that is burned is burned right at the level of the individual household, in fact, that’s like 38% of our emission. So redesigning the individual household is going to be part of the battle. So I think there are really a lot of examples of inspirational things going on there, and part of my role as a science writer at this moment in human history is to profile some of those great examples of people who are doing things differently. I think the movement here has begun with food; people are really interested in knowing where their food comes from and who grow it, and they’re seeing the connections. From there now, I’m seeing a real curiosity about the connections among other things. My twelve year-old, for example, is interested in fighting for her right for non-toxic nail polish. And so there’s a whole group of really radical middle school girls out there who realize that the European Union has passed laws that prohibit toxic chemicals in personal care products like nail polish and hair gel and conditioners and deodorants, and yet those same global companies are marketing the toxic formulas here in the US because we don’t have those kind of strict laws.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, we do the same thing to other countries to pesticides and herbicides that have been maybe illegal, a handful of them in this country. We sell them out to other countries and we buy their food.
Sandra Steingraber: That is true. Increasingly, however, other countries are tightening up their restrictions and we’re becoming the dumping grounds for pesticides like Atrazine, which are no longer allowed to be used in other countries. So we’re becoming the third-world dumping ground for a lot of these different things. And so middle school girls have actually made public the formulas for the non-toxic products in Europe that we could have here if we demanded them. So they’re taking up that issue. And I’ve worked with football players who are actually really interested in insisting on organic football fields. And I’ve learned from them that the little brown mushrooms that spring up on playing fields are actually a safety threat, especially to linebackers, because they’re slippery and could lead to knee injuries if you do a lot of lateral movement with mushrooms on the field. And most fungicides are not reproductive toxicants. So how to do fungal control on football fields without using these chemicals requires cooperation between the mycologists and the athletic directors. So that’s actually happening on some college campuses. So I see people really interested in tracing the origins of things, whether it’s through clothing or cosmetics or food. I see people asking, could we perform this task differently, do we need a toxic chemical to get to the same place? So I think it’s a really exciting time. The system, unfortunately, right now makes the toxic solution more inexpensive than the non-toxic solution, and that’s only because of a process of subsidies and ignoring the externalized costs like human health costs. So I think there’s a lot of room for sensible reform here, and increasingly, people are asking for it.
Caryn Hartglass: I always like to look at the bright side, and even though people are very nervous about the economy, I do believe that when we are in difficult times like this, that’s when innovation comes out, because when we’re most comfortable, we don’t think about change. And so this is a time of great opportunity.
Sandra Steingraber: It is, and it’s a time of incredible crossroads. If you wanted to feel like you lived in an amazing period of time, you’re actually in one. Right now, we are realizing that we have run through most of the easy-to-get fossil fuels. We kind of excavated them from their fossily graveyards. And what’s left is the really hard-to-get stuff. So we’re preparing to blast those difficult-to-get fossil fuels out of the ground, and that requires more increasingly extreme and toxic methods of use for extraction. That includes mountaintop removal, where you actually blow up mountains to get at the last bits of coal. It includes deep-sea oil drilling, as we saw with BP; it includes Tar Sands removal, where we actually cut down forests in Alberta, Canada and cooked the tar out of the soil itself and sent them down pipelines to New Orleans; and here in the northeast, it includes fracking, which is probably the most evil of them all. It involves blowing up the bedrock beneath our feet to liberate bubbles of methane, so-called natural gas, which can only come to the surface when millions of gallons of fresh water are mixed with thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals for every well. About tens of thousands of wells have to be spread out across the landscape, because you don’t get very much gas out of any one well. So now they’re going to industrialized our organic farms and cut down the last remaining intact forests in the Northeast to blast bubbles of methane out of the ground, this is the proposal. So we can either keep going down this road, or we can say, look, this is ultimately a dead end. By definition, nonrenewable resources are nonrenewable. God’s not putting any more of them in the ground. We need to do something different and invest in renewables.
Caryn Hartglass: Who thinks of these things? That’s what’s so crazy.
Sandra Steingraber: Well, Halliburton is the one who pioneered fracking for Shell Gas. And that’s important, because Dick Chaney was the CEO of Halliburton and then he became the vice president, convened his energy panel, he was able then,. As vice president, to exempt fracking from all federal laws. So it is not under the jurisdiction of the EPA, it does not have to abide by the state’s drinking water act, the clean air act, the right to know law, and so forth, and so it’s only under control of the state government. Here of course, in the northeast, Pennsylvania as a state has decided to completely open the floodgates and has thousands of wells in production and in the books, whereas here in New York, we have more of a temporary moratorium on fracking. So it’s almost like New York and Pennsylvania are twins separated at birth. One has temporarily abandoned it, and one has embraced it. So as our temporary moratorium in New York runs out this month, the questions is what will Governor Cuomo decide to do? Will the moratorium be listed, will it be permitted, will it be prohibited? And we see the gas industry already just sure that they will have their way with us; they are already staging grounds on the border, but some of the biggest corporations in this world are getting ready to plunder the landscape. And at the very same time, we see this very robust anti-fracking movement rising up at every level. Some are working on it at banning it in the individual village level, some are working on the federal level, and some are farmers who are worried about losing their organic certification if the fracking comes and they lose their certification. And so there’s this very powerful anti-fracking movement. And it’s kind of like watching a steamroller heading for a brick wall. You have no idea how this is going to turn out, but it’s just amazing human drama right here. So if you ever wanted a chance to play hero, here’s this moment in human history where we’re either going to pursue more catastrophically horrible fossil fuel extraction or we’re going to say stop. And now’s the time to invest in wind and solar.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you know where people can go in the New York area – is there a good website or something – to protest against the fracking?
Sandra Steingraber: Oh, there is. I mean, this is an all-hands-on-deck moment. So Governor Cuomo just needs to hear from all of us this week. Also, the legislature, it’s the last week it’s in session. And there are some bills being proposed, one that would ban fracking altogether, one that would extend the moratorium. SO these all need our help. So there’s a number of websites in New York City; one of them is Frack Action, that’s a good place to go. Also, Food and Water Watch has a new health report on the hazards of fracking that just came out this week. Catskill Mountain Keepers is working hard. And here where I live, Toxic Targeting has a wonderful website that has a letter that you can sign to Governor Cuomo and the other. So you can go to any of those websites. Toxic Targeting, I think, is really going after Governor Cuomo on this.
Caryn Hartglass: So if the worst case scenario occurs, then our last option is when they start to destroy things. We just have to lay down our bodies and stop them.
Sandra Steingraber: There are people who are talking that way, and I feel that at this point, I just can’t look that far down the road. I don’t want to believe that this is inevitable, and this is part of the game here, that the fracking companies act as if there is nothing that can be done to stop it. That’s how they’re made people feel a certain sense of fatalism about it. But I’ve been part of so many other industrial activities in which that kind of mantle has inevitability as part of the game. For example, in my own home-state of Illinois, there were municipal waste incinerators that were floated, and we were told there was no doubt about it that by 2000 there would be 9 new incinerators scattered across the cornfields of Illinois. There are none. And the reason is that a bunch of farmers with 8th grade educations got really interested in what it meant for their hogs and their children and their turkeys. They passed referendum after referendum after referendum saying no on a village level, and finally the governor changed the law that made it profitable to generate electricity from burning garbage, and all the incinerator companies went away. So I think that’s kind of the model for what I’m hoping will happen here in new York. It’s clear to a lot of us that the environmental health effects of fracking will add so many health problems to the role of medicare and medicaid in terms of preterm births from all the smog, more learning disabilities from the release of heavy metals like mercury and lead, more cancers, more asthma, more heart disease, filling our railroads up with fleets of tanker trucks carrying hazmat, teaching our children how to drive on roads meant for buggies that are now filled with 18-wheelers. This just not safe on any level, and the price that we’ll pay for fixing the roads, for first responders, for emergency rooms, for everything, is just going to more than wipe out whatever profits are made from this. So it makes no sense, economically, from a public perspective. I had the opportunity to testify in the New York Assembly recently on the health risks of fracking, and my feeling was that the community members were asking me very good questions about what they were convinced of in the latest studies from a team of Duke University showing high levels of methane in drinking water near where gas is being drilled, and what does it mean for that water, does it make carcinogens, what does it mean when you add detergent to that water and you send it downstream and someone else drinks it? So, all the right questions. We’ll see what happens. It feels to me, a lucky moment for a biologist to be engaged with this enormous human rights movement that has sprung up in the form of the anti-fracking movement.
Caryn Hartglass: We’re certainly fortunate to have you to be a part of it. We need to take a quick break, but I have so many more things that I want to talk about, so can you stay will us and we’ll be right back?
Sandra Steingraber: I would be glad to.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. I’m here with Sandra Steingraber, whose new book – Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis – is out. I’ve read it, and I recommend it to everyone as a must-read. Sandra, thank you for joining me this hour.
Sandra Steingraber: Thanks for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: Have you ever considered politics?
Sandra Steingraber: I feel like I’m a shy person. And I am happy to write about everything I know about the environmental health risks of whatever topic people are concerned about, and I’m happy to stand at a podium or address Congress or go before the European Union and talk about it; I’ve done all those things. But after that, I like to be by myself and my kids. I think that’s where I’m best suited. Everyone has different skill sets, and those who are more gregarious lead the politics.
Caryn Hartglass: But that’s a scary thing, because I think a lot of the ones who are leading us don’t know or don’t understand…it’s really hard to trust so many of them.
Sandra Steingraber: You know, their hearts and minds can be changed. I’ve seen that happen. So here’s a little story from my testimony before the New York Assembly the other week; it’s connected with food. I blogged to CSA here in the Finger Lakes region. We are, of course, a hotspot for organic agriculture, and as part of that, we actually have a CSA bakery, meaning that there are heirloom wheat strains that have been reintroduced into upstate New York. We used to be the breadbasket for the whole Northeast in the old days, and so some farmers have resurrected all those ancient strains of wheat. We now have farmers giving their grain to a local mill that we have in my own little village. And then there are artisanal bakers who have figured out how to use the recipes to make wheat from this – it’s kind of low-gluten, the flour, so they have to do it in a special way. So as part of the CSA, we actually get bread from the CSA every week. In addition, this flour is sold to bakeries, as far away as Brooklyn, and they’re turned into artisanal loaves of bread. Unfortunately, all of the land surrounding these wheat fields are leased up to the fracking companies. So the mill would like to hire, because we have more demand than we can possibly supply, but the farmers can’t expand because of the gas places. So here we are, we can’t produce food because we plan to blast methane out of the ground. So the baker asked if I would take into Albany, into the hearing room, a loaf of bread. He had a message that he wanted me to give about this bread. So I delivered it, and then handed the loaf of bread to the Senator, who said they can’t accept gifts, as if I was offering to bribe them. But I said, no, the farmer said this is his testimony: the words are the bread! So we piled this loaf of bread on all these stacks of reports as a submission to Albany to consider. The message the farmer asked me to deliver on his behalf was that the flour and the yeast in bread is really just a way to make water stand up, and he cannot make bread without a clean source of water, and he can’t get a clean source of flour if the land is going to be blown apart by frackers. And he wants to hire more, the mill wants to hire more, so the economic opportunities are there, and it’s actually going to be a loss of jobs if this goes through. So it was a very powerful moment. I felt by having the Senator accept my bread that some other transaction just happened there. It was a very human moment.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, we need a lot more of that. I love that story. You know, it all comes down to such simple things, bread and water.
Sandra Steingraber: Bread and water compared to natural gas. Especially since the best science shows that if we invested in wind and solar, we could actually get off of fossil fuels within 30 years, entirely run our economy on renewables, not even including nuclear in the mix – but the key is this: we have to reduce our consumption by half. And that turns out to be doable too, with redesigns in engineering and chemistry. So it’s very exciting – all kinds of exciting things could be happening. But there are those who seek to have us believe that we have no other choice but to keep walking down this same suicidal path, getting all our energy from the bit of a drill. And I really think it’s time to take our counsel from somewhere else now.
Caryn Hartglass: So you’ve been raising your kids, and I’m sure you’ve been participating in a variety of school events and meeting different parents. What is their reaction to you and all the things you are trying to accomplish?
Sandra Steingraber: I don’t always talk about these things at the soccer sidelines or backstage during play practice or during the piano recital rehearsal or anything like that. But I am amazed that all of us who are conscientious parents really have a hard time having a discussion about the things that are really threatening our children. I think it’s because we feel like we really want to protect our own kids from this bad new. We don’t really want them to know that the world’s plankton is in trouble now, that numbers have declined by 40% in the last 50 years, that plankton makes us half of our oxygen. It seems like we should all be having a discussion about what’s going on with plankton and why. But we don’t want out kids to overhear this, and so we end up, as parents, kind of being in the same bubble of protection that we put our children in – kind of like ‘hear no evil, speak no evil.’ I write a lot about that in Raising Elijah, how we talk about this, parent to parent. I’m not sure I even do know the answer, but the children themselves are beginning to realize that there’s something wrong. The weather is just too weird, and even if you’re nine years old, the daffodils aren’t supposed to be blooming in January. So children, ask those questions. We need to come up with another sort of big talk, that’s a different big talk than telling them about the story of sex – where babies come from and how families are created. And this big talk is about kind of the ongoing de-creation of the Earth caused by climate change. So I write a lot in Raising Elijah how to have an appropriate conversation about those topics. But I think the most important thing we can do as parents is not really talk about it, but let our children see us step up and take action. I’m really moved by a story that I heard that I then repeat in Raising Elijah from a retired third grade teacher who was teaching eight year-olds during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early 60s. And her students were all really sure that nuclear war was going to happen in their lifetime. But there was one child who was sure there’s wasn’t going to be nuclear war. And so the teacher asked, what makes you think it’s not? And she said, because my parents are peace activists and they’re working to stop it. In fact, this child was not so upset – because her parents were actually on the job. So I think the way we reassure our children about their safety is not to pretend that we’re not living in the middle of the crisis, but to let our children see that we’re not good Germans, we’re actually members of the French Resistance here. We’re paying attention to the signs of atrocity and we’re working to stop it, and that’s what’s reassuring to kids. So with that, you see me in the middle of the book, as a character in my own book, take a completely different attack. I stopped trying to hide my own research from my kids – I would take my son with me when I went to go lobby in Congress and let him see what I’m trying to do here. That’s actually been a really good shift for my own family.
Caryn Hartglass: I think it’s so important. It’s important for parents to be honest. It’s important for parents and adults to know that they should be doing things, fighting for things that aren’t right, and also letting kids know that soon it will be up to them – and yes, they can solve these problems. So it’s all kind of a perspective and mindset. But I think so many people are just feeling like it’s all futile and it’s too insurmountable and too difficult and then they pass that on to their children, that’s the danger.
Sandra Steingraber: That’s right, that’s the danger. There is actually this phenomenon called well-informed futility syndrome that psychologists have gathered a whole body of information about. It was originally described to talk about people during the Vietnam War who watched a lot of the war on television, and they felt less able to cope with thinking that they could do anything about it than people who watched less television. So the phenomenon is that the more you know, the more futile you feel sometimes, as if you have a steady drumbeat of bad news. People don’t want to feel despairing, they don’t want to feel afraid or guilty, so they turn away from these intolerable feelings, simply going into denial. I think that’s what we’re seeing now with climate change, and of course, that’s not helpful either. So in Raising Elijah, I talked about how to get out of this box of well-informed futility syndrome. How can we be well-informed but not feel futile? And so I try to march everyone out of this box. I’m not immune to it either. There’s one story I tell in one of the later chapters of Raising Elijah in which Elijah asked me if he could be a polar bear for Halloween. And I actually have some pretty good sewing skills, because I have a background in Animal Surgery, so I got to work sewing a costume out of an old chenille bedspread. At some point, I realized that the costume would probably outlast the species. That night, when we were out on the streets of my village, I saw all these other children dressed up as species that were vanishing – bumblebees, monarch butterflies, penguins, bats – all these species are in trouble. So I started to wonder. Our children feel such kinship for certain animals. Their stories are all about these animals, they become them for Halloween – what does it mean that we’re living in the midst of this vast extinction, with one in every four mammals now heading for extinction. And we’re not having a public conversation about that.
Caryn Hartglass: I think it’s part of human nature, part of our survival tactic, is this denial thing that’s built into us; it gets us through a lot of difficult things. I think that it’s not working out right now.
Sandra Steingraber: It’s not working out, and that’s not what we tell our children. We tell our children that if you see something wrong, if someone’s being bullied, you tell someone, you stand up. If anyone touches you inappropriately and tells you to keep a secret, you don’t keep that secret. So I think our silence and complicity around environmental destruction is working in the opposite direction of the lessons we’re teaching them about everything else. And so we need to get all these things in alignment.
Caryn Hartglass: My particular passion is food and everything all around it, and I’m a big advocate against factory farming. And that’s something that I know a lot of parents don’t want to talk to their children about, about where their food really comes from, because some of it is so sci-fi horrific. You don’t talk about that in this book – I don’t know if you’ve talked about it in other books, but that whole industry is so polluting.
Sandra Steingraber: It is. I chose the sort of good news track in Raising Elijah because I happen to live in an area right now, at least pre-fracking, which offers this incredible array of local organic agriculture. So instead what I do is I show readers how growing up in this actually helps them make really good food choices.
Caryn Hartglass: I loved your kale story.
Sandra Steingraber: Oh, my kale story! My three year-old threw a temper tantrum because he really wanted kale one day. He just laid down on the floor of the food co-op and kicked and screamed and a whole group of people gathered around to see a three year-old throw a tantrum over a dark green leafy vegetable. We were int here to buy shampoo and he really wanted kale and I wouldn’t give it to him. So I think my kids are only a sample size of two, but what I was interested in this book was if you don’t have children advertised to by the food industry – we don’t do television, and they don’t do a lot of screen time in my house – and when you buy the food directly from the farmer, when you’re invested in a CSA, when the kids like to go to see their carrots and pick their strawberries, then they actually fall in love with these very healthy and colorful foods. These are food habits that I hope will serve them for a lifetime. The kind of so-called inconvenience of sourcing your food locally instead of just heading down to the supermarket is more than made up for in my household because I don’t have picky eaters; I don’t have to short-order cook. I just make one meal for the whole family, and we all pretty much enjoy it. There’s a few foods now that my son Elijah won’t eat – he’s off of asparagus because he doesn’t like stinky pee. He didn’t have a problem with it last year, but all of a sudden now, he’s boycotting asparagus.
Caryn Hartglass: But that’s fine.
Sandra Steingraber: That’s fine, that’s fine. I don’t force anybody to eat anything. But for the most part, my life is made easier by children who have good eating habits because I can take them anywhere and they eat whatever is served to them ; they have adventurous palates. Food is a lot of fun in our household.
Caryn Hartglass: I have to give you and your husband credit for that because you raised your kids this way. It’s not normal in society today to live the way that you do.
Sandra Steingraber: I mean, it’s not, and I have to say that a lot of these things are happy accidents. In the book, it’s certainly not about the self-righteous adoration of pure food, which I find some of that writing a little unsufferable. But the truth of the matter is, the television was still not in the back of the moving van and we never replaced it. The truth of it is, we ended up –
Caryn Hartglass: So you chose not to replace it?
Sandra Steingraber: We chose not to replace it, and we ended up living within a half a mile of a CSA.
Caryn Hartglass: Most people, if they lost their TV, would buy one within a half hour!
Sandra Steingraber: I guess that may be true. But I set in motion, kind of unintentionally, a human experiment – raising my kids without being advertised to by the food industry. And then it turns out, that when they did eat out at a McDonald’s, that they didn’t like it, because it hadn’t been told to them that it was what they were supposed to like. So my son, actually, burst into tears – because when he opened his yellow and rad package, inside was food that was all brown. So he burst into tears and said it’s too brown! Brown bun, brown hamburger, brown coke, brown fries. He’s used to colorful bell peppers or sweet potatoes and things like that. And it was also oversalted for their palates. They’re just not used to that. So it was a lesson to me that junk food is not inherently attractive in fact, most of it’s kind of ugly-looking. Most of it is made attractive by advertising and packaging. If you don’t let your kids get advertised to, then they find something that is inherently more attractive.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s amazing what can happen. All kids are human experiments.
Sandra Steingraber: I guess that’s true.
Caryn Hartglass: Whether you do it consciously or not! And there’s so many great stories in this book, so many things to talk about – and we have about three minutes left. So you make these three recommendations: plant a garden, mow grass without the assistance of fossil fuels, and replace the clothes dryer with evaporation. We talked about the clothes dryer, we kind of touched on planting a garden, and I think there’s a big movement with food these days – urban gardens and community gardens – and this a good thing; I can’t encourage it enough for people to try to grow anything, even in an apartment, even if it’s small. Just get things growing. The mowing grass – I chuckled at it, but it really is an important thing, because it made me realize that people need to think about everything they do.
Sandra Steingraber: Yeah, that’s fun to do. I think it’s a good note to close on. I mow half an acre with a little reel mower. And the good new is here, these things have all been redesigned since you last saw your grandfather’s reel mower, so they’re actually really easy to use. I do a whole ergonomic analysis – it’s about the same amount of energy that is pushing a fully-loaded stroller. So you can do it with your kids out in the yard. When I had a baby and a toddler, I couldn’t leave them alone in the house while I mowed, nor could I have them under the tree while I pushed through the yard this 100-decibel, rock-spewing, smog-making machine. So a push mower actually saves me more time and I can multitask because I can oversee like a trampoline party while cutting my grass. It offers me a chance to get some cardio exercise done, I try to do an hour a day. So I began to realize that my real mower was like a machine in a gym, and if you tricked it out with a cup-holder and a cardio monitor, people would actually pay to push this things around.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s just got to be made hip.
Sandra Steingraber: It’s got to be made hip. You just have to think differently, I think. There’s real joy and fun in doing that. Of course, it’s part of my message to my children that hey, I’m on the job, I care about your environment, I’m not going to fill your air up with smog and fill this mower’s gasoline tank up with tar sands or Saudi Arabian oil just to cut grass. We can do this in a different way.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s a lot of people though that live in suburbia and either have gardeners taking care of their lawns or they have those big giant mowers that they sit on to mow their lawns. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. But we can do it!
Sandra Steingraber: Yes. I think that if you were a landscape architect with a push mower, I bet there would be a market for that.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, let’s start the push mower movement. My brother uses one. I don’t have property, but if I did, I would use a push mower. Gosh, thank you so much. I encourage the listeners to go to your website, steingraber.com. You’re blogging and you write for Huffington Post, I think?
Sandra Steingraber: I do. I haven’t posted there for a little while since Raising Elijah came out, I’ve been sort of busy on the book tour, but I’ll get back to it soon.
Caryn Hartglass: So many great things that you’ve put out – thank you for this book, and thank you for setting a model. You walk the walk, and you can preach, because you practice what you preach. So I think it’s a good thing.
Sandra Steingraber: Let’s get your listeners to stop fracking. I’ll close by saying everyone please call Governor Cuomo and put an end to this.
Caryn Hartglass: Call Cuomo, stop fracking!
Sandra Steingraber: That’s the message!
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you, thank you so much.
Sandra Steingraber: Thanks a lot, bye!
Caryn Hartglass: I’m Caryn Hartglass, and you’ve been listening to It’s All About Food. Thank you for joining me and please remember – call Governor Cuomo and let’s stop fracking! Thanks for listening.
Transcribed by Sarah Brown, 8/4/2013