“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 super heroes.”- -Sandra Steingraber

On April 24, 2013, Sandra Steingraber completed her fifteen-day prison sentence for “acting out” peacefully against the violation of our bodies and the earth by corporate polluters and environmental exploiters–in this case, the gas and hydro-fracking industry.

Sandra is my hero.

Sandra, like me, is a mother, cancer survivor, writer and activist. Her books, Living Downstream, Raising Elijah, and Having Faith, contribute greatly to my thinking, writing and teaching.

Like Sandra, I know first-hand how the polluting of this planet causes unnecessary and horrific suffering for present and future beings. And, like Sandra, I am frustrated about how little has changed for the better over the years, despite copious evidence she and other scientists have compiled that points to the links between toxic pollution and cancer, neurological disorders, asthma, and other disease. A myriad of health problems such as these and others abound from the lack of environmental regulations in the U.S. Also, like Sandra, as a mother, I worry about what the future holds in these environmentally degraded times for all children present and future. These days, protecting our children takes on a whole new meaning. So much is out of our control, and the stakes are crazy.

Every day, citizens breath, eat, drink, and encounter toxic materials without their knowledge, consent, or will. We need a Safe Chemicals Act, among other things. We’re in the midst of a climate crisis that’s spiraling out of control and scientific predictions are dire. We’re running out of clean water. We’ve got tons of radioactive waste that lasts for thousands of years, and no safe place exists so far to store these hazardous materials. Pollinating insects are vanishing. Crucial sea life is being destroyed. “Even life itself seems to be running out,” Michael Moyer and Carrie Stors write in Scientific American, “as biologists warn that we are in the midst of a global extinction event comparable to the throes of dinosaurs.” Things are bad, really bad, and future generations will bear a terrible burden for our human hubris, negligence and greed.

From writing and speaking to civil action: What led Sandra to land in jail? I think like a lot of us moms and cancer survivors who work on these issues, she’s had it. Unlike many (or most, I should say), however, Sandra truly has the courage of her convictions.

In recent years, gas companies began plans to drill, or hydro-frack, in upstate New York near Sandra’s home. As a biologist, she researched what fracking upstate would mean for her community and beyond. The evidence clearly pointed and points to the poisoning of the water, air, soil, and food in her region. Fracking in New York would greatly increase rates of cancer and other disease in the area, and would contribute significantly to climate change at large. Sandra decided to take the gas industry on directly, so she’s been marching, speaking, stumping, testifying, campaigning, writing and doing everything in her power to stop fracking from taking place in New York. Steingraber even gave away her $100,000 Theresa Heinz prize to New York State anti-fracking groups. Instead of putting this money into a college fund for her kids, she gave the award away to save the earth and all of our children. “This is my kids’ college fund,” she told me. “The earth we live on.”

So when Inergy Storage and Transportation planned to use Seneca Lake, located near her home, as a dump for fracking waste (propane, butane, and methane), Sandra put her body on the line. She and others performed a peaceful act of civil disobedience by ‘blockading’ the gate of Inergy’s gas compressor facility on the lake.

Sandra was arrested for trespassing.

At her sentencing, Sandra said to the judge: “In my field of environmental health, the word trespass has meaning. Toxic trespass refers to involuntary human exposure to a chemical or other pollutant. It is a contamination without consent…It is my belief, as a biologist, that Inergy is guilty of toxic trespass.”

While in prison, Sandra wrote a series of powerful letters to the world about her act of civil disobedience. She wrote and drew upon the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, Parks, and King. You cannot read her letters without being deeply moved.

In her final letter from jail, Sandra calls on all mothers to join her in a movement of environmental civil disobedience. We are in an “environmental crisis” she writes, that “requires our urgent attention. And by attention, I mean sustained political action, not intermittent, private worrying.” We are running out of time. If we really care about our children’s future, instead of carting our kids to soccer games and SAT prep classes, we need to participate in a “civil-rights… uprising.”

I cannot stop reading and rereading this extraordinary letter. I cannot stop imagining speaking face-to-face with Sandra and saying, “tell me precisely what to do and I’ll do it.”

I’ve posted Sandra’s final letter from prison below. I strongly urge you to read it in full and then reread and reread it again.

I hope you’ll feel the same.

I hope you’ll pass it on to others.

I hope you’ll join this movement and put your own body on the line.

Sandra provides compelling reasons to follow her call. She’s singing out for a peaceful, creative, and joyful mother’s revolution. It happened before and it worked. They were the mothers of Women Strike For Peace (my own mom was one of them) and they stopped the above-ground nuclear test bombing in the U.S. in 1963. I believe, with Sandra’s leadership, we will do it again.

Today, Sandra was released from jail.

Welcome Home, Sandra Steingraber.

We stand with you.

We hear you.

You will prevail.

Here is Sandra’s last letter from the Chemung County Jail, calling all mothers to act and speak up for the earth and our children:

April 24, 2013

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 33 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 that 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 basis 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 20 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 24-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 6:35AM 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, walls, carry messages through the heating vents and, when they can, out the windows. When 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 super heroes.

As Stingray shouted down the vent to another inmate yesterday, “You know I’m loud. My words are my magic.”

Here is Sandra on Bill Moyers: http://billmoyers.com/content/sandra-steingraber-on-taking-action/


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