Environmentalist Sandra Steingraber visits DePauw for Earth Week


Sandra Steingraber was a normal biology major at Illinois Wesleyan University on the track to become a doctor when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
“It convinced her that medical school was not for her, because she had spent enough time in hospitals,” said J.H. “Jim” Benedix in his introduction. Benedix is the Winona H. Welch Professor of Biology and Co-Director of the Environmental Fellows Program.
As Steingraber discovered, bladder cancer is what she called the “quintessential environmental cancer.” One of the first things her doctor asked her after her diagnosis was if she had “vulcanized tires” or “smelted aluminum.” As it turned out, she had grown up downwind of an aluminum smelter in a town whose drinking water had been polluted by dry cleaning solvent. Steingraber was only one of a cluster of affected citizens.
Instead of becoming a doctor, Steingraber became a poet, author, scientist and activist. On Wednesday, she visited DePauw University to speak as part of Earth Week.
“I read Sandra Steingraber’s book as a first year and that had a big impact on me as an environmentalist,” said sophomore Tyler Donaldson.
On April 23, Steingraber came to DePauw to give a talk entitled “The Whole Fracking Enchilada: Toward Meaningful Chemical Reform and a Rational Energy Policy” in honor of Earth Day. Her visit was part of Earth Week, a collaboration between the Environmental Fellows and DePauw Environmental Club.
She started her talk with an analogy. “The environmental crises is like a tree with two trunks…one trunk represents what’s happening to our planet and climate…the other trunk is what’s happening to us, to our bodies.”
Her field of study, and the focus of much of her speech, is the second trunk. To fix the problems of the second trunk, she said, people have to understand the first.
“If the public doesn’t understand climate change, then somebody isn’t explaining it very well,” Steingraber said.
She spent much of the first half of her presentation explaining the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide: where they come from and how they affect the environment. Both come from living things, and carbon dioxide is what we exhale.
“Your breath is going to outlive you,” she told the audience.
One of Steinberger’s main concerns is the affect our lives will have on future generations. Her cancer was caused by a chemical that had been improperly disposed of 80 years before she was even born. Her son has asthma, allergies and a mild learning disability.
Steingraber demonstrated her care for younger generations during her speech when a baby started crying. She stopped talking to tell the parents, “Please don’t leave.”
Steingraber described some of the environmental problems occurring today, many of which she feels are widely overlooked by the general population. After detailing a particular issue with plankton, she asked, “If this is news to you, why is that?”
She compared ecological and economic news and pointed out how the public pays attention to one and not to the other. To Steingraber, they are equally important.
Eventually, Steingraber started talking about her passion: fracking.
Fracking is a process by which bubbles of ancient methane gas trapped within a layer of slate underground can be extracted. First, a drill moves sideways through the stone. Then, it’s blown up. A sand, water and chemical mixture is blasted through the cracks to release the pressure and expose the methane.
“The sand grains are like tiny door stops that hold open the stony door,” Steingraber said.
Poisons are also added to the mixture, and that concerns environmentalists like Steingraber, who helped found New Yorkers Against Fracking.
The slate contains living things that could clog the pipelines, so they are eradicated.
“Is that smart? Is that okay? That’s the question of our age,” she said.
After her explanation of fracking, Steingraber had everyone take out their phones and visit www.thesolutionsproject.org. The site details ways that each state can switch entirely to alternative energy. It is possible by 2050, according to the site and Steingraber, but only if we cut our energy use in half.
“Not only do I think this is realistic, I think it’s the path to salvation,” she said.
She believes in the power and adaptability of the youth.
“You’re used to unfamiliarity and adjusting to new technology in ways that maybe we who are older are baffled by,” Steingraber said.
Steingraber can’t understand why some things have changed, but energy sources have stayed the same. People no longer tolerate smoking in public places, phones have evolved and communication has changed drastically. Cars still run on gasoline.
“If we brought my great-grandfather back to life, he wouldn’t know how to pick up the phone and call someone,” Steingraber said. “But he would know how to put gas in my car.”
Steingraber ended her talk with a reading from an essay she wrote last year, when she spent Earth Day in jail.
The essay, called “Coffee in Jail,” described her experience the first night, particularly the lack of coffee.
Steingraber was arrested for refusing to allow a gas distribution company to bypass her access to a lakeshore they had purchased. They planned to use the salt caverns to store harmful chemicals. Steingraber decided to practice civil disobedience.
“Turns out I’m a really good prisoner,” she said. “It’s not as ‘other’ as you might think.”
She occupied herself with a Bible, pencil and paper during her fifteen-day sentence.
Steingraber enthralled many of the students in attendance, most of whom were already passionate about the environment.
“I thought the talk was excellent,” said sophomore Thomas Miller, president of the DePauw Environmental Club. “If the scientists don’t speak up, how will people learn?”
“[Steinberger] concisely described why she, and the rest of us, need to educate ourselves and take action to improve our environment,” sophomore Jessica Keister said.
Keister is an Environmental Fellow and on the Environmental Club’s executive board.
Above all else, Steingraber worries for her children. She’d rather them have a mother in jail than live in a polluted world.
“My kids have no future if we continue with fossil fuels.”