Humane Educator's Toolbox: Sandra Steingraber Talks Fracking, Powerful Interests, & Cancer as a Human Rights Issue

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As a scientist, educator, writer, speaker, cancer survivor, parent, and activist, Sandra Steingraber's experiences have led her on a journey that has culminated in using all those experiences to become a leader in fighting fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and in educating and advocating for stronger environmental and public health protections.

In a recent interview with Sage Magazine, Steingraber discusses some of the challenges citizens face in battling the powerful interests that are forcing governments to put economics before a healthy environment. As she says, "... in many states, laws require us to balance health interests with economic interests. You basically have to pile a bunch of dead bodies in front of the White House before you can overrule the economic interests."

Steingraber also talks about cancer and other environment-caused diseases as a human rights issue. She says:

"The idea that other people’s chemicals can enter our bodies without our consent as an act of toxic trespass, and that this can alter the chemical pathways of our bodies, trigger certain switches, turn off and on certain hormones, places cancer as a human rights issue. Anytime there’s a disconnect between those who benefit and those who pay a price, we have a human rights issue. 

Central to human rights is equal protection under the law. When we look at cancer, it’s not a random tragedy. People live near certain types of activities—whether large-scale agriculture or industry—where cancer is more common. That and other lines of evidence show that the role environmental carcinogens play and the story of human cancer is one that we have underestimated. It’s not the only cause of cancer, but it’s one that we can prevent, unlike the genes that we inherit—which turn out to play a much smaller role than we had originally thought. As far as I can see that is good news. It makes cancer prevention more possible."
And a bit later she criticizes the "big green groups" for failing to integrate human rights into their strategies:
"Most human rights movements ask people to do really heroic and big things, whether it’s Gandhi and the salt march or the Alabama bus boycott or Martin Luther King Jr.’s walk across the south. Most of the big human rights movements asked people to directly confront their oppressors. I don’t see the mainstream environmental movement asking that of people. Instead it makes us all feel vaguely guilty. I’m increasingly frustrated with the big green groups in the US because they generally take this conciliatory approach, accepting as inevitable that we are going down this extreme energy pathway."
Read the complete interview.

Steingraber's interview serves as a great springboard for discussing several important issues, such as:
  • When lives may be in danger, how long do we wait for how much scientific proof that we need to act?
  • How much should we weight economic interests over public health (if at all)?
  • Why is it so challenging to ban chemicals or other toxins that have been shown to be a health and/or environmental hazard?
  • How much accountability should companies hold for the negative health and environmental impacts of the chemicals and processes they use?
  • Where does the burden of change belong?
  • How much time should we spend on encouraging "small solutions" versus major systemic change?
  • How can we get our food, energy, shelter, job, and other needs met in ways that do the most good and least harm to all people, animals, and the earth?
~ Marsha

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