Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sandra Steingraber, a call to action -- Kim's lengthy reaction, complete with action steps

"To love is to protect -- that is what love means"  (Sandra Steingraber, closing her talk)

Dr. Steingraber's workshop and talk were so provocative, so full of interesting scientific information, and so heady that it would be easy to walk away full-up.  Yet the essence of her talk was that we can not, in good conscience, leave it at listening.  That we - as teachers, parents, citizens -- must rise to the challenge of creating social change to protect our planet for future generations.

What is the problem?
I will not recapture the scientific evidence in her talk, but encourage folks to seek more information by reading her book, her website, organizing a screening of the film, or connecting with a local organization that makes the information available.

What Stands In The Way? 

Dr. Steingraber acknowledged some of the challenges facing the Environmental Movement :

1)  the damage being done by environmental toxins often remain ambiguous and unattached to the suffering of any particular individual.  When people tell their stories of illness, of miscarriage, of learning struggles they remain detached from the stories of dangerous chemicals in our food, in our water and in our bodies, despite increasing scientific evidence linking environmental toxins with disease.

2) the damage being done often occurs beneath eye level, literally in the mining of the ocean floor and underground stone, leaving us unable to bear visual witness.  We are a culture of visual learners -- our history and epistemology emphasizes "see it to believe it" making it hard for us to hold this knowledge as our own "truth."

3) the damage being done becomes normalized.  We forget to question, or  become frozen by guilt, worry, and despair.  Dr. Steingraber said that helping to move a sympathetic but despairing audience is a far greater challenge than debating a naysayer or looking an enemy in the eye.  Fatalism -- the sense that the challenge is too great, the devastation too far gone, the sacrifice too large -- is a pervasive discourse and a paralyzing one.  Steingraber encouraged us not to buy it, and to see that naturalizing environmental damage or giving over to fatalism simply becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that makes us complicit in the destruction.

Why hope?

Dr. Steingraber encouraged us to move toward hope by remembering all the incredible stories of social movement success in the past -- and she gave a nod to all that Quakers have done in that work.  In the United States,  slavery was abolished, women won the right to vote, child labor was outlawed, the Vietnam war ended, Maine included sexual orientation and gender in our civil rights law.  Internationally, the stories are even more encouraging.  We have done marvelous things, working together.  We need to learn more about activism, social change, collective action to fuel alternatives to fatalism.

Action Point:  Read a biography of an activist, subscribe to YES magazine, watch "Eyes on the Prize", introduce your child to your favorite social movement

Dr. Steingraber used the example of the change in the cultural zeitgeist toward tobacco as a public health
victory.  This gave me pause, since the story of tobacco is more complex and discouraging than she eluded to, and the intersections between race, class, geography, globalization and environmental action add more pieces to the puzzle than I can hold in my head at any one time.  It is possible for a story to include more than one narrative, more than one moral, I guess.  Regardless, we all need a story that we tell that encourages others toward action, toward possibility.  What's yours?

Action Point:  Develop an "elevator story" that you can tell with ummph and authenticity that will help inspire others to feel hope -- enough hope that they're willing to work toward a vision of the future that matches their values. 

Finally, Dr. Steingraber's own story represents hope, in that she has had to make life choices based on the chance that her story would end in old age, despite a cancer diagnoses at 20.  Her unique understanding of "live in the moment" is to use that moment to think critically and responsibly about the future.  To assume that we can do nothing is to waste the rest of our days. Action can be joyful.  And, Dr. Steingraber eluded to the ways that working toward a clean and healthy planet is true common cause, repairing political divisions and conflicts between groups, providing amazing opportunities for alliance.

Action Point:  Take the time to figure out what piece of "getting involved" might bring you, and your family, joy.  Let it be fun.  Connect with someone unexpected around this issue. 

This is only a small bit of what I took away -- I'm so curious about what others thought?  Please consider guest posting!!!!