Scientists Need to Speak Up to Save the Planet

Apr 24, 2017

Sandra Steingraber
Photo: Jerry Markatos


Although she’s been arrested for protesting against fracking, biologist and author Dr. Sandra Steingraber doesn’t consider herself an activist by nature. Speaking on creative resistance to the fossil fuel industry at a Chapel Hill event co-sponsored by Clean Air Carolina, Steingraber noted that it would not be right to sit back enjoy the scientist’s labor of looking at and thinking about data.

“We don’t want to pretend we don’t see and hear what’s going on and quietly benefit,” Steingraber said. “Air pollution is a carcinogen and causes asthma. Climate change will cause deaths, and we have the technology to avoid it. Not using it is premeditated murder.”

Steingraber encouraged fellow scientists to speak up.

“Scientific objectivity is not the same as political neutrality,” she said. “Scientists are always concerned about overstating a case, but when it comes to climate change, understatement is riskier. It’s time for scientists to get over ourselves and join the communion of people who want to come to the rescue.”

Following a rousing sermon by Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler, in which he reminded us to envision a greener world that includes the elimination of racism and poverty, Steingraber recounted the process that ended up with the current ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in her home state of New York.

“When the shale gas army amassed at the [New York state] border, they literally said ‘resistance is futile’,” Steingraber recalled. “We happened to have a moratorium on fracking in the state until the completion of a study of its environmental and health impacts. It gave us the opportunity to have time for organizing.”

Using funds from a Heinz Award, she co-founded Concerned Health Professionals of New York and worked in a small coalition that grew to an army of 500 groups. “We had Chefs Against Fracking, Business Leaders Against Fracking, Faith Leaders Against Fracking, Girl Scouts Against Fracking,” she said. They took data from studies regarding health, ecological and other impacts of fracking to government officials, but received no response.

“So we took the data to the community — to the Rotary Clubs, to town halls, to churches,” Steingraber said. “The more people who knew about fracking, the more who were against it. Speaking truth to power means taking it to the government and to the people.”.

Ultimately, Steingraber said, the opposition to fracking became harder for the governor to dismiss than the fossil fuel industry.

While fracking may be banned in New York State, the fracking infrastructure is not. The co-author of the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risk and Harms of Fracking, an open-access compilation of 900 studies from scientific and medical literature, government and industry reports, and journalistic investigation, Steingraber is currently working to prevent the implementation of a plan to store methane gas in salt caverns along Seneca Lake, where she lives. She was one of 650 people arrested for civil disobedience activities protesting this plan.

“Bull Connor is in the White House,” Steingraber said, invoking the racist Alabaman politician who attacked civil rights activists in the 1960s. “The temptation is to turn inward. The antidote to despair and cynicism is to fight with your whole heart.”

By: Laura Wenzel, MSW Medical Advocates for Healthy Air (MAHA)