The Heinz Award and What I Plan to Do With It
by Sandra Steingraber
I'm thrilled to receive a Heinz Award in recognition of my research and
writing on environmental health. This is work made possible by my residency
as a scholar within the Department of Environmental Studies at Ithaca
College. Many past and present Heinz Award winners are personal heroes of
mine--and Teresa Heinz herself is a champion of women's environmental
health--so this recognition carries special meaning for me.
And it comes with a $100,000 unrestricted cash prize. Which is stunning.
As a bladder cancer survivor of 32 years, I'm intimately familiar with two
kinds of uncertainty: the kind that comes while waiting for results from
the pathology and radiology labs and the kind that is created by the medical
insurance industry who decides whether or not to pay the pathology and
radiology bills. Over the years, I've learned to analyze data and raise
children while surrounded by medical and financial insecurities. It's a
But as an ecologist, I'm aware of a much larger insecurity: the one created
by our nation's ruinous dependency on fossil fuels in all their forms. When
we light them on fire, we fill the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases that
are de-stablizing the climate and acidifying the oceans (whose plankton
stocks provide us half of the oxygen we breathe). When we use fossil fuels
as feed-stocks to make materials such as pesticides and solvents, we create
toxic substances that trespass into our children's bodies (where they raise
risks for cancer, asthma, infertility, and learning disorders).
Emancipation from our terrible enslavement to fossil fuels is possible. The
best science shows us that the United States could, within two decades,
entirely run on green, renewable energy if we chose to dedicate ourselves to
that course . But, right now, that is not the trail we are blazing.
Instead, evermore extreme and toxic methods are being deployed to blast
fossilized carbon from the earth. We are blowing up mountains to get at
coal, felling boreal forests to get at tar, and siphoning oil from the ocean
deep. Most ominously, through the process called fracking, we are
shattering the very bedrock of our nation to get at the petrified bubbles of
methane trapped inside.
Fracking turns fresh water into poison. It fills our air with smog, our
roadways with 18-wheelers hauling hazardous materials, and our fields and
pastures with pipelines and toxic pits.
I am therefore announcing my intent to devote my Heinz Award to the fight
against hydrofracking in upstate New York, where I live with my husband and
our two children.
Some might look at my small house (with its mismatched furniture) or my
small bank accounts (with their absence of a college fund or a retirement
plan) and question my priorities. But the bodies of my children are the
rearranged molecules of the air, water, and food streaming through them. As
their mother, there is no more important investment that I could make right
now than to support the fight for the integrity of the ecological system
that makes their lives possible. As legal scholar Joseph Guth reminds us, a
functioning biosphere is worth everything we have .
This summer I traveled through the western United States and saw firsthand
the devastation that fracking creates. In drought-crippled Texas where
crops withered in the fields, I read a hand-lettered sign in a front yard
that said, 'I NEED WATER. U HAUL. I PAY.' And still the fracking trucks
rolled on, carrying water to the gas wells.
This is the logic of drug addicts, not science.
I also stood on the courthouse steps in Salt Lake City while climate
activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in federal prison for
an act of civil disobedience that halted the leasing of public land for gas
and oil drilling near Arches National Park. Before he was hauled away by
federal marshals, Tim said, 'This is what love looks like.'
After two months of travel, my children and I arrived home to the still
unfractured state of New York. After stopping at a local farm stand to buy
bread, tomatoes, cheese, and peaches for dinner, we celebrated our return
along the vineyard-and-waterfall-lined shore of Cayuga Lake. I watched my
son skip stones across its surface. Under his feet lay the aquifer that
provides drinking water to our village.
This is what security looks like. Please join me in the struggle to defend
the economy and ecology of upstate New York. Bring what you can.
1. M.Z. Jacobson and M.A. Delucci, 'A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,'
Scientific American 301 (2009): 58-65.
2. "The Earth's biosphere seems almost magically suited to human beings,
and indeed it is, for we evolved through eons of intimate immersion within
it. Many of us are animated by moral and religious impulses to treasure and
respect the creation that sustains us. We cannot live well without a
functioning biosphere, and so it is worth everything we have." Joseph H.
Guth, Law for the Ecological Age,Vermont Journal of Environmental Law,