Playing It Safe?

Child at play.

In her latest book Steingraber, herself a parent, uses stories of parents and children to explore the complexities of addressing environmental challenges. Image courtesy of istockphoto.

A story: a young girl home from a party with her school friends announces to her mother that she has a newly discovered fondness for tuna sandwiches. She loves them. She thinks they’re great. She just had her first taste, and she can’t wait to have tuna every day. The mother pauses. Tuna is rich in omega fatty acids, which helps brain development and function, especially in young children. Tuna is also rich in mercury (and more important, methylmercury), a potent neurotoxin that disrupts brain development and proper functioning. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration suggest eating no more than one meal of tuna a week. Some advocacy groups suggest children shouldn’t consume tuna at all. What does the mother do?

Well, if that mother is Sandra Steingraber, she sits her daughter down and explains to her that tuna consumption can be a problem and that solving the problem means thinking about new ways of generating electricity. And while this task might seem difficult (or perhaps even absurd), she takes the time to explain this problem to her daughter because the alternative is equally difficult: “How do you explain to a kid with a newfound taste for tuna that she’ll have to wait a week before she can have her favorite dish again?” (p. 226).

This story is just one of many that Steingraber conveys in her latest book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. She, of course, tells the tuna story far better than I do, with plenty of wit and wisdom, and a touch of poetry. And what better way to ask readers to grapple with sticky topics like climate change, ecosystem services, systems theory, neurotoxicology, and endocrine disruption than through the stories of an everyday family?

The evolution of Steingraber’s works is a window into the evolution of her own life, which is no coincidence. In using her own life as a stage Steingraber offers her readers the opportunity to use her body, her family, and her life as surrogates for their own. Raising Elijah extends the story Steingraber began with Living Downstream (1997) and continued in Having Faith (2001). Each volume explores her personal encounters with the world through the overlapping lenses of biologist and poet—encounters that attempt to make sense of the experiences of living with cancer (Living Downstream); pregnancy, birth, and the postnatal years (Having Faith); and now raising children in “an age of environmental crisis” (Raising Elijah). The books also narrate the evolving scientific understanding of our changing environment. While much of her earlier work focused on connections between cancer and the environment, Steingraber now dives into the broader research on endocrine disruption, neurological development, and climate change.

For the first time the author here speaks as a parent to other parents. As such Raising Elijah feels different than her previous books, or, perhaps more accurately, it could feel different than her other books. My difficulty in assessing the difference comes in small part from the fact that Steingraber’s books (a reflection of her life) keep running in parallel to my own life. It would seem the delay in writing about the experiences and getting them published provides just enough time for my life to run in concert with, if slightly behind, hers. (Fortunately, however, I can say I have been spared the personal experience with cancer.) I was primed, then, for this next volume.

While each chapter in Raising Elijah demonstrates Steingraber’s ability to make comprehensible the dense details of scientific literature, the one devoted to climate change exemplifies her mastery of these techniques. In helping parents establish ways of talking to their children about changes in their environments, Steingraber accomplishes what most scientists have failed to do with adults. Cleverly capitalizing on tropes present in most parenting manuals, Steingraber approaches “the big talk” of climate change through the scientific lens of systems theory. In a single chapter Steingraber draws together past public-health measures, climate-change fatigue, children’s books, and down-to-earth suggestions on how to make positive changes in your everyday life (plant a garden, tend your yard without using gasoline, and air dry your clothes). Few authors can manage that sort of menagerie in a single chapter, but Steingraber can and does. More important, though, the chapter pivots and tilts toward the two bigger challenges we face as we attempt to rebuild our food, energy, and material systems to mitigate problems and provide resilience in a changing environment.

Changes to our environment are slow and complex. The relative speed makes us ill-equipped to sense these changes and prone to accept that changes happening now aren’t likely to affect us. Our inability to sense these changes makes us less likely to feel compelled to take action. But the problems are complex, intertwining practices and materials found in our everyday lives as well as more ephemeral and conceptual complexities of interlocking markets, economies, and governments drawn out from our own local neighborhoods through invisible global chains to distant neighborhoods that we can hardly even imagine. In the face of this complexity even the action-oriented among us wonder what possible efforts we can make that might matter. In the face of this complexity we are paralyzed.

In this context Steingraber’s suggestions that we plant a garden or line-dry our clothes seem silly, perhaps even a bit insulting. But her choices aim at her larger mission: to help people understand the complexity of our environmental crises so that we can demonstrate that another way is possible. More important, though, her choices are specifically not market focused. Drawing on the work of the sociologist Andrew Szasz, Steingraber forcefully argues for why we can’t simply (in the words of Szasz) shop ourselves to safety. And this is where Steingraber wants to take parents: out of the comfort of buying the “non-toxic” bottle, toy, paint, or crib and into action to promote better laws for all products. We live in complex ecosystems; you can’t buy your way out of that complexity.

“Ultimately, the environmental crisis is a parenting crisis,” Steingraber concludes (p. 281). In sharing her own stories and struggles Steingraber demonstrates how personal these challenges become when approached as a parent. She makes it clear why and how our actions—as individuals and as a society—matter for future generations.

Jody A. Roberts is the director of CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy.