Small Victories: Riding the Wave Between Hope and Despair

--> When it comes to the environment and all that we face today, many of us are dogged with doubt—are we doing it right and can we really turn this ship around?

We work hard, mostly in the dark. Hoping our work will bear fruit. Trusting, because there is no other way.

In my own case, as much as I wave the hope banner-–there are private moments of doubt and despair.

As if to answer these questions, I was recently sent a much needed positive sign.

It’s not often that we get to see our activist efforts rewarded in concrete ways and certainly not within twenty-four hours.

Here’s what happened:

Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden, was scheduled to visit my campus at Stony Brook University, on Tuesday, April 29, 2014.  The plan was for Kristen to meet with my class in the morning and, later in the afternoon, she would give a lecture to the university at large.

The night before Kristen’s visit, the plans changed.

At 10 p.m. on Monday evening, I received an urgent message from my friend, Patti Wood, co-founder with her husband Doug Wood of Grassroots Environmental Education. The Grassroots team works tirelessly on many environmental causes including Fractavism.

Patti’s urgent plea: Would I, as the Director of Sustainability Studies at Stony Brook University, speak before the New York Suffolk County legislature on behalf of the bill being proposed banning the importation, sale or use of all radioactive and toxic fracking waste in Suffolk County the next morning at 9:00 am in Riverhead?  Patti was concerned that the gas lobbyists had won over too many of the legislators and my presence was needed. Here was the hitch: my class was scheduled to meet at 10:20, and Kristen Iversen was visiting for the day.  Riverhead is almost an hour from campus and who knew how long the event would last at the legislature. 

What should I do?  The schedule with Kristen had been set months before. 

Yet, what was most important? Keeping the schedule as it had been set, or saving the place where I live from poisonous fracking waste?

How could I not go and try to stop the polluting of my county? This is everything I work for.  The gas industry intended to push our local politicians into applying radioactive radium 226 and 228, radon and other toxic material onto our roads as de-icer and dumping it in ill-equipped and unsafe waste locations.  The material would inevitably end up in our water, soil, and farmland. Radium 226 emits gamma rays that travel long distances.

So I wrote to Kristen about my predicament and asked if she might want to go with me.  Kristen immediately said yes. She wanted to speak, too.  After all, Full Body Burden is about the dangers of plutonium pollution and the nuclear weapons factory Rocky Flats. I then wrote to two students who are very well versed in the subject of fracking waste and asked them to join us. They eagerly agreed.  My class would run with my TAs and co-teacher, a visiting filmmaker, Dave Chameides. The students would come see Kristen’s talk later that afternoon.

Kristen, Andi and Cory (my students), and I met up with Patti Wood and many others. We were each given three minutes to speak.  This was one of the most empowering moments of my life—speaking directly to politicians who would vote on our fate, about the need to preventatively protect our children and future generations from exposure to radioactive and toxic waste that would last thousands of years.

The next morning I got the message: the bill banning all fracking waste in Suffolk County had passed. A few weeks later, the same bill would pass in Nassau County.

Before putting Kristen on the train to New York City, I shared this stunning information.

We were both ecstatic.

Over the next few days Kristen spoke at New York City High School Hibakusha Stories events honoring Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors and educating young people about the dangers of nuclear weapons, waste and power. Kristen told the students about our radioactive and toxic fracking waste victory and they clapped wildly. I chimed in, too, and students reacted the same. Seeing the young peoples’ joyful responses made our small but important action so worthwhile.

Yes, activism makes a difference.  Yes, all those drops together add up to an ocean.  Yes, cast your seeds and they will grow.