Sandra Steingraber

Winter 2009-2010
Noted author and biologist Sandra Steingraber talked about economic and ecological collapse – and about rescuing a farm – at a teach-in at the Common Ground Country Fair. English photo.

By Sharon Tisher

What if we paid as much attention to our global ecological crisis as we do to our global financial crisis? With this provocative opener, renowned environmental writer Sandra Steingraber treated an audience of more than 300 to a wide ranging but well integrated talk that revealed common threads in the history of her family farm in Illinois, the deterioration of Americans’ health and the threats to the health of our global ecosystems.

Steingraber, a scholar in residence at Ithaca College, is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment. Part memoir and part scientific argument, this book weaves together her own story of diagnosis and treatment with cancer in college, with her quest to discover the environmental roots of her cancer in the heavily industrialized and agrichemicalized Illinois of her birth and childhood. Intermixed with her personal story, Steingraber presents a clear, cogent and convincing case for the environmental roots of cancer. First published in 1997, Steingraber has been at work on a complete update and revision of the text, due next spring, as well as a documentary film based on the book.

Steingraber’s second book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, similarly joins the personal to the environmental and the political. It is a memoir of her own first pregnancy, as a cancer survivor, and an investigation of how environmental hazards now threaten each stage of infant development. While Steingraber has once before been a featured speaker at the Common Ground Country Fair, MOFGA was particularly pleased to have her now 9-year-old daughter Faith join her on her visit to the Fair. Faith amused herself in the Children’s Area in the company of a watchful volunteer, while Steingraber spoke at the Spotlight Stage.

Economy and Ecology: Similar Patterns of Collapse

Reflective of her writing, Steingraber’s talk blended the local and the global, exploring connections between the history of her family farm in Illinois and the deterioration of our health and our economy. Twenty years ago, in 1988, when Steingraber was a biology graduate student at the University of Michigan, she made a bet with her editor at the student newspaper: “My editor and I laid bets as to which system would collapse first – economy or ecology. I said ecology. I think I was wrong. I think we were both wrong. They seem to be crumbling simultaneously.”

Steingraber said that both our ecology and our economy are complex, globalized systems whose interconnections are little understood until something goes wrong.

“Who knew that mortgages in California could lead to bankruptcy in Iceland … that the miracle of pollination depends on the synchronicity of time and temperature? But the ongoing decoupling of day length – which awakens the flowers – from ambient temperature – which awakens the bees – reveals that it is so dependent.”

In both systems, Steingraber reminded us, eroding diversity creates fragility, as when financial systems merge and collapse, as when farming systems become monocultures and thereby vulnerable to catastrophic pest outbreaks. In both systems, positive feedback loops compound damage: Spreading panic aggravates losses in the financial markets; melting permafrost releases more greenhouse gases to raise global temperatures even higher.

While the financial crisis has been front and center in our daily lives, in politics and in the media, Steingraber acknowledged a “key difference” in the way we consider, and largely ignore, our ecological crisis: “It’s still widely considered too depressing and overwhelming to talk about in much detail.”

Steingraber invited her audience to consider what it would be like if we could approach ecology with as much attention and concern as we do economics: “Imagine that all Americans find out … that atmospheric loading of carbon dioxide is acidifying the ocean in ways that, if unchecked, will drop pH to the point where calcium carbonate goes into solution, and that will spell the end of anything with a shell – from clams and oysters to coral reefs. Suppose that ecological pundits discussed every night on cable TV the ongoing disappearance of bees, bats and other pollinators and the possibly dire consequences for our food supply…Suppose legislators and citizens both agreed that if we don’t take immediate action to bail out our ecological system, something truly terrible will happen.”

Reclaiming a Family Farm

Returning to the personal and the local, Steingraber recounted the metamorphosis of her family farm in Illinois, over three generations. In the lifetime of her grandfather, the farm was a self-sustaining, diversified family farm, growing corn and oats, fruits, vegetables, raising cows, chickens and hogs. Oats fed the plow horses and provided bedding for the cows, which provided milk and cream for the family and manure for soil fertility. Her grandfather lived by old-fashioned values of hard work, frugality and commitment to community. “Waste not want not,” was his refrain, as he used bottle caps to securely nail tar paper on the roof. The farm provided not just a living for his family, but food to spare and to sell in the community.

In just two generations, there were no more farm animals; the farm didn’t feed people, but produced exclusively corn and soy, which was “sold to the river” for export to far-flung places in Asia, to be processed into ethanol or high fructose corn syrup. Her farm was a microcosm of the “chemicalization of agriculture,” where carbon- and chemically-intense agriculture used inherently toxic and water soluble chemicals, such as the herbicide atrazine, which runs off fields and contaminates U.S. drinking water.

“Illinois has become a food desert in the last 50 years,” with food “now being imported an average of 1,500 miles on a sea of foreign oil, for which we fight foreign wars.”

Enough weedkiller is blowing in the air in central Illinois during the planting season now that grape vines have been repeatedly killed; and anhydrous ammonia fertilizer fuels the methamphetamine crisis in rural Illinois, requiring implementation of “fertilizer security measures.” While family members still revered her grandfather’s values of “waste not want not,” they had unwittingly adopted “the most wasteful form of agriculture ever known on the earth.”

While Steingraber acknowledged that the Common Ground Country Fair stood for a healthy and successful alternative to the sad history of her family farm, she was also pleased to advise her audience that the farm itself is being resurrected as the diversified enterprise that it once was. Aided by an Illinois-based nonprofit group, The Land Connection, a group of organic investors has acquired Steingraber’s family farm and is restoring it to a diversifed, organic operation, thus “reviving the tradition of local food production.”

For a fuller analysis by Steingraber of the disparity between treatment of the global financial crisis and the ecological crisis, and a call for an “environmental human rights movement” to correct this disparity, see “3 bets,” Orion Magazine, May/June 2009, at

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