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"The Government Wouldn't Help Me, So I Decided To Do It Myself." ~ Lois Gibbs

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On Earth Day, April 22, the American Masters series on PBS is presenting A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary that timelines the environmental movement's past five decades. Beginning in the 1960s, the one-hour film is chock full of backstory that contextualizes where the struggle is today and how it evolved. There are supporting materials online--including a web-exclusive entitled, "Women in the Environmental Movement."

There is plenty to learn in this depiction of the struggle referenced as " nature versus humanity ." Highlights include the fight against building dams in the Grand Canyon in 1966. A clip shows President Richard Nixon asking, " Shall we make peace with nature?" His efforts led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The first images of earth from space instigate a pivotal attitudinal change on how people view the planet. The various "social movements" of the 1960s inform green consciousness. Civil-rights activism builds towards an understanding of the need for environmental justice. The " counterculture " and anti-war methods yield tactics that will be used by Greenpeace. Heroes protecting ecosystems around the globe step up to fight -- sometimes paying with their lives as in the example of Chico Mendes. Throughout, there is the looming shadow of the "industrial actors"--the power of big oil and coal.

Lois Gibbs: Her Story

Among the individuals on the environmental landscape, Chapter 2's profile of Lois Gibbs captures the quintessential behavioral shift that was part of the 1970s. Gibbs, a "homemaker," learned that her community's children were in mortal danger because the town's elementary school was built on a toxic dump -- 20,000 tons of chemical waste to be exact. Her 7-year-old son was having health problems and she couldn't find assistance. Gibbs was dismissed by the school's superintendent as, "One irate, hysterical housewife with a sickly kid." However, when she started canvassing her neighbors, she learned that her child wasn't the only one with medical problems. Many houses had horrible smells coming up through the floors. Gibbs mobilized other parents, spearheaded studies, and compiled statistics. Results showed that 56 percent of Love Canal's children presented with birth defects. Out of twenty-two pregnancies, only four newborns were normal.

Lois Gibbs at Love Canal
(Image by Buffalo State College Archives, Courier Express collection)
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New York State Health officials greeted the research Gibbs had collected derisively. Their response was, "It's useless housewife data." Gibbs refused to be cowed. She fought with local, state, and even the federal government. She had a standoff with President Carter's White House, refusing to let EPA representatives (who had been dispatched to investigate claims) leave her home until she was guaranteed relocation for the homeowners of Love Canal. Gibbs won the battle. Her efforts on recognizing the damage that toxic chemicals can have on the human endocrine system paved the way for the EPA's Superfund program.

Lois Gibbs Interview

I reached out to Gibbs to revisit her story, and to discuss the role of the individual -- particularly mothers -- in promoting change. In a telephone conversation she described her origins in the environmental space as, "the accidental activist." Gibbs told me, "I wanted to be the best mom possible. Then I discovered the dump. The government wouldn't help me, so I decided to do it myself."

Today, Gibbs is the Executive Director and founder of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. She pointed out that 80 percent of environmental groups are led by women. "It makes sense, when someone is trying to kill your kids," she said dryly. Gibbs was proud of not being "reasonable" when it came to the well-being of her children. She identified, "Even after all these years later, the default position for government and big business is to paint women as being emotional." She noted that new groups of mothers are becoming pro-active in response to the "fracking industry and climate change."

Gibbs's philosophy is that people are not apathetic. Rather, "They don't know what to do." She related that when she reached out to other mothers in Love Canal, she was told, "I've been waiting for someone to come to my door." Gibbs continued, "People need something tangible; one specific thing to do."

Undeterred by climate deniers, Gibbs said, "Constituents have to get new representatives at the local level. It needs to be made an issue in district campaigns. What we don't have is an engaged community." Her goal is to tap into solutions that address economic factors and the environment. She gave the example of turning a large, defunct cotton field into a solar farm that creates livelihoods. "It's important to construct solutions and not be a naysayer," said Gibbs.

However, she was crystal clear on several issues:

  • Her response to the XL Pipeline was, "It's a horrible idea."
  • The push to incorporate fracking into a national energy plan garnered, "Why are we investing in natural gas?"
  • Like Bill McGibben, she sees the potential in divestment stating, "Oil and coal will always resist--until they can't resist anymore."

In A Fierce Green Fire, Paul Hawken underscored a top takeaway about the importance of the grassroots. He said, "Two million organizations are working on social justice and the environment. It's not going to be top down."

Gibbs concurred, reiterating, "All politics and solutions are local." She closed with the advice, "Stay active. That's what makes a difference."

A Fierce Green Fire
Tuesday, April 22, 2014
9 -- 10 p.m. on PBS (Check local listings)

Lois Gibbs Photo Credit: Buffalo State College Archives, Courier Express collection

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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, artist and curator based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been (more...)

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