Lois Gibbs is “mad as hell”…

…and she’s trying to get North­eastern stu­dents mad too. Because maybe if people are mad enough, she said, they’ll start making changes. Gibbs, a nation­ally renowned envi­ron­mental activist and exec­u­tive director of the Center for Health, Envi­ron­ment and Jus­tice, spoke at last night’s meeting of the Husky Envi­ron­mental Action Team (HEAT).

Gibbs recounted the hor­ri­fying tale of watching her chil­dren and those of her neigh­bors suffer from dis­eases like leukemia and a 56% birth defect rate as a result of living in the vicinity of a 20K ton toxic chem­ical dump. When she went to her school board, and even­tu­ally the gov­ernor, demanding a res­o­lu­tion, they told her there was nothing they could do.

That was 1978. Two years ear­lier a study of the Love Canal neigh­bor­hood of Niagra Falls showed that  200 dif­ferent toxic chem­i­cals were present in the air at levels well above those declared healthy for a 160lb male over a 40-​​hour week (the work­place standard).

By 1982, after an inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized activist move­ment led by Gibbs, the Love Canal neigh­bor­hood was almost com­pletely aban­doned. As far as I can tell, the fam­i­lies that suf­fered received some amount of com­pen­sa­tion but it was not without sig­nif­i­cant effort.

So, how does all of this relate to today’s world? Gibbs said that even though we have 30 years of sci­ence behind us, not much has changed. She insisted that sci­ence will not be the solu­tion on its own — plenty of research has pro­vided pretty solid evi­dence of cli­mate change and the impact of green­house gases. But still poli­cies remain in place that don’t make much sense for fam­i­lies like those in Love Canal.

She talked about fracking — the extrac­tion method that mines nat­ural gas from shale rock beneath many Amer­ican towns and makes tap water flam­mable. Some argue that there is no valid sci­en­tific evi­dence linking the weird phe­nomena in fracking towns to the practice.

I don’t yet know what I think about fracking, myself, I haven’t learned too much about it. The guy sit­ting next to me yes­terday said to check out a video called Gasland to learn more.

I do know that we are at a point in our global intel­lec­tual devel­op­ment that makes some envi­ron­mental prac­tices irre­spon­sible. This is why Gibbs said it’s a polit­ical fight, not a sci­ence fight or a social jus­tice fight. No matter how much evi­dence you put in front of a person, she said, it’s some­times not enough to con­vince him that some­thing needs to change.

Gibbs encour­aged stu­dents to get involved on the local level. She said that HEAT was a great way to start and she com­mended the recent suc­cess of two Stu­dent Gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives that will require a 1:1 recy­cling to trash ratio by 2014 and the addi­tion of an auto­matic con­tri­bu­tion to the renew­able energy fund to every student’s annual bill.

Gibbs and her neigh­bors pick­eted every “thou­sand dollar plate dinner” held by the gov­ernor of New York in 1978 until he real­ized he had to talk about the problem so that his sup­porters would not pull out. This is the inten­sity she’d like to see as we take on today’s envi­ron­mental challenges.

Photo: Milosz 1, “toxic waste #1,” Feb­ruary 10, 2008 via Flickr. Cre­ative Com­mons attribution.