Susan Cohn Rockefeller’s film Making the Crooked Straight, about Dr. Rick Hodes, won the Moving Mountains Prize in 2009. The director returns with a very different film, a personal yet allegorical tale about the state of our troubled oceans. More traditional films have been made about the science of the subject, so her hope with Mission of Mermaids is that the mythical creature — a symbol of mystery and hope — will inspire our hearts to save the seas.
Like her hero, the pioneering environmental writer and activist Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring), Sandra Steingraber is a cancer victim. Diagnosed at age 20, she successfully battled the disease for 30 years. During that time she’s used her knowledge and training as a biologist to bridge the gap between what scientists and the medical community regard as the causes of cancer. Steingraber grew up surrounded by toxic chemical discharge from industrial agriculture and is certain that her childhood environment and her health as an adult are intimately connected. She asks one of the essential questions of our age: How much proof is necessary to treat industrial contamination of air, soil and streams as human rights issues? This is a powerful and compelling film about a woman whose brilliance is surpassed only by her honesty and grit.
In her book Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, Sandra Steingraber writes, “We can change our thinking. Rather than viewing the chemical adulteration of our environment and our bodies as the inevitable price of convenience and progress, we can decide that cancer is inconvenient and toxic pollution archaic and primitive.”
A regular columnist for Orion Magazine, Steingraber is a cancer survivor who has taken her own experiences fighting the disease and created an impressive body of literary work — articles, books and poems — that chronicle the effects of industrial pollution on our bodies. Her latest book is called Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, and in it she writes, “In the absence of federal policies that are protective of childhood development and the ecology of the planet on which our children’s lives depend, we serve as our own regulatory agencies and departments of the interior.”
She has arguably served as her own regulatory agency, contending that natural gas is even more dangerous for us than coal — “Fracking is not a bridge to the future. It is a plank on which we walk blindfolded at the point of a sword. There is no right way to do it.” She believes that natural gas is even more dangerous for us than coal.
The Sierra Club, which once dubbed her “the new Rachel Carson,” is another target. After Steingraber found out that the venerable environmental organization had secretly accepted $25 million from Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest gas drillers in the world, she wrote an open letter that began, “Dear Sierra Club, I’m through with you. Call some other writer your new Rachel Carson.” She continued, “The hard truth: National Sierra Club served as the political cover for the gas industry and for the politicians who take their money and do their bidding.”
She will discuss her work after the screening of the film Living Downstream, which tells the story of Steingraber’s life.