I woke up tired. I had left the conference’s inaugural party early, but co-workers had also decided to leave…only to initiate a pub crawl. They talked about hockey and hunting and (personal) history, things I could not speak to cleverly, nevermind when I was getting progressively drunker. I was about 128 ounces of beer into the night when I made the twenty minute walk back to my hotel in the crisp mountain air.
Fortunately the conference had a full hot breakfast. And I wasn’t late, although my hair was wet.
My mind still resounded the chorus from the night before: “Everyone is so full of shit.”
And I still believed it that morning. Seeing everyone all cleaned up and tucked in made me existentially nauseous. So many fake fucking smiles that morning. And dull-headed small talk, hiding mouthfuls of mushy eggs behind polite hands or bunched napkins. I felt like shit and just wanted to eat, but I had to be polite and pretend to give a damn about the man from some company who did something something.
Thankfully there was a plenary speaker that morning. And she was the best thing that could have happened to me that day—maybe even in a long time.
I did not know Lois Gibbs before seeing her presentation. I did know about Love Canal, the disaster of the the 20th century that was so close to my home, and so close to absurdity, that it was one of the sparks that led me to my philosophical position…that eventually led me to the environmental sciences…that I used to be a humanist, until I realized that humanity was 0.00001% of the picture.
If you do not know about Love Canal, educate yourself. It is incredible, but all too real. In short, an unfinished trench (intended to be a transportation canal in the late 19th century) on the shores of the Niagara River became Hooker Chemical’s dump for toxic waste—that’s right: Hookers were dumping toxic waste in the Love Canal—I am not shitting you. In 1953, that waste was capped, and a subdivision was built over it (lubricated by Hooker Chemical’s land sale to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1).
Lois Gibbs was a mother of two children who lived in that subdivision. In her presentation, she described life in the LaSalle neighbourhood of Niagara Falls, New York. It was the typical white suburban neighbourhood you hear about in so many stories. Children played in the parks, families met for backyard barbecues, fathers got their crew-cut hairstyles at the barbershop. Nothing was out of the ordinary for upstate New York in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Lois then started describing the children in more detail. How her son started becoming allergic to many things, and started to become constantly ill. He developed epilepsy, asthma, and a low white blood cell count. Her daughter, similarly, was always sick. The other children in the neighbourhood were showing odd illnesses or were born with weird birth defects.
She never said this part, but I am sure there were quiet nights where Lois wondered what she had done wrong…days when she was paralyzed with wondering why her children were suffering so much. This subtext—the break in her voice—broke my heart.
But in 1978, two reporters from the Niagara Falls Gazette started investigating the history of Love Canal—the historic toxic dump that was now the location of the elementary school and was surrounded by hundreds of suburban homes. They found disturbingly high levels of toxins in long forgotten about sumps. They exposed the 21,000 tons of toxic waste that was the foundation of the school and the neighbouring park. And they wrote a story about it.
When Lois read this story, things changed in her life. She was, in her own words, a quiet, normal home maker. But in 1978, she transformed from Mrs. Cleaver to a radical community leader. She organized the community, and began rallying for the city, for the state, for anybody to address the issues at Love Canal. She conducted surveys about birth defects in the area around Love Canal, and investigated the area’s history obsessively. She documented unidentified waste seeping to surface, and sinkholes where rusted barrels of waste lay exposed. She recounted stories of children playing with the waste, picking it up and chasing each other around. She rallied Hooker Chemical and the government to act, but they both ignored her.
Lois made a poignant point about risk and the value of people (and really hit her stride in her presentation). Hooker Chemical was able to say that the risk of contamination was negligible, and even if there was contamination, the value to clean it up would outweigh the cost of leaving it in place. Which essentially meant that the lives it was endangering were not worth the money to clean their mess up. And even though the government, in theory, is an institution to protect people from this kind of blundering greed, Lois and the people of Love Canal were ignored.
Until Nixon’s best legacy, the Environmental Protection Agency, visited in 1979. An administrator noted the same things Lois and her organization were capturing. New York’s Health Commissioner did the same. He declared a state of emergency.
If you were pregnant or had children under the age of 2 in a specifically-defined area, the government was willing to pay for you to move, temporarily. But as soon as you were outside of those parameters, funding was done, and you were back in the vicinty. These were working class families who did not have the funds to move willy-nilly, and their houses, now, were essentially worthless. Their choices were limited.
The state condemned the school, and properties directly bordering the school. Jimmy Carter got involved, and directed emergency funds to address the issue. They hired geologists to try to figure out where the problem was, and how to resolve it.
To a room of environmental remediation professionals, what they undertook in the very early 1980’s was crude. It was the equivalent of early aviators strapping balsa wood planks to their arms and jumping off hills. It just wasn’t enough. And, like they still do now, they shrugged and accepted the status quo and said, ‘This is the best we can do.’
There are book fulls of history about Love Canal. Lois did her best to reduce it to an hour and a half presentation. I will not tell you the whole history, you can read much more about it yourself. It is the perfect case study of human error, and a malicious pride to hide that error. But Lois shared insights from an on-the-ground perspective that are not so easily transferred in history.
Like the green chain link fence. When they finally started work on the Love Canal site, the company and state erected a 10’ green chain link fence. For Lois, this became a symbol of the Us vs. Them mentality that had characterized their struggle. It became an ever-present reminder that there were things that the people in the Love Canal area did not know about Love Canal. Lois touched on the symbol many times, emphasizing how much of an imposing figure it became in the debate. There was the knowing, cover-your-ass rich people on the inside, and the unknowing, sick and poor people on the outside.
For me, far from Love Canal in time and space, the green fence had a metaphysical twinge. First, and most simply, it represented the need for scientists to communicate better. Later in the conference I watched a presentation by a gentleman with two masters degrees. I am sure he had all sorts of knowledge. But he had a debilitating stutter. His half-hour presentation should have taken ten minutes, and content suffered as a result. Knowledge is useless if you cannot communicate it.
Secondly, and more mystically, the fence appeared to me like a shortcut of consciousness—a shortcut that we feel as necessary because of our increasingly superficial understanding of an increasing number of things. Think about the subway or train: I don’t need to think about standing back from a moving train, because there is a yellow line that does the thinking for me. These shortcuts of consciousness also represent a loss of presence, something that was evident by all the heads bent to their smartphones during Lois’ presentation.
But maybe the shortcuts are not such bad things. I mean I had met Lois, indirectly and unnamed, in grade eleven, in a one-page photocopy my World Issues teacher passed around (I still have it). He lectured on Love Canal in a simplified way, just enough for us to get the gist without getting caught up in what I now know are the complications of liability. Love Canal, when I was seventeen, was a shortcut of consciousness—a shortcut to my environmental consciousness. It was the same shortcut that had roused such bitterness and outrage the night before, at all the phonies who could not possibly be serious about doing good work for the planet.
But they were human. I am too (unfortunately or not). I am not my awakened teenage self who wanted to tear down fences. Sometimes, now, I put up fences too. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” I am human. I hate shortcuts sometimes. I make shortcuts the rest of the time.
Love Canal was one of the sparks that lighted my path in the environmental sciences. It was invigorating and inspiring to hear about it first-hand from someone like Lois Gibbs. Lois has gone on to good work for lots of people who are fucked in similar situations. And I hope that I can say the same. I have that aspiration, at least. Those phonies probably do not.