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.