On Wednesday, Oct. 8, author, biologist, and environmentalist Dr. Sandra Steingraber spoke at Knox College. Known for her works Living Downstream and Having Faith, Steingraber touched on several topics related to her specialty, chemicals in the environment. She also addressed the connection between economy and environment and our campus’ role in sustainability.
Steingraber’s talk posed the question, “Which will happen first, economic collapse or ecological collapse?” and answered that the two are happening simultaneously. “[Ecology and economy] are ruled over by a regulatory system that has become disassembled and unresponsive to data and early warnings,” she said.
“What would it be like if we were thinking of ourselves in the midst of an ecological crisis?” asked Steingraber. She pointed out that we think of ourselves as in an economic crisis, and yet according to recent findings, one in four species of mammals are heading towards extinction.
Steingraber illustrated how there are hidden connections between economy and environment, with a story about how the increase in the production of plasma TVs is hurting coral reefs. She said also that loss of diversity, in economic or ecological terms, is a threat to the health of the system, and the “get big or get out” mentality is fostering that loss of diversity.
In both the environment and the economy, positive feedback loops seem to be “driven by panic and fear,” and this sentiment ends up supporting actions that drive us into more and more destructive situations.
Steingraber went into the issue of chemicals in our environment, making comparisons between our laws and the laws of the European Union. Because of our respective laws, toxin-free products are sold in the European Union, while products with toxins are still sold in the United States.
She also spoke of Knox’s role in fostering sustainability. Steingraber said, “There is a tradition of university serving as an incubator for new ideas.”
Colleges, in Steingraber’s mind, can encourage sustainability within the curriculum, within student activism, and within the operation of the university. Curriculum can be greened by incorporating an environmental, ecological, and sustainable aspect into classes, reading materials, discussions, etc. Steingraber believes this can be established in every subject across the map, not only in the sciences.
With student and alumni activism, Steingraber believes students can have an impact on their institution long after they graduate. In the end, she reminded students that we all have roles to play in making a better future.
“This is a problem so big that nobody’s going to solve it by themselves,” said Streingraber.
We are playing the “save the world symphony,” according to Steingraber.
“None of us have to play a solo, we just have to know what instrument we hold,” she said.
Peter Schwartzman, chair of the environmental studies department, was pleased with her presentation of the comparison between ecological and economical collapse.
“I don’t think it ever gets mentioned in the same sentence. We can’t treat environment and economy as separate entities,” said Schwartzman.
“Sustainability isn’t something someone can do single-handedly. It’s something you need to find within yourself that works for you, without thinking you need to chance absolutely everything,” said senior Rachel Deffenbaugh, an environmental studies major.
Junior Bryce Parsons-Twesten felt her presence on campus was important for Knox in two ways.
“There are people who are already interested and aware of these issues, who are looking for more information and for individual responses. There are also people who are less aware of the issues, and there is the ability of a speaker to create awareness of specific subsets, of issues within an issue,” said Parsons-Twesten.
Junior Abby Pardick, an environmental studies major who serves as chair of the Sustainability Task Force, also saw great value in Sandra Steingraber’s visit.
“Knox needs outside resources to bring in new ideas to motivate campus. We’re all just one link in a big chain of people,” said Pardick.