Heroes of Sustainability: Josh Fox

Josh Fox in “Gasland”

The most enduring shot from Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland is of a man running his faucet, which he puts a lighter near. The water quickly goes up in flames.

That’s the result of Halliburton-created hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, Fox says, which according to GaslandTheMovie.com “is a means of natural gas extraction employed in deep natural gas well drilling. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well.”

For each frack, 1 to 8 million gallons of water are usually used, with anywhere from 80 to 300 tons of chemicals (including known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene). This leaves huge amounts of polluted wastewater, of which 50 percent or less is typically recovered.

The result is land scarring, air pollution, spills, health problems, and a host of other environmental concerns.

An Investigative Road Trip
What spurred filmmaker and stage director Fox’s interest in fracking? He first started looking into it when a gas company approached him in 2008 about leasing his family’s 20 acres near the Pennsylvania/New York border. The offer was nearly $100,000.

Instead of being bowled over by the amount of money, Fox set out to check out other drilling sites across the country. What he found wasn’t pretty, but it was interesting enough to become the topic of Gasland, which was nominated for an Oscar and won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for a U.S. documentary.

Water catches on fire in “Gasland”

“The first thing that I heard about was a woman [whose] water well exploded on New Year’s Day of 2009,” he said in an NPR interview. “And it sent a concrete casing soaring up into the air and scattered debris all over her yard. And then other people started to notice that their water was bubbling and fizzing, that their water had been discolored. By the time I got there a month later, there were children who were getting sick [and] animals who were getting sick and the whole place was pretty much laid to waste.”

Not Everyone’s a Fan
The Columbia University grad has been blasted by the gas and oil industry, and in February 2012 was arrested at a House of Representatives subcommittee meeting on the EPA’s investigation into groundwater contamination in Wyoming. Authorities said he did not have permission to film it.

Still, Fox keeps plugging away, working on a sequel to Gasland. “The bottom line is, it really is a trip across the country to save my home that turned into my whole country being at risk,” he said in an interview with Truthout. “The scope of the project just exploded; it’s like what I say at the end of the movie that your backyard just keeps getting bigger and bigger until you realize it’s all just connected. All the water is connected, all the air is connected and everything is our backyard.”



Heroes of Sustainability: Lois Gibbs

Lois Gibbs was on a mission. With just a U-Haul and her children, she left her home in New York to head to Washington, D.C., determined to start an organization that would help families living near toxic waste sites. As she left, her mom told her: “You’re forgetting you’re just a housewife with a high school education.”

Gibbs, though, was far more than that. In 1978, the 27-year-old had two sick kids (one with epilepsy and one with a blood disease) and discovered that her son’s elementary school was smack on top of a toxic waste dump, next to 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals, in Niagara Falls. They weren’t the only family with illnesses — high rates of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects plagued the Love Canal neighborhood they called home.

Soon, Love Canal became known the country over as Gibbs mobilized her neighbors to protect their families and get the land cleaned up. After battling for more than two years against the government at local, state, and national levels, 800-plus households were moved out of the contaminated area.

Founding an Organization
Throughout the whole ordeal, Gibbs discovered that there was no organization to help others in a similar position — and she received calls from people all the time desperate for information and assistance. That spurred her move to D.C., where in 1981 she founded the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (then called the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste).

The goal then, as it is now, was to mentor a movement, empower people to build healthy communities, and prevent harm to human health caused by exposure to environmental threats. As the organization’s website says: “Through training, coalition-building and one-on-one technical and organizing assistance, CHEJ works to level the playing field so that people can have a say in the environmental policies and decisions that affect their health and well-being. By organizing one school, one neighborhood, one community at a time, CHEJ is making the world cleaner and healthier for all of us.”

Persistence and Patience
Gibbs may have been “just a housewife,” but she had sparked a national movement and vaulted herself into the public consciousness, with a made-for-TV-movie airing on CBS based on her story, and appearances on programs such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, Oprah, and Good Morning America.

As a result of her efforts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, which locates and cleans up hazardous waste sites throughout the country. Through the CHEJ, tens of thousands of people have been given crucial assistance to protect their own communities from toxins.

“Average people and the average community can change the world,” Gibbs has said. “You can do it just based on common sense, determination, persistence, and patience.”


Heroes of Sustainability: St. Francis of Assisi

“My hero is St. Francis of Assisi because he understood the connection between spirituality and the environment. He understood the way God communicates to us most forcefully is through the fishes and the birds and the trees and that it is a sin to destroy those things.” — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

As the patron saint of ecology and animals, St. Francis of Assisi was an environmentalist ahead of his time. He saw himself as part of the world’s ecosystem, equal with all other creatures, whom he referred to as his “brothers” and “sisters.”

Francis was born into privilege around 1181, living a relatively carefree life in Italy until he was taken as a prisoner in a military expedition against Perugia in 1201 and held captive for a year. A few years later, he suffered a serious illness and then enlisted in the army, and returned home after having a strange vision.

Shortly after, he embarked on a life of poverty against the wishes of his father, a wealthy cloth merchant. Although he chose not to be ordained as a priest, he eventually founded a new religious order, the Franciscan order.

A Respect for All Creatures
His connection to nature and the earth was one of the things for which Francis is most remembered. In one story, he was traveling with companions when they found a tree-lined road with a number of birds. He preached to the birds, touching their heads with his tunic. “At these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way,” wrote Thomas of Celano. “They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him. They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.”

In another story, he came upon a village that was being tormented by a wolf that was killing both animals and humans. Francis went and talked to the wolf, ordered him not to hurt anyone, and made a deal with the townspeople that they would feed the wolf so long as he would stop committing crimes against them. The animal moved its body and nodded its head in agreement, and for two more years until the wolf died of old age, they all coexisted peacefully.

The Sacredness of Life
During World Environment Day in 1982, Pope John Paul II asked Catholics to remember St. Francis of Assisi and “not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned, but to assume responsibility for it, taking all care so that everything stays healthy and integrated, so as to offer a welcoming and friendly environment even to those who succeed us.”

He later wrote of the saint: “In 1979, I proclaimed Saint Francis of Assisi as the heavenly Patron of those who promote ecology. … As a friend of the poor who was loved by God’s creatures, Saint Francis invited all of creation — animals, plants, natural forces, even Brother Sun and Sister Moon — to give honor and praise to the Lord.”

Francis showed through actions and not just words that all of nature is worth preserving. As German writer-philosopher Max Scheler said: “Where the modern cynic sees something ‘buglike’ in everything that exists, St. Francis saw even in a bug the sacredness of life.”