Heroes of Sustainability: Jeffrey M. Smith

Jeffrey M. SmithIt may seem a bit ironic that Jeffrey M. Smith lives in Iowa, surrounded by genetically modified soybeans and corn — the very things he’s spent years fighting against.

As author of the bestselling book on genetically modified food, Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies About the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating, Smith has meticulously documented the effects of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on our health, along with how biotech companies have misled leaders into thinking this issue isn’t a big deal.

“Jeffrey Smith is the leading world expert in the understanding and communication of the health issues surrounding genetically modified foods,” says Candace Pert, former Chief of the Section at the National Institutes of Health.

Changing the Global Course of Events
For a long time, not many people listened. Smith ran for a seat in Iowa’s Congress in 1998 and received less than 1 percent of the vote. Seeds of Deception in 2003 gained attention, however, and Smith followed it up in 2007 with Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, which links GMOs to 65 health dangers, from allergic reactions to infertility.

In the foreword, Michael Meacher, former environment minister in the UK, wrote this:

“This is the authentic book on genetic modification that the world has been waiting for. … The case presented is absolutely a smoking shotgun that should stop in its tracks any dabbling with GM foods, whether by individual families, food companies, or indeed nations. … Jeffrey Smith is one of the great campaigners of our age, a relentless pursuer of the truth, a fearless advocate in the corporate world of secret influence, and a ceaseless promoter of the public interest across the world. He is the modern David against the GM Goliath. This book may well provide the sling-shot to change the global course of events this century.”

On a Crusade
Now the executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, Smith works to Seeds of Deceptioneducate policy makers, businesses, media, and consumers alike about the dangers inherent with genetically modified foods, as well as the issues with research, regulation, and reporting that surround the industry. The institute’s Non-GMO Shopping Guide is a great resource for those concerned about what they’re eating.

Smith has been quoted in such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Nature, and Time magazine. He’s made appearances on NPR, Fox News, the BBC, and The Dr. Oz Show.

“Every quarter of our precious world is calling to us,” Smith wrote in an article on The Huffington Post. “So many threats to our planet, to our food, to our life. Countless species teetering. Future generations line up outside our door to see if we will answer.”

Jeffrey Smith is answering. How many will join him?

 

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Heroes of Sustainability: Andy Lipkis

Andy LipkisA carefree teenager in 1970, Andy Lipkis’ world was changed when at summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, a naturalist shared that the very forests they were surrounded by were dying due to pollution.

Lipkis was only 15, but he soon sprung into action to save the trees, organizing fellow campers to plant smog-tolerant seedlings. By the time he was 18, he’d overseen the planting of thousands of trees and attracted the attention of The Los Angeles Times, which published an article urging readers to help Lipkis in his efforts. Within days, he’d received more than $10,000, solidifying the future of the forest and launching Lipkis’ environmental nonprofit, TreePeople.

Emphasizing Interconnectedness
The organization’s mission is “to inspire, engage and support people to take personal responsibility for the urban environment, making it safe, healthy, fun and sustainable and to share the process as a model for the world,” according to its website. It is now one of the largest environmental nonprofits in California.

“TreePeople’s approach is holistic, not just about trees, but about air, water, soil, community, and, yes, economics,” Lipkis told LA Yoga. “After all, where does the tree start and stop? It makes oxygen and soil, and holds water, but it’s also dependent on soil and water, and in the city, on people too. Our very name expresses this basic interconnectedness.”

TreePeople’s projects include environmental education for children, teens, and teachers; tree planting in a range of settings; and the Natural Urban Systems Group, which uses an integrated management approach to come up with sustainable solutions — particularly related to water issues — that benefit multiple parties. Using their knowledge of urban forestry and what motivates people, they’ve been able to inspire communities to take a real stake in their personal health, as well as the health of the environment.

A Nonstop Quest
“People mistakenly think of tree planting and the other work we do as something that can be fulfilled in a simple gesture, in part because that’s how it’s often been communicated: ‘On Earth Day, we’ll recycle or plant a tree.’ Of course that’s lovely, but it’s not going to get us to sustainability nor save us from this path of destruction we are on,” Lipkis told LA Yoga.

Lipkis’ accomplishments over the years are almost never-ending — he guided the creation of Los Angeles’ curbside recycling program, airlifted bare root fruit trees to Africa, organized a pivotal conference after the Southern California wildfires in 2003, and inspired the planting of 1 million trees in LA in time for the 1984 Summer Olympics, to name just a few of his résumé bullet points.

“Andy Lipkis is one of my heroes because there are very few people in the world who are ‘doing it,’” says fellow Hero of Sustainability Paul Hawken. “What is Andy doing? That’s the question. What is ‘it?’ Andy is tackling the ‘Big One.’ This Big One’s not simply a reframing or redesigning or re-imagination of industrial society. It is the process of creating a new and viable path to the future for humanity.”

Learn more about Lipkis and TreePeople here.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo EmersonFamous in life and death, Ralph Waldo Emerson is considered one of American history’s most noted writers, influencing countless people, including Heroes of Sustainability like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.

The Harvard-educated lecturer, essayist, and poet — who also worked as a pastor in his younger years — had a way of inspiring his readers that was widely admired. As American poet and critic James Russell Lowell wrote in 1871’s My Study Windows: “We look upon him as one of the few men of genius whom our age has produced, and there needs no better proof of it than his masculine faculty of fecundating other minds. Search for eloquence in his books and you will perchance miss it, but meanwhile you will find that it has kindled your thoughts.”

Man and Nature
One of Emerson’s greatest works was Nature, an 1836 essay that delved into his thoughts on transcendentalism, the literary, political, and philosophical movement he was at the center of in New England in the 1830s and ’40s. One of the core ideas was that both people and nature are inherently good, and Emerson was keen on exploring this connection between the two.

To Emerson, nature was as important as it got, as it was tied to God in a way that couldn’t be separated from the deity. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” he wrote. “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, —no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”

A Far-Reaching Legacy
Many credit Emerson’s writing with influencing the foundation of today’s environmentalist movement and the creation of national parks. By writing so eloquently about the world around us — and showing through vivid description that it’s worthy of being preserved (a sample sentence: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration”) — Emerson set the stage for others, like Muir, to take steps to protect the environment.

It’s tough to deny the insight in his words. As Emerson astutely wrote: “He who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and how to come at these enchantments, is the rich and royal man.”

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Heroes of Sustainability: Ed Begley Jr.

Ed Begley Jr.Ed Begley Jr. is famous for acting in shows such as St. Elsewhere, Arrested Development, 7th Heaven, The West Wing, Maude, and Veronica Mars, but he might be even better known for his environmental beliefs.

He cites growing up in smog-infested LA, having a frugal father, being broke in 1970 (when he became an environmentalist), and being a Boy Scout as factors that shaped him into the green machine he is today.

The six-time Emmy nominee started relatively small — with recycling, a move to vegetarianism, composting, and buying an electric car — and over the ensuing 40-plus years has expanded into being eco-friendly wherever he can. This includes 10 to 15 minutes of pedaling a stationary bike every morning that’s hooked up to batteries that run the house so he can “earn” the energy the toaster uses to toast his bread. Instead of a lawn, Begley has a yard of native California plants, many of which produce food. And solar panels on the roof help keep his electricity bill to something in the hundreds per year — much lower than the average house.

“I’ve owned a windmill since 1985, and it’s still profitable today,” Begley told Tonic. “I own a share of a wind farm putting out many homes worth of power. That’s 25 years of more than mitigating my use. And then you’ve got the solar panels on the roof. And when I must fly — I try to not fly — but when I must I buy a TerraPass carbon offset…”

Agreeing to Disagree
Not only is Begley’s house much smaller than most of his colleagues’, but he’s also been known to show up at Hollywood events via bike instead of the typical limo. The bike is his second favorite mode of transportation, just behind walking, which he does whenever possible. If neither foot nor pedal power are possible, he favors public transportation. Lastly, he turns to driving his electric car.

Begley is often transporting himself to events where he speaks about his convictions. And regardless of whether the audience is sympathetic or skeptic, he always enjoys chatting about his favorite topic.

In response to a question from LowDensityLifestyle.com about what he says to people who say climate change isn’t real, Begley says: “I say let’s agree to disagree on it — and instead focus on what we can agree on. Do we agree that $3-plus a gallon gas is a problem? Do we agree that we have a dependency problem on Mideast oil, and that we are sending billions of dollars to countries that don’t like us very much and impact our national security? Do we agree that we want to clean up the air and water in our cities? Do we agree that we want to save money? If we can agree on those things, then a sustainable lifestyle can make a difference.”

Simplifying
From 2007 to 2009, Begley and his wife, Rachelle Carson, did a reality show called Living with Ed that documented Begley’s devotion (and Carson’s resistance to some of the more radical parts of it). Episodes highlighted Begley’s green house rivalry with Bill Nye the Science Guy; his environmentally safe cleaning products, Begley’s Earth Responsible Products; his public speaking commitments; his efforts to convince friends to get a green audit; and all the improvements he makes to his house.
Living Like Ed
“I have a computer, a fax machine, a printer, and all that stuff, but I try to keep things as long as they can possibly last and use as little stuff as possible. The less emphasis you have on stuff, I think the happier you’re going to be,” he told Mother Nature Network. “I simplify as much as I can.”

To begin living a greener lifestyle, he offers this tip: “Start with the cheap and easy stuff — energy-efficient lighting, weather stripping, recycling, composting, home gardening, bike riding, public transportation, etc.,” he told LowDensityLifestyle.com. For more ideas, read his book Living Like Ed: A Guide to the Eco-Friendly Life.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau“Thank God men cannot fly, and waste the sky as well as the earth.” — Henry David Thoreau

Today, Henry David Thoreau is remembered best for writing Walden, but he did much more than live in a cabin in the woods alone. Thoreau was a naturalist, abolitionist, pencil maker, teacher, conservationist, philosopher — and that’s just scratching the surface.

Born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was surrounded by influential thinkers still famous today, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. As Concord grew, Thoreau worried about its expansion.

“Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or a thousand acres, where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation,” he wrote.

Back to Basics
Thoreau believed in simplicity above all, and lived that philosophy throughout his life, particularly as he was working on Walden. Wastefulness was not something he tolerated, as he saw the connection between materialism and the destruction of the environment. “What is the use of a house if you don’t have a decent planet to put it on?” he once said.

At his core, Thoreau loved nature. Indeed, he kept meticulous journals about what he saw outside, from bird migration to plant growth to the water levels in Walden Pond. He advocated for recreational hiking and canoeing before that was popular, and he studied how forests regenerated after fire. Keeping the wilderness wild was something he consistently argued for. “What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?” he wrote.
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More Than a Century Later
An early environmentalist, Thoreau has influenced the modern-day environmental movement with his thoughts on social responsibility, resource efficiency, living as simply as possible, and the impact humans have on nature. He’s also had an influence on how we think about national forest preserves and the destruction from dams. Fellow Heroes of Sustainability Edward Abbey and John Muir have cited Thoreau as an influence, along with dozens of other notable personalities.

Today, The Walden Woods Project carries on his mission, as they work to keep the forest surrounding Walden Pond intact, instead of letting the area turn into an office park or condominiums (as have been proposed). In addition, the Don Henley–founded nonprofit organization works to preserve Thoreau’s literature and legacy, which you can learn more about here.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Jeff and Heather Barrie

Jeff Barrie

Jeff Barrie

Sometimes the smallest changes can make the biggest impact — that’s the motto of Jeff and Heather Barrie, the husband-and-wife team behind the award-winning film Kilowatt Ours: A Plan to Re-Energize America.

Documentary filmmaker Jeff has been producing independent films since 1993, all related to the goal of showing how people can be part of the solutions to the environmental challenges our planet faces.

A ‘Filmic Jewel’
In Kilowatt Ours, Jeff puts a spotlight on the dangers of coal-generated power and shares how simple changes such as switching incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, using Energy Star appliances, installing adequate insulation, and locating and sealing leaks in air duct systems can have significant results. These changes can result in reduced carbon footprints, along with hundreds of dollars saved on home energy annually, and potentially millions of dollars in savings for businesses and communities.

Heather, an artist and musician, came into the fold in 2000, when she met Jeff at a coffee shop. With Kilowatt Ours, she provided creative input, moral support, and meals (always helpful!), along with becoming part of the focus as she and Jeff worked to find energy solutions in their own home.

The film started airing on public television stations in 2008, has been viewed in schools by more than 5,000 students, and has been screened in 1,000-plus communities. It’s won numerous awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the South Dakota Film Festival and Best Environmental Film at the Southern Appalachia International Film Festival.

Kilowatt Ours CoverKilowatt Ours is the rare environmental filmic jewel — it is well made, filled with just enough facts and figures to galvanize people to action, good for all ages, humorous and extremely accessible,” says a GreenMuze review. “Kilowatt Ours is The Inconvenient Truth of energy. A must-see film for every person in North America.”

Ordinary Citizens
The Barries practice what they preach. They line-dry their children’s organic cloth diapers, pay attention to their thermostat settings, use ceiling fans, and unplug electronic devices that aren’t in use. Those may all seem like small things, but the couple is able to keep their electric bills at half the national average, despite the fact that they live in Tennessee, which has a higher average electricity usage rate than other parts of the country.

Wondering what other tips they have? Check out a short video they made of home tips here.

Perhaps best of all, the Barries say that working together toward a common goal of conservation and learning to compromise and negotiate with each other has helped to keep their marriage strong.

Kilowatt Ours helps ordinary citizens take an active role in energy conservation,” Jeff says. “Most viewers are shocked at the scope of the issue and even more so at the immediacy and simplicity of the solution — energy savings as an energy source.”

For more information on the Barries and the film Kilowatt Ours, visit KilowattOurs.org.

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Heroes of Sustainability: David Suzuki

David SuzukiDavid Suzuki’s mom cried for months when he passed up the chance at med school to instead become a geneticist. What she perceived as a loss was the world’s gain.

Suzuki has become a world leader in sustainable ecology, science, and broadcasting, winning the Right Livelihood Award (known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”) in 2009.

The Canadian grew up exploring the world around him. “Oh, I loved that swamp behind our house,” he told CanWest News Service. “I’d come home absolutely soaked, and covered with mud, with jars with frog eggs and stuff and my mother never said, ‘Don’t come in, don’t dirty the house.’ She’d just bring me in, take my dirty clothes off and everything I showed her she treated as if it were a Nobel Prize-winning discovery: ‘Salamander eggs! Isn’t that wonderful!’”

A Broadcasting Powerhouse
Those early years no doubt influenced his life’s work, which has been defending the earth and explaining science in easy-to-understand ways. He hosted the popular science program Quirks and Quarks on CBC Radio; Science Magazine, a weekly TV program geared toward an adult audience; The Nature of Things, a CBC television series that was broadcast in dozens of countries; an eight-part PBS/BBC series, The Secret of Life; and the eight-part A Planet for the Taking, which averaged nearly 2 million viewers per episode.

“Till then, I had always taken the position that humans were at the center of everything and that we had to constrain our interaction with the environment,” he told Canadian Geographic. “A Planet for the Taking made me realize that we are deeply embedded in a far more complex world than we understand. If we take the position that humans are part of a much greater whole, then we recognize that whatever we do to our surroundings, we do to ourselves, because there is no separation from it.”

Changing the Laws of Nature
It’s this idea that everything is interconnected that drives Suzuki, who was inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. He has spent decades warning people that Earth’s future depends on our actions today. “Attitudes and behaviors must change if vast human misery is to be avoided,” he said at a speech at John Abbott College in October 2012. “There are 7 billion people on this planet. That’s a huge ecological footprint — just to keep us alive. Yet a study showed that 97 percent of teenage girls list shopping as their favorite activity. The challenge is to rediscover who we are and to understand that we are utterly dependent on the laws of nature. We need clean water and air to survive. We need healthy soil to grow food. We can change the market — it’s a human construct — we sure as hell can’t change the laws of nature.”

Suzuki, who is now 76 years old, is critical of his generation and the baby boomers that followed for not doing more to protect the environment. He believes elders and young people should come together now to chart a course for the future.

“I never say I’m optimistic or pessimistic,” he told CanWest. “I just say I’m hopeful.”

Learn more about Suzuki and the nonprofit he co-founded, the David Suzuki Foundation, here.

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Heroes of Sustainability: Julius Shulman

Photo by Gerard Smulevich

Photographer Julius Shulman will forever be celebrated for his photos of midcentury Modern architecture, particularly the famous shot of Pierre Koenig’s glass-walled Case Study House #22. The way he was able to capture an architect’s vision, rendering the structures he saw through his lens so much more than just a collection of building materials, made him known throughout the world and brought the Modern design aesthetic that swept through California in the mid-20th century into the international spotlight.

Environmental Consideration
Not only was Shulman a champion of architecture, he was also a champion of the land occupied by the houses he so expertly photographed. He spent years fighting developer-driven architecture and smog, detested sprawl, and fiercely respected the environment around Los Angeles, where he lived.

What he loved about the houses he photographed was how they interacted with their surroundings. “The reason why this architecture photographs so beautifully is the environmental consideration exercised by the architects,” Shulman told Metropolis magazine in 2007. “It was the sense that here we have beautiful canyons, hillsides, views of the ocean. Everyone loves these photographs because the houses are environmentally involved, and this was before the emphasis on what everyone is calling green.”

That emphasis was something Shulman didn’t understand. He supported the concept of “green,” of course, but not as a current craze. “In the fifties and sixties it was done automatically,” he said of sustainable architecture. “The term ‘green’ meant you related to the environment. That’s all green means: you are the environment.”

A Lasting Impact
Shulman died at the age of 98 in 2009. His legacy is honored by many, including in the 2008 Dustin Hoffman-narrated documentary Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, which explores the photographer’s life and his impact on architects of the time. Also dedicated to him, the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury School of Architecture “focuses on Julius Shulman’s enduring involvement in the issues of modernism, which include efficiency, environmental sensitivity, social responsibility, client-architect relationships and all aspects of design,” according to the school’s website.

The Southern Californian will always be remembered for his eye for composition and light, as well as his brilliance in capturing — and caring for — the earth on which architecture’s foundation is laid.

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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.”

 

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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.”

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