It must be terrifying finding out you live in a dormitory contaminated with dioxin. Imagine: You’re 18 years old and you’re having a great time at college. Then one day at the end of the year, you find out that your building had an electrical fire so long ago that nobody remembers, but not so long ago that the toxins are any better than the day of the event. Nobody told you. You feel betrayed. You learn that the chemicals involved will affect you for life; that your children and even your grandchildren may be affected; that you were lied to; and that there is nothing you can do about it except prevent future exposures, if you can.
We always talk about life on a college campus being a microcosm of the “real” world, and SUNY New Paltz, with its inconvenient toxic truth—four contaminated residence halls—surely qualifies. When I get back to town, sometimes after many months away, I inevitably get involved in this issue again, 16 years after the toxic fires that spread contamination through Bliss, Capen, Gage, and Scudder Halls, Parker Theater, and the Coykendall Sciences Building. Writing about this issue has not made me John Grisham. More accurately, I sometimes feel like the Grim Reaper himself paying a friendly little visit, reminding people of the inevitable.
This has always been a tense relationship for me. Most of you know me as an astrologer who helps light up the inner human world of growth and the personal choices we face. In this role, I can be a bit circumspect and less conclusive. When I slip into my role as a dioxin journalist and community organizer, I need to shift into higher-contrast language and ideology; I must apply my talent for confrontation; and bring up a subject that most people would rather forget about. Yet that Grim Reaper thing has another side, which is, by raising these issues, we push people to confront their personal issues and to grow.
As I continue with this work, not entirely voluntarily, it becomes ever easier to see why so much goes unaddressed in the world. Initiating the discussion takes so much energy, and the messenger is often blamed for the message.
Very few people who become a community anti-toxins activist have any formal training, expertise, or authority. Generally, they start with no knowledge and no preparation.
It’s more often people like housewives (Lois Gibbs of the Love Canal comes to mind) or, in the case of Erin Brockovich, a secretary.
My life is often thrust into chaos as a result of getting re-involved. My business typically suffers, my energy runs low, and, along the way, I have to face my own fears and inner demons. I have to be honest with myself about what it means to be alive at this time in history, particularly in the human environment, which rarely seems willing to stand for too much reality. I have to be willing to have many conversations that people would rather not have, when there are plenty of things I would rather be doing.
When we ask why the global environmental crisis (and the associated corporate responsibility crisis) is not being addressed more directly or more quickly, I think we really need to look at these personal-level issues. With the situation in New Paltz, we have a fairly typical community crisis in our world, but one that is at least workable. Shutting down four buildings is possible, and it’s probably going to be easer than stopping Greenland from melting. Yet the task is daunting enough: challenging a massive, inhuman, and deceptive state bureaucracy to care about people.
One thing that’s different about the contamination issue as it exists in the spring of 2007 is that there are both students and local political leaders involved in taking action. Interestingly, they are almost all women, and the leadership is entirely composed of women. I wonder if this has something to do with their taking the reproductive issues associated with dioxin-like compounds more seriously. I have no other way to explain it.
One aspect of my work has been teaching, passing the torch, passing along information, and also carrying forward an environmental tradition that has its roots in the anti-pesticide movement of the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest, which has provided 90 percent of my education in these matters. In this role, I convey history, knowledge, information about key players and perpetrators, documents, contacts, and a general sense of awareness. I bring people into a larger tradition.