Monday, June 15, 2015

Packing for Madagascar

We leave today for Madagascar.

Sounds funny to say. I never expected to go to this island so far away from home, but the opportunity came up and we're thrilled.  I've never been to Africa or Asia --only Europe and to Israel as a child.  I know this will be very different.

I'm traveling with my daughter, Olivia, her friend Gabrielle and her sister Lauren, and their mother Mickie. The girls are all in high school--Olivia and Gabrielle are rising seniors. Olivia is interested in global sustainable politics and gender studies and Gabrielle hopes to go into medicine.  Lauren, a rising tenth grader, is coming a long to learn. 

We are going to the Centre Valbio in the Ranomafana National Park, the research site of Dr. Patricia Wright, a prize-winning anthropologist and primatologist, and one of the world's leading experts on lemurs.  We'll be joining a summer study abroad class from Stony Brook University, and I'll jump in to teach ecofeminism. The college students left a few weeks ago with Dr. Wright.

At the moment all I can think of is packing lists--and it's quite extensive. The forest is quite wet, so everything must be lined in plastic.  We will need so many things like Dr. Bronner's soap for washing our bodies and clothes (biodegradable and not harmful to the environment), towels, sleeping bags, rain gear from head to toe,  binoculars, waterproof watches, wide variations of clothes and shoes, and yet the airlines are so restrictive about weight. Don't bring anything you don't mind losing or getting destroyed, the instructions say.  I'm so used to packing super light, but for this trip, we'll need many supplies.

I've got a new camera with a great lens for filming wildlife. I hope it survives the humidity!

Be prepared for culture shock, the instructions say.

We're leaving the western world soon in few hours.

It's a thirty hour trip to the forest.  A stop in Paris, and then to the city of  'Tana', Madagascar; a night in Tana sleeping, and then off to meet the students and Pat Wright in the forest.

I'll be writing here with updates of our trip. I will post pictures, too.

Back to packing!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Single Mom Graduates

Helen walked into my feminism, literature, and culture class a few years ago and announced immediately, “I’m a single mom.” Fiercely proud and strong in demeanor, she also came across as childlike with her petite figure, round baby face, bright blue eyes, and high-pitched powdery voice.  This was Helen’s story: she had gotten pregnant in high school; her drug-addicted and mentally ill parents threw her out of the house; high school teachers and advisors vilified her. The boyfriend-father vanished and barely helped out financially.  Helen went to live with relatives who had plenty of children already and couldn’t help support her or pay college tuition.  Helen studied hard, made her way to university, where she raised her little girl, Anna, in a campus apartment. Campus life was good to Helen: she used the highly rated day care center and didn’t need a car--which she could not afford. Helen told her story with great pride, and many of her responses to our class readings circled back to single parenting issues. For Helen’s final project, she wrote a book entitled, For My Daughter, about how pregnant teens deserve to make the choice to become mothers and to be treated respectfully by society in return—not judged, not bullied, nor ‘othered’.  It was full of love for her daughter. All of her work in class was solid—she labored intensively over homework projects and the reading content.  She was an ideal student.  Helen got an A. 

I honored Helen’s position and choice. She was doing all she could as a single and, essentially, orphaned mom—Helen held a job and was earning a BA, and she appeared to be a present, loving parent.  In class, on Facebook and to me privately she recounted parenting stories of art, sewing, and baking projects, book reading, and taking her daughter to the beach and parks. I’d see Helen and her daughter around campus—on their own or with a group of college student friends who lavished attention on little Anna. Anna bubbled and smiled, and appeared secure and happy. Clearly, Helen was doing a good parenting job.

So when Helen posted a plea for help to get through her last semester on GoFundMe, as she explained that she’d run out of scholarship and loans, and her salary alone would not be enough to cover tuition and campus residency, I wanted to help.  Mother and child would have to leave their apartment soon if she didn’t come up with the funds.  They would be homeless. So I donated and passed the link around on social media.  Helen raised all she needed and will graduate this spring.  Additionally, she was admitted to a graduate program, which she plans to attend this fall.

But then, the other day, I saw her post a photograph on Facebook that took me aback: a sonogram photo of a new baby on the way.

I felt myself judging her. I wanted to say to Helen, but didn’t: Pregnant again?  You still have a young child. Your career and income stream are not set yet, and you are carrying loans.  Is this fair to the child you already have, and now there will be a second?

My reaction to the pregnancy surprised me.  I fully supported Helen all along the way up until now. I understood the decision to keep and raise her first baby. A teen might make a mistake and get pregnant and that could be forgiven. Why call it a “mistake” at all? Isn’t this a sexist view coming out of a history of patriarchy in which men own children and women’s bodies? Why is it anyone’s business how a young woman uses her body sexually or if she decides to parent and with whom? I reasoned that this should all be Helen’s choice, and society should not penalize her—especially as Helen clearly made every effort to get a solid education and to parent well.

We all know of the waning of the traditional heterosexual nuclear family.  Families and come in all shapes and sizes these days: LGBT parents, mixed-race families, blended families, and children are born through complex variations of reproductive methods and biological/non-biological gendered parenting combinations.  Over forty-percent of children are raised by unmarried parents. The possibilities in this brave new baby creation and childrearing world are endless, and the traditional heterosexual family unit doesn’t have a lock on love or good parenting.

Still, the sonogram photograph disturbed me. I wasn’t sure why, especially given my feminist view of mothering. I told a female friend this story and she asked, “Perhaps you feel betrayed? You supported Helen.” 

No, it’s not betrayal I feel, nor is it judgment, I realized. It is the older mother in me, wanting to protect Helen and her children.

Yet I also know that this is Helen’s body and life to live, not mine.

Happy graduation.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Easy to Forget

I am concerned about Indian Point Nuclear Power plant.

It's so easy to forget. It's easy to worry about my daughter, who has some kind of sinus infection; she keeps coughing; she has finals; we're worried about college admissions. There are dishes to wash. There is laundry to fold. There are papers to grade.

I am concerned about Indian Point.

It's so easy to forget. I know there is an abundance of unsafely stored spent fuel there--sitting in overcrowded pools, more fuel rods than the pools were designed to hold, and the longer the reactors run, the more spent fuel there will be. I don't think people know about the spent fuel issue and storage. They just stay, "Oh dear, Yucca Mountain didn't work out because of politics." They don't think, "How in the heck would one even get all the spent fuel from all over the U.S. safely TO Yucca Mountain?" That's "IF" Yucca Mountain were safe for containing nuclear waste, which it's not (geological studies show us this), and there's no other plan at the moment for long-term safe storage of nuke waste. Meanwhile, there is forty years' worth of nuclear waste stored at Indian Point and twenty million lives at risk. They are expecting earthquakes--7 on the Richter Scale (Columbia University Study) and the plant is not built to withstand such seismic activity. 

I am concerned about Indian Point.

It's easy to forget. I wake up and think, "I must do something." The day gets busy.  Driving. Work. Teaching. Meetings.  Just the other day there was a transformer fire there. It was in the news.  It barely got anyone's attention.

I am concerned about Indian Point.

It's so easy to forget. Yet I think of Japan. My friends in Japan can't understand why New Yorkers are not afraid. They look at me with pity in their eyes and ask, "What are you all doing about Indian Point? Don't you realize how much danger you are in!"  Nobody thought Fukushima would blow. Well, a few did. Mostly women. They tried to alert the government, they worked hard to reduce the amount of MOX fuel used (a plutonium mix) in the reactors. But nobody expected a Tsunami and Earthquake to cause three core meltdowns. 

I am concerned about Indian Point.

It's so easy to forget. Oh New York City. Nothing is meant to last. I could take a Buddhist approach.  Maybe Americans are really Buddhists, after all. Nothing matters to us. It's all Samsara. That irks me. Perhaps nothing lasts, but the massive suffering we cause with our hubris and greed is not acceptable.  

I am concerned about Indian Point.

It's so easy to forget. They are going to run a new high pressure and potentially explosive natural gas line approximately 1500 feet from reactors 2 and 3 and only several hundred feet from the spent fuel rods.* I should do something. What? What? Protest FERC. FERC approved this pipeline. People I know are protesting. Artists and parents and citizens are rising. 

I am concerned about Indian Point.

It's so easy to forget. The nuke plant seems far away. Nothing happened at Three Mile Island, that's the chant. Fukushima isn't so bad. Nothing much happened at Chernobyl. Secrets and Lies. Amnesia and cover ups. So many other spills and leaks and accidents that have few have heard of. It's hard to imagine such a disaster happening here. It's spring. The birds are singing. A nuclear nun was just released from two years in prison for protesting at Oak Ridge. What's Oak Ridge you might ask?  We can't smell or taste radiation, so maybe it's a science fiction story. Maybe ionizing radiation doesn't exist at all. Maybe cancer is a dream. Maybe children with leukemia don't exist. 

It's so very, very easy to forget. 

My head explodes with fear when I remember.

If you'd like to remember and learn, read these two important articles by Ellen Cantrow and Alison Rose Levy.

Or, speak up at the May 20th Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting. 6:30 in Tarrytown, NY. Make your voice heard. Keep in mind: We don't even need Indian Point (it only produces 5% of NYC's electricity) and the Governor of New York has said the plant (on its own) poses such a great safety risk that it should be shut down.**

Or, get involved with SAPE (see below). They are working hard to stop the Algonquin/Spectra gas pipeline that threatens millions of lives. They need your help. 

*The newly approved 42" diameter high pressure gas pipeline will run 105 feet from vital structures at Indian Point e.g. jet fuel tank and switch yard.
The pipeline will be located several hundred feet from 40 years of spent fuel rods, and about 1500 feet from Reactors 2 and 3.
**We don't need IP for electricity in New York, even though Entergy claims we do. NYC gets about 5% of its electricity from the plant and the rest is sold elsewhere. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Aileen Mioko Smith: Anti-Nuclear Feminist 

1111_Sit-In_In_TokyoThis March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
My mother was part of Women Strike For Peace in the early 1960s and, along with thousands of other women across the U.S., she helped put an end to above-ground nuclear bomb testing. Women Strike For Peace organized in response to the St. Louis Baby Tooth Study, which revealed that Strontium-90 released from nuclear bomb tests in Nevada had contaminated cow and human breast milk and poisoned children’s bodies across the country. Horrified mothers rose up in protest and their efforts led, in large part, to the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. In later years, my mother and father participated in the Nuclear Freeze movement to ban nuclear weapons and shut down nuclear power plants in the U.S.
So, when three Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdowns occurred after March 11, 2011, my eyes and ears were peeled to any and all news I could find about the accident.
Not surprisingly, I found that most activism post-Fukushima was led by women and mothers. One such activist is Aileen Mioko Smith—mother, grandmother and executive director of Green Actionwhom I have interviewed several times over the years. Smith is also co-author with her ex-husband, photojournalist Eugene Smith, of Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Chose to Carry the Burden of Courage, the book that exposed the damaging health effects of mercury pollution in Minamata Bay, Japan. In working to help the Minamata survivors with their 14-year lawsuit (which they eventually won) Smith learned that, “No matter how hard it is, and no matter how many times you lose, you will win. There will be some measure of justice.”
ms ad
On March 28, 1979, Unit 2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, located near Middletown, Pennsylvania, had a partial meltdown. Mitsuru Katagiri, the translator of Smith’s Minamata book—a university professor and anti-nuclear activist—went to the site with a scientist and lawyer to investigate. When Mitsuru’s team returned to Japan, they reported that the situation on the ground was quite different than official statements which claimed no harm had been done. Mitsuru’s team, Smith says, heard and saw a different story: the locals near the nuclear plant noticed strange tastes and smells. Then, later on, their animals became sick and many people had strange ailments. Smith then traveled to Pennsylvania with Katagiri where she spent several months interviewing 250 citizens affected by the accident.
The interviewees in Pennsylvania repeatedly asked the research team about nuclear power in Japan: “Well, there must be no plants in Japan because you have earthquakes?” These inquiries stirred Smith, because Japan did, indeed, have nuclear power plants and the country is very earthquake-prone.
When Smith returned to Japan, she turned her full attention to the anti-nuclear cause. In 1988, Smith helped collect 4 million signatures calling for a ban on nuclear power. In 2004, she made the public aware of the government’s attempt to pass on the cost of reprocessing MOX fuel (plutonium-uranium mixed oxide) through citizen tax dollars at a cost of 8 trillion yen (about $66 billion). For years, Smith’s team worked diligently to achieve the now-de-facto moratorium on highly dangerous MOX fuel in commercial nuclear plants in Japan. In 2010, she helped lead a large movement warning of the dangers of nuclear power—especially in high-risk earthquake areas such as Fukushima. After the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Smith protested the restart of nuclear plants in Japan and participated in countless anti-nuclear rallies, legal battles, and presentations before politicians and corporate boards. In one large anti-nuclear Occupy event in 2012 (pictured above), Smith’s team and many others camped out for over 10 months in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). At the end of the Occupy period, the women danced in celebration. Smith is pictured with them in the center.
Is nuclear power in Japan a gender issue? “Absolutely,” Smith affirms. “[Japanese] leadership is [dominated] by men. The nuclear industry and … officials working on nuclear issues, including government officials, local government officials … and, of course, the utility people … are 100 percent men. Well, maybe now there are a couple of women, so 99 percent men.”
Most people in Japan do not question this gender inequity, as the dominance of men over women in Japanese culture is so embedded.
Smith believes that to avoid accidents, the gender inequality needs to change. Currently, anti-nuclear activists and those watching out for safety issues in Japan are mostly women and many mothers from Fukushima. Yet they have little political power. Women activists have to go up against male politicians and male members of the nuclear industry. Overwhelmingly, women’s arguments are silenced, Smith says. But they fight on.
Aileen Mioko Smith comes from a long line of anti-nuclear mothers and feminist activists. Women’s History Month falls in March, the month of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. We honor Smith’s and other women activists’ ongoing efforts to protect the lives of the people in Japan, especially the children, on whose behalf she works tirelessly to safeguard their health and future.
Photo courtesy of Aileen Mioko Smith
Posted originally at Ms.Magazine

BY  ON JANUARY 21, 2015
Dr. Heidi Hutner and her daughter, Olivia Fine
Dr. Heidi Hutner and her daughter, Olivia Fine

This was written by Dr. Heidi Hutner, Director of the Sustainability Studies Program at Stony Brook University:
My seventeen-year old daughter, Olivia and I traveled to Northern California for winter holiday break. Olivia is in the throws of an intense “junior year” of high school, while I’m busy with my work as a professor. This vacation gave us a chance to catch up and reconnect – take stock and also have fun.
One Sunday morning, while enjoying an Asian Fusion brunch in foodie-land San Francisco, Olivia asked me:
“You work so hard on environmental issues, Mom. How do you know all those hours will pay off?”
When Olivia was three, she held up a sign that read: “Don’t Spray on Me.” This particular protest was about the spraying of Malathion (a powerful and carcinogenic pesticide) by New York State during a West Nile Virus outbreak. It was the late 1990s and she was barely out of diapers.
These days, she has become more considered. A teenager’s job is to question everything. To Olivia’s question about whether my hard work will pay off, I replied:
“When you have asked me that before — ‘Does activism work, Mom, aren’t you just spinning your wheels?’ — I’ll be honest: it made me a tad defensive. Yet, I pointed out to you that historically it has been activists who brought us so many successful and important freedoms that we take for granted today — the women’s right to vote and equal gender access to education and more, the end of slavery for African Americans, Civil Rights, many LGBT rights, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and so on. People acted and stood up for what they knew was right and, eventually, they won. Even as I said this to you, Olivia, part of me worried that we wouldn’t succeed. Today, however, I feel more hopeful! I say to you with confidence, ‘Yes, environmental advocacy works. Look at what a year we’ve had!’”
I then reminded my daughter of the wave of environmental successes of 2014 and early 2015: some big wins, some partial wins, some in-progress wins; many of which we were a part of.

I told Olivia,
“Of course, there is still much to be done. Climate Change threatens our civilization and we need the world governments to agree to radically reduce carbon emissions, stop producing and clean up nuclear radiation waste, and shift to renewable energy. We need an even more effective Safe Chemicals Act to stop the polluters from contaminating our water, soil, and air, and so much more. Yet the tide is changing. Look at the People’s Climate March. We couldn’t have imagined 400,000 showing up five years ago. Governor Cuomo just banned fracking. It’s just amazing.”

“Okay, mom. I see your point.”
We finished breakfast, rented two bikes, and rode through Golden Gate Park. It was a beautiful day.