Environmental Amnesia

Photograph: Michael Itkoff

I WOULD LIKE TO REPORT THAT IT takes two hours to jog around the periphery of the Mall of America, the nation’s largest indoor shopping center in Bloomington, Minnesota. The two hours includes circumnavigating the mall’s 520 stores along with its 20,000 parking spaces, which are mostly contained within orbital rings of monumentally sized parking garages.

I began this run early in the morning and, during my circuit, saw one other human being: a man with a cigarette standing against the largest expanse of brick wall I had ever seen. Near him was a door with no doorknob. From the depths of the parking garages, a few car alarms pulsed, some near, some far, like foghorns. The wind that pours through the loading docks of the Mall of America is fearsome. It slowed my progress considerably.

When I returned to my room in the Ramada Inn — which required crossing fourteen lanes of traffic — it was almost time for my keynote address at the twenty-first annual North American Hazardous Materials Management Conference. I don’t believe its organizers intended to make an ironic statement with their choice of venue. They seemed a sincere, overworked lot. They probably figured that the continent’s hazardous-materials managers might appreciate the chance to get an early start on holiday shopping.

Ten years ago, I published a book called Living Downstream that was about, among other things, hazardous materials. Ever since, I’ve received invitations to speak about the topic. Wherever I go, I do two things. One, I look up the Toxics Release Inventory for my host-community’s zip code. I study the location of the dumps, the routine chemical emissions, the accident reports, the off-site transfers, the permitted releases. And then, once I get there, I run.

Both rituals are ways of paying attention. When I run, I can feel the slope of the land under my feet and figure out how water flows here. I notice the decrepit apple tree that means this subdivision was once an orchard. I notice the aluminum smelter’s proximity to the floodplain. Sometimes the names of streets — Creamery Road — provide clues. Sometimes a windbreak of trees does. Even when I’m completely confounded — I cannot tell you how groundwater flows beneath the Mall of America — I discover something amazing. Once, in Livonia, Michigan, while running beside glass office complexes with glabrous names like Techtron and VisTaTech, I veered off toward a small scrim of woods. Within it, three derelict buildings flanked a derelict tennis court, its green surface shattered by sprouting trees. One of the buildings was entirely filled with chairs. The other was entirely filled with bicycles. Birds flew in and out of slumping holes in the roofs.

DURING THESE TEN YEARS of running and speaking, I’ve noticed two opposing trends. The first is that people increasingly believe that their health is affected by hazardous materials in the environment. And they know a lot more about hazardous materials. Pesticides in strawberries. Lead in lipstick. Bisphenol A in water bottles. But there is decreasing knowledge about the actual environment itself. Public awareness is specific to chemicals in consumer products — which are produced elsewhere (increasingly China) and brought into our homes. The location of those homes on former orchards (where arsenical pesticides were used) or near old toxic-dump sites (where drums of solvents were buried) — these matters seem blurrier and blurrier to the folks in my audiences. In fact, I’ve had to start explaining the word “Superfund,” as it doesn’t seem to ring any real bells for a lot of people — including people in communities where Superfund sites are present. (Superfund sites are the nation’s worst toxic-waste sites. There are 1,305 of them, and they are named for the “super” fund of money put together by Congress in 1980 to clean them up, a trust that went bankrupt five years ago.)

I was recently invited to Rockford, Illinois, to speak about toxic chemicals. That seemed appropriate because Rockford is the site of a longstanding Superfund site. Solvents used by former businesses had drizzled into drinking water wells. Rockford is famous within toxicology circles because of the bladder-cancer cluster that was discovered here and because it was here where researchers figured out, in the 1980s, that the level of solvents in human blood is predicted not by the amount of water drunk from the tap but by the length of “shower run times.” In other words, inhalation is a bigger route of exposure to solvent-contaminated drinking water than drinking it, and showering provides the biggest dose. And yet only two people in my college audience knew about these studies — or even knew that Rockford had a Superfund site. Even the local emergency-room physician hadn’t heard the news.

WHAT’S INDUCING THIS EPIDEMIC of environmental amnesia? Maybe one contributor is the long silence of the federal government on environmental catastrophes of all kinds. In the breach, activist groups have tried to protect the public. In need of positive messages and deliverable results, they focus on individual solutions. Don’t microwave in plastic. Buy organic. There is no place in that discussion for the barrels of waste buried atop the aquifer. The very mention of them fills a room with paralyzing despair.

Or maybe we’re now spending so much more time with consumer objects than with our natural environments that we have forgotten how to think about them. Sport water bottles are real to us — polycarbonate? or stainless steel? — but creekbeds are fuzzy concepts.

Or maybe our unremembering is a wall against grief. My own elementary school — along with the field, playground, and wooded path to the crosswalk — was razed years ago to make way for discount shopping. I have steadfastly refused to frequent that part of town. But when my son needed a haircut for my father’s funeral, I found myself driving my old walking route to school, in search of a salon open on a Monday. It was supposed to be in here somewhere. While navigating the service roads, I tried hard to forget. But while my son was being pumped up in his pneumatic chair, I saw reflected in the mirror a retaining wall at the edge of the parking lot. I know that pattern of stones. I looked at them every day during math. I was standing in my fifth grade classroom. And the military recruiting center next door would have been the lunchroom. And that drive-through over there was the field where, every recess, my sister and Danelle and I ran, circling and whinnying like wild, wild horses.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. “Superfund sites are the nation’s worst toxic-waste sites. There are 1,305 of them, and they are named for the “super” fund of money put together by Congress in 1980 to clean them up, a trust that went bankrupt five years ago.”

    Ah, ‘the economy’ at work on our behalf. Use-it-up and throw-it-away, and let the citizens pay for the cleanup and/or absorb the risk of living near it. I wonder how many CEOs live atop former waste sites?

  2. I was delighted to have an apricot tree in my back yard in San Francisco, and knew from other trees in other yards that the neighborhood (Potrero Hill) had once been an orchard. It never occured to me to think about the pesticides that might have been used there. This was before the first Earth Day, and we didn’t know much. Now we do, and it may well be grief, or a need to feel in control of our lives, that makes us focus on water bottles instead of water tables.

  3. I am so heartened by Steingraber’s insights once again. I have heard/read people in resource development talk about how little land is truly inhabited in our nation. There seems to be no genuine concept of how much land, i.e. watershed land, of varying qualities, is needed to support this inhabitation, at its various densities. (The cynic I am would say it is ignored, but unfortunately, in this case, I don’t think the knowledge is commonly there, either in industry or the public.) Besides alternative low polluting energy sources, we so need to focus on availability of water fit for human consumption in this nation and worldwide. A better sense of the environment and the limiting factors for a decent life I think would hasten good public policies and practices.

  4. I was interested to see that the things the author says that Americans are more concerned with–the water bottles, the toys from China, the pesticides on fruit–are all items we buy and use, for the most part, inside our homes and offices. it seems to me that until we start spending more time outside–playing and working– to see fields and mountains, streams and forests and rivers and animals, we will not truly see how the environment affects us no matter where we stand. TV is not killing anything except our spirits, our waistlines, and our family relationships. For some incredible reason, we allow these essential elements to be sacrificed. TV seduces us ironically to remain in our closed and comforting structures where available food and the right weather influence our choices to NOT go outside so that we can watch, but not interact, with the world on many channels. How can we worry and be responsible for and about environmental concerns if we never feel rain, never walk by a dump, never see an animal slaughtered, never ride a bicycle, never garden, never . . .? We all need to get out more.

  5. “Our unremembering is a wall against grief.” Indeed. When I have a asked people to remember a time when they felt the glory of the natural world, they return to childhood schoolyards, streams, bushes in the back yard. When I ask what those places are like now, I see the grief for the water that is now undrinkable, the house that has turned into a power station, the school abandoned.

    Our outdoor time is less glorious now, or maybe we notice more–the constant noise of trucks and planes, the bitter smell of petroleum, the soil we’ve been told carries too much toxins to plant carrots in. So we stay indoors and fret about the water bottles and the water.

    It’s time to reclaim our imperfect surroundings, to go out into the vacant lots and collect the weeds, to glory in the soot-laden sunsets. We’ll begin to take care when we let ourselves fall in love again.

  6. Perhaps change is in the offing as a “forced-choice”.

    Endless economic growth is the shibboleth of the rich and powerful in our time. But the days of reckless domination of the Earth and its environs may be numbered, it would appear, because the idolatry, the magical thinking, the wishes and the selfish intentions that have driven endlessly expanding large-scale corporate activity and insatiable wealth accumulation could be about to run their course. The plans of the economic powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians for ‘manufacturing’ “bubbles” and big-business boom times could lead the family of humanity to be threatened by the inadvertent loss of life as we know it and the unintentional destruction of the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by our children and coming generations.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  7. Virtual mountains of scientific evidence indicate that a contradiction exists between the finite physical reality of the world we inhabit and the cornucopian fantasy widely espoused by so many economists assuring us Earth is a sort of maternal presence, like an ever-expressive teat at which the human species can suckle from now onward.

    Perhaps the contradiction between fantasy and reality is better posed in the form of a question about oil deposits.

    Is oil a depletable natural resource with limited availability for human consumption in our time or is oil an essentially unlimited product of a planet that indefinitely can produce resources for human benefit without regard to Earth’s physical limitations?

  8. I agree with Natalie-Parker Lawrence here. There is a huge disconnect operating–we are now more knowledgeable about our concrete purchased items than our own literal backyards. When I taught poetry to college students and would say the word “nature,” they would tell me they had to “travel out west to see it,” completely divorced from the idea they were a part of nature, of the watershed down the road, the wooded areas filled with wildlife that define this city, the falcons nesting on the classroom building outside. We’ve got to start teaching our children, from a young age to be stewards of the natural world and,as Sandra Steingraber pointed out, to consciously pay attention to our environment.

  9. I am a victim of toxic poisoning. A school roofing project gone wrong exposed over a thousand students and teachers to deadly isocyanates, leaving dozens with serious injuries. I was one of the teachers. In the years that followed, I learned that this was not an isolated incident. Toxic Justice: A Conspiracy of Silence is my story. I know what Sandra Steingraber meant when she wrote, “Despair is a luxury we can’t afford.”

  10. Why the amnesia? Have we been mesmerized by a Tower of Babel?

    Perhaps we are forever forgetting about the environment because too many people, especially the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and their minions in the mainstream media, are worshipping a “totem”. At least to me, there appear to be many too many people for whom the economy, in and of itself, is the primary object of their idolatry. This behavior is observable, obvious and flagrant. In many instances, these worshippers make what they evidently believe are rational arguments that suggest manmade financial and economic systems are somehow essential to, and an integral part of, God’s Creation; that indicate the growth of the global economy will occur from now on, even after the Creation is ravaged and its frangible climate destabilized by unbridled overproduction, unchecked overconsumption and unregulated overpopulation activities of the human species. Aside from the “Economic Colossus” nothing matters to them.

    Today, it appears that the financial system of the economic powerbrokers is collapsing like a “house of cards” and the real economy of the family of humanity is threatened. Experts in political economy are saying internally inconsistent and contradictory things. Communications about financials and the economy are generally confused and in disarray. Confidence and trust in the operating systems of finance and the global economy have been undermined by the invention of dodgy financial instruments and unsustainable business models as well as by the promulgation of con games and Ponzi schemes. Transparency, accountability and honesty in business activities have been largely vanquished. A great economic system is being undone by con artists, gamblers and cheats. In such circumstances, does the mammade colossus we call the global political economy remind you in some ways of a modern Tower of Babel?



    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  11. Another beautiful piece by Sandra Steingraber. What strikes me about memory is its limit set by biology. That’s why “story” is so important. Sandra can remember beyond the barbershop to the school that preceeded it. But she doesn’t mention what was before “school” because that has been forgotten. A farmers field most likely. Or what was before “field.” A wooded area most likely. Or was was before that or before that or before that. We need to build those stories in a way that compels us to turn mega malls back into farms so that we can turn the farms back into woods. That would be something super worth funding.

  12. The economic powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians in my not-so-great generation of elders have much to learn from Sandra S. and Crow H.

    Many too many leading elders among us are ignominous; even so, they have proclaimed themselves Masters of the Universe. They suffer from a venal combination of distinctly human weaknesses derived from their culturally-condoned greediness: willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism, whenever the needs of our planetary home are presented to them. These leaders cannot see, hear or speak of such things as industrial pollution, natural resource dissipation, environmental degradation, climate change, per-capita overconsumption, human overpopulation, etc. None of this is real, they say repeatedly. Denial is evidently not just a river in Egypt. Preserving Earth’s body and protecting its environs are everywhere ignored by these leaders. They have effectively chosen a manmade construction, the “global political economy”, as the primary object of their idolatry, I suppose.

  13. Thank you for the wonderful, nostalgic article. I too am an observer of nature and funny thing is I do my best observing when running as well. I am a political science senior with a minor in environmental sciences at the University of Colorado at Denver. I lament the sprawl of the urbanites and the concrete jungle that encroaches on the natural settings that give me comfort.
    With experiences in biology, chemistry and human anatomy I am all too aware of the effects that chemicals can have on our human systems.
    Modern lifestyles do not put us in “touch” with our environment. Ammennities consume our everyday life if we let them. Being in touch with natural surroundings requires a quiet calm that displaces our technologies. You hit it right on the nose when you notice our over-worked and propaganda fed citizens. It is a disapprearing skill to be observant outside our “personal space.” I appreciate your awareness and can only say keep it going. You have sparked a common interest in me. Thank you.

  14. I agree with Steingraber’s opinions about this issue, what stuck out in my mind of this article was her stating “Or maybe we’re now spending so much more time with consumer objects than with our natural environments that we have forgotten how to think about them.” It completely describes practically everyone in this world, we let things overrule what’s really important.

  15. Some of the things that Sandra Steingraber says are very interesting.I had no ideal that there is lead in lipstick.

    This is our environment and we need to do everything we can to rid of hazardous material not only for our environment but for our health as well.

  16. Megan im glad you stated what Sandra said that was one of the main things that stuck in my head as well, i dont if it is because it is so true or if it is because not many people realize how important the environment is.

  17. I followed Sandra’s lead and looked up the Toxics Release Inventory for my city. Over 27 Coal Companies in my area are allowed to dump “acceptable” amounts of toxins into our water supply! This is absolutely outrageous! We only see the good things that come from mountaintop removal coal mining, such as space for construction of new shopping centers. We rarely look at the bad.

  18. I agree with what Steingraber is talking about. We know alot more about hazardous materials such as lid in our lipstick, and things like that, that are brought into our home. Then they know about what could be right there around them, such as their home being build on a former orchard plantation where pesticides were used for years.

  19. I felt like I knew a lot about our environment, until I read Steingraber’s article. She gave so many great examples, and it’s people like her that inspire me to do more and know more about the place I call home. This inspires me to speak out against the coal companies in my area that dump so much waste.

  20. There is a conspiracy of silence about toxic exposure and what it is doing to us and our children. Here in Mobile they are calling it the BP flu, because many toxins create flu like symptoms. For me, it was the aches and pains of a severe flu that never went away. Twenty five years ago I was seriously injured while teaching when a contractor sprayed a foam roof on the school where I was teaching. https://sites.google.com/site/nancyswan/toxic-justice-a-true-story/chapter-1

  21. I haft to admit, I dont know anything about superfund or toxic dumpsites. I have three beatiful grand children and after reading this article i want to know more about this subject. how can i find out if there are toxic dump sites in or around my neighborhood? I have big beatiful trees all around my house and I love them. I coulding imagine my place without them. When i was growing up we had old coutry dirt roads to walk in the evenings and I loved it.Now all the roads are paved. Wheres the fun in that?

  22. I definately agree with Steingraber, I think that we all never seem to look at the bigger picture with our environment. We focus on the little things. When a disaster happens we thing “Oh My Gosh” but then in a few weeks we forget about it.

  23. I thought that the article was interesting. The author does make some good points. Although when the author implies about that we are more worried about things like the water bootles, pestcides on our food and things like that I feel that we should be just as worry about things like that. We drink from the water bootles that are contaimed and our children play with the toxic toys. We also eat the food and this could be harmful to our health also along with the “super” fund sites. We have forgot about a lot of things, but we still need to worry about the things that are going to effect our health and our children health.

  24. It is amazing how well this article applies to the toxic problems that we face. My father died after 911 from mesophiloma cancer from the espestos that was only in the air which the government said was safe for everyone.

  25. I fell into a a pond that was polluted from factory dumping of old paint products and I’ve been battling cancer for awhile now.

  26. I have also suffered from toxic poisoning. For 20 years I have been working in an asbest plant and inhailed poisionus gas. only after a large number of workers become ill with lung cancer, the plant was closed. I dont think anybody knew about the danger, or at least I like to think that.

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