Ally Spotlight: Margaret Hermes, Missouri Coalition for the Environment

Margaret Hermes at the Library of Congress, from her personal collection

You have been involved in environmental activities in Missouri for some time, but I understand you are also a fiction writer. Tell us about yourself, and how you came to environmental activism. Did you spend time in nature in your youth?

I grew up within the city limits of Chicago, and regularly enjoyed the urban opulence of Marshall Fields, the Art Institute, and the downtown movie palaces, but my immediate childhood surroundings were more Huck Finn than Eloise. Chicago, as part of Cook County, boasts a glorious network of wild, open spaces where development is permanently prohibited. The corner lot where our family house stood was flanked on two sides by a vast expanse of Forest Preserve. And a half block in another direction led to the dark, dank duck pond where creatures sloshed and slithered in the summer and where we skated every winter.

We lived in a comfortable, modern house in a major city, but that house was planted firmly in the natural world. And that was long enough ago that children were free to roam and explore as long as they came home in time for dinner.

My childhood was also marked by growing up with four brothers and no sisters and sharing a small bedroom with my aunt until I left for college. I thought that my early years of having no one to share intimacies with except imaginary playmates predetermined my becoming a fiction writer. I’m happy to report that this March my novel The Opposite of Chance is being released by Delphinium Books. Both as a writer and as an activist, I am always looking for the way things are connected. I believe that seeing connections is what drew me to advocate for the environment.

What did you do for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and are you still involved with them?

Nearly 40 years ago, another WILPF member, Arlene Sandler, “gave” my services to anti-nuclear activist Kay Drey. During my years of indentured servitude in Kay’s basement, I became educated in and then engrossed in the tragedy of the multiple piles of highly radioactive waste, dating from development of the atomic bomb, that had been clandestinely dumped around the St. Louis metropolitan area, contaminating properties from the downtown Mallinckrodt site where the uranium was processed to Coldwater Creek in St. Louis County. Through this work I became involved with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE). Over the years I volunteered on a number of issues ranging from the successful initiative petition passage of CWIP (by which utilities were denied the authority to charge ratepayers for “construction work in progress,” which Ameren is currently working to overturn) to the unsuccessful fight against the Page Avenue Extension commandeering a section of embattled Creve Coeur Lake Park. To my surprise, I also morphed into an event planner and created fundraising projects for MCE, ranging from helming a triennial art show and auction to editing a community cookbook. I am less active with MCE these days but still engaged, and my longtime partner continues to serve on their Board of Directors.

As you are aware, WILPF has an issue group called Earth Democracy having to do with living sustainably. Farming practices and industries such as steel and cement are polluting land and sea. Saving the planet, sustaining healthy populations from wee insects to whales is a big task. Who do you look to for environmental direction? What particular areas of environmental degradation are you most concerned about, and what have you been doing on that issue. 

Missouri is home to an abundance of environmental riches. Even though 20 states are larger, Missouri is second in the nation in total number of farms. (The only state with more is Texas and it’s about four times the size of Missouri.) The vast majority of these are small farms, family owned and family operated. But there are also five hundred (!) Class I large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), otherwise known as factory farms, in our state. For example, in 2016 Smithfield Hog Production’s Green Hills Farm was permitted to house 79,488 large swine in its barns (MCE has a great interactive CAFO map on its website) CAFOS produce massive amounts of waste, wastes that migrate and pollute.

This gets me to the state’s other great resource, our waterways: the big rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri, together form the fourth longest river in the world. Then there’s the network of rivers—Meramec, Current, Eleven Point, Cuivre, Gasconade, St. Francis, Big Piney–too many to name—that make Missouri arguably the best state in the union for floating in a canoe or kayak. Protecting those rivers – those rivers that feed farms and float people and provide drinking water and flow into oceans—is perhaps the most important action we can take locally. It’s all about connectivity. Protecting waterways from CAFO waste and mining runoff and plastics and oil spills I think is the number two priority after combating the climate crisis.

Climate change is upon us. Do you think the public is ready to show concern by engaging in strong action to effect real change? I noticed Bill Gates is saying we need more, a lot more, electric grid and our Missouri legislators won’t pass the Grain Belt Express, refusing to declare parts of farms condemned property. Ameren is not showing much interest in renewables even though they are now cheaper.  What are your suggestions?

And how do we address climate change? Bill Gates thinks nuclear power is an essential part of the solution. From my perspective, nuclear power creates more problems—from the unsolved dilemma of radioactive waste disposal to the unspeakable horror of a nuclear accident. Just hearing the name Fukushima makes me knock on wood. And then there’s the ocean. Fukushima spewed 320,000 gallons of highly contaminated radioactive water into the Pacific and radionuclides were released into the air and landed on the sea’s surface. Over 80% of the radioactivity from the damaged reactors ended up in the Pacific. Many U.S. reactors are on the coast or near inland waterways that drain into oceans. Knock on wood. It’s all about connectivity.

I second your concern about resistance to the Grain Belt Express! If built, the Grain Belt Express would move as much as 4,000 megawatts of wind power from western Kansas across Missouri and Illinois to the Indiana border, bringing lower rates to many Missouri customers.  And now there’s a move to add broadband to the project at no extra cost to Missouri taxpayers, which would bring internet access to many of the state’s rural communities. Missouri is the only state opposing the project. Our state reps and senators need to hear from us!

What are your recommendations for what organizations like WILPF St Louis and its members can do to protect the environment?

Besides lobbying for renewable forms of energy, what else should we be doing? Driving electric cars! Recycling is obvious. Composting less so, but by composting food scraps and plant waste, we not only reduce deposits in landfills by 30% (!), but we greatly reduce landfill production of methane, a noxious greenhouse gas. Methane can hold 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide! And compost is a gift for the soil.

We should stop eating animals, says this guilt-ridden omnivore who has raised–and cooked for–one vegan and one vegetarian.

We need to become lobbyists for the environment pronto. I’ll put in a plug for my favorite online environmental newsletter, Our Daily Planet, which informs me and often manages to cheer me up. 

We should have our elected representatives’ office phone numbers among our contacts so we don’t put off phoning. Calls do make a difference. Legislators’ staff tally the numbers, so make sure your opinion is counted. Since the 2016 election I’ve been chairing the environmental action group for MOmentum: Missouri Moving Forward and, doing this, I learned something that astonished me: while staff keep a record of the yeas and nays on legislation that come in via phone and email, it takes very few pieces of handwritten postal mail to get a file opened on an issue you care about. Pre-pandemic, at the end of an action group meeting, those in attendance would write (blue ink preferred) postcards to legislators and CEOs on issues we had discussed. And some of us received personal replies.

It’s important to recognize that the efforts of a small number of individuals can yield big returns. Back in 2007, I was one of about a dozen who came together to resist the 99-year “lease” of a chunk of Forest Park to the BJC hospital main campus for construction purposes. A faux emergency clause was attached to the bill authorizing the transfer so we were unable to stop the authorization, but we mounted an initiative petition drive to change the St. Louis City Charter to prevent any further parkland from being sold or “leased” without a vote of the people. That proposition was passed by 2/3 of the City voters and, years later, after the defeat of the mammoth hockey complex planned for Creve Coeur Lake Park (but not before the bulldozing of 40 acres of rolling fields and mature trees), St. Louis County followed suit. County and City residents alike turned out at County Council meetings to protest the destruction of valuable open space for non-park purposes and the measure passed handily. You can fight City Hall. You can fight Congress. You can fight for environmental justice and sustainability. A small group of determined folks can make a big difference.

This is too long, but it’s not my fault. There were too many good questions.

2 Comments on “Ally Spotlight: Margaret Hermes, Missouri Coalition for the Environment

  1. Margaret, thank you for your years of environmental and peace activism. But, particularly for linking the MCE CAFO map of Missouri in the article about you. The map is stunning in its revelation of the current extent of CAFOs already sited in Mo. The Republican lead Missouri legislature is constantly seeking more legislative pathways for CAFO development in Mo. and the undermining of Missouri’s already weak environmental laws and regulations.

  2. Thank you, Barbara. Isn’t that CAFO map terrific? Yes, the Republican trifecta (governor and majorities in both State House and Senate) is not good for the environment of Missouri. I think we need to be doing a better job of connecting with folks outside of the cities. Someday (when I retire?) I would like to get involved with the Missouri Rural Crisis Center https://morural.org/ and their network of sustainable family farms and their campaigns against CAFOs and for access to quality healthcare for all Missourians. The current Republican effort to thwart our state’s constitution-mandated expansion of Medicaid is outrageous!

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