Steingraber is hardly a newcomer to the environmental scene: people have been comparing the former biology professor to Rachel Carson since 1997, when she published Living Downstream. The book examines how illness is linked to pollution, and it grew out of Steingraber's experiences battling a form of bladder cancer that may have been caused by industrial runoff.
But over the past three years, Steingraber, 54, has emerged as one of the country's top experts on the hot-button issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. And here's the really surprising thing: at a time when everyone from big green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council to President Obama is touting America's newfound natural-gas glut as a bridge to energy independence, Steingraber has prevailed in her efforts to keep the process out of her home state.
In 2011, she received a $100,000 Heinz Award for her human-rights approach to the environmental crisis. At the time, it appeared that New York governor Andrew Cuomo was moments away from lifting a moratorium on fracking, so Steingraber used her prize money to help start the nonprofit New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition that includes thousands of members, from farmers to mothers to actor Mark Ruffalo. In 2012, she starred in the antifracking film Dear Governor Cuomo, which raised pressure on the state government. In March, she was jailed for blocking the entrance to a gas compressor station. A month later she published Raising Elijah, about how environmental issues like gas development will affect future generations. Meanwhile, the push to frack New York remains stalled. Cuomo has yet to lift the moratorium, and companies like Chesapeake Energy have started pulling out of the state.
There may be bigger names in the fracking debate—Josh Fox and Ruffalo come to mind—but none of them are as uncompromising or informed. "The data is showing us that we're killing our planet and killing our children," she says. "And scientists have a moral position to make sure that the data makes a difference."
The list of recent documentaries that have fundamentally altered public attitudes about an important issue is short: The Cove, Super Size Me, Chasing Ice. Add to it Walker's The Crash Reel, which opens in theaters across the country this month. The film, a feature about snowboarder Kevin Pearce's recovery from a traumatic brain injury, makes an unassailable case that action sports are as dangerous as the NFL—and promises to change the way we see the X Games, super-pipes, and the very concept of big air.
"It's like we were breaking a story," says Walker. "There were a lot of things that we realized nobody had talked about before." Among them: an almost willful ignorance about the symptoms of head injuries and their prevalence in the action-sports community, the woeful lack of health insurance among athletes, and the complicity of the industry in pushing people like Pearce to risky heights.
The Crash Reel introduces us to Pearce when he's a fun-loving star primed to rival Shaun White as the world's greatest snowboarder. Then he suffers a brain injury on a Park City, Utah, halfpipe while training for the Vancouver Olympics, and everything about him, from his mental capacity to his disposition, changes. Walker spares us nothing, showing the accident over and over, going inside Pearce's Vermont home as his family helps him recover, and following him as he attempts to snowboard again. (His agent, Lowell Taub, gives Pearce detailed instructions on what to wear during his ceremonial return: "Nike gets a three-inch sticker on your helmet.") Walker also tackles the death of freeskier Sarah Burke, whose family faced a six-figure medical bill after she hit her head on the same Park City halfpipe where Pearce fell. The effect is brutal, which is the point.
"How come action-sports athletes aren't insured?" Walker asks. "I mean, how is that possible?"
Most important, Walker turns the clichéd sports comeback story on its head, making a convincing case that the most heroic thing you can do after a serious brain injury isn't to return to competition. Rather, it's to be selfless enough to walk away for the sake of your family.
Since finding this story, Walker has taken an active role in the issue of brain injuries, starting a nonprofit campaign called Love Your Brain together with the Pearce Family. (She also turned us on to the issue and helped spark our investigative report "After the Crash," which appears on page 68.) Walker has been nominated for two Oscars for her previous work (Waste Landand "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom"). If there's any justice in Hollywood, she'll be thanking the Pearce family from the podium in March.
"The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is one of the biggest wealth-creation opportunities of our time," says 32-year-old Solar Mosaic cofounder Billy Parish, "and we all should be part of it." Does that sound like a hard sell? Or a Pollyannaish one? Consider that since Parish officially launched Mosaic in January, the company, which acts as a bank to vet and back solar projects, has attracted $5 million in capital from more than 2,000 investors. Those who wish to do good and turn a profit can just go to Mosaic's website, sign up, and commit increments of $25 to projects as small as a 645-kilowatt bee farm in California and as large as a 55,000-panel solar installment on a military housing development in New Jersey. The investments are illiquid, meaning you can't pull your funds out for a fixed period of time, and projected returns are in the 4 percent to 7 percent range—competitive with many mutual funds. Best of all? You get to visit the projects you invest in.
"There's a big gap between 'Click the link to send an e-mail to your congressman' and 'Chain yourself to the White House,' " says Parish, who dropped out of Yale and later founded the Energy Action Coalition, an activist group. "We're doing something nobody has been able to do before," says Parish, "allowing people to invest directly in clean-energy projects."
Parish and a partner, Dan Rosen, ran the company with seed money from their parents before attracting angel investors and a Department of Energy grant. Mosaic negotiates the complex regulatory processes for investors and vets solar projects pitched by developers, just as a bank would. Then it makes a crowd-funded loan and skims 1 percent of the profits for itself. Despite public hand-wringing over solar tied to the failure of Solyndra, experts say Mosaic is arriving at a good time: solar-module prices have dropped by 80 percent in the past four years, so it's easier than ever to fund projects.
"There's no one else like Mosaic, so people in the industry are really intrigued," says Jigar Shah, a consultant and investor who was CEO of the solar utility Sun Edison for five years. "No one is sure if it's for real or not—they haven't even deployed $10 million yet—but the opportunity is there. It's all about whether or not they execute."
Parish isn't concerned about that. "Solar will outcompete other technologies," he says. "It's happening so fast, I don't see any fossil fuels being able to compete anytime soon."
IN JULY, nearly 300,000 people tuned in live on ESPN2 to watch 26-year-old Rich Froning and 31-year-old Samantha Briggs win the Reebok CrossFit Games, the last two standing after out-muscling 138,000 global participants in three rounds of competition. For their efforts, which included CrossFit mainstays like burpees and deadlifts, Froning and Briggs walked away with $275,000 each and the title Fittest on Earth—at least according to CrossFit.
Buoyed by the games, CrossFit's high-intensity workouts have exploded in popularity. There are now roughly 10,000 CrossFit-branded affiliate gyms—or boxes, as they're called—around the world. But behind the competitive, puke-inducing workouts is a growing list of injured participants, many of whom suffer from telltale injuries: slipped disks, torn rotator cuffs, knee tendinopathy. Neither the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) nor any other association tracks injury rates, but Robert Hayden, a Georgia chiropractor and spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association, says he has noticed a rise in CrossFit patients over the past two years. "Among my colleagues, we often share the anecdotal observation that CrossFit is good for our practices," says Hayden.
Blame the nature of the training. Most Workout of the Day routines (WODs, as CrossFit disciples refer to them) include Olympic lifts like squats and power cleans, which require near perfect form to prevent undue strain. Newbies rarely have the stamina or guidance to maintain that form. Combine that with the high number of reps and it's a recipe for injury.
"If you have a preexisting condition—an old ACL tear, tendon damage, or a slipped disk—this kind of exercise will bring it to the surface," says Hayden.
This isn't the first time CrossFit has been in the injury spotlight. Early on, it earned a reputation for being so intense that it could induce rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition in which muscle tissue breaks down and is released into the bloodstream. But this time the focus is on musculoskeletal issues. This summer, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Researchpublished a study showing eye-popping fitness gains among CrossFitters, with participants in a ten-week program boosting their VO2 max by roughly four points. But the study also revealed a troubling statistic: 16 percent of the 54 participants had quit the program due to "overuse or injury." In 2011, the U.S. military, in conjunction with the ACSM, advised soldiers to avoid CrossFit, citing "disproportionate musculo-skeletal injury risk."
In both cases, CrossFit representatives waged a counteroffensive. Reacting to the military findings, CrossFit's chief scientist, Jeff Glassman—father of CrossFit founder Greg Glassman—wrote a 92-page rebuttal that attributed the rise in injuries in part to fatigue from the war on terror.
In CrossFit's defense, the organization goes out of its way to warn people that if they can't maintain proper technique, they should back off. But backing off is a hard sell for many participants, who view the workouts as a competition, especially now that the CrossFit Games are so popular—participation is up more than 400 percent since 2011.
"This year it seemed like everyone at my box was getting ready for the local competition," says 32-year-old former college gymnast Emily Carothers, of Maple Valley, Washington, who finished 23rd at this summer's games. "Many of them were pushing themselves harder than they should have."
Perhaps that's the root cause. Practicing good technique, working around your weaknesses, and staying within your limits doesn't always happen when you're stampeding to beat the next guy. If, however, you approach CrossFit as a sport, complete with cycles of increased workloads and periods of rest and recovery—not to mention an off-season—you can develop a much healthier approach. Carothers already treats it that way.
"I've been doing CrossFit for three and a half years, and I've only had one injury, to my hip," she says. "When I was in college, I had nine surgeries in four years. As far as sports are concerned, CrossFit looks pretty good."