Dmitriy T.M. sent in a link to a 13-minute video in which Van Jones discusses the problems with patting ourselves on the back too much every time we put a plastic bottle in the recycle bin instead of the trash, and the need to recognize the link between environmental concerns and other social issues:
Also see our posts on the race between energy efficiency and consumption, exposure to environmental toxins and social class, race and exposure to toxic-release facilities, reframing the environmental movement, tracking garbage in the ocean, mountains of waste waiting to be recycled, framing anti-immigration as pro-environment, and conspicuous environmentalism.
Full transcript after the jump, thanks to thewhatifgirl.
I am honored to be here and I am honored to talk about this topic, which I think is of great importance. We’ve been talking a lot about the horrific impacts of plastic on the planet and on other species, but plastic hurts people too, especially poor people. Both in the production of plastic, the use of plastic, and the disposal of plastic, people who have the bulls eye on their foreheads are poor people.
People got very upset when the BP oil spill happened, for very good reason. People thought about, ‘Oh my god, this is terrible, this is oil, it’s in the water, it’s going to destroy the living systems there, people are going to be hurt. This is a terrible thing, this oil is going to hurt the people in the Gulf.’
What people don’t think about is, what if the oil had made it safely to shore? What if the oil had actually got where it was trying to go? Not only would it have been burned in engines and added to global warming, but there’s a place called Cancer Alley, and the reason it’s called Cancer Alley is because the petrochemical industry takes that oil and turns it into plastic. The process kills people and shortens the lives of people who live there in the Gulf. So oil and petrochemicals are not just a problem when there’s a spill, there’re a problem when there’s not. What we don’t often appreciate is the price that poor people pay for us to have these disposable products. The other thing we don’t often appreciate is that it’s not just at the point of production that poor people suffer, poor people also suffer at the point of use.
Those of us who are of a certain income level, we have something called ‘choice’. The reason you want to work hard, and have a job, and not be poor, and broke, is so you can have choices, economic choices. We actually get to choose not to use products that have dangerous and poisonous products in them. Other people, who are poor, don’t have those choices. So low-income people are often the ones buying those products that have the dangerous chemicals in them, their children are using [them]. Those people wind up ingesting a disproportionate amount of this poisonous (plastic?). People say they should just buy a different product. The problem with being poor is you don’t have those choices, you often have to buy the cheapest products, the cheapest products are often the most dangerous.
If that weren’t bad enough, if it weren’t just the production of plastic that’s giving people cancer in places like Cancer Alley and shortening people’s lives and hurting poor kids at the point of use, at the point of disposal once again its poor people who bear the burden. Often, we think we’re doing a good thing. You know, you’re in your office, you’re drinking your bottle of water, whatever it is, you say to yourself, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw this away. No, I’m going to be virtuous, I’m going to put it in the blue bin. I put mine in the blue bin.’ And then you look at your colleagues, you know, ‘You cretin, you put yours in the white bin. You know, you feel a moral tickle, you feel so good about yourself.’ But if we – maybe (??) not you, but I feel this way often. You know, and we kind of have this sort of moral, feel-good moment but if we were able to follow that little bottle on its journey, we would be shocked to discover that all too often, that bottle is going to be put on a boat, it’s going to go all the way across the ocean at some expense and it’s going to wind up in a developing country off of China.
I think in our minds we think that someone’s going to take the little bottle. ‘Oh little bottle,’ you know, ‘we’re so happy to see you, little bottle. You’ve served so well.’ They give it a little bottle massage, a little bottle medal, you know, and ‘what would you like to do next?’ The little bottle is all, ‘I just don’t know’, you know. But that’s not actually what happens. That bottle winds up getting burnt. Recycling of plastic in many developing countries means the incineration of plastic, the burning of the plastic, which releases incredible toxic chemicals and once again kills people.
And so poor people who are making these products in petrochemical centers like Cancer Alley, poor people who are consuming these products disprportionately, and then even poor people who are at the tail end of the recycling are having their lives shortened, are all being harmed greatly by this addiction we have to disposability.
You think to yourself, because I know how you are, you say, ‘That sure is terrible. For those poor people. It’s just awful, those poor people. I hope someone does something to help them.’ But what we don’t understand is, here we are in Los Angeles, we’ve worked very hard to get the smog reduction happening in Los Angeles, but guess what? Since they’re doing so much dirty production in Asian [countries], because environmental laws don’t protect the people in Asian [countries], almost all of the clean air gains, the toxic air gains that we’ve achieved here in California have been wiped out by dirty air coming over from Asia.
So we all are being hit, we all are being impacted, it’s just the poor people get it first and worst. The dirty production, the burning of toxins, the lack of environmental standards in Asia is actually creating so much dirty air pollution, it is coming across the ocean and it has erased our gains here in California. We’re back where we were in the 1970s. And so we’re on one planet, and we have to be able to get to the root of these problems.
The root of this problem in my view is the idea of disposability itself. If you understand the link between what we’re doing to poison and pollute the planet, and what we’re doing to poor people, you arrive at a very troubling but also very helpful insight: in order to trash the planet, you have to trash people. But if you create a world where you don’t trash people, you don’t trash the planet. So it’s really, we’re at a moment now where the coming together of social justice as an idea and ecology as an idea, we can finally see that they are really at the end of the day the same idea, and it’s the idea that we don’t have disposable anything. We don’t have disposable resources, we don’t have disposable species, and we don’t have disposable people either. We don’t have a throw-away planet and we don’t have throw-away children, it’s all precious. And as we all begin to come back to that basic understanding, new opportunities for action begin to emerge.
Biomimicry, which is somethiing that is an emerging science, winds up being a very important social justic idea. To the people who are just learning about this, biomimicry is respecting the wisdom of all species. Democracy, by tthe way, means respecting the wisdom of all people, and we’ll get to that, but biomimicry means respecting the wisdom of all species. It turns out, you know, we’re a pretty clever species, there’s this big cortex or whatever, we’re pretty proud of ourselves, but if we want to make something hard, you know, ‘I know, I’m going to make a hard substance. I know, I’m going to get vacuums and furnaces and drag stuff out of the ground, get stuff hot and poison and pollute, but I’ve got this hard thing! I’m so clever!’ You look behind you and there’s distruction all around you. But guess what. You’re so clever but you’re not as clever as a clam. A clamshell’s hard. There’s no vacuums, there’s no big furnaces, there’s no poison, there’s no pollution. It turns out that another species has figured out a long time ago how to create many of the things we need using biological processes that nature knows how to use well. That insight of biomimicry, that insight of our scientists finally realizing that we have as much to learn from other species – I don’t mean, you know, taking a mouse and sticking it with stuff, you know, I don’t mean learning from them that way, abusing the little species, you know, actually respecting them, respecting what they’ve achieved. That’s called biomimicry, and that opens the door to zero waste production, zero pollution production, that we could actually enjoy a high quality of life, a high standard of living without trashing the planet. Well, that idea of biomimicry, of respecting the wisdom of all species, combined with the idea of democracy, of social justice, respecting the wisdom and the worth of all people, would give us a different society. We would have a different economy. We would have a green society that Dr. King would be proud of.
That should be the goal. And the way that we get there is to first of all recognize that the idea of disposability not only hurts the species we’ve talked about but it even corrupts our own society. We’re so proud to live here in California. We just had this vote and everyone’s like, ‘Well, not in our state. I don’t know what those other states were doing but….’ You know, just so proud. And you know, I’m proud too. But California, even though we lead the world in some of the green stuff, we lead the world in some of the gulag stuff. California has one of the highest incarceration rates of all the 50 states, so we have a moral challenge in all this movement. We’re passionate about rescuing some dead materials from the landfill but sometimes not as passionate about rescuing living beings, living people. And I would say that, we live in a country, 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s greenhouse gasses, but also 25% of the world’s prisoners. One out of every 4 people locked up anywhere in the world is locked up right here in the United States. That is consistent with this idea that disposability is something that we believe in.
And yet, as a movement that has to broaden its constituency, that has to grow, that has to reach out beyond our natural comfort zone, one of the challenges to the success of this movement, to getting rid of things like plastic and helping the economy shift is that people look at our movement with some suspicion. They ask a question and the question is, how can these people be so passionate, a poor person, a low-income person, somebody in Cancer Alley, somebody in Watts, somebody in Harlem, somebody on an Indian reservation might say to themselves – and rightfully so – how can these people be so passionate about making sure that a plastic bottle has a second chance in life, an aluminum can has a second chance, and yet when my child gets in trouble and goes to prison, he doesn’t get a second chance. How can this movement be so passionate about saying we don’t have throw-away stuff, you don’t throw away dead materials, and yet accept throw-away lives and throw-away communities like Cancer Alley.
And so we now get a chance to be truly proud of this movement. When we take on topics like this, it gives us that extra call to reach out to other movements and to become more inclusive and to grow. And we can finally get out of this crazy dilemma that we’ve been in.
Most of you are good soft-hearted people. When you’re younger, you cared about the whole world and at some point, somebody said you had to pick an issue, right? You had to boil your love down to an issue. Can’t love the whole world, you ‘ve got to work on trees or you’ve got to work on immigration, you’ve got to shrink it down to be about one issue. And really, they fundamentally told you, are you going to hug a tree, or are you going to hug a child? Pick! Are you going to hug a tree, or are you going to hug a child? Pick! Well, when you start working issues like plastic, you realize that the whole thing is connected, and luckily most of us are blessed to have 2 arms. We can hug both. Thank you very much.