Van Jones spoke at a TED event in Santa Monica in November, about the economic injustice of plastic, and the culture of disposability that permeates our society. He brings up a really interesting point when he compares the person who recycles their plastic water bottles and the person who throws them away. Typically, the person who recycles their bottle will feel satisfied that they are doing their part for the environment. However, the cost of plastic manufacture and recycling are borne by the poor of the world. The stretch of American known as ‘Cancer Alley,’ along 85 miles of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, produces plastic and petrochemicals, and has disproportionately high cancer rates. Van Jones points out that plastic is often shipped to China for recycling, where more poor people process it. When we satisfy our thirst conveniently with disposable containers, there are costs borne outside of the direct transaction, what economists call externalities.
However, our culture celebrates convenience and consumption, and many of us don’t understand the true costs of how we live. Bill Gerlach talks about Mindful Consumption in his blog, The New Pursuit. He writes about restoring our balance with the natural world, and becoming present to our lives, the world around us, and our place in it. He offers some helpful strategies for mindful consumption, including buying less plastic, single-tasking, and pausing before making a purchase. Becoming more mindful is difficult in today’s world, with the litany of communication media, and our go-go-go lifestyles. However, we have crucially lost touch with what it is that makes us human. Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth, was a Catholic priest and a deep ecologist. He wrote that our culture is distorted, and is “the origin of the deteriorating influence that we have on the life systems of the Earth.” We would be smart to rethink our throwaway culture, because honestly, there is no ‘away.’