Our culture of disposability, and its costs

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.’

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Bioneers by the Bay, and the Marion Institute ROCK!

This weekend I attended an amazing event:  CONNECTING FOR CHANGE: A Bioneers by the Bay Conference Presented by the Marion Institute.  After a fantastic weekend at Bioneers, I am recharged and motivated.  Some of the best minds of our generation spoke to the 2000 folks, young and old, who spent the weekend at the conference.  Van Jones, one of the Friday keynote speakers, spoke about an optimism he had, and exhorted the audience to not be down.  In a memorable section, he compared hope to the desire to lose weight, and change to actually doing the work, day in and day out, to lose weight.  Change is hard work, he said.  Despite only spending six months working in the White House, Jones said it was still a fantastic opportunity to see how decisions are made behind the curtain.

One theme that was touched on by both Alan Khazei, founder of City Year, and Annie Leonard, creator of The Story of Stuff, was relearning what it means to be a citizen.  Leonard said that we are not going to create a sustainable society by shopping, but rather, by working together and building community.  Leonard later ran a workshop, in which she discusses principles of systems thinking, and engaged the audience to suggest leverage points where sustainability can be fostered.  Khazei’s recent book, Big Citizenship, is one I am looking forward to reading.

Several successful entrepreneurs spoke about their successes; Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea, discussed Coca-Cola, organic tea, and the company’s recent guerilla marketing strategy; Eric Henry, creator of the sustainable company Cotton of the Carolinas, spoke of the challenges of growing both local and organic cotton, and a new business model called ‘Dirt to Shirt in 750 miles.’  David de Rothschild gave a keynote address about the Plastiki project, where he recently took a sailboat created from plastic bottles  across the Pacific; Rothschild then ran a workshop for a group of 20 of us about how to create successful guerilla marketing campaigns.  Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, and builder of schools in Afghanistan, spoke about his efforts, and produced a sustained two minute standing ovation.

There were several contributions from Rhode Island, as well.  Adeola Oredola, Executive Director of Youth In Action, a non-profit organization run by Providence teenagers, spoke about her own upbringing in Providence, and the reason she remains committed to improving the lives of children in her Washington Park community. Providence residents Michalle Saintil and Rudy Cabrera both performed some of their inspiring spoken word verse.

Bioneers is so big that one cannot experience the entire conference: at any one point there are simultaneous workshops and speakers, plus local businesses and demonstrations.  The Marion Institute, organizers of the conference, did an amazing job.  One of my favorite opportunities was lunch, catered by a local restaurant, with opportunities to engage fellow conference goers and speakers in conversation.  The atmosphere was intimate and open.   I made lots of exciting connections.

One moment of the conference shocked me and gave me pause.  One of my biggest inspirations, and a leading figure in changing the way we consume, told us that they recently received death threats and are under FBI protection, after ongoing criticism by Glen Beck.  I don’t want to mention the name here, but it reminded me both about the seriousness of the problems we face, and the power of those that resist change.  However, listening to Greg Mortenson, Diane Wilson, Alan Khezi, Van Jones, David De Rothschild and Annie Leonard speak about what they as individuals have accomplished, it was clear to me that we all have power to make a big difference, if we can only get the courage to take the first step.

I can’t wait until next year!