Pollution by Amelia Shenstone
I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “when you throw something away, where is away?”
I’m not an expert in plastic disposal, but I spend 40 (plus) hours a week fighting energy choices that similarly assume we can take something from the earth, process it in an incredibly damaging way, use it up, and put the waste… away.
Let’s take coal as an example. When coal is burned, it emits chemicals into the air that cause smog and give kids asthma. It blows mercury into the air, which then deposits on the land, is washed into the water, eaten by tiny critters, and eventually accumulates in fish that we eat, resulting in birth defects (this is why women are advised to limit consumption of certain fish).
That air pollution impacted enough people with some political clout that we got rules saying coal-fired plants have to put better controls on their smokestacks. But now we have a bunch of crud that we’ve collected from the smokestacks.
No problem. We just wash it out of the equipment with water, direct the water to a big holding lagoon, let the crud settle out, and dump the water that’s been in contact with the toxic pollution back into the river or lake from whence it came.
Doing so is relatively simple, because we, here, in America, have actually been doing it for decades with the solid toxic ash that’s left over from coal burning, ash that wasn’t going to go out of the smokestack anyway. This ash contains concentrated amounts of the heavy metals that occur naturally in coal, things like arsenic, selenium, lead, boron, even some radioactive material, and chromium (the pollutant made famous by Erin Brockovich). In fact there’s enough ash sludge and wastewater in Georgia to fill 81 Empire State Buildings. It’s the second largest industrial waste stream nationally.
And now the toxic ash waste going into these sludge lagoons also has the toxic crud we took out of the air.
My organization and many others are pushing to finally clean up these ash pits, and it’s not a moment too soon, as they’ve been known to spill or break through the earthen dikes that hold them. Plus, they’re usually located right next to rivers, and most don’t have liners keeping the ash separate from groundwater.
Cleaning up this coal waste, much of which can’t be recycled, by putting it in a lined, dry facility away from water bodies is an essential step in the right direction.
But where should those landfills be? Nobody wants one in their back yard. And here we are, in the imaginary land of… away.
A moment ago in the video, Van Jones pointed to what he calls “our addiction to disposability.” It’s the idea that there are things that serve us without a fair exchange. We can make something, use it once or for a while, and when we’re done with it, it goes somewhere where it’s not our problem anymore.
I love how Jones forces us to confront the fact that we use “away” to mean something imaginary by actually playing out where we might be telling ourselves a plastic bottle goes. It doesn’t always have a great second career. In fact, it likely goes to a place for disposable things, inhabited by people we have also learned to treat as disposable, and where it has a toxic impact on all of us.
Let’s pause for a moment here. I want to encourage you to notice any emotions you might be having as I’m talking about this idea of “away.” Are you feeling guilty? Or maybe irritated with me for bringing up a problem you know exists, that those pesky environmentalists can’t seem to let go of? Or simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem? Or maybe this is painful for you, because you or someone you love has been sickened by pollution. Maybe it makes you angry.
I sometimes feel all these things when I really stop to think about where a piece of plastic goes, or the truth behind where electricity comes from.
However you’re feeling, I want to encourage you to sit with that for a moment. Because I want to look at the other hard question Van Jones brings up, before I share some reflections about what to do with these feelings. So let’s take a deep breath, close your eyes if you like, and use these next few seconds to just check in with yourself. [10-second pause]
The other question that goes along with, “where is away” is, “who lives there?”
There is no imaginary away. “Away” is very real, and it is more real for some groups of people than for others. Disposability harms all of us and I don’t want to minimize that. And it follows familiar patterns about whose life matters, and whose is treated as though it doesn’t.
Van Jones mentions Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River in Louisiana, with a predominantly low-income and African-American population. According to the NAACP’s “Just Energy Policies” report, “African-Americans who reside near energy production facilities including coal fired power plants, nuclear power plants, or biomass power plants, are more likely to suffer the negative health impacts of prolonged exposure to smog, lead, asbestos, mercury, arsenic, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other toxins than any other group of Americans.” An African-American child is three times as likely to go to the hospital, and twice as likely to die, from an asthma attack than a white American child.
Just this week a new NAACP report found that African-Americans, Latinx or Hispanic households, and the elderly are more likely to have their power cut off due to inability to pay, often without exemptions for when the power is needed for medical devices, or for the hottest and coldest days of the year.
The story gets worse when we bring in climate change. It carries a steep price for those with the least ability to keep the air conditioning on as each year is hotter than the last, or the resources to evacuate and rebuild after extreme storms. Nationally and internationally, people of color and poor people are already bearing the brunt of climate change, another consequence of our addiction to one-time-use fossil fuels.
People living in these poor communities and communities of color coined the term “environmental justice” by the early ‘90s and it’s been widely adopted since then. It describes the pattern of disproportionate impacts from pollution falling on the same communities that have been oppressed in economic and cultural systems of colonialism and white supremacy.
It’s no coincidence that the current administration wants to eliminate the EPA Office of Environmental Justice. The administration overtly prioritizes profit over addressing pollution, while dismissing the role that racism and white supremacy still play in our society.
For me, facing the vast and growing damage of pollution feels similarly uncomfortable to facing racism, as a person socialized to think and act White. It’s that same discomfort of acknowledging my participation in a system that is out of line with my values. That same guilt, irritation, feeling of being overwhelmed, the same anger.
Even worse, my ordinary response to a problem – to jump up and fix it – doesn’t exactly apply to systemic problems like pollution and white supremacy. If I take that approach alone, I’ll quickly succumb to burnout from having my efforts frustrated.
So I frequently ask myself what my role is, as a person of conscience living within an inescapable system that privileges some at the expense of others, and harms us all.
Every encounter I have that reminds me of this system renews my sense of spiritual pollution, if you will. So first, I try to take responsibility for my own spirit to the degree that’s within my power. For me, meditation and conversations with friends are helpful frameworks to do this, but there are lots of ways to check in, including prayer, journaling, and taking a walk.
As I asked us to do together a moment ago, I make time and space to name my emotions, to experience them fully, and to try to understand what unmet need they arise from. Guilt is a wake-up call. Anger can motivate me. Frustration warns me I’m moving at a different speed from the people I’m in conversation with. I feel joy when something happens to subvert the system.
Another way I respond to the challenge of confronting systems I can’t control is by bearing witness – naming the problem. UUCA’s big recent example of this is our Anti-Racism, Anti-Oppression, Multiculturalism – ARAOMC resolution last year. We also have older examples of our commitment to reducing environmental pollution. Bearing witness is an ongoing process of knowing someone or something deeply, including ourselves, and sharing it in a consensual way. By consensual, I mean amplifying a story upon request, rather than appropriating it.
One of the things I heard from people in New Orleans when I volunteered there after Hurricane Katrina was that my volunteer labor, while appreciated, was miniscule in impact compared to what they really asked for: that I tell their story. My speaking here today traces back to that request.
Bearing witness also means being curious about myself. I need to be able to name the manifestations of privilege and oppression in my own psyche before I have any hope of learning new ways to think and act.
Another important part of living in a world confounded by an “addiction to disposability” is to minimize my personal participation as much as I can. I install energy-efficient fixtures and turn off lights. I ride my bicycle or the train when I can. I compost my food at my local community garden and bring my reusable bags to the grocery store most of the time. By the way, if you are thinking you would like to refresh your commitment to this kind of action, please visit the youth group table in the social hall this month and sign up for their Earth Day challenge.
Likewise in the racial justice space, I try to minimize my personal harmful impact by educating myself about microaggressions through myriad online resources, and through the Beloved Conversations group here at UUCA. I requested my job send me for professional development to a training where we practiced what to do when we or someone else have consciously or unconsciously treated a person as disposable.
Social entrepreneur Hillary Strobel gave this great analogy on Facebook last year that really put things in perspective for me. She was addressing an all-too-common instance of a white person denying that white privilege applied to them, or perhaps existed at all, because they did not create the problem of racism, and therefore should not be made to feel like a bad person because of it. She actually used climate change as her analogy.
Hillary says, “You didn’t “create” global warming, and are therefore not a “bad person” because global warming exists. But you drove a car today, or shopped at wal-mart, or ran an air conditioner. You did contribute in the course of your daily life, but not because you suck. You did what the system is built to support. So perhaps it’s time to create a different system?” That’s what Hillary says.
I hold myself to a high standard, but I know there are just some things I can’t avoid doing, and neither can the people around me. We have to be patient with ourselves and each other because we’re all going to make mistakes and fail to act in ways consistent with our values. How could it be any other way within a system built on disposability of things and of people?
So to change that system, I need to get together with lots of other people and change institutions. Things like advocating to stop burning coal and creating coal ash in the first place. Or deploying my wealth to support better policies and leaders that will make Atlanta a true sanctuary for everyone we claim to welcome. Or learning how to be a peace marshal and showing up at protests against xenophobic, inhumane immigration policies.
Opportunities to engage in systemic change abound, and I will post some suggestions on the City later. Perhaps you’ll want to join up with UUCA’s new Combat Climate Change group, or Atlanta’s all-volunteer Showing Up for Racial Justice, or “SURJ” chapter. Of you might travel to Washington, DC for the March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice.
If you were here last week, you heard Rev. Makar teach us some breathing exercises to keep our cool in inescapable traffic, and use the time for a little personal check-in. Little did he know how badly we’d need them! I’m down with that. When I’m in traffic, I’m all about the calm… most of the time.
But meanwhile I’m thinking about how I can ride my bike or ride MARTA next time. And about collective action for institutional changes like advocacy for better transit and walkable, affordable development that’s available and accessible to all.
Finally, when I think about my role as a person of conscience confronting my participation in systems that are contrary to my values, the lesson I’m most grateful for comes to me from New Orleans. It’s also part of every successful social justice movement in history: find joy in the struggle.
New Orleans is home to another bumper sticker: “We put the FUN in Funeral.” It’s all about balance. We need each other to be here for the long haul, so eat, dance, love, and get funky.
Riding my bike feels like flying. I have friendly neighbors I wouldn’t have met if I weren’t taking my compost to the garden. I made some of my best friends, connected with dear partners, and earned valuable mentorship in the process of showing up for racial and environmental justice. What’s out there for you?
None of us are disposable. Let’s live like it.