Earth Day has some of my friends and colleagues thinking about sustainability. The topic will challenge our children and theirs because of the Three-Headed Monster — Citizens, Commerce and Congress. Here’s how we’ll solve it.
When most people think of sustainability they think, “What can I do to make things better?” Until now, we’ve seen this as an individual’s buffet of choice, like voting or religion. Below, I give three examples from first-person points of view that generally categorize how many people view themselves with regards to sustainability and recycling.
Why Bother? The world is going to hell in a hand basket.
We are the ones who put actual garbage into the recycle bin. We don’t distinguish because we are powerless. We also believe recyclers are ridiculous snobs who think they’re better than everyone else, when all they’re doing is putting a finger in a dike ready to collapse. “There’s no point, so I’m just going to live my life in convenience. Screw what the Goody-McGoodertons think.”
I do what I can, but I’m busy.
We will use the recycle bin, but see trying to pick up every piece of trash as implausible. We don’t want to be perceived as uncaring about the environment, so if someone puts out a recycle bin, we’ll use it. We might even take some time to learn what our local facility can recycle. But we’re as likely to toss that aluminum can in the trash if a recycle bin isn’t available, because, “I’ve got two cranky kids in a double stroller that need food now, and one kid that needs to get to coding camp across town, and I’m not going out of my way because life.” Don’t you raise your eyebrow at me — I’m trying.
I recycle, I bicycle, I’m zero waste.
How can others not see how important it is to save our planet? It’s only an uphill battle because we’re not all pulling together. We can do this. “No, I don’t think I’m better than you, but if you intentionally throw trash on the ground, this will be our last date. I’m not tilting at windmills. I’m really not.”
These, among others are individual choices. To some extent I’ve trivialized and stereotyped for reader amusement. But individual citizens are not the only players on the board. Worse, the other players actively deflect attention back onto individuals hoping we won’t notice them lurking. Who are the players?
The Three Heads of the Monster
Trying to get humans to coordinate requires convenience, education and determination. Still, it’s as if we’re draining water from a filling bucket one spoonful at a time. But individuals can form groups and corporations. We can also vote.
Long ago, corporations began as a way to allow individuals to take a small risk with acceptable loss in a collective manner. You could invest in a ship sailing for trade-goods in America. If the ship sank, you and a few other people you knew each lost a few kroner, but not your life savings. Incorporation is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used for good or bad purpose. Somewhere along the way, corporations became aggressive, but not in ways that are immediately apparent. Over the years, people have been casualties of the corporate machine. One example of bad corporation is a health insurance company that denies claims that are considered mainstream standard practice. They know most people are too sick or too confused by Byzantine processing forms to believe they have power to fix the problem, so the health insurance company makes a windfall profit for investors while keeping sick people from actually getting better. Why? Profit for investors is the main motive of any commercial corporation. Another example is how corporations pay lobbyists to make Congress comply with corporate preferences regardless of the havoc that it may cause to human constituents.
Congress / Legislators
These are the people we elect to represent individuals with regards to law. Currently, our Congress isn’t representing its constituents. It’s representing corporations. How do I know? Our electoral college installed a president and a group of representatives and senators who took money from big businesses to get elected. In return for buying representation, Congress has dismantled almost all legislation that protects citizens, the economy and or environment from corporations. People don’t want that. Corporations do.
Corporations, Non-Profits and our Environment
How did the corporations fool us into feeling guilty about environmental issues? It started with the Iron Eyes Cody television ad first seen on Earthday 1971.
I’m not alone thinking this. Keep America Beautiful (KAB) is a non-profit formed by product-manufacturing corporations to deflect public opinion away from corporate responsibility. For instance, corporations could create reusable containers and products — but they don’t. This corporately-spun ad scolded us like naughty children for littering. Television was new. Most of us had black and white screens and almost none of us had remote controls. We were naive about the effects of mass-media on our citizens. The corporate ploy worked. No longer were we focused on making corporations do the right thing. The onus was somehow now ours. A lot happened with this watershed event.
First, Iron Eyes Cody wasn’t even a little native-American. Second, European “settlers” stole the land from the native-Americans, so the ad exploits an already emotional issue. Third, using native-Americans to frame chastisement of citizens shows gross cultural insensitivity on the part of KAB and its donors. Unfortunately, the ad worked.
The issue should have been more suitably framed around KAB’s corporate donors’ reluctant defiance to create reusable and easily-recyclable containers for their products. Products should also have been designed with an eye toward upgradability and repurposability.
De turba pluribus (Out of the mob, many individuals)
Since that time, we’ve grown used to convenience. We have become not so much citizens as consumers of convenience. The steady flow of ads from corporate commerce keeps us locked into that semi-comfort zone so we’ll remain complacent.
Worse, those same corporations also have lobbyists. Those lobbyists use corporate money to pay for votes from senators and representatives in Congress. Of course we don’t call it that, but payment comes in many forms. After a representative retires from office, he might receive a stipend as a “board member” of some corporate entity. Basically he’ll be paid to do nothing. There might even be a yearly meeting in some tropical paradise. In exchange, a law-loosening restriction on some environmental thing has allowed a particular company to reap a short-term monetary benefit at some unknown long-term social and environmental costs.
Greenwashing is when a commercial or non-profit corporation exists solely to make its donor capital ventures look pro-environmental, even when they’re not. KAB is a perfect example of a corporation created solely to paint sketchy businesses green.
They had us fooled for a while, but no longer. There are a growing number of corporations out there who are not greenwashers and are not buying Congress. Also sometimes, a non-profit corporation will start with good intentions, lose funding and then get bought out by greenwashers, but who has the time to determine whether one group is good or bad for the environment?
What can we do?
Government serves its citizens. When it serves corporations to the detriment of its citizens, that government is no longer serving citizens. We need to vote out all incumbents and replace them with public servants who will actually serve the citizens. But there’s a problem.
Socialism is stigmatized in our current political environment. Unfortunately, it’s a bad rap. Every government that truly serves its citizens is inherently to some degree socialist. It’s why we have can have roads that are standardized across the entire country, and why we know the rules for driving in all fifty states. It’s why those roads don’t have pot holes and why there are bridges that don’t collapse. It’s why we can pick up a box of 1/2-inch carriage bolts at Home Depot or Lowes or Ace Hardware and know that it will fit perfectly with the box of carriage bolt nuts that came from another store fifty years ago. Imagine you’re a fire fighter in one county and you are needed the next county over to put out a massive four-story fire. You couldn’t help if your hoses don’t fit their hydrants. That’s what good government does. That’s socialism at work. But why am I bringing up socialism? Because socialism means taxes. Taxes pay for the standards that we expect.
I’m not a Nixon fan, but he knew that if we didn’t pass legislation to clean up the environment, our grand-kids were going to have a really bad inheritance. Passing so many environmental laws was a socialist move. Yet Nixon was a stolid Republican. While he was also a paranoid autocrat, he passed key legislation. Our current Congress is the opposite of socialist. They’re actively dismantling all the environmental legislation that stopped our trees and buildings from becoming covered with soot. If you’re younger than 50, you won’t remember soot-covered buildings in New York City or London. You won’t remember rivers on fire or oil slicks in our estuaries and waterways. You won’t remember the mass fish die-offs. Our nation’s environment was dying. Two generations after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, now that it looks healthier, Congress has also “conveniently” forgotten at the behest of Big Biz.
People don’t know our environmental protection is being dismantled because it’s not in the press. It’s not in the news because the same corporations that own Congress also own the news media. Instead we learn about unpresidential tweets and who is going to get fired next at the White House. All of this “news” is deflecting from the real issues like selling off National Park resources, dismantling net neutrality and shutting down Meals on Wheels.
We can fix this. Socialism protects citizens from overbearing commercial enterprise. If you don’t like plastic straws, then get Congress to pass a law that makes disposable straws illegal nationwide. Make it so that straws have to be made of metal or some compostable material like wood, bamboo or cardboard.
If you want reusable containers, get Congress to pass a national bottle bill that requires Coke and Pepsi to use only glass or reusable plastic bottles — and then actually reuse them as required in Europe and Canada.
You may not have time to create a movement of your own. Find out who is doing it and support them. And call your representatives and senators to let them know that you are for federal legislation that will keep plastic straws from polluting our oceans.
Picking up the trash off the street isn’t enough. Individuals recycling isn’t enough. You still have to make your voice heard with your local, state and federal legislators. All of these people are here to serve our needs. Let them hear your voice. Find out which regulations are being dismantled and tell those who represent us to revive them immediately. Tell them you want Scott Pruitt fired immediately and that you want a qualified head of the EPA to shore it back up.
The key is not to simply do it once and forget about it. You’ll have to get your friends to call, and their friends too. Without hearing from you, our representatives govern in a vacuum. They’ll fill that void with their own choices, and not all of them are informed. Inform yourself and then inform them.
That’s probably the most important take-away.
Know the players: Citizens, Commerce, Congress
Know their responsibilities: Citizens vote for what will be sustainable. Citizens also have to make it a point to learn what sustainability is about and why convenience isn’t as important. Commerce provides convenience within legislative guidelines. Congress creates guidelines that keep citizens safe even if it hampers commerce because environment, sustainability and people come first.
Vote for laws that make producers responsible. Vote for laws that disallow Congress from being bought. Let those people who represent you know that you stand for the environment and that you’re going to vote against them if they accept corporate money for anything.