Monday, I went down to Lake Merritt in Oakland to take pictures of plastic litter for my book. I’m happy to report that I didn’t see much overflowing trash, plastic or otherwise; but I did see some. And I snapped a few pix.
On my way back to the car, I knelt down to the ground to take a photo of this loose plastic baggie:
As I got up to leave, I heard a low voice that said, “Pick it up.”
Wow, I thought, my conscience is really getting loud these days. Normally, I would have picked up as much trash as I could, but that day I was in a hurry and didn’t have time. Plus, I rationalized that I was already raising awareness of the problem through my book and photos, so it would be okay to leave this trash this time. Still I hesitated.
The voice repeated, “Pick it up.”
Wait a minute. Did I really hear that? I turned around and saw a raggedy, derelict looking guy standing about twenty feet away watching me through dark glasses. He said, “Don’t just take a picture of it and walk away. Pick it up.”
All kinds of excuses and arguments ran through my mind. Who does he think he is? He doesn’t know me or all the work I do. He doesn’t know that I’ve spent years picking up other people’s trash. I walked toward him to explain… to defend myself. I looked directly at him, and the closer I got, the fewer excuses I could muster. Finally, standing right in front of him, I said, “You’re right. I should have picked it up.”
And then I opened my hand to show him what I had been collecting instead: little plastic bread bag clips I’d found strewn across the ground near the lake. People bring bread to feed the ducks and leave behind hazardous little pieces of plastic.
The conversation turned to plastic and animals and children. It would have taken me a second to pick up the baggie and walk away. Instead, I ended up in a ten minute conversation that made my trip to the lake worthwhile.
The lesson here is that you never know who’s watching you, who’s paying attention to what you do or don’t do. Unlike my friend at the lake, most people are socialized to keep quiet. In fact, most people probably won’t even notice if you pass by a piece of plastic or if you purchase something in a plastic bag because plastic has become the norm. They do notice when you do something unexpected… like pick up trash or bring your own bag. When we let people see us refusing to participate in disposable plastic culture, we help to change what is normal or expected.
Listen to the voices… inside your own head as well as the ones that come from without. I’m not advocating paranoia but getting outside our own little bubbles once in a while to acknowledge how our choices are magnified by the example we set.