What does the Trayvon Martin murder have to do with sea turtles choking on plastic bags or the toxicity of bisphenol-A? At first glance, not a whole lot. And it’s not the kind of news I would normally write about on My Plastic-Free Life. But listening to the April 17 episode of the American Public Media radio program The Story last week, I suddenly made a surprising connection.
The host of the show, Dick Gordon, interviewed one of his regular contributors, African American high school teacher, Reuben Jackson, who shared the difficult feelings that came up for him after hearing about the murder. For anyone who doesn’t listen to the news and hasn’t been following this case, Trayvon Martin was an unarmed African American teenager who was shot and killed by an overly-zealous community watch coordinator, George Zimmerman, while returning from a convenience store because he looked suspicious in his hoodie. And because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the shooter was not arrested until public allegations of racism pressured the state to charge Zimmerman with second degree murder over a month after the shooting took place. That’s a huge oversimplification of the situation. You can read the details here.
On the radio show, teacher Reuben Jackson explained why the news of this murder hit him so hard personally, relating the story of the talk his parents gave him when he was just a boy.
My parents gave me what’s now known as “the talk” when I was very young in elementary school. My father, a man I describe as a walking haiku because he’d give you three words every six months… became uncharacteristically verbose. I was going to a mom and pop store to get a candybar, and he said, “Get a bag and a receipt.” And I said, “Why? I’m just gonna eat the Snicker bar” or whatever it was. And he just repeated the same thing four or five times, “Get a bag and a receipt. Get a bag and a receipt.” My mother was the translator. And she later told me, “Your father doesn’t want you to be suspected of stealing.” And I said, well I wasn’t gonna steal, but it was the beginning of that armor that one needs to make one’s way through this society.
Listening to the story, I imagined myself in that situation, a middle-aged white woman, and it suddenly dawned on me: I never take a bag because I bring my own to avoid plastic, and I rarely take a receipt anymore because many of them are coated with BPA. And of course, I spend the better part of my life nowadays trying to convince other people not to take that plastic bag and to avoid thermal receipts when not needed. It has never occurred to me that someone might think I was stealing. And if they did think it, I would probably just flash them my big toothy smile, give them my card, and explain that I don’t use plastic and that I didn’t steal whatever it was from their store.
It’s a privilege to be able to assume that strangers will give us the benefit of the doubt. It’s a privilege that I didn’t even know I had until I heard this story last week. And it made me start to wonder not only what other privileges I have, but in what other ways personal survival conflicts with environmental protection as a result of social disparities in our world. And this gets back to the topic of my interview on the Melissa Harris-Perry show last Sunday.
How can we create a world without plastic pollution when poor people are forced to take jobs in petrochemical plants and other polluting industries to support their families? I had the benefit of a middle class education and employers who gave me the benefit of the doubt even when my experience and qualifications didn’t quite meet their requirements, most likely because I looked and sounded like someone they could trust. I’ve never had to work in dangerous conditions producing a toxic product in order to survive. Sure, I’ve been poor, but it was poverty by choice. I’ve always known I could “sell out” and get a job making a bunch of money if I wanted to. Being able to choose poverty over wealth and to spend all my discretionary income and time on environmental action is a massive privilege.
How can we do away with disposable plastic bottles when 884 million people in the world lack access to clean drinking water? I have the privilege of drinking straight from my tap or installing a water filter to remove chlorine and few other chemicals I might not care to ingest. But around the world, and even in some places in the United States, drinking the local water is hazardous, and bottled water is the only alternative. Contrary to what the CEO of Nestle believes, clean water should be a basic human right and not a privilege for those with means.
Would we have fewer disposable plastic diapers, plastic-wrapped convenience baby foods, and formula bottles if women were paid as much as men and if employers created parent-friendly work places? Would women have more time for parenting in harmony with nature if they didn’t have to work longer hours to make a living and if men shared in the parenting tasks equally?
Isn’t fairness and justice for the world’s people also fairness and justice for the planet? We are all connected. And our issues and causes, whether social or environmental, are all connected. For whatever reason, the issue that speaks to me the most loudly is plastic. But that doesn’t mean I get a pass when it comes to other causes and issues. Because ultimately, the recognition that we are all connected — people, animals, plants, planet, universe — means that whatever we do in support of a fair and just society will support a healthier planet. At least that is my hunch. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to hear what you think.
In what other ways do social injustices undermine environmental goals? And more importantly, what can we do about them?