This past Sunday, I had the honor to be a guest on MCNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show. It was my very first live national appearance, so as you can imagine, I was just a little concerned with getting everything right. As instructed, I put on way more makeup than usual (usual being none at all most days) and was grateful for finally having found plastic-free mascara this year! I got a haircut (probably the first in over a year), plucked my crazy eyebrows (couldn’t deal with mixing up a batch of sugar wax) and slathered on so much eyeshadow and mascara that Michael kept staring at me and going, “Wow. Your eyes.” And of course, for several days, I went over and over in my mind what I wanted to say.
The theme of the show was environmental justice, and the main guest for the segment was the amazing Majora Carter, environmental justice advocate and founder of Sustainable South Bronx. I was to join the conversation, happening live in New York City, from a studio in San Francisco, and my task was to tell my story and also be part of whatever conversation was already taking place. The show airs live at 10am ET, which meant I had to get my night owl butt up and be at the studio at 7am my time. No small feat. And not only did I have to deliver my body to the studio, but my brain had to be alert and functioning as well.
It was such an interesting experience. I sat in a straight-backed chair with an image of the Golden Gate Bridge projected behind me and listened to the show through an ear monitor. But I couldn’t see anything that was taking place, so I had no idea what was being shown on the screen and couldn’t make eye contact with the other panelists. I was simply staring at a camera lens. So, I pretended the camera had a face and was really interested in what I had to say.
Of course, after the interview, I did what all perfectionists do. I “coulda shoulda woulda’d” myself like crazy all the way home. And for the last two days I’ve been thinking about all the things I might have said given more time or had I known what the questions would be. And then, last night, I remembered, “Oh! I can still do it! Right here on this blog.” So please take a look at the video clip (I enter the conversation around 6:13 and continue until the end) and then I’ll tell you the rest of the things I wanted to say.
I began my story explaining about how I had been a regular plastic-consuming American, taking double plastic bags at the grocery store and throwing away plastic water bottles, until the night I read the article and saw the photo that changed my life. I described the dead albatross chick full of plastic pieces (not realizing that that very photo was being shown on the screen right next to me) and how in that moment I realized my life had to change.
At that point, Melissa Harris-Perry responded,
“So, I want to ask about that because part of what I thought was an extremely useful part, sort of the initial move towards encouraging, particularly Americans, but around the world, to think about environmental issues, across party lines and all of that, were wildlife images, the images as you point out here, of the albatross, or we just talked yesterday about the brown pelicans from the BP oil spill that have the oil on them, but I also wonder about how we then put a connection between the wildlife piece, and Majora and Raul, what we were just talking about around sort of humans and people and particularly young folks, so Majora, I just want you to weigh in a little bit and then I want to come back to you Beth about how do we connect these dots…?”
How do we connect the dots between animals and humans? If the question had been directed to me, I would have said,
We are the albatross.
Albatross mothers fly out across the Pacific Ocean searching for food to feed their hungry babies and bring back bits of plastic instead. The babies starve with bellies full of our discarded waste.
Human mothers feed their babies from plastic baby bottles and plastic baby dishes and utensils, unaware of the chemicals in the plastic that is leaching into their babies’ bodies, and the hormone-disrupting effects those chemicals have on their developing systems.
Breastfeeding mothers, hoping to give their babies the very best possible start in life, nourish their children with all the chemicals they themselves have stored in their bodies from a lifetime of exposure to flame retardants, pesticides, and the chemicals in plastics.
Zooplankton, the bottom of the ocean’s food web, ingest micro-plastic particles coated with toxic pollutants and pass those pollutants up the food chain to fish and bigger fish and finally humans. And the cumulative effects are increased at every step along the chain until finally, we are ingesting those chemicals on our dinner plates.
Parents, trying to make a living to feed their families, live near and work in the petrochemical plants that manufacture the chemicals from which plastic is made. In addition to a paycheck, those workers and their families are rewarded with disproportionately high incidences of rare cancers, respiratory illnesses, and reproductive disorders. Don’t ask me which plastics are safe to eat or drink from. All of them are made from chemicals that pollute the environment and harm the people who live in the areas where they are manufactured, whether those chemicals can leach out of your personal bottle or not.
And at the end of their lives, plastics either end up in the landfill or incinerator, still polluting the air and groundwater in predominantly poorer neighborhoods, or are shipped to China for “recycling,” where lack of environmental controls and worker safeguards create hazardous conditions for the workers overseas, also just trying to make a living to feed their families.
We are the albatross. We’re just not as visible. You don’t see images of human beings lying dead with plastic spilling out of their guts. We die more quietly, with diseases that are harder to connect directly with any one toxic product or another. We die gradually, from the slow accumulation of exposures to thousands of toxic chemicals over the course of our lifetimes. And since it’s so hard to place the blame on one particular chemical or another, the industry is able to deny culpability for its role in polluting our bodies and the surrounding environment.
Back in 2007, when I witnessed the image of that dead albatross chick, the feeling that came over me was not simply sorrow for a fellow creature that had been killed by humans’ unwitting actions. No, it was sorrow for all of us. Somehow, I instinctively knew that there was no difference between that bird and myself. Ignorance had killed it. And now that I knew the truth, I had to do whatever I could to stop this tragic drama before it was too late. How could I possibly do otherwise?