Friday was my birthday (I'm two years older than President Obama) and I decided I wanted to mix activism with celebrating. Friday evening we had our monthly Women In Black vigil against war and occupation, so I saw a bunch of friends there and a few of us went to dinner after. Saturday morning some other friends and I joined “Throw Down for the Town,” a community service festival in Oakland. Throw Down is organized by Soul of the City, an initiative of the human rights nonprofit Ella Baker Center (started by Van Jones, the first casualty of Obama’s ability to be bullied by Fox News). Soul of the City’s mission statement says, “Soul of the City places the well-being of Oakland directly in the hands of the community. We honor the important role that each person plays in creating a vibrant and thriving city.” There were more than 15 service projects to choose from. We chose to help clean up part of Laney College, the community college just on the other side of Lake Merritt from where I live. We worked hard for about two hours, and then went for a lovely lunch.
The cleanup itself was kind of intense, because part of the area where we were working is a little woodsy, on the banks of a pond, and it’s obviously a place where homeless people go to relieve themselves, eat, sleep, and avoid police harassment. I found muddy, waterlogged clothes and backpack straps, along with the usual petrified Wendy’s cups, bottles, cans, condom wrappers and toilet paper. Fortunately, the organizers had borrowed those grabber things from the City, and they also had plenty of latex gloves. Nonetheless, when I suggested we head to an Ethiopian restaurant, one of my friends said, “I don’t feel like eating with my hands right now.” So we opted for Mexican instead.
|Used under Creative Commons License from website|
of Chris Jordan
As I picked up all that detritus, I thought, “Maybe I really should work on banning plastic food containers in Oakland.” Plastic recycling is one of the big boondoggles of the last couple decades, because the more people feel like they can recycle it, the more of it socially conscious people feel like we can use. And in reality, very little plastic is actually recycled. “Recycling” sounds like it’s melted down and reshaped into more plastic food containers, but in reality, the 6-8% of the plastic we use that can be recycled at all gets converted into indoor-outdoor carpeting and polyester car seats through an extremely toxic process mainly carried out inChina. The Berkeley Ecology Center has a greatwebsite on myths about and alternatives to plastic recycling. A woman who was at Hedgebrook with me, Victoria Sloan Jordan, is working on a project with her husband, Chris Jordan, who is a photographer, documenting the destruction of the albatross population from eating the plastic we discard. The photos, which you can see online, are incredible because in some of them, you can’t tell what they’re of and it looks quite beautiful, and then you realize it’s this awful devastation.
Banning plastic would not only be good for the environment and for the health of the people who live near the plants where it’s processed. I just finished reading a book called Girls on the Edge, by Leonard Sax, who is both a pediatrician and a psychologist. He talks about four factors “driving the crisis of today’s girls” and one of them is “environmental toxins.” He presented extensive evidence that plastic food, beverage and lotion containers are a major cause of early puberty in girls (a 2010 study reported in the journal Pediatrics that almost 25% of African American girls have reached a stage of breast development marking the onset of puberty by age 7, as had almost 15% of Latina girls and more than 10% of white girls.).
At the same time, campaigns such as plastic bans need to be done in a way that is sensitive to all of the other social issues accompanying our purchasing choices. If we force McDonald’s to sell coffee in paper cups, we need to first research where those will come from and how they are produced. A few years ago, Berkeley banned plastic shopping bags from supermarkets. Certainly, a lot more people are using nondisposable bags, but probably a majority of people are getting groceries in paper bags. I can’t say how many times I have walked out without putting bags in my car, or gone into a store thinking I’m only going to buy a few things, and ended up needing a paper bag. I’m not sure how much better that is than the plastic ones. They biodegrade, yes, but we can’t pretend that forests are not being sacrificed for our paper bags. Ideally, we would take our groceries in baskets or carts, and if you dropped in without your cart, you would be able to borrow one, maybe for a buck deposit or something. Or even more ideally, we would all be shopping in small stores close to home, and the shopkeepers would know us and be glad to lend us a basket or cart, confident that we’d bring it back.
We would need to ensure that McDonald’s would not raise their prices to make up for the fact that we’re “making them” switch to more environmentally friendly materials. It shouldn’t, of course, be more expensive to use compostable paper, because it’s incredibly expensive to produce plastic, but with subsidies and corporate economies of scale, those costs are skewed.
Ultimately, all of this still relies on the premise that capitalism can be made environmentally friendly and humane, and in fact, that’s probably not the case. I heard a radio show the other day about a project that’s promoting sustainable seafood. One of the participants in the MarineStewardship Council’s eco-labeling program is WalMart, and with the world’s largest retail store signed on, the Marine Stewardship Council has the leverage to convince their suppliers to adopt line-only fishing and other sustainable fishing practices. It’s great, on one hand, that WalMart has become so convinced that their customers want sustainable food that they were willing to join this effort. On the other, I thought, well while you’re getting WalMart to sign onto the line-only fish pledge, couldn’t you get them to sign a union contract with their workers?
Neither picking up trash nor banning plastic wrapping and containers will result in a livable community. Seeing the evidence that people are using that fairly inhospitable area (I ended up with brambles in my butt) for a bedroom and lavatory reminds me how many people very nearby are without the basics of comfort and dignity. I started thinking, well maybe we should build some composting toilets here so people don’t have to leave used toilet paper in the grass. On the way to lunch, we passed a long line of elderly people waiting for food from the Lake Merritt United Methodist Church food pantry. As we were parking, a guy who asks me for fifty cents every day when I’m going to line up for the carpool to the city yelled “Got fifty cents?” at our car as we sped around the corner. “That’s not very effective panhandling technique,” I said to my friends.
What I did like about Throw Down was that it was real. It wasn’t giving money to some nonprofit to hire people to do something about our social problems – which is also important, don’t get me wrong. Abel Guillen, a young man who is currently on the Community College Board and now running for State Assembly () came by to campaign. I asked him what his top issues were, and he said, “Creating jobs.”
“That’s right,” I said, “People could be doing this for money.” He agreed. I asked how he proposed to fund it and his answer made my little heart go pitter-patter:
“Oil severance tax. Single-payer health care.”
“You’re obviously my guy,” I said.
It brought us into contact with young people from our own neighborhood that I rarely interact with, and gave us ideas about how to create more community. My neighbor, Simin, had the idea that we should get some of those garbage grabbers at the hardware store and go out on our own street once a month. It’s not really about the garbage, she said, but that if people see you doing something, they will come and talk to you. I was reminded of a story I was told a few years ago by a friend of a friend. She lives on a cul-de-sac in San Francisco, where there’s no street cleaning, so she started going out with a broom and sweeping the street. At first, her neighbors thought she was crazy. But after a while, a couple other women came to help. Eventually they ended up starting a community garden, even getting a small grant to reclaim a park for their kids.I hate getting notices from Facebook that I should pick a Cause and get my “friends” to donate to it for my birthday. No offense to any of my Facebook friends who have done that. The idea of making our special days not just about us is great. I just hate the mechanization of it, the notion that we can build communities of people who never set eyes on each other. Don’t get me wrong. Obviously, this is a blog. In the blogging class I took recently, I stated that “finding a community of like-minded people” was my top reason for blogging. But today’s activity made me think about the limits of virtual community, and the value of getting our hands dirty.