The Economic Injustice of Plastic: Van Jones (Full Transcript)

Van Jones

Van Jones is an American news commentator, author, and non-practicing attorney. In this hard-hitting talk, he shows us how our throwaway culture hits poor people and poor countries “first and worst,” with consequences we all share no matter where we live.


I am honored to be here, and I’m honored to talk about this topic, which I think is of grave importance.

We’ve been talking a lot about the horrific impacts of plastic on the planet and on other species, but plastic hurts people, too — especially poor people.

And both in the production of plastic, the use of plastic and the disposal of plastic, the people who have the bull’s-eye on their foreheads are poor people.

People got very upset when the BP oil spill happened, for very good reason. People thought, “Oh, my God. This is terrible, this oil — it’s in the water. It’s going to destroy the living systems there. People are going to be hurt. This is a terrible thing, this oil is going to hurt the people in the Gulf.”

What people don’t think about is: What if the oil had made it safely to shore? What if the oil actually got where it was trying to go?

Not only would it have been burned in engines and added to global warming, but there’s a place called “Cancer Alley,” and the reason it’s called “Cancer Alley” is because the petrochemical industry takes that oil and turns it into plastic and in the process, kills people. It shortens the lives of the people who live there in the Gulf.

So oil and petrochemicals are not just a problem when there’s a spill; they’re a problem when there’s not. And what we don’t often appreciate is the price that poor people pay for us to have these disposable products.

The other thing we often don’t appreciate is, it’s not just at the point of production that poor people suffer. Poor people also suffer at the point of use.

Those of us who earn a certain income level, we have something called choice. The reason why you want to work hard and have a job and not be poor and broke is so you can have choices, economic choices.

We actually get a chance to choose not to use products that have dangerous, poisonous plastic in them. Other people who are poor don’t have those choices.

So low-income people often are the ones who are buying the products that have those dangerous chemicals in them that their children are using. Those are the people who wind up ingesting a disproportionate amount of this poisonous plastic in using it.

And people say, “Well, they should just buy a different product.” Well, the problem with being poor is you don’t have those choices. You often have to buy the cheapest products. The cheapest products are often the most dangerous.

And if that weren’t bad enough — if it wasn’t just the production of plastic that’s giving people cancer in places like Cancer Alley, and shortening lives and hurting poor kids at the point of use — at the point of disposal, once again, it’s poor people who bear the burden.

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Often, we think we’re doing a good thing: You’re in your office, drinking your bottled water or whatever it is, and you think to yourself, “I’m going to throw this away. No — I’m going to be virtuous. I’m going to put it in the blue bin.”

You think, “I put mine in the blue bin.”

And then you look at your colleague and say, “Why, you cretin! You put yours in the white bin.” And we use that as a moral tickle. We feel so good about ourselves. If we — well, OK, I’m just … me. Not you, but I feel this way often.

And so we kind of have this moral feel-good moment. But if we were to be able to follow that little bottle on its journey, we would be shocked to discover that, all too often, that bottle is going to be put on a boat, it’s going to go all the way across the ocean at some expense, and it’s going to wind up in a developing country, often China.

I think in our minds, we imagine somebody’s going to take the little bottle and say, “Oh, little bottle! We’re so happy to see you, little bottle. You’ve served so well.”

He’s given a little bottle massage, a little bottle medal. And they say, “What would you like to do next?”

The little bottle says, “I just don’t know…”

But that’s not actually what happens. You know? That bottle winds up getting burned. The recycling of plastic in many developing countries means the incineration of the plastic, the burning of the plastic, which releases incredible toxic chemicals and, once again, kills people.

And so, poor people who are making these products in petrochemical centers like Cancer Alley, poor people who are consuming these products disproportionately, and then poor people who, even at the tail end of the recycling, are having their lives shortened. They’re all being harmed — greatly — by this addiction that we have to disposability.

Now, you think to yourself — I know how you are — you say, “That sure is terrible for those poor people. It’s just awful. Those poor people. I hope someone does something to help them.”

But what we don’t understand is — here we are in Los Angeles. We worked very hard to get the smog reduction happening here in Los Angeles. But guess what?

Because they’re doing so much dirty production in Asia now, because the environmental laws don’t protect the people in Asia now, almost all of the clean air gains and the toxic air gains that we’ve achieved here in California have been wiped out by dirty air coming over from Asia.

So we all are being hit. We all are being impacted. It’s just that the poor people get it first and worst. But the dirty production, the burning of toxins, the lack of environmental standards in Asia, is actually creating so much dirty air pollution, it’s coming across the ocean, and has erased our gains here in California.

We’re back where we were in the 1970s. And so we’re on one planet, and we have to be able to get to the root of these problems. The root of this problem, in my view, is the idea of disposability itself.

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You see, if you understand the link between what we’re doing to poison and pollute the planet and what we’re doing to poor people, you arrive at a very troubling but also very helpful insight: In order to trash the planet, you have to trash people.

But if you create a world where you don’t trash people, you can’t trash the planet. So now we are at a moment where the coming together of social justice as an idea and ecology as an idea, we finally can now see that they are really, at the end of the day, one idea.

And it’s the idea that we don’t have disposable anything. We don’t have disposable resources. We don’t have disposable species. And we don’t have disposable people, either. We don’t have a throwaway planet, and we don’t have throwaway children — it’s all precious.

And as we all begin to come back to that basic understanding, new opportunities for action begin to emerge. Biomimicry, which is an emerging science, winds up being a very important social justice idea. People who are just learning about this stuff: biomimicry means respecting the wisdom of all species.

Democracy, by the way, means respecting the wisdom of all people — we’ll get to that. But biomimicry means respecting the wisdom of all species. It turns out we’re a pretty clever species. We have this big cortex, we’re pretty proud of ourselves.

But if we want to make something hard, we say, “I know! I’m going to make a hard substance. I know! I’m going to get vacuums and furnaces and drag stuff out of the ground and get things hot and poison and pollute…But I got this hard thing! I’m so clever!”

And you look behind you, and there’s destruction all around you. But guess what? You’re so clever, but you’re not as clever as a clam. A clamshell is hard. There’s no vacuums. There’s no big furnaces. There’s no poison. There’s no pollution.

It turns out that other species figured out a long time ago how to create many of the things we need using biological processes that nature knows how to use well. That insight of biomimicry, of our scientists finally realizing that we have as much to learn from other species — I don’t mean taking a mouse and sticking it with stuff.

I don’t mean looking at it from that way, abusing the little species. I mean actually respecting them, respecting what they’ve achieved. That’s called biomimicry, and that opens the door to zero waste production; zero pollution production; that we could actually enjoy a high quality of life, a high standard of living, without trashing the planet.

Well, that idea of biomimicry, respecting the wisdom of all species, combined with the idea of democracy and social justice, respecting the wisdom and the worth of all people, would give us a different society.

We would have a different economy. We would have a green society that Dr. King would be proud of. That should be the goal.

And the way that we get there is to first of all recognize that the idea of disposability not only hurts the species we’ve talked about, but it even corrupts our own society. We’re so proud to live here in California. We just had this vote, and everybody’s like, “Well — not in our state! I don’t know what those other states were doing, but …”

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Just so proud. And, yeah, I’m proud, too.

But California, though we lead the world in some of the green stuff, we also, unfortunately, lead the world in some of the gulag stuff. California has one of the highest incarceration rates of all the 50 states. We have a moral challenge in this movement. We are passionate about rescuing some dead materials from the landfill, but sometimes not as passionate about rescuing living beings, living people.

And I would say that we live in a country – 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the greenhouse gases, but also 25% of the world’s prisoners. One of every four people locked up anywhere in the world is locked up right here in the United States.

So that is consistent with this idea that disposability is something we believe in. And yet, as a movement that has to broaden its constituency, that has to grow, that has to reach out beyond our natural comfort zone, one of the challenges to the success of this movement, of getting rid of things like plastic and helping the economy shift, is people look at our movement with some suspicion.

And they ask a question, and the question is: How can these people be so passionate? A poor person, a low-income person, somebody in Cancer Alley, somebody in Watts, somebody in Harlem, somebody on an Indian reservation, might say to themselves — and rightfully so –

“How can these people be so passionate about making sure that a plastic bottle has a second chance in life, or an aluminum can has a second chance, and yet, when my child gets in trouble and goes to prison, he doesn’t get a second chance? How can this movement be so passionate about saying we don’t have throwaway stuff, no throwaway dead materials, and yet accept throwaway lives and throwaway communities like Cancer Alley?”

And so, we now get a chance to be truly proud of this movement. When we take on topics like this, it gives us that extra call to reach out to other movements and to become more inclusive and to grow, and we can finally get out of this crazy dilemma that we’ve been in.

Most of you are good, softhearted people. When you were younger, you cared about the whole world, and at some point, somebody said you had to pick an issue, you had to boil your love down to an issue. “Can’t love the whole world — you’ve got to work on trees or you’ve got to work on immigration. You’ve got to shrink it down and be about one issue.”

And really, they fundamentally told you, “Are you going to hug a tree? Or are you going to hug a child? Pick.”

Well, when you start working on issues like plastic, you realize the whole thing is connected. And luckily, most of us are blessed to have two arms — we can hug both.

Thank you very much.

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