The Petty Charm of Environmentalism

By Fred Diego – Sustainable Computing: Document Management Intern

Rapidly growing populations, shadows of the protestant ethic coupled with the means of mass production, and a consumer culture with an unabated thirst for novelty have given birth to a peculiar type of organized chaos. We live in a world where trade and entire economies depend on one human activity, consumption.

For the most part, I am glad to take part in any campaign that aims to counter the destructiveness of human nature. When I first heard of recycling and turning off the faucet while brushing, my entire eight year old frame jumped on the opportunity to undo the vast damage I had certainly done thus far by not changing those tiny habits that were killing the planet like wasting water and filling landfills with non-biodegradable waste. As I grew older I came to realize that I had made but a tiny step in the right direction and still had an entire ladder to climb before I saw substantial change.

Steel Mills in Northwest Indiana

This first became evident when my family moved from Uptown Chicago to Hammond, a city on the industrial strip in northwest Indiana. That was my first sampling of social injustice in the form of environmental degradation and disregard. Driving on the skyway, hundreds of meters above ground, countless thoughts filled my mind. But I wasn’t thinking about making friends or what my room was going to look like. Rather, I thought, “I am hundreds of feet up, I can see over the edge. Men built this, where they scared?” “The water looks sad. Is it supposed to look grey in the middle of the day?” And, why is that chimney on fire?” as we passed by the refinery. “What’s that smell?” as we drove past Cargill. “There is a whole city over there, it looks like it’s all made of rust,” as the family car, a 92 Ford Aerostar, rumbled down Cline past the steel mills.

What I didn’t know then was that the BP, then AMOCO, refinery undid all of my recycling efforts a hundred times per hour by filling the surrounding air and water with waste with gross disregard for regulation. I didn’t know that men died in those steel mills, suffocated by boiling chemicals used to render steel. I didn’t know that the children in that area were far more susceptible to asthma, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer thanks to the industrial and vehicular emissions. I didn’t know that the abject poverty of the region was thinly cloaked by roadside gardens whose only purpose was to appease the guilt the casino patrons may feel when driving through grey industrial wasteland on their way to burn their money on the boat.

Most of the kids who filled seats in the high school I went to couldn’t read at a high school level, much less perform well enough on a standardized test. Some of them are in jail, some of them are dead, victims of violence and crime, over a dozen had children already. I walked past police officers, and occasionally dogs, in the hallways nervously eyeing their guns and tasers (I’ve seen them use those tasers). My freshman class was just about 200 kids, of which 127 graduated. Only a select few were prepared for a college education, and of those few most stayed local due to economic limitations or a lack of good standardized test scores. Fifteen miles away, just south of 80/94 is one of the best schools in the state. Just fifteen miles away kids had access to JSTOR online journals their freshman year while we read ten year old copies of Romeo and Juliet filled with decade old profanities. Fifteen miles away, kids in English classes had already read five southern gothic novels while the majority of my freshman class wrestled with To Kill a Mockingbird. Fifteen miles away, a state of the art school whose parking lot was filled with BMW’s, Lexus’s, and VW’s produced doctors, lawyers, and engineers, while I sat next to kids who are limited to labor for the rest of their lives and not by choice. They are limited, they did not choose their roles in society, by their access to quality education and therefore effectively sequestered in the lower ranks of society.

Today, I know very well that these injustices are not the product of the hard work of a few people and the laziness of a few others. I also know very well that most of those who live on the other side have little or no regard for the others. But I am not here to discuss the inequality that a capitalistic society based on consumption and the acquisition of property produces. It has already been stated that at its core, the concept of property deprives others of the livelihood the claimant to said property secures for himself. What I am here to state is that this injustice, economic and environmental, is reflected in every aspect of our society, and as a collective we have become far too complacent with it.

Cabrini Green

Environmental issues affect all of us, it is known. But those who are most affected by environmental issues are usually the very poor. Those who really feel short of breath because of carbon emissions are the poor folk who live next to coal burning plants. The people most affected by high gas prices are the men who mow lawns, trim hedges, and prune trees and must drive all over the suburbs all day in addition to the commute to and from home, usually to a house one fourth the size of those of their employers. The people who feel the brunt of a heat wave and brown outs are the poor folk in high rises. I have been inside those buildings during the heat. I have been in Cabrini Green in the middle of the summer and smelled the pungent aroma of inhuman conditions stagnant in the corridors and elevators. I have watched Uptown, Bucktown, Pilsen, Old Town, Edgewater, the list goes on, change as the poor are kicked out indirectly through gentrification and a new populace takes their place. I have talked to the undocumented who walk the streets looking for work and are happy when they get to inhale fumes and carcinogens for twelve hours because it means their children will be able to eat.

THESE are environmental injustices. These people suffer them, They feel the brunt, Their lungs are scarred by fluorocarbons, asbestos, drywall, sawdust, and carbon emissions. Their joints are ruined by repetitive motion, their backs thrown out carrying appliances up flights of stairs and loading and unloading pallets of electronics on and off of trucks. Their skin is charred by the sun, Their hands are calloused by the tools they carry, Their bodies become worn with labor, Their children are denied the opportunities most of us take for granted.

But these are not the problems. These are the symptoms. The problem is the disgusting penchant for apathy that characterizes the American public. The silent acceptance of the oppression of others IS the oppression of others. We are ALL responsible for the suicides in Foxconn facilities. We are ALL responsible for the blood shed over conflict minerals in Africa. But these words have already been said and yet nothing is done because we have been trained to be apathetic. We have become far too attached to the comforts of our lives and accept a reality in which such grotesque things do not exist. The cause of all environmental injustice, and inherently of damages to the environment itself, is our desire to consume and our unwillingness to stop. But worse than this, worse than unabated consumption that feeds the growth model of our capitalists enterprises, worse than the murder of the indigenous in an attempt to mine the land they live on, worse than the destruction of the livelihood of the Inuit, worse than the murder and forced labor of the indigenous in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru who are forced to farm and produce cocaine for the noses of Americans, worse than the destruction of ecosystems and the advancement of the neoliberal agenda and its neocolonialist occupation is the fact that all of this is known and we sit comfortably in café’s discussing only the matters which affect us.

I invite you, young person, my peer, my senior, and anyone who may happen to glance upon these words to reconsider the paradigm you have been taught to believe and come to realize that our consumption, our nice things, our gold, diamonds, smart phones, our starbucks coffee, our toms shoes, our nikes, our urban outfitters gear, our adidas, our coca-cola, any and every product of the multinational corporations that relies on the exploitation of cheap labor in foreign nations, costs people their lives, their happiness. Why should our comfort cost people their livelihood?

E-Waste Strewn in a Nigerian Slum

Can significant change for the betterment of mankind in the form of uninhibited happiness, health, and welfare with the opportunity for every man woman and child to maximize his or her potential as a human being be a reality? Not until we realize that our lifestyle is killing not only the planet, but to people like you and I.


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