The Game of Weaving: Integrating Academia into Environmental Advocacy

When I started my internship, I was fresh out of college. My head was swimming with academic jargon. From nature vs. culture frameworks to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I found myself trying to overlay theories on top of every aspect of my work. One of the most prominent critiques I first formulated was for the campaign strategy in achieving environmental change. The campaign was working to “Keep Plastic Out of the Pacific” by banning single use plastic bags in cities across Oregon. Outlawing plastic checkout bags seemed a far reach in addressing the well-being of sea turtles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And was banning grocery bags the most effective way to address this issue?

As I delved deeper into my campaign work, I quickly learned the intention behind this campaign angle. The disposable plastic bag is not only extremely prevalent in our everyday life, but its composition is particularly harmful to wildlife. Oregonians use 1.7 billion plastic bags a year. This staggering figure not only indicates a major constructed dependency on this product, but also poses a danger because of the disposable nature of the product. It is intended for “single-use,” meaning it is quickly discarded, often ending up in the dump or littering the streets. Yet the narrative that is often excluded is that much of this plastic debri ends up in our rivers and all rivers eventually lead to the sea. Once in the ocean, the plastic breaks into small pieces and wreaks havoc on the marine animals.

The story of plastic bags not only plays upon people’s emotions because of its impact on wildlife, but it also offers an easily followed trajectory. People come in contact with the product on a daily basis and therefore hold part of the responsibility in its impact on our waterways and wildlife. The campaign was constructed around a product that is widely relatable and offers an easy solution. Ban the bag.

I still found myself questioning the impact banning plastic bags in a city would have on the ocean. I came up with two things. The first was that it gave people a platform to believe they were actively bettering the environment. Though their impact may not be measurable on a large scale, the psychological ramifications improved their attitude that environmental change could take place, hopefully inspiring them to take action in the future. The second realization I had was that the political climate was still so conservative and resistant to radical environmental protection that a bag ban was the only regulation that had the possibility of being passed. Though a disheartening realization, I quickly learned that environmental policy is just starting to support the notion that climate change has been induced, or at least exacerbated, by human activity.

In terms of applying environmental frameworks to my experience, I found the binary of nature-culture to be prevalent. Nature was portrayed as a space that we, humans have destroyed with our plastic litter. It was pristine before us and now it is our responsibility to repair our damages. Humans were the perpetrators and wildlife and nature were the victims. This divide could have been lessened if the campaign focus did not hold the tone of “save the sea turtle.” Although the angle of humanity being estranged from nature has negative ramifications, I also observed several benefits. People were less threatened by the ban because it was focused on protecting wildlife in the middle of the ocean. Their personal lives were not under as clear of a direct threat, thus they were more likely to take action.

My internship experience taught me to not simply move past the academic lens of environmentalism, but to apply my critical eye and integrate my research skills. I gained insight into this form of critical investigation, as well as the shortcomings of academia in real life. I am excited to meld my foundation with these newly acquired strategies and persuasion skills. I am confident that both my schooling and internship have prepared me for my next step in environmental advocacy work.Image

One of the dangers of plastic bags ending up in the ocean is that turtles mistake them for jellyfish and then ingest them.

Paper or Plastic?

One of the most prominent rebuttals against the campaign to ban disposable plastic bags is that the alternative is not much better. Paper bags are the logical substitute to fill the expansive void to contain grocery items. People’s anxiety for how to juggle their purchases is actually quiet embarrassing to watch. For some, removing plastic bags at checkout stands is daunting because their hot soup or meat item might cause the bag to rip. But this is not the dominant dialogue. One of the greatest hesitancies is the sheer removal of choice. People want the option to choose between paper or plastic.

Yet again, consumers have created a binary where a gray area exists. The situation is not a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, but rather looking beyond these self imposed limits. What about reusable? The name becomes denoted as hippy and radical, unsanitary and unnecessary. The concept of reusable products, however, is not a priority in the production process. The convenience and ease of single use has become the expected protocol.

I have found that the “single use” philosophy to be at the root of most environmental issues. The timescale is so shortened that the story of waste and creative solutions gets cut out of the picture. Little do people know, plastic has a long and prosperous life after it has been thrown in the trash.

I have been fortunate enough to be working on telling this unspoken story during my internship this summer. I am the campaign organizer in Salem working to ban disposable plastic bags. As I explained above, the question of whether paper is much better than plastic often arises. To accurately access this, one must decide what lens they are using. Are we interested in the amount of energy needed for production? Or what about its shelf life? In my campaign, we are focusing on the later. Though the production process for plastic bags may be less environmentally detrimental, it does not biodegrade after use, like paper does. In fact, plastic does not decompose at all.

Because all rivers lead to the sea, the majority of the plastic that consumers throw away, ends up in the ocean. It is then weakened by the sun and breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. This process is called photodegradation. The microscopic pieces of plastic then get mistaken for food, and wildlife fill their stomachs with this toxic material. This process kills thousands of birds and marine wildlife every year.

This narrative is not intended to convince consumers to replace plastic with paper. Instead, it is an attempt to illuminate that the production chain goes far beyond the consumer. The phrase, “out of site, out of mind” has formed a false reality. Both paper and plastic bags demand an unnecessary amount of energy and produce horrific volumes of waste. Yet the suggestion to eliminate one of these options quickly becomes an undefeatable battle in the face of consumerism.

I have learned that the campaign has carefully constructed its angle for the issue in order to avoid this stubborn mule. It focuses on the problem, which is ocean pollution, and the solution, which is banning disposable plastic bags. It does not advocate for paper bags as a suitable substitute, but instead focuses on the unnecessary amount of waste and harm that plastic bags cause wildlife. This strategy of focusing on plastic pollution and its impact on wildlife appeals to a much larger audience than if it was framed as a lifestyle campaign.

As discussed above, people do not like limited choices or being told how to live. For this reason, the campaign angled itself towards waterway and wildlife protection, which is seen as less as a personal threat. The campaign outlook not only removes the idea that individuality is being attacked, but it also drastically expands the awareness timeline. The lifestyle framework examines waste at the point of consumption, but it stops there. The ocean pollution lens expands the borders, telling the story of plastic from landfill to ocean to bird’s belly. The whole story needs to be told for people to comprehend the scale they are contributing to. The next trick is to make sure people place themselves in the picture. If they are the hero of their own story, then they are more likely to take action.

Juggling in the White House

If academia has taught me nothing else, it forced me to master the skill of time management. Freshman year started with a big box of balls that I was expected to have flying gracefully through the air by the end of the week. My balance and hand-eye coordination needed severe polishing before I was even able to keep two balls in the air at the same time. One can become extremely skilled at juggling but drop all of the other balls in their life, which quickly results in an unhealthy lifestyle. Though a cheesy analogy, juggling provides an accurate reflection of my experience trying to learn new skills within a limited timeframe, while also attempting to live a healthy and balanced life, particularly in college.

Through my internship, I have found a similar dilemma. I am specifically working on passing a plastic bag ban in Salem, Oregon. We need to build up enough momentum to pressure city councilors to formulate and pass a bill. The timeframe for this task is self-imposed, similar to academics. My colleagues and I must hold ourselves accountable to the goals we have set before us. One of the greatest challenges with this task is both being optimistic and ambitious with one’s goals, as well as realistic and flexible to change. As I delve deeper in my research and outreach process, I am able to develop a greater sense of how much time and effort each goal will actually take to achieve. The act of juggling has become a smoother process. However, the rules and regulations of the game have changed dramatically.

Now I am functioning within the political realm, which has added a whole new dimension to the learning process. I am no longer in an environment where everyone strives to help me learn in the most effective and engaging way possible. The support of academia has been removed. Now I am speaking to city officials who have little to no interest in my work and my personal growth does not fit into their daily agenda. Instead, I must convince them that I am worth their time. I must present a cohesive and persuasive argument for why my cause, banning bags, deserve their attention. The tables have been turned and my diplomatic voice of persuasion must be heard loud and clear.

I have found there to be three main components in making a successful presentation. First, I must communicate the issue. The problem is that there are over 100 million tons of garbage, primarily plastic, floating in the Pacific Ocean. This toxic soup kills thousands of birds and marine animals every year (Environment Oregon). So what? The next step is to communicate the urgency. Environmental degradation has been taking place for hundreds of years. What makes today’s problems more dire that yesterdays? Today one in every three sea turtles has a plastic bag in its stomach. Today the toxic soup is suffocating thousands of animals at a devastating rate.

The final step is to provide a clear and constructive solution. Like most environmental issues, the task of changing current circumstances is so daunting that it often leaves people paralyzed. Depending on the context, the solution may be to sign a pledge of support for a plastic bag ban or volunteer to collect petitions. This step must be half, if not more, of the conversation because the other person must be convinced that they hold a crucial role in solving the problem. They also must be confident that their efforts will, in fact, make a positive and noticeable impact. Though these three steps may stray in various directions depending on the situation, I have found the overall themes to continually be prevalent.

Learning to juggle, be persuasive and create my own learning environment has forced me to reflect on my academic experience. The contrast between classroom learning and office environmental advocacy learning is drastic, but many of the skills of time management, prioritizing and seeking support are consistent. The trick is to readjust my academic tools to fit within the new constraints of the political climate.

Descending from the Ivory Tower

Having recently graduated from Lewis and Clark in environmental studies, my outlook has been most recently influenced by my teachers as they encouraged me to critique and question all that I learn. Such critique has proven to be key to my own growth both in the academic and “real” world. Yet trying to deconstruct every organization, school of thought and movement can quickly become detrimental because I pour all of my energy towards pulling apart and questioning the inner workings of a given entity instead of providing constructive feedback. This dimension of the equation is where I hope my summer internship at Environment Oregon will come into play.

Before starting my internship, I had formulated a series of preconceived notions and attitudes about their methods for environmental change. I found myself questioning preservation as the most effective method to fight for the environment. I saw it as a very privileged, western method of action, considering that developing countries do not have the resources to preserve a large tract of land that cannot be used for housing or food production. I agree that preservation can be an instrumental first step towards removing an area from immediate threat. However, from my personal experience and academic reading, I have developed the belief that we need to develop an integrated model of land use where humans and non-humans are not separated.

Though these beliefs still stand, I have recently been humbled with the understanding that there is not yet a capacity for ideal systems of land use to exist on a large scale. Instead, these parcels of preserved land, such as national parks, serve as the next best option. Maybe I have been more easily able to make these insights because the campaign I am working on this summer does not use preservation as its primary methodology. Because of this, I can more easily get behind the fight.

I am working on banning one-use plastic bags in Salem to help reduce the ever-growing plastic island in the Pacific Ocean. The plastic is killing hundreds of thousands of birds and sea turtles because they ingest it and then die of starvation and poisoning. Maybe I am more comfortable with the issue because it is advocating for life without the intention of removing humans from the space. I have trouble imagining extracting humans from any given landscape because we have become such an interdependent part of that landscape. Therefore, removing humans from a space would be undermining our identity within that space. Instead, we need to develop a new, healthier and more respectful relationship with the non-humans within the area. Maybe because the ocean is challenging to draw borders around, I am more easily able to support this method of environmentalism.

Clearly, I have not reached a satisfying position. However, the plastic bag campaign has captured my attention, particularly because of its threat to wildlife in contrast to the easy action to eliminate plastic bags. I learned that Oregonians use up to 1.7 billion plastic bags a year. Though cutting all plastic out of our daily consumption would be ideal, I am learning that such thinking is impractical because of the scale and political barriers. Instead, Environment Oregon has chosen one-use plastic bags as their target because they embody our cultural attitude of temporary use that ends up polluting our environment for hundreds of years. Nothing we use in five minutes should outlive us. Also, the ban could easily transition into paper bags, given the infrastructure is already present. Then it could hopefully progress to a system of reusable bags.

The political dimension to this work encapsulates the true polar opposite of academic thought. Ideologies may be present in the beginning, but quickly become deconstructed. Both parties enter with their ideal solution and by the end, they end up with a morphed medley of both parties that, if lucky, contains enough elements from each side, that it passes. Formulating this mixed solution is where the true struggle resides because the most powerful advocacy tool is money. And who has the money? Not the environmental groups, that’s for sure! Grassroots organizing, however, uses the power of collective voice and sheer number of supporters to form its own tool for advocacy.

Over the summer I am both anxious and excited to learn about this dance of negotiation and how it plays out within the context of fighting for a one-use plastic bag ban in Salem. I hope to reflect, question, and criticize, as well as provide constructive feedback throughout this process of academic to real world enlightenment.