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.