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.