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TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch

Van Jones: The economic injustice of plastic

Filmed:

Van Jones lays out a case against plastic pollution from the perspective of social justice. Because plastic trash, he shows us, hits poor people and poor countries "first and worst," with consequences we all share no matter where we live and what we earn. In this powerful talk, he offers a few powerful ideas to help us reclaim our throwaway planet. (Filmed at TEDxGPGP.)

- Social justice and green energy activist
Van Jones sees a clear link between soclal justice and green energy -- and works for both. Full bio

I am honored to be here,
00:19
and I'm honored to talk about this topic,
00:21
which I think is of grave importance.
00:23
We've been talking a lot about
00:25
the horrific impacts of plastic
00:27
on the planet and on other species,
00:29
but plastic hurts people too,
00:32
especially poor people.
00:34
And both in the production of plastic,
00:37
the use of plastic and the disposal of plastic,
00:39
the people who have the bull's-eye on their foreheads
00:42
are poor people.
00:44
People got very upset
00:47
when the BP oil spill happened
00:50
for very good reason.
00:52
People thought about, "Oh, my God.
00:54
This is terrible, this oil -- it's in the water.
00:56
It's going to destroy
00:58
the living systems there.
01:00
People are going to be hurt.
01:02
This is a terrible thing,
01:04
that the oil is going to hurt the people in the Gulf."
01:06
What people don't think about
01:08
is: what if the oil had made it safely to shore?
01:10
What if the oil actually got where it was trying to go?
01:13
Not only would it have been burned in engines
01:16
and added to global warming,
01:18
but there's a place called "Cancer Alley,"
01:21
and the reason it's called "Cancer Alley"
01:24
is because the petrochemical industry
01:26
takes that oil and turns it into plastic
01:29
and, in the process, kills people.
01:31
It shortens the lives of the people who live there in the Gulf.
01:34
So oil and petrochemicals are not just a problem where there's a spill;
01:37
they're a problem where there's not.
01:40
And what we don't often appreciate
01:42
is the price that poor people pay
01:44
for us to have these disposable products.
01:46
The other thing that we don't often appreciate
01:48
is it's not just at the point of production that poor people suffer.
01:50
Poor people also suffer
01:53
at the point of use.
01:55
Those of us who earn a certain income level,
01:57
we have something called choice.
01:59
The reason why you want to work hard and have a job
02:01
and not be poor and broke
02:03
is so you can have choices, economic choices.
02:05
We actually get a chance to choose
02:08
not to use products
02:10
that have dangerous, poisonous plastic in them.
02:12
Other people who are poor don't have those choices.
02:14
So low-income people often are the ones
02:17
who are buying the products
02:19
that have those dangerous chemicals in them that their children are using.
02:21
Those are the people who wind up
02:24
actually ingesting a disproportionate amount
02:26
of this poisonous plastic and using it.
02:28
And people say, "Well, they should just buy a different product."
02:31
Well, the problem with being poor is you don't have those choices.
02:34
You often have to buy the cheapest products.
02:37
The cheapest products are often the most dangerous.
02:39
And if that weren't bad enough,
02:42
if it wasn't just the production of plastic
02:44
that's giving people cancer in places like "Cancer Alley" and shortening lives
02:46
and hurting poor kids at the point of use,
02:49
at the point of disposal,
02:52
once again, it's poor people
02:54
who bear the burden.
02:56
Often, we think we're doing a good thing.
02:58
You're in your office,
03:00
and you're drinking your bottled water, or whatever it is,
03:02
and you think to yourself, "Hey, I'm going to throw this away.
03:04
No, I'm going to be virtuous.
03:07
I'm going to put it in the blue bin."
03:09
You think, "I put mine in the blue bin,"
03:11
and then you look at your colleague and say,
03:13
"Why, you cretin.
03:16
You put yours in the white bin."
03:18
And we use that as a moral tickle.
03:20
We feel so good about ourselves.
03:22
Maybe I'll feel good myself.
03:25
Not you, but I feel this way.
03:27
And so we kind of have this kind of moral feel-good moment.
03:31
But if we were to be able to follow that little bottle
03:34
on its journey,
03:37
we would be shocked to discover that, all too often,
03:39
that bottle is going to be put on a boat,
03:42
it's going to go all the way across the ocean
03:44
at some expense,
03:47
and it's going to wind up in a developing country -- often China.
03:49
I think in our minds we imagine somebody's going to take the little bottle,
03:52
say, "Oh, little bottle.
03:55
We're so happy to see you, little bottle."
03:58
(Laughter)
04:00
"You've served so well."
04:02
He's given a little bottle massage,
04:05
a little bottle medal.
04:07
And say, "What would you like to do next?"
04:09
The little bottle says, "I just don't know."
04:11
But that's not actually what happens.
04:14
That bottle
04:19
winds up getting burned.
04:21
Recycling of plastic in many developing countries
04:24
means the incineration of the plastic,
04:27
the burning of the plastic,
04:29
which releases incredible toxic chemicals
04:31
and, once again, kills people.
04:33
And so poor people
04:35
who are making these products
04:37
in petrochemical centers like "Cancer Alley,"
04:39
poor people who are consuming these products disproportionately,
04:42
and then poor people,
04:44
who even at the tail end of the recycling
04:46
are having their lives shortened,
04:48
are all being harmed greatly
04:51
by this addiction that we have
04:54
to disposability.
04:57
Now you think to yourself -- because I know how you are --
04:59
you say, "That sure is terrible
05:01
for those poor people.
05:03
It's just awful,
05:05
those poor people.
05:07
I hope someone does something to help them."
05:09
But what we don't understand is --
05:12
is, here we are in Los Angeles.
05:15
We worked very hard to get the smog reduction
05:17
happening here in Los Angeles.
05:19
But guess what?
05:21
Because they're doing so much dirty production in Asia now,
05:23
because the environmental laws
05:25
don't protect the people in Asia now,
05:27
almost all of the clean air gains
05:29
and the toxic air gains
05:31
that we've achieved here in California
05:33
have been wiped out by dirty air coming over from Asia.
05:35
So, we all are being hit. We all are being impacted.
05:39
It's just the poor people get hit first and worst.
05:42
But the dirty production, the burning of toxins,
05:45
the lack of environmental standards in Asia
05:48
is actually creating so much dirty air pollution
05:50
it's coming across the ocean and has erased our gains here in California.
05:53
We're back where we were in the 1970s.
05:56
And so we're on one planet,
05:58
and we have to be able to get to the root of these problems.
06:00
Well the root of this problem, in my view,
06:03
is the idea of disposability itself.
06:06
You see, if you understand the link
06:09
between what we're doing
06:12
to poison and pollute the planet
06:14
and what we're doing to poor people,
06:16
you arrive at a very troubling,
06:19
but also very helpful, insight:
06:21
In order to trash the planet,
06:24
you have to trash people.
06:26
But if you create a world where you don't trash people,
06:28
you can't trash the planet.
06:31
So now we are at a moment
06:33
where the coming together of social justice as an idea
06:35
and ecology as an idea,
06:38
we finally can now see
06:40
that they are really, at the end of the day, one idea.
06:42
And it's the idea that we don't have disposable anything.
06:45
We don't have disposable resources.
06:48
We don't have disposable species.
06:51
And we don't have disposable people either.
06:53
We don't have a throwaway planet,
06:56
and we don't have throwaway children -- it's all precious.
06:58
And as we all begin to come back to that basic understanding,
07:01
new opportunities for action begin to emerge.
07:04
Biomimicry,
07:07
which is something
07:09
that is an emerging science,
07:11
winds up being a very important social justice idea.
07:13
People who are just learning about this stuff,
07:16
biomimicry means
07:18
respecting the wisdom of all species.
07:20
Democracy, by the way,
07:22
means respecting the wisdom of all people -- and we'll get to that.
07:24
But biomimicry means respecting the wisdom of all species.
07:26
It turns out we're a pretty clever species.
07:29
This big cortex, or whatever, we're pretty proud of ourselves.
07:32
But if we want to make something hard,
07:35
we come up, "I know, I'm going to make a hard substance.
07:38
I know, I'm going to get vacuums and furnaces
07:41
and drag stuff out of the ground
07:44
and get things hot and poison and pollute,
07:46
but I got this hard thing.
07:49
I'm so clever,"
07:52
and you look behind you, and there's destruction all around you.
07:54
But guess what? You're so clever,
07:57
but you're not as clever as a clam.
07:59
A clamshell's hard.
08:01
There's no vacuums. There's no big furnaces.
08:03
There's no poison. There's no pollution.
08:06
It turns out that our other species
08:08
has figured out a long time ago
08:10
how to create many of the things that we need
08:12
using biological processes that nature knows how to use well.
08:15
Well that insight of biomimicry,
08:18
of our scientists finally realizing
08:20
that we have as much to learn from other species.
08:22
I don't mean taking a mouse
08:24
and sticking it with stuff.
08:26
I don't mean looking at it from that way -- abusing the little species.
08:28
I mean actually respecting them, respecting what they've achieved.
08:31
That's called biomimicry,
08:34
and that opens the door
08:36
to zero waste production,
08:38
zero pollution production --
08:40
that we could actually enjoy
08:42
a high quality of life, a high standard of living
08:44
without trashing the planet.
08:46
Well that idea of biomimicry,
08:48
respecting the wisdom of all species,
08:51
combined with the idea
08:53
of democracy and social justice,
08:55
respecting the wisdom and the worth of all people,
08:57
would give us a different society.
09:00
We would have a different economy.
09:02
We would have a green society
09:04
that Dr. King would be proud of.
09:06
That should be the goal.
09:08
And the way that we get there is to first of all recognize
09:10
that the idea of disposability
09:13
not only hurts
09:16
the species we've talked about,
09:18
but it even corrupts our own society.
09:20
We're so proud to live here in California.
09:23
We just had this vote, and everybody's like,
09:26
"Well, not in our state.
09:28
I don't know what those other states were doing."
09:31
(Laughter)
09:34
Just so proud.
09:36
And, yeah, I'm proud, too.
09:38
But California,
09:41
though we lead the world in some of the green stuff,
09:44
we also, unfortunately, lead the world
09:47
in some of the gulag stuff.
09:49
California has one of the highest incarceration rates
09:52
of all the 50 states.
09:55
We have a moral challenge in this moment.
09:57
We are passionate about rescuing
10:00
some dead materials from the landfill,
10:03
but sometimes not as passionate
10:05
about rescuing living beings, living people.
10:07
And I would say that we live in a country --
10:10
five percent of the world's population,
10:13
25 percent of the greenhouse gases,
10:15
but also 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
10:18
One out of every four people locked up anywhere in the world
10:20
is locked up right here in the United States.
10:23
So that is consistent with this idea
10:25
that disposability is something we believe in.
10:28
And yet,
10:31
as a movement
10:34
that has to broaden its constituency,
10:36
that has to grow,
10:38
that has to reach out beyond our natural comfort zone,
10:40
one of the challenges to the success of this movement,
10:43
of getting rid of things like plastic and helping the economy shift,
10:46
is people look at our movement with some suspicion.
10:49
And they ask a question, and the question is:
10:52
How can these people be so passionate?
10:55
A poor person, a low-income person, somebody in "Cancer Alley,"
10:58
somebody in Watts,
11:01
somebody in Harlem, somebody on an Indian reservation,
11:04
might say to themselves, and rightfully so,
11:06
"How can these people be so passionate
11:08
about making sure
11:11
that a plastic bottle
11:13
has a second chance in life,
11:15
or an aluminum can has a second chance,
11:17
and yet, when my child gets in trouble
11:20
and goes to prison,
11:22
he doesn't get a second chance?"
11:24
How can this movement be so passionate
11:26
about saying we don't have throwaway stuff, no throwaway dead materials,
11:28
and yet accept
11:31
throwaway lives and throwaway communities like "Cancer Alley?"
11:33
And so we now get a chance
11:36
to be truly proud of this movement.
11:39
When we take on topics like this,
11:42
it gives us that extra call
11:44
to reach out to other movements
11:46
and to become more inclusive and to grow,
11:48
and we can finally get out of this crazy dilemma that we've been in.
11:51
Most of you are good, softhearted people.
11:55
When you were younger, you cared about the whole world,
11:57
and at some point
12:00
somebody said you had to pick an issue,
12:02
you had to boil your love down to an issue.
12:04
Can't love the whole world --
12:06
you've got to work on trees,
12:08
or you've got to work on immigration.
12:10
You've got to shrink it down and be about one issue.
12:12
And really, they fundamentally told you,
12:15
"Are you going to hug a tree,
12:18
or are you going to hug a child? Pick.
12:20
Are you going to hug a tree,
12:22
or are you going to hug a child? Pick."
12:24
Well, when you start working on issues like plastic,
12:26
you realize that the whole thing is connected,
12:28
and luckily most of us are blessed to have two arms.
12:31
We can hug both.
12:33
Thank you very much.
12:35
(Applause)
12:37

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About the Speaker:

Van Jones - Social justice and green energy activist
Van Jones sees a clear link between soclal justice and green energy -- and works for both.

Why you should listen

Anthony "Van" Jones is founder of the Ella Baker Center for human rights, based in Oakland, California, and of Green for All, an NGO dedicated to "building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty." His work points to the connection between green energy and job creation. He's the author of The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems. In 2009, US President Obama appointed Jones his Special Advisor on Green Jobs; Jones resigned the position later that year.

Jones is a senior fellow at the Center For American Progress and a senior policy advisor at Green For All. He holds a joint appointment at Princeton as a distinguished visiting fellow in both the Center for African American Studies and in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

More profile about the speaker
Van Jones | Speaker | TED.com