A few days ago, I checked the news on Huffington Post and read a story about garbage, something I have been thinking about lately. On Mondays and Tuesdays, overflowing garbage containers line the alley behind my house. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t know where it goes.
I still haven’t made it a priority to investigate exactly how the city where I now live handles trash, but I do remember “garbage mountain” in the last city where I lived. The mountain rose high above the flat landscape, placed close to the state prison. I often wondered how the prisoners were able to breathe because I could smell the heavy stench miles away.
The Huffington Post article I read was disturbing on a number of levels. Here’s a brief excerpt:
China No Longer Wants Your Trash. Here’s Why That’s Potentially Disastrous.
The country has been the “world’s wastebasket” for decades. But starting Jan. 1, China has said “no more.” (by Dominique Mosbergen)
On Jan. 1, China made good on its promise to close its borders to several types of imported waste. By the next day, panic had already taken hold in countries across Europe and North America as trash began piling up by the ton, with no one having a clue where to now dispose of it all.
For more than 20 years, China has been the world’s recycling bin, accepting an enormous quantity of recyclable waste from nations worldwide. In 2016, China processed at least half of the world’s exports of waste plastic, paper and metals — some 7.3 million tons of trash in all. The U.S. exported 16 million tons of waste to China that year, worth about $5.2 billion. Britain sent China enough garbage to fill up 10,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The ramifications of China’s recent ban has been described with language suggestive of a natural disaster. It has sent “shockwaves” worldwide, said Greenpeace East Asia plastics campaigner Liu Hua. Arnaud Brunet, head of the Bureau of International Recycling, compared the ban to an “earthquake.”
As recyclers and governments now rush to figure out what to do with their mounting garbage, environmental activists warn that the initial effects of China’s ban could prove detrimental to the environment and human health.
China’s decision seems reasonable to me. It’s not the job of Chinese citizens to continue to be buried in the world’s toxic garbage. I also wondered why the author of the article failed to use this as a golden opportunity to mention inventions that could potentially address a crucial part of the issue, plastic. I remembered reading about a Japanese inventor who had developed a process for converting plastic back into oil and did a quick internet search.
The inventor was Akinori Ito. He “created a household appliance which converts plastic bags into fuel. The fuel can be used for various applications such as the generation of heat” (interestingengineering.com).
I also found a fascinating video that features Ito describing the motivation behind his invention and demonstrating how it works. (This Japanese Invention Can Recycle Plastic into Oil).
My discoveries didn’t end with Ito. John Bordynuik describes his invention for converting plastic to highly refined oil on TEDxBuffalo.
In doing a little more research, I discovered that Borynuik was later found guilty of misrepresenting his company’s performance to stockholders. Initially, I decided not to post this piece and trashed my draft post. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about this issue. After further reflection, the corporate agenda to discredit an innovator by any means made me seriously question why any one has to make money on a process that helps us resolve a pressing human and environmental issue. Isn’t it enough of a benefit to deal with mountains and oceans of plastic pollution in more responsible ways?
It’s true. I was looking for an easy way out. I wanted someone else to rescue me from the responsibility of doing more myself to reduce what I contribute to the problem. It is also true that I believe science can help provide answers, although more than five decades have passed since my early college days when I was majoring in biology and chemistry. Setting our scientists to work on solutions to pollution would be a far wiser investment than building yet more bombers, nuclear weapons, and continuing our unsustainable environmental exploitation.
What concerns me most about Huffington Post’s article is the fact that Ito’s video was posted in 2010, and Bordynuik’s was posted in 2011. The science is known and both Ito and Bordynuik have demonstrated that it works, albeit on a small scale that requires time and money to carry out at this point. Their work suggests, however, a wiser way to invest in the future without fracking and drilling new oil wells on the shores of Alaska and Florida.
Just think what we could do if we stopped manufacturing new reasons for international conflict and agreed to work together to solve this challenge in ways that make sense! Figuring out how to deal with our own garbage responsibly is a daunting enough challenge to keep us all busy for the foreseeable future.
I wish that Huffington Post had taken a little more time to do research and frame their story in a more constructive manner. It makes me wonder whose interests are being served by presenting information in a tone that may well foment yet another excuse for international conflict. Our garbage.
Greeting the morning contemplating Lahaina’s Banyan Tree
removed from its homeland, an involuntary out-of-place refugee
planted on an island far away commemorating colonial supremacy
Once I stood beneath its massive protective canopy
unaware of its suffering and symbolic history
grateful for its beauty and the cooling shade it accorded me
Now I ponder colonial displacement from different frames
considering both the grievous irredeemable losses and potential gains
What does it mean to stand alone in a land that’s not one’s own?
removed from the environment one’s species has always called home?
unable to return to be among protective kindred, thus resigned?
to serve, without a choice, the frivolous hubris of mankind?
In changing times Lahaina’s Banyan Tree symbolizes resilience and adaptability
surviving storms and droughts in a foreign land for more than a century
touching hearts throughout the years, inspiring kindness and creativity
giving others who are also displaced a sense of home, community
beneath an ever-expanding crown of a now deep-rooted beloved tree
This poem was inspired by a class I am revising for the upcoming semester. I have been thinking about ecosystems, communities of living organisms nested within specific environments forming an interactive network with the elements (earth, air, and waters) available in their surroundings. The myriad of living interactive systems around the globe have had to adapt to ever-changing conditions throughout history. Some plant and animal species have become extinct in this ongoing process.
Often, these changes are viewed and portrayed primarily by what has been lost, perhaps forever. Much as I sometimes romantically imagine that we can return to earlier ways, I know we can’t go back. The world has changed. But there are things that we can learn from our ancestors and from the trees that help sustain the health of the world.
I remember the Banyan tree that so amazed me when I visited Maui and Oahu with my daughter in 1998. The plaque pictured above tells a little bit about the tree’s history and symbolism. It was planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina. What I found most heartening in the brief historical accounts I read is the growing awareness among people about the need to take better care of the Banyan.
Note the changes visible in the photos from 1998 and 2009. The tile pavers have been removed, allowing the earth to breathe, although more work may be needed to assure adequate moisture and nourishment.
”The tree has been subject to severe stress due to drought conditions, soil compaction from foot and vehicle traffic in the park, and also due to developmental activities in the vicinity. As a result, restrictions have been imposed … Its sustenance has been ensured by the Lahaina Restoration Foundation by installing an irrigation system in the park” (Wikipedia).
I don’t believe we can turn back time, but we can learn how to welcome and care for those who are displaced like the Banyan by forces outside of their control. This is one of the key lessons I hope to pass on to my students next semester.
This morning when I awoke I was reflecting on my lack of hope and passion these days. It feels as though everything I love, everything that brings me joy and peace and hope is at risk. When did my hope and passion disappear? Was it because of the institutions where I worked that publicly espoused social justice missions but contradicted those values through the actions of the majority? Was it because of the neighbors or ex-spouses who only appeared to be concerned with their own comfort and their own pursuit of happiness? Was it because of the zeitgeist of the times summarized by the observation of my newest neighbor when speaking of a child with serious mental health issues? “I’m in this alone.” This feeling of being alone, when internalized, is a destroyer of hope and collective action and it seems to be a major obstacle for joining together to address the serious threats of these times.
As I look back, I realize this feeling has been an undercurrent in the past. Every intervention I have worked on hit this stumbling block sooner or later despite my best efforts. Like my neighbor, ultimately I felt alone in my past efforts because I was never able to inspire or cultivate enough hope for a critical mass of others who were willing to put aside immediate personal comfort to carry the responsibility for working toward a greater good. It was not for lack of trying.
Yesterday, as I was contemplating clearing away some of the gifts, papers, and books I’ve accumulated over the years that fill files, shelves, walls and cupboards, I noticed the white candle that sits atop my most important bookshelf – the one that holds irreplaceable books I used to write my dissertation. Of course, like all my mementos, the candle has a story.
I was working as the deputy director of health and human services for an inter-tribal agency. It was not an easy job for many reasons, primarily because of the enduring legacy of colonialism that continued to impose dominant cultural paradigms on tribal communities and use divide and conquer tactics to foment conflicts between “traditional” and “progressive” tribal factions. Resolving conflict was a central part of my job, and it often put me in the middle of powerful competing interests. At a particularly challenging time, I needed to travel with one of my staff to a conference on worldwide healing for Indigenous people held in Edmonton, Alberta. The conference helped me realize I was not alone. Rediscovering the candle on my bookcase reminded me of the conference’s closing ceremony.
More than one thousand of us, representing many cultures and nations, stood in a circle within a large auditorium holding hands. Then, one elder walked to the center. She explained that the closing ceremony was intended to remind us that we were not alone. Because we were in a government building, we couldn’t use candles (fire ordinances prevented it), so flashlights would have to do. And then, the lights in the room went out as her flashlight went on in the center of the circle. She signaled to the four directions, highlighting one person from each of the four directions to walk to the center – first the east, then the south, the west, and the north. The representatives were all given a flashlight. As they touched their darkened lights to the elders “candle,” their flashlights were turned on. They were instructed to carry their light to the four directions and light other candles in their part of the circle. The elder explained that it would not be easy to keep the candle fires burning, but if the light went out, people could always return to the center to light them once again.
This morning, I realize I need to take the time to finally light the candle on my book case. It’s not the same white candle I used for a similar ceremony years later for the 40 staff who worked for the Honoring Our Children Project that included nine tribal communities. Building and maintaining multicultural, interdisciplinary teams within and across different tribal cultures was not an easy task. Providing a center they could return to in challenging times was important. But it is the same candle I used in a farewell ceremony with the graduate students I mentored during our final class together. They would all be graduating and scattering to the four directions.
As I lit the candle this morning, I thought of the inter-tribal staff who did astounding work, and the creative and inquisitive students I worked with over the years. I thought about my blogging friends around the world who help me realize that each of is sharing our light. And I thought about the many other people who carry light yet feel alone. May we learn to share our light and stand together for the sake of all we love.
During the past week, I have been reviewing some of my December posts from past years. Many carry important messages that I have decided to share again. Following is a reflection posted on December 12, 2013. Not much has changed for the better in my neighborhood or the world since then.
Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.
Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.
I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.
From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,
… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)
What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.
Community of RelatednessCollectivity of Strangers
What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.
As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.
Grading student papers is not an easy job. It’s the reason I haven’t been on WordPress often these past weeks. Yet I have learned how important it is to grade mindfully, because the words we use can change lives – for better or worse.
I’m posting a poem my colleague shared with me tonight that speaks to this truth with power and eloquence.
My Name Is Not Those People, a poem by Julie K. Dinsmore, read Danny Grover on YouTube:
Feeling physically fragile as I gently greet the morning gazing up at the southwestern sky
a silent V of geese
soon followed by another, larger V trumpeting encouragement for the one temporarily leading breaking through wind resistance creating uplift for all those that follow so others can save their strength for their turn to carry the difficult responsibility of guiding others
working together in harmony because sharing responsibility lightens burdens in the journey of life unfolding
Ageist messages that I’m too old
at 70 to do simple chores
sometimes makes me hesitant to try
But my courageous daughter inspires me
and a funny thing happens when I do try anyway
I realize with the right tools
like my “new” $20 8-foot ladder
from Habitat for Humanity’s “Restore”
I can clear the gutters of
sprouting baby maple trees anyway
With my little green garden wagon,
work boots and heavy-duty gloves
I’m not too frail to haul and carry
landscaping blocks to upgrade gardens
and prevent continuing erosion anyway
I’m not ashamed to sweat buckets
in my raggedy work clothes
doing honest manual labor
It’s a gift and a privilege
to take care of what I can anyway
Privilege requires responsible stewardship
regardless of what others do and think
with simple tools to extend our reach
and help us carry heavy loads
‘though the efforts are always a work in progress
it’s important to keep shouldering what we can anyway
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.