Your Chewing Gum is Made of Plastic, and Other Things I Didn’t Know

In this post, I finally read about how plastic is hiding in plain sight in all SORTS of things that we wouldn’t expect, and why that’s kinda not good. Curious? Let’s dive in!

Plastic Kills

Plastic Free - Beth TerryToday I’m reporting back on Plastic Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too by Beth Terry.

The impetus for this book is the author’s experiencing of one day stumbling upon a photo on the internet of a baby albatross. It was dead and had decomposed to the point where you could see inside its ribcage… to the stomach full of plastic pellets. Its parents had tried to feed it, but they unknowingly fed it so many tiny plastic bits (that looked like fish eggs) that the baby bird starved to death.

plastic bird stomach
Not the same photo, but a similar one.

I mean, it’s pretty horrific, if you think about it: starving to death because you’re filling your stomach with something it can never process. Ugh.

It was an emotionally impactful moment for the author, and she decided to start exploring plastic: What was it? Where was it? Why didn’t it eventually go away? How did it relate to her? This book is the result of that questioning process.

So… what about plastic?

There is SO much information in this book — I could never remember it all, but thankfully the book is organized as sort of a reference manual, so I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it. Here are some of the main “big picture” things I learned:

  • Most plastic NEVER goes away. EVER. To me, this is the same kind of “whoa”-ness as when I read the very first book in this project (like a million years ago) and realized that we have NO safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. We also have NO safe way to dispose of most plastic because IT NEVER BIODEGRADES. Like, when we think of decomposition, it’s not just that stuff sits around and slowly vanishes, it’s literally being chemically broken down by other organisms — basically eaten. So when a tree log decomposes, it’s becoming fungi food. Or when an animal decomposes, it becomes fly food. But most plastic doesn’t EVER decompose, because it’s not anything’s food!
  • Plastic’s longevity (aka FOREVER) is surprising considering our “disposable” attitude toward it. It’s cheap to make… so we feel like it’s “disposable” — but again, it NEVER goes away! Every bit of plastic that’s ever been made is still present SOMEwhere on the earth, as Wikipedia cites, “down to the molecular level.” So that plastic spoon I used to eat my soup after church this morning? I threw it away after using it once, but it’ll still be here — unchanged — when I’m dead. I will turn to dirt before that spoon does. And I used it once. As the author puts it, “Why create disposable containers and packaging out of a material that lasts forever?” (p.28) Well, because…
  • Plastic is flexible (literally) and cheap, so we give it a low value. Many objects in our society are valued based on the rarity of the material or the time or skill it took to make the item. Since plastic is in high supply and easy to mass-produce, that means we think of it as cheap — and it is cheap, monetarily and temporarily. But it’s costly in the long run, because someday we’re going to have to deal with all this non-biodegradable, non-edible, chemical-absorbing matter with which we’re blanketing our planet…
  • But can’t we recycle??? Well… only to a point. Recycling is toted as an environmental “solution,” but the problem is that each time we re-formulate a recycled material (whether paper or plastic), it’s lower and lower quality (it’s called “downcycling”) until eventually it won’t hold together anymore and needs to be discarded. The problem is that even after that much use, remember, plastic is still a polymer (aka holding together) at the molecular level — so even once we can’t recycle it anymore it’s still plastic and it will still last forever.
  • Things I didn’t know were made of plastic: most fabric (“synthetic” = made of plastic), every writing utensil I own, most carpet, many glues, books (plastic coated cover paper), toilet paper (ouch), and even chewing gum (p.206) – GROSS.

WOOF. I don’t know about you, but that feels a leeeeeetle bit terrifying. It’s so ubiquitous, and it’s never going away.

And you know what? I can’t honestly say anything to make it better. There’s not really a “happy ending” to this book…

So NOW what?

Despite the looming-ness of the plastic problem, this book does a GREAT job of keeping a positive, encouraging, non-shaming tone, which is important when you’re dealing with a topic where your reader realizes they are literally CLOTHED IN the problem. It can feel really overwhelming. But Beth Terry really takes time to say, “Hey — small steps. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t get paralyzed.” I really appreciate that about this book — it’s so user-friendly and accessible.

That said, and while I really do support personal steps to be thoughtful about plastic consumption, as Barack Obama is quoted as saying at the conclusion of this book, “We can’t solve global warming because I f—ing changed the lightbulbs in my house. It’s because of something collective.” (p.309)

Yes, we started composting at our house. Yes, I stopped buying new clothing and have tried to shop only at thrift stores or on Craigslist for already-made items. Yes, we buy in bulk from the co-op using reusable containers as much as we can. Yes, I’ve been more aware when I’m using or buying a plastic object. Yes, I’ve even started washing out and reusing plastic Ziploc bags, even though I hate the smooshy feeling of washing warm, wet plastic.

BUT. Two things.

  1. Not everyone can afford to do those things. (Heck, not everyone even has access to a grocery store let alone a co-op.)
  2. Washing my plastic bags won’t save the world.

It’s REALLY important to remember that for things this big, change comes both at the personal level AND at the big, systematic level. I really like one idea from the book: the personal changes are daily reminders and conversation starters in the pursuit of bigger, wider change.

And especially because, as I learned in All Our Relations, environmental issues often disproportionately impact poor communities and communities of color, it is IMPERATIVE that we not buy a $30 zero-plastic water bottle, pat ourselves on the back, and go back to sleeping well at night. Environmentalism is not about assuaging our personal anxiety; it’s about working to care well for our fellow Earthlings (and ourselves!) on a large scale.

Conclusion

To me, one of the biggest messages of this book is that even when something is “out of sight, out of mind” it still has an impact. When we put something in the trash (or even in the recycling), we forget about it. It’s done. But “trash” doesn’t mean “gone” — we can’t discard something outside the environment. Likewise, just because I don’t live on an Indian reservation or in Flint, Michigan doesn’t mean I can shut my ears and go back to my nice, clean tap water. Life is relational; ecosystems are relational; so our environmentalism needs to be relational, too, and advocate for all our relations.

Meta-Conclusion

Well, folks, that’s the end! I’ve completed my investigation into Imperial Geography (for now). I answered my questions about why the US government offered tree claims to homesteaders, what happened to the land when European settlers came en masse to Turtle Island, and why environmentalism matters for real people today. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned, and I’m sure it’ll come right along with me as I dive into my next reading / learning / blogging project… which I’ll tell you about in another post. 😉

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about — I know I’ve got plenty. Thanks for reading along with me!  ~Rebekah

[EDIT] P.S. Want to join in the next reading project? Here’s the first post!

Growth

Sometimes it’s cool to look back and see the path of how we’ve grown.

As I approach a lot of big transitions (among them the graduation of every student I’ve ever taught, the completion of several large work projects, and a job change), I found myself appreciating how my artwork captures my emotional growth over time.

2016

Today was a stressful day.

Between balancing two separate work clients, recently deciding to quit both of them to pursue more standard employment, trying to prepare for the transition and wrap up a couple major projects, begin my job hunt, AND, ya know, do the rest of life, all of a sudden it sort of came to a head today as I began to feel the feelings of overwhelm creeping into my body.

So I did what I know is good for my soul — I got out the ink and made some art.

stress no.2 - 2016

Any of you who have seen my art or follow my art blog know that my artwork is very emotional and impressionistic. And, knowing the state of my life right now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this particular image came from.

But it also tickled my memory, because I created a somewhat similar piece of art a few years ago.

2012

Four years ago, in the spring of 2012, I was struggling. I was 7 months into a teaching job that was *supposed* to be exactly what I had wanted in a teaching job — middle schoolers, racial and economic diversity, subject-based teams, even a decent starting salary. And I was sinking.

I hadn’t quite figured out why, but I knew that something was wrong, and I could feel myself drowning as I tried to keep my head above water in the classroom. But the overwhelm kept creeping in.

One day, in sheer desperation, my non-verbal brain took over and somehow remembered where I had buried an old sketchpad and a set of oil pastels, and I drew this:

stress no.1 - 2012

I literally hadn’t done any artwork since high school, really, but somehow my body just made this happen, in the middle of my crazy, crazy stress.

Growth

It’s interesting now to look back and compare the two pieces of art, the two snapshots of myself. There are some elements that are basically the same — the nondescript person, the blue spheres, the chaotic shapes outside — but even just looking at the art you can tell some things are different. In fact, the pictures can tell you nearly as much as I could by remembering.

stress 1 and 2

The person on the left is tiny, infantile, literally in the fetal position, as if seeking protection. She seems to be cocooned in a bubble, but the bubble is tiny and almost recedes into a pinpoint compared to the large, aggressive, jagged shapes that seem to fill the landscape. Inside the bubble is calm blue, but everywhere around are vibrant, loud colors and shapes that threaten to pop the bubble and cause the person to curl up tighter.

The person on the right is standing strong, holding a line. Some sort of energy emanates from her center, seeming to protect her, or at least help to hold the boundary. Outside the circle of calm, chaotic shapes and shadows swirl, but the warmth and the focus of this painting is on the person, standing firm, arms outstretched, exuding calm blue and hopeful yellow light. Although it seems that the bubble’s edge is broken in places, the person seems to still be in it, and a burst of dark and light around her right hand seems to indicate active resistance.

See? That’s just me psychoanalyzing my own artwork. (Lol.)

But since it’s my life, I can tell you the actual story.

Four years ago, I got broken by teaching. Totally wrecked. I felt like I had failed. Not only was I miserable at that job, but I had to live with the fact that I had studied for over four years and dragged my new husband to a faraway state — for nothing. I don’t know if I was actually diagnosably depressed, but it was a pretty low time in my life. I didn’t have a lot of emotional resources. I felt pretty helpless and hopeless, and you can see that in my drawing.

Today, I’ve got a few old scars but those are proof that I’ve come out the other side. Now that I know what it’s like to be stuck in a job that’s a terrible fit, I’m not miserable and I don’t feel stuck, because even the jobs I’m leaving are a much better match for my personality and skill set. Moreover, I know I have a sense of agency to change things if they aren’t good for me. And the transition I’m about to embark on will help me to grow even more, both professionally and personally, as I move on to the next thing I want to learn. Yes, I’m feeling stressed today, but I’m aware of my stress, I know why I’m stressed, and I can deal with it standing up instead of crumpling into a ball. (Most days!) Sometimes it breaks through and gets to me, but with a lot of hard work I now have deeper emotional resources to be able to fight back and keep moving through the overwhelm. (And sometimes, I know when I need to take a break!)

Anyway, I don’t really have like a moral to this story — I just am thankful for what I’ve learned and for such a vivid opportunity to reflect on one piece of growth in my life. And I thought I’d share with you all, because sometimes it feels like the internet sort of skims over the tough stuff in life. But the thing is, sometimes the tough stuff is the stuff you’re most proud of.

Fight on, fellow warriors. Fight on.

stress no.2 - 2016

Humans and Earth: My Thoughts on ‘Earth Then and Now’

In Earth: Then and Now, we see “before and after” photos of sites around the world that have experienced massive change, both for better and for worse. Ready? Then let’s get started…

Okay. So. Here’s the world…

earth then and now fred pearceSo honestly, there wasn’t really that much TO this book. After a short foreword and introduction, the only significant text was a brief section intro page before each collection of photo pairs — so I’ll share a quick thought and then some photos and we’ll call it a day.

I somewhat expected this book to make a pretty strong case for — well, anything. But I was surprised to find it actually coming off pretty neutral. The author stated his thesis right out the gates:

Is there a final lesson here? I think so. Nature is not as fragile as we think. She is resilient. With time, she may recover from the worst we can throw at her. It is we, ultimately, who are the fragile ones. Look at these pictures and fear not so much for nature: fear for us. (p.18)

I actually totally agree with this statement. While I do think that ecosystems and species (including us…) are fragile, I think that Nature / Earth as a larger entity is way bigger and more resilient than any craziness we can cook up. I mean, all this life is still here even after giant meteors and whatever else made alllllll the dinosaurs go extinct. So I think that life on earth will survive… it’s just whether human life on earth will survive, or for which humans, or for how long.

That said, once the author made that point it was pretty much a fairly even spread of good news / bad news photos. Here’s one of the “good news” pairs:

ozone then and now

Good news: Seems the Earth is able to heal its ozone layer from the hole we burned in it. Hooray!

Of course, then there’s some bad news as well, like the massive drainage of the Aral Sea that turned most of it into a desert…

Aral Sea then and now

Where folks used to fish for food, now they raise cattle. Think about THAT for a minute.

And, a “bad news” a little closer to home — the much-disputed Tar Sands mining operation in Canada, from a beautiful sunlit forest to a dystopian slurry-field…

Tar Sands then and now

A pretty sweet world, you might say…

After all these photos, really I just return to the author’s (and my ) original point: yes, humans are capable of causing massive transformation, for better AND for worse. But even if we try our hardest to ruin everything, the Earth will live on. That sentiment is, I think, quite aptly captured by this photo pair:

Chernobyl then and now.jpg

Yep, that’s Chernobyl, still too radioactive to be safe for humans but being slowly reclaimed by the forest. (Nausicaa, anyone??)

Bottom line: We are simply one in an array of God’s wondrous creations. Whether we’re living, breathing participants or returned to dust, God’s good plan will continue.

And with that, I’m now off to start reading my next and final book in this reading project — Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too. I’m excited for some really practical stuff to conclude this journey!

[P.S. Thanks to “The End of the World” video for my header titles. What weird, bizarre little throwback to high school! (“But I am le tired…” “Well, go take a nap. THEN FIRE ZE MISSILES!”)]

Why I View ‘Sailor Moon’ as a (Mostly) Feminist Show

WARNING: APPROXIMATELY ONE MILLION SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

sailor guardians teamI never watched Sailor Moon when I was growing up. I really didn’t even hear about it until I was older and got into nerd culture through some manga-loving high school friends of mine. My knowledge was pretty peripheral, but enough that when I heard the original TV series was going to be slowly re-released on Hulu I decided to give it a try.

I’ll be honest — at first I was a little flabbergasted. I thought Usagi (the main protagonist, aka Sailor Moon) was childish and annoying and not very heroic. I couldn’t see why on earth this was supposed to be some girl-power hero show.

And, honestly, even as I kept watching, there are a bunch of reasons to view Sailor Moon as not very feminist and reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. For example, many of the worries and problems the girls are portrayed as caring about seem rather petty and gendered, like boys, becoming a ballerina, having a crush on a famous fashion designer, entering a beauty contest, etc. And there’s the fact that sometimes it seems like the only consistent male protagonist (Tuxedo Mask) is the one who actually defeats the monsters, arriving just in the nick of time to rescue Sailor Moon and co. Plus, all the Sailor Guardians (and all the girls in general) have pretty much the same idealized body type.

sailor venus
I mean really. Fifteen.

(And don’t even get me started on the sexualization of the title sequences and the sailor transformation sequences for these girls who are supposed to be fifteen.)

However.

Despite these (very real and legitimate) flaws, ultimately after watching much of the show’s run I still read this series as empowering to women. Here are three reasons why:

1. Sailor Moon is the real hero.

usagi the klutzDespite the fact that Tuxedo Mask does show up to help quite often, at the end of the day the only one who can save the day is Sailor Moon.

This is significant not only because she’s female, but especially because out of all the Sailor Guardians, Usagi (Sailor Moon’s real life “alter ego”) is the one who is consistently portrayed as the biggest simpleton: bad grades, immature, a huge klutz, irrational, infatuated with romance, and having a love for food that sometimes even distracts her from the important business of defeating villains.

usagi faith 2 smSailor Moon is the one who always keeps the faith in the face of evil even when it seems stupid or irrational to do so. And her simple faith, which is sometimes written off by others as the foolish naivete of a young girl, is actually the very thing that gives her the ability to save the whole world — including the teammates who are more “put together” than her and the boyfriend she seems so infatuated with.

2. It doesn’t belittle girls, it validates them.

sailor moon - trampling hearts rebukeWhile the antics especially of Usagi are sometimes the source of the show’s comic relief, it’s significant that in each episode, the onus of the blame is put on the villains.

Whenever the Sailors or Tuxedo Mask confront the villains, they always make it clear that the villains are wrong for taking advantage of the hopes and dreams of young girls. In other words, the problem is not that young girls have silly dreams or are so naïve that they have allowed someone to take advantage of them. The problem is that the villains have taken advantage of or exploited something pure and innocent and good. This directly combats the rape culture narrative of “she asked for it” or “she should know better” or “how could she be so naive”, which blames the victim for what others have done to her. In Sailor Moon episodes, not only is it not the girls’ fault, but they are praised for having “beautiful dreams” while the villains are directly rebuked and then “punished” for infringing upon those dreams.

3. Girls are friends and it’s GREAT!

Often when girls appear in movies or shows, they’re set against each other as catty rivals for popularity (Mean Girls) or the affection of a man or boy (every movie ever; ask the Bechdel test). While that does happen sometimes in Sailor Moon, rivalry is never the PRIMARY function of the girls’ relationships.

Small squabbles about boys or hurtful words are usually resolved by the end of the episode, and even more long-standing issues (like the frequent antagonism between Usagi and Rei) are put aside in the face of defeating real evildoers.

sailor power finaleIn fact, one of the most moving moments of the series so far for me was the season finale where (I REPEAT, SPOILERS GALORE!) all the other Sailor Guardians have died, but when Sailor Moon’s power alone is not enough to defeat the villain she calls on the love and friendship of her team and their ghostly hands support her from beyond the grave. (I may have cried.)

THIS is the kind of big-picture love and support that we want to teach our girls — that when you’re carrying more than you can bear alone, your loved ones (including other girls and women!) will help you.

4. It’s about girls/women.

sailor friendsAt the end of the day, even just the fact that a popular show has a recurring case of 6 (8 if you count cats) and only one is a man is a huge deal. Seeing five different girls navigate the transition into adulthood in their different ways is HUGE, and something we don’t often see as the main focus of a long-running show.

I really appreciate that the writers actually let us see the characters doing normal life things like fighting with each other, resolving their conflicts, struggling in school, wrestling with and pursuing their vocational dreams, and working through their feelings about romance. …all while doing their best to protect Tokyo and the planet. Whether you’re a studious nerd girl, a strong giant girl, a fiery career girl, an effusively social girl, or an emotional screw-up girl — or even, thanks to Sailors Neptune and Uranus, a mysteriously feminine girl or a standoffish masculine/trans/lesbian girl — you will find yourself in this show.

And that, to me, is what makes this show feminist: feminism is about empowering women, and this show depicts all kinds of women who are all worthy of life and respect and empowered to pursue their beautiful dreams, no matter how silly or naive the world might think them.

The World Through the Lens of “All Our Relations”

This week in Imperial Geography, I learn where we dump all the waste that no one wants… and why just reducing our carbon footprint isn’t gonna cut it. Intrigued? Then let’s dive in!

All Our Relations

all our relations - winona ladukeWhen I first planned out this project (now over a year ago, woof!) I was really excited to take a tour around the continent through the eyes of Winona LaDuke in her All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life.  I know she is a well-known political activist, and I was expecting exciting and powerful stories of daring protests and demonstrations.

But that’s not what I got. What I got was an eye-opening spotlight into why environmental issues are so vital to many Native communities and activists.

We put… what? Where?

Remember wayyyyyy back in my very first book of this project, when the geography textbook I read freaked me out about nuclear (and other undisposable) waste?

Is anyone else REALLY REALLY DISTURBED by the fact that there is NO way to prevent all our nuclear stuff from seeping into our environment? I get that we didn’t necessarily know this when we first invented nuclear power and stuff, but I mean… now that we know… you think maybe we should stop making more until we’ve figured that one out? I mean, I’m no nuclear physicist, but… I kind of like not eating radiation… Just saying…

Anyway, consider me officially alarmed by what seems like a rather imminently dangerous situation in terms of waste generation and disposal. I’m urgently looking forward to learning more (hopefully!) in my last few books for this project, All Our Relations and Plastic Free.

Well, here I am at All Our Relations, and yes, I have learned more. I wondered where all the waste no one wants near them goes in this country, and the answer is, it goes to Indian reservations.

Incredulous? I was, too. But one thing this book doesn’t skimp on is examples. Here are just a few:

  • “According to the Worldwatch Institute, 317 reservations in the United States are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts.” (p.2 — yes, she hits you with that on PAGE TWO!)
  • “Today, an estimated 25 percent of all North American industry is located on or near the Great Lakes, all of which are drained by the St. Lawrence River.That puts the Akwesasne [Mohawk] Reservation downstream from some of the most lethal and extensive pollution on the continent.” (p.15) This has led to Mohawk mothers having contaminated breast milk. The “progress” so far on this is that GM agreed to dredge some of the gunk out of the river… and then shipped it off “to some unlucky community in Utah” (p.23).
  • In Florida, “America has lost half of its wetlands… due to agricultural conversion” (p.30), and the now-rare Florida panthers are being slowly killed off by infertility due to acute mercury poisoning.
  • In Canada, a US Air Force base runs test flights low over the forest where the Innu live, creating “sonic booms” that are “generally exactly at or above the human pain threshold of 110 decibels” and “produce a constant shock wave, traveling along the ground like the wake of a boat over water” that can “lift the water off the lake and tip a canoe and can drive animals insane: foxes have been known to eat their kits, geese to drop their eggs midflight, as a consequence of the sonic boom.” (p.55)

And these are just the first few chapters! As I read through case study after case study of governments and corporations dumping their unwanted chemicals/sound/industry/etc. onto or near Native peoples and Native land (what’s left of it), I started to see why environmentalism isn’t just a fad for many Indian folks: environmental issues are literally killing them. LaDuke sums up this urgency well: “We are the ones who stand up to the land eaters, the tree eaters, the destroyers and culture eaters” (p3).

Seriously — what’s more innocent and natural than a woman breastfeeding her baby? And yet that, too, has been made poisonous. As LaDuke writes in the chapter on poisoned rivers and contaminated breastmilk, “Women are the first environment” (p18). It’s atrocious to think about our waste causing a Mohawk woman to poison her own child.

And why does this keep happening to them? Because in a country where they make up like 1% of the population Native peoples and nations are relatively powerless to stop it. LaDuke does share stories of lawsuits and protests and attempts to get companies and/or governments to respect their sovereignty and treaty rights, and there is a little hope… but it feels like a very David-and-Goliath sort of a battle.

The Mirage of “Clean Energy”

Another huge theme in this book is that the solution isn’t just about limiting ourselves. I kept being like “Okay, so THAT kind of energy isn’t ‘clean’ either… so what’s left?”

But that made me realize that the point isn’t finding an unlimited energy source that keeps our hands clean in terms of environmental sustainability — the point is that we place our desire for unlimited energy and productivity above all else. We only question HOW we will get “all the energy we need”, not WHETHER we actually “need” it.

So the core of the environmentalist conflict, for LaDuke, is not “clean energy vs dirty energy”, or even “conservationism vs extinction” — the conflict is really about an extractionist, resource-based view of the earth and nature versus one that views the earth as an entity in its own right. This giant paradigm shift is summarized well by this passage:

There is no way to set a price on this way of life. That simple truth more than anything else encapsulates the Anishinaabeg [Ojibwe] people’s struggle with the federal government, the miners, and the logging companies. For the past hundred years, Native people have been saying that their way of life, their land, their trees, their very future, cannot be quantified and are not for sale. And for that same amount of time, government and industry accountants have been picking away, trying to come up with a formula to compensate Indians for the theft of their lands and livelihoods. So long as both remain steadfast, there appears to be little hope for a meeting of minds in the next generation.” (p116)

Rather than urging us to exercise self-control within the existing energy-consuming paradigm, LaDuke calls us to completely transform our relationship with the earth. Instead of our current linear, resource-focused, consumeristic, anthropocentric worldview, she offers a more indigenous perspective — one that holds a more spiritual, holistic, circular, relational attitude toward life and the earth.

“When you step on one strand of a spider web, it all moves.” (p191)
“We are walking upon the faces of those yet to come.” (Iroquois teaching, p.194)

Conclusion

As I think I said at the start of this project, I never expected to be an environmentalist. I always thought environmentalism was like a hippie white people thing about saving the whales, and it seemed rather irrational and pointless to me, because humans > whales. What this book really cements for me is, (1) it’s really important to listen to people’s concerns without writing them off, because when you choose to care for the person by listening it lets you in to what really matters to them, and (2) environmental issues are less about restraint (aka only driving one car instead of two, or killing fewer whales) and more about fundamentally rethinking how our society and culture view our earth (aka why is our society car-based, and why do we feel we need to extract so much energy from the earth?). I’m excited to get practical with the last two books in this project!

Next up: Earth Then and Now: Amazing Images of Our Changing World.

Why I Think Paris Is More Important than Beirut

In the aftermath of the attacks on Paris, Beirut, and other cities around the world, I’ve been doing some thinking.

I’ve seen a lot of posts about what we should or shouldn’t do in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ve seen a lot of posts about how we should or shouldn’t pay attention to various disastrous events that happen. I’ve even seen some (really dialed-in) posts about the parallels to the story of the flight of the Holy Family as refugees, and our responsibility as Christians.

But I want to spend a few minutes writing the post that only I can write, which is the one about my own reaction to the two attacks.

I heard about the Paris attack first. I was at a fancy dinner event. The glitzy outfits and bubbling laughter seemed dissonant alongside the updating news reports of multiple shooters and over a hundred dead. I felt sad.

The next morning was the first time I saw any news about Beirut. Much has been made on social media now of the difference in grief and empathy and outrage expressed by Americans/Westerners on Facebook over the Paris attacks compared to the one just a day earlier in Beirut, Lebanon. At first when I saw an image pointing out this discrepancy, I shared it and chimed in with a mental, “Yeah! We should pay attention to both!”

But today, especially as I’ve been reading The New Jim Crow and thinking about the role of the unconscious, implicit gut impulses we have in our complicity in systems of inequality, I decided to take a look at the only realm over which I have total control: myself.

So let’s start here:

First things first, let’s just get it out there: it’s true. I do care more about the attack in Paris than about the one in Beirut. I react more strongly to the attack in Paris than to the one in Beirut. And, if we’re being totally honest, I probably also care more about the people in Paris than the ones in Beirut.

Why? Because when I think about Paris I think about people like me, and an attack there feels closer to home. And when it feels more personal, I react more. Because if it could happen to a city like mine, it could happen to me.

I am a third- and fourth-generation European American on both sides. Many of my forebears have trod the soil of France at various times, most recently by participating in the liberation of France during WWII. Heck, I’ve even been to Paris myself. My own personal history, culture, travel experience, and language all tie me to Europe and/or Paris.

Compare that to Beirut. I admit, I actually had to look it up to even know that it was in Lebanon. I know no one from there. My family is not from there. I have never been there. I would be hard-pressed to find Beirut on a map, let alone tell you much about the people. The little I do know is telling: I know it sounds Middle-Eastern. (Read: “foreign” / “brown” / “Muslim”)

That leads me to my next observation, which is that what I’ve learned over the years from school and media coverage plays a factor as well. It seems that there is “always” “some” explosion or suicide bomb or terrorist attack of some kind happening “over there”. Throughout my entire awareness of news media, I can’t remember a time where there wasn’t seemingly endless coverage of seemingly endless violence all across the Middle East. This leads me to assume that violence, even terroristic violence (perhaps especially terroristic violence), in the Middle East is normal and expected. Just another attack in a series of never-ending, normal, everyday events. Nothing to see here. Move along. It’ll stay over there.

Compare this to my shock at hearing of a terrorist attack in Paris. But this is PARIS! Things like that don’t happen there! Underlying those unthinking thoughts are more ugly assumptions: Paris is immune from violence. “We’re” more peaceful (aka civilized) than “them”. How did “those people” bring “their” violence to “our” impenetrable fortress of civilization?

Basically, if I’m totally honest, I’m pretty fine with violence and terror… as long as it doesn’t feel like it can get me. And that feels shameful.

It feels gross to look inside and see that all of those thoughts are inside of me. But they’re in there. And ignoring doesn’t make them go away. Just because I don’t want to think those things doesn’t mean I can just make them disappear from my brain!

But rather than hiding behind defensiveness, it’s better to just get it out and then start the work. The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem!

So yes, we should pay just as much attention to violence in Lebanon as to violence in France. But don’t just jump straight from “error” to the “correct” thing — it’s also important for each of us to take the time to actually unpack the “what’s going on under the surface” of why we identify more closely with Paris. Only when we can honestly name and own our yuck can we confess, repent, and begin to open up and allow God to give us true compassion for all the people, not just the ones that look the most like us.

A Letter to My Fellow White Christians about #BlackLivesMatter

blacklivesmatterDear Fellow White Christians,

Here’s the deal: I’m a little confused.

I hear some of you talk about why you don’t support the #BlackLivesMatter movement — and I don’t get it! So I thought I’d talk about it in a blog post (especially since I already talked about it on Facebook, so consider this a more organized recapturing of a great conversation with some of you, friends). First off, the basics…

Don’t ALL lives matter?

Or, as presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee recently commented, “When I hear people scream, ‘black lives matter,’ I think, ‘Of course they do.’ But all lives matter. It’s not that any life matters more than another. … I think he’d [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] be appalled by the notion that we’re elevating some lives above others.”

To this I say, yes, he would be appalled — we just need to get on the same page about which “some lives” are being elevated more than others!

When I think about the question “What are black lives worth?” the first thing that comes to mind is what I learned in U.S. History class — the 3/5 clause written into the U.S. Constitution. According to our most sacred founding document, black lives are literally worth just over one half of white lives.

The second thing I think of — again from history class — is slavery. In 1860, an enslaved black person’s life was valued at around $800, or around $130,000 in today’s currency. (I thought that sounded like a large sum — then I thought about how I would feel if someone offered to pay me $130,000 in exchange for unlimited physical labor for my whole life and the right to separate me from my husband and family at their convenience. I no longer find it a large sum.)

To me, the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement is about reminding the rest of us that black people are created in the image of God, too. Consider this powerful paragraph from a New York Times article I posted earlier today:

The Black Lives Matter Movement focuses on the fact that black citizens have long been far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police, and is of a piece with this history [of the Civil Rights Movement]. Demonstrators who chant the phrase are making the same declaration that voting rights and civil rights activists made a half-century ago. They are not asserting that black lives are more precious than white lives. They are underlining an indisputable fact — that the lives of black citizens in this country historically have not mattered, and have been discounted and devalued. (emphasis added)

Let me say that again: saying that Black Lives Matter DOES NOT MEAN that “other” lives don’t matter. It simply seeks to correct the false belief, prevalently visible throughout our country’s history, that black lives matter less by speaking the truth even louder: in other words, not just BLACK lives matter, but Black lives DO matter!

But what about BLM’s questionable methods?

Okay, you may say, fine — a noble goal. But this just isn’t the same as the Civil Rights movement. That was about respectable, peaceful protest, and these folks’ methods are rude and not okay.

Fair enough. You are entitled to your opinion. Even this black former Civil Rights activist has some questions about BLM’s methods and leadership. That said, here are two thoughts I would like you to consider as you continue to form and inform your opinion:

1. Practice listening to black people.

I’m not black — and neither are you, dear fellow white Christian. It’s not our movement. So when I am talking about BLM, I defer to and try hard to LISTEN to black people, especially before I open my big mouth and start to tell other people how to run their movement. Just like that Jesus guy. He was really good at listening to people’s pain and asking thoughtful questions before offering his opinion.

Additionally, I implore you to stay away from sensationalist exaggerations like that Dr. King would be “appalled” or “rolling in his grave.” First of all, this is just an emotion-yanking tactic to try to invoke a sense of violation of one of our most beloved and popular-to-invoke figures. Secondly, remember that the reason we don’t actually know what Dr. King would think is that he was shot by a white supremacist. As this thoughtful and hard-hitting reflection by a black activist puts it, “A nice suit is a nice suit. Get one. But it won’t stop a bullet, son.” So next time you think of invoking Dr. King’s ghost on a black activist, maybe consider another tactic instead. Remember, the authorities on being black in America are black people. So even when it feels hard, even when it feels uncomfortable, cultivate an attitude of listening, not scolding.

2. Remember that the black community is NOT monolithic.

Just like the white community, the Christian community, the Minnesota community, etc etc, black people often disagree with each other! (Shocking, I know.) Some black people will support BLM’s methods and some won’t, but they are entitled to their opinions! If someone thinks interrupting political candidates on stage is a good idea, go for it! If someone thinks that’s rude and won’t get the movement anywhere, more power to ’em! This debate and disagreement is part of making our way forward together, and I think it’s unreasonable for us white folks to hold the BLM movement to standards so high as to not allow for normal growing pains and disagreement as BLM finds their way.

So you’re anti-cop? Don’t Blue Lives Matter?

No! First of all, let me state very clearly: killing police officers is not okay.

Police perform a difficult and invaluable function in our society, and I think it’s appropriate that cop-killers receive harsh punishments in our society. THAT BEING SAID…

Using “Blue Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter” or saying that “cops are now being killed indiscriminately” (as one of my friends stated) is a falsehood and gross misrepresentation of the facts. In fact, this site that tracks the deaths of law enforcement officers says that deaths of officers in the US due to gun violence in 2015 total 24 and are DOWN 20% since last year. Overall line-of-duty deaths total 83 and are down 2% from last year. Hardly an escalation to “indiscriminate” open season on police!

By contrast, The Guardian estimates that police in the US have killed upwards of 500 people this year so far. Additionally, in examining a claim that “police kill more whites than blacks”, Politifact found that while this claim is true, it’s true only because whites make up more than 50% of people in the US, and in fact, “When comparing death rates, blacks are about three times more likely than whites to die in a confrontation with police.” 

SO — again, I reiterate that I am saddened by the deaths of police doing their best to “serve and protect” — this should not happen. I do NOT support hatred towards police (nor does BLM) and I support efforts to bring officers home safely and alive from their rounds of duty. But bringing this up as a way to minimize or dismiss claims about the systemic bias against black people by our society and by our law enforcement practices is misleading and ignores the very real concerns of the BLM movement about consistently high rates of black deaths by police officer in comparison to other racial groups.

What about BLM telling black people to kill white people?

After a lot of Googling, I found one article from a sort of questionable-looking source I’ve never heard of claiming that the “leaders” of BLM had told their followers to “kill a white person, hang them from a tree, upload a pic to social media”. Apparently this occurred shortly before the tragic shooting of two young news professionals in Virginia — the implication being that BLM is implicitly (or explicitly) responsible for the death of these two young people.

Two things.

First, look at the names of the “main ring-leaders” this site lists: Carol “Sunshine” Sullivan, Nocturnus Libertus (Sierra McGrone), Palmentto Star, and Malcom Jamahl Whitehead. Now, look at the names of the founders of the BLM movement, according to Wikipedia, the BLM website, and an article by the Associated PressOpal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza. Notice anything? Hint: the names don’t match. It’s okay to be alarmed that somewhere, a couple of black people are making threatening statements about killing white people. BUT, it’s also important to recognize that most groups have radical extremists. As my friend on Facebook aptly pointed out, “It’s like pro-life people killing abortionists, it tarnishes the message.” Yes, friend — yes, it does. Which is why generally these extremists — both these couple black people talking about killing white people on the radio and the few pro-life people who advocate murdering abortion doctors — are generally viewed as extremists, and NOT as representatives of the movement at large. Ergo, if you are pro-life, you have just as much moral ground to support that cause as BLM advocates have to support theirs — you both have the preservation of undervalued life as your core goal, and you both have tiny splinter groups of extremists who think that taking life is an appropriate way to achieve that goal. (In fact, I find that the BLM movement should align perfectly well with conservative Christian views about the sanctity of life — one of the most challenging Christians I know is a deeply faithful and conservative black pastor who is a staunch pro-life advocate as well as a staunch #BlackLivesMatter supporter.)

Secondly, while receiving threats of being killed, hung from a tree, and photographed simply for being born with a certain color of skin can be pretty terrifying, I’m pretty sure black people have received that threat wayyyyyy more times than they’ve made it. Between 3,000 and 4,000 black people were actually lynched (aka killed and hung from a tree) in the U.S. between about 1850-1960. And those are only the ones that were actually carried out! As for the “post a pic” part — many of these lynchings of black people were not only attended by spectators as if they were sporting events, but profiteers actually made photo postcards of the lynchings that included the bodies of the black victims, and white people actually sent these to their friends!! (Sound like horrific early social media photo posting to anyone else?)

I’m not saying that this makes threatening white people’s lives okay — but I do think it’s important to keep in mind that these issues are NOT isolated incidents, but parts of a larger social and historical narrative of race relations in our country.

Okay, but what about black-on-black crime?

Okay. Here’s the thing.

Yes, statistics show that there tends to be more crime among black communities than among white communities. HOWEVER, as this article points out, “Felony crime is highly correlated with poverty, and race continues to be highly correlated with poverty in the USA,” McCoy said. “It is the most difficult and searing problem in this whole mess.” The article also said that when you control for poverty, (poor) whites have about the same rate of crime as (poor) blacks. SO, until we can fix poverty and/or erase the poverty gap that currently disproportionately affects the black community, we will continue to have more crime in the black community. And they will continue to have more encounters with the police. And they will continue to be killed at a disproportionate rate to whites. And that is not okay. Hence #BlackLivesMatter, because the rest of us need a reminder sometimes when it’s not right in our faces.

Additionally, notice how I said “black communities” and “white communities”? That’s because, as mentioned in this excellent article addressing the question of black-on-black crime,

African Americans are twice as likely to live in black neighborhoods, not because they necessarily want to but because, most of the time, they just have to. With limited social mobility in comparison with whites, most black families can’t just pack up, leave and move to Any Location USA. Instead, they find themselves in majority-black neighborhoods, many of which are ravaged by stubborn trends of low income, poverty, unemployment and underemployment.

Oh yeah, and crime. But not because those neighborhoods are black “hoods” or black people are culturally or genetically predisposed to homicidal crime. Areas challenged by poverty indicators, as this Census Bureau American Community Survey analysis shows, are places where “concentration of poverty results in higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, as well as limited access to private services and job opportunities.” Some of the 10 most dangerous states in the nation admittedly have large—20 percent-plus—black populations concentrated in urban centers, but they’re also places with the highest poverty rates in the nation.

The article also notes that

The three most dangerous states in America are Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico—all states ranging from 70 to over 80 percent white. And not so surprisingly, 6 out of 10 dangerous states are places with open-carry gun laws, which Stanford University researchers suggest contribute to an overall spike in aggravated assaults. Yet we’re loathe to call any of that an upward trend in “white-on-white crime,” just as you wouldn’t hear Russian President Vladimir Putin lamenting the rise in “Russian-on-Russian” murder rates (among the highest in the world, and higher than those in the United States).

So basically, let’s stop focusing in on “black-on-black” crime as a thing.

BUT even if you really want to, I say to you this: even if black-on-black crime is a problem that needs addressing, why do you assume it’s not being addressed? A quick search for “what is the black community doing to prevent black on black crime” quickly reveals that there is already much being done to address this issue — including this conference specifically about addressing crime in black communities, which is celebrating its 30th year! I think it’s safe to say that the black community is well aware of this issue, and don’t need us to remind them.

In conclusion…

If you still have qualms about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, gentle reader, that’s okay. My point isn’t to force you to agree with me. My point is to help us all think deeply and self-critically about the hidden assumptions we hold about black people, how our value of people stands up to God’s value of people, and the role of protest in our shared life together. I hope you’ll keep an open mind — I try to! — and I hope you’ll feel welcome to continue to ask questions, do research, and pray about how we as white Christians might best come alongside our black (and brown) sisters and brothers to communicate in ways that can’t be misunderstood, “Your life MATTERS, to God and to me!”