Keep America Beautiful is the non-profit that fooled environmentalism into thinking the earth’s peril is all the consumers fault. Created in 1953 by a couple leading beverage and packaging companies, in the 60’s it was joined by Coca Cola and Dixie Cup Co who steadily opposed many environmental initiatives. Their famous ad in 1971, ‘The Crying Indian’ played off the counterculture of the moment which embraced the identity of the Native American as more authentic than the current commercial culture. (The actor who plays the Indian was not, in fact, a Native American.) The ad was wildly successful, completely switching the narrative from corporations to focus on the consumer as the responsible party to saving the planet.
1970 was the country’s first earth day and most demonstrations organized up until this point were focused on the industry, not consumers. Advertisements, campaigns, and billboards against littering began to appear, and in 1972 littering actually became illegal in the US. Coy with their propaganda, Keep America Beautiful didn’t disclose the corporations behind the nonprofit so they actually gained support from mainstream environmental groups. In the Crying Indian ad there is a booming voice, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Smart marketing, persuaded by guilt, the individual viewers are suddenly responsible, the corporations are no longer culpable because it is now in the realm of the individual.
And here we are today, shaming each other and communities who drink out of reusable plastic.
As Astyn Quander points out on her Instagram page, “Plastic Free is a Privilege. The current glamorous version of sustainable living has been co-opted from the practices of BIPOC and people with limited financial resources who have lived sustainably as means of survival. The ability to choose a plastic-free or sustainable lifestyle is a privilege. Living plastic free requires access to sustainability education, financial resources, free time, and access to physical spaces like bulk stores and package free stores. Sustainable living looks different for everyone. Do your best.”
Echoing Astyn’s sentiment, many wellness creators position themselves as better simply because their product is packaged in glass. Piggybacking on today’s counterculture and the interest in simplified living and sustainable consumption, this way of thinking is not too dissimilar from the Keep America Beautiful ads tugging on the heartstrings of hippies in the 70’s.
This approach demonstrates we have learned well from the masters; we disguise our industries and products as essential. But when we reach to create are we asking if the world really needs another body butter, scrub, mask, or exfoliator? Are we contemplating with the nuances of creation and reckoning that most everything we create eventually becomes some form of trash… even glass?
The most sustainable option would be a radical reimagining of consumption and consumer behavior. A return to slow production, home remedies, folk medicine, barter, and trade. Our relationship to labor and its demand would be like nothing we have ever experienced in our lifetime.
My personal attitude toward the use of plastic is complicated and unsorted. I use refillable everything, my storage containers for food are all glass, I buy bulk, and shop local. A portion of my closet is vintage, I do my best to not drive unnecessarily, and I carefully plan my air travel.
But I also enjoy the sterile ease of plastic when I visit the hospital or receive blood work. I am grateful for the big plastic CT scan and EKG monitors that guard my life. I like my credit card and its weightless power, and I bet you do too. Who gets to decide when plastic is good and when it is bad?
Proposing problems with elitist solutions is environmental racism.
This doesn’t mean I don’t whimper at the sight of the Pacific Gyre or feel ill when reading statistics about our oceans. It means we need to reach for compassion and humility when exchanging ideas with each other — especially cultural ideas that change the way we use and move through the world.
Until there is a reimagined recycling and transportation system, we can better understand our output and watch our tendencies towards gluttonous consumption. What we really need to do is hold the corporations accountable, attack their email inboxes and social media accounts. These industrious corporations are literally spewing toxins into our water, air, soil, and food.
Don’t be fooled into thinking it is your fault or your responsibility alone. Fight lobbyists and vote like-minded people into power. Support activists. Fund bio-engineers and their projects to create alternative materials. Limit your food waste and save your food scraps to make broths or compost. Drive through neighborhoods next to power plants and talk to the local school principal about the health of their students. Listen to a podcast with Erin Brockovich and learn who George Washington Carver is. We are participants, not creators of the plastic age. We can take back our world.
Chelsea McCarthy celebrates questions, challenges social conventions, and encourages the interdisciplinary nature of creativity. She maintains practices as a creative director, entrepreneur, and artist and lives between Los Angeles and Kaua’i.