“That’s so ugly, isn’t it? That plastic bag stuck in the tree?”
“Yes, it really is a shame. Those bags get stuck in the trees in our park all the time.”
“Did you know that plastic bags are made with petroleum products?”
“No, I never thought about it before.”
… and there’s my opening. The conversation begins. 😉
No one likes to see plastic bags stuck in the trees of our parks, washing down our storm sewers, stuck to the exhaust pipes of our cars, or stinking until they shred, sloshing in the tides, visible and unsightly during our visits to the beach. When I have exhausted every other way to hold a conversation with someone who opposes my politics, we can always agree that those ‘tree bags’ are an eyesore. It’s a fail-safe opportunity for me to introduce a conversation about how plastics have really invaded our culture, and how plastic contributes, not only to the depletion of fossil fuels, but to the demise of our marine life as well.
Next, I ask them if they have ever heard of the Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s a concentration of plastic and other man-made sludge, estimated to be about twice the size of Texas (so far) and located north of the North Pacific Gyre. It’s driven and held in place by oceanic and wind currents. There are several garbage patches in our oceans, the Pacific being the largest of them.
The plastic and trash enter our waterways by storm sewer outlets, ocean vessel dumping, and various other methods. As it begins to photo-degrade, the plastics are reduced to smaller pieces (some microscopic), and the reduction becomes a toxic soup. The chemicals are consumed by fish, whales and dolphins, among other ocean life, and eventually it kills them. Birds that feed in ocean waters are also victims of the plastic garbage piles. We see their decomposed bodies on the shoreline. All that’s left is some feathers, a pile of bones, and … plastic.
(Here’s a great ABC News Video about it – Disposable Island)
This conversation evokes sympathy from just about everyone. Once I have touched on the dead marine and bird life, I throw in a fact that brings them back home. I ask if they’ve ever heard of method products inc., an eco-friendly company whose products are sold in many high-traffic variety stores. Though it doesn’t claim to be a “green” company, their brand is easily recognized by average shoppers. The method company collects plastic trash from the beaches of Hawaii and elsewhere, and recycles it to create the packaging for their cleaning products. Hopefully, I’ve given my conversation partner a thought or two about using more eco-friendly products.
Then, back to the bigger picture.
“You know, it’s really a shame that we produce so many plastics anyway. They use up much of the oil that we seem to find so precious these days.” That’s when I drop the F-bomb on them – FRACKING.
“Have you ever heard of fracking?” I find many people who are unaware of it, or at least the devastating environmental and health effects that result from it. I tell them about the studies and consequences of the hydraulic fracturing process – everything from man-made earthquakes to flammable “drinking” water from a kitchen faucet. We discuss the impact of Fracking on the people who live in surrounding communities, like cancer and brain lesions! These studies indicate a need for strict regulation: “There have been over 1000 reports of contaminated groundwater since fracking began, and studies also link the extraction process to polluted air, disease and death in farm animals and wildlife in addition to humans. It is also connected to the increase in earthquake activity. Doctors have come out against fracking; it’s been banned in New Jersey, and other states are considering banning it.”
At this point, I am usually met with an incredulous, “Well, that doesn’t seem right!”
“I know!” I agree with them, and then I move to the most important part of the conversation. We need safety regulations, but lobbyists from oil companies, chemical companies and others, such as Halliburton, have swayed legislators who have exempted the process of hydraulic fracturing from some of our key federal environmental laws. “That’s why we have to keep corporations from having undue influence over our government and legislators. We need to reverse the Citizens United decision – you know?”
I have found some people who don’t know about the Citizens United decision or how it’s affecting our nation. I explain the Supreme Court’s ruling and that as a result, corporations now contribute to political interests without identifying themselves or disclosing their donations to the public. These massive donations, PACs and corporate lobbying groups have strong influence over our politicians, and ultimately our laws. They also pour money into media outlets and run dubious ads that influence voter’s choices. Because of the Citizens United decision, the voice of the American people has been pushed nearly out of the democratic process.
I invite them to write to their legislators about fracking and about overturning the Citizens United ruling, and mention that they can go to APV’s website, and use our link to identify their legislators. At that point, I can end the conversation without ever having spoken the words Republican or Democrat, and, yet, we are united in thought!
“Hey, can you give me a hand to get this plastic bag out of the tree? Thanks!”
Bravo! and thanks to APV board member, Rhonda Hening, for contributing this thoughtful post, and for her continuous devotion and active support for so many of the progressive issues confronting us today.
The liability of truth
Reading between the lines in David Sirota’s article Ten Years Later, It’s Time to ‘Broaden the Context’, there’s an inherent human weakness being exploited today and limiting the flow of information to our students. When teachers and administrators fear harassment or job loss without the protection of collective action, coupled with the need to survive the long-run of a depressed economy, it compromises our American educational values. When they fear teaching “taboo truths” – whether they involve foreign policy, fossil fuels, or the benefits of marijuana – the result is biased information and ignorance. Who profits from that?
In the public school system, where our government still has a hand in enforcing the breadth of knowledge and the open mind of truthfulness, there is no place for the willful omission of critical information just because it’s unpopular, uncomfortable or inconvenient. Teachers should be willing and able to present all sorts of valuable information without fear.
Allowing the fear of parental ire in this case to influence the information covered in a public school is nothing less than cowardly political and religious pandering that feeds into a trend we should mistrust, even abhor. If we don’t offer comprehensive education about a tragedy like 9/11, how can we even consider that our children are being adequately prepared to participate in the discussions, decisions and creative solutions that will help shape their futures, our nation and the world.
This sort of information filtering is a symptom of a larger problem facing education. “School choice” is being hawked by neoliberals and the religious right as a way to improve our school system through privatizing. I think it’s a corporate profit driven plan that has less to do with improving schools than personalizing curriculum to appease parents. That’s the hook. But in the long run, choosing to have corporations market education to our children will result in nothing less than losing control over what our “young consumers” are being taught. As corporations tap into the trillion dollars of taxpayer money spent annually on primary education, we will see it destroyed.
The real school choice
Home schooling and a variety of private schools provide legal options for parents who wish to personalize or expand the knowledge base, self-teach, or handicap their children with a censored, more narrow view of our world and its people’s experiences. Opting out of the public school system is their right, but it includes opting out of the financial support provided to those who choose public education. We all pay into public education for a good reason: we all benefit by an educated public.
It is the same “saber-rattling ideologues who want 9/11 to serve only as a no-questions-asked rationale for more war and bigotry,” who are striving to privatize and alter the basic structure and regulation of America’s public schools. It’s a dangerous and insidious trend already clearly dominating in other areas where corporatist neoliberals have influenced the destruction of traditional American values. The monopolization and control of our mass media sources, the privatization of our prison system, our lack of environmental, energy, pharmaceutical and food safety regulations are all examples. Most recently, their efforts have been to suppress our right to vote, an absolutely sinister attack on the heart of democracy.
Our public school system, in all its stages of imperfection, is integral to the health of our society. Under the control of federal, state and local governments, the people’s laws and standards for education, including a healthy separation of church and state, will be enforced.
Neoliberal ideology, which pushes for less government intervention and more deregulation and privatization, is a challenge to democracy and the ethics and values of the American people like none we have known.
In a neoliberal world, for example, … It may be the case that run-off from my factory kills the fish in your stream; but rather than asking the government to stop my polluting activity (which would involve the loss of jobs and the diminishing of the number of market transactions), why don’t you and I sit down and figure out if more wealth is created by my factory’s operations than is lost as a consequence of their effects? … “The question to be decided is: is the value of the fish lost greater or less than the value of the product which the contamination of the stream makes possible?” If the answer is more value would be lost if my factory were closed, then the principle of the maximization of wealth and efficiency directs us to a negotiated solution: you allow my factory to continue to pollute your stream and I will compensate you or underwrite the costs of your moving the stream elsewhere on your property, provided of course that the price I pay for the right to pollute is not greater than the value produced by my being permitted to continue.
Notice that “value” in this example (which is an extremely simplified stand-in for infinitely more complex transactions) is an economic, not an ethical word, or, rather, that in the neoliberal universe, ethics reduces to calculations of wealth and productivity. ~ New York Times, Neoliberalism and Higher Education
A scenario for privatized education
We don’t need a crystal ball to realize that the control of information provided to our children in a privatized, voucher, “parental choice” system could result in – not better education, but pockets or bubbles of ideology among the citizenry, factions of bias, neighborhoods of closed minds battling each other in the all too familiar fashion of ineffectual gridlock – with no faction quite strong enough to match the power of those in control, those who are promoting this sort of “school choice” and its opportunity to divide the people. Splitting into “balkanised communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible” is already a big part of our problem.
At some point, I think we should foresee that mergers would take place to drive out competition and innovation, and to drive up the cost for consumers.
Schools of thought – privatized thought, with a corporate profit-oriented, need-to-know based curriculum without science, language and fine arts, for example, could eventually replace what we consider common knowledge taught to all students. Privately standardized information might prepare children for a desired end, but not necessarily one of their parents’ choice. When “ethics reduces to calculations of wealth and productivity,” an unreckonable entity with “personhood” corporate rights could be guiding their lives instead.
And the freedom to learn the truth would be long gone, along with those of us who knew it as the foundation for all freedom.
If that sounds like just so much drama, don’t forget (1) that corporate personhood is not new to education – its earliest judicial precedent, set in 1790 by the Supreme Court of Virginia in favor of the College of William and Mary, was (ironically) for Thomas Jefferson to change the school’s theology curriculum to one rooted in science, language and fine arts; (2) or that in corporate affairs, government interference has always been controversial at best; (3) and that today, since the Citizens United decision, we are contending with neoliberalism and corporate personhood as an uncontrolled force clearly set on undermining the will of the people for corporate profits.
Corporate profit-based solutions of the neoliberal persuasion are not the creative solutions we need in order to solve our problems. But if no one else can be heard over their shouting, that’s what we’ll get. The media are not much help with sharing better ideas, and internet news and searches are now filtered, bubbled and based on previous searches. But the ideas are out there and the people should be the ones who vet them. We can improve the school system without turning it over to private corporate control.
This idea, for example, was recently noted and disseminated online with positive results. Why not consider converting more of the “New Deal” Post Office buildings that we already own all over the country into neighborhood schools. (“The USPS has announced that it will be closing as many as 2,000 of its 32,000 post offices and auctioning off the buildings.”) That could reduce class sizes, employ more teachers and serve as a temporary jobs program for a variety of professionals. It would also serve to help save historic buildings and possibly help subsidize the Post Office workers’ pensions which are due to default at the end of this month. It’s more complicated than that, but why not take a closer look at it?
Political pressure to diminish the power of the people and enrich corporations is suffocating America. It stifles innovation and removes our collective voice from the processes of government. Destroying the foundations of a nation only to rebuild it in “one’s” own image, is a noticeable neoliberal pattern and a strategy clearly employed by our military and its corporate contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, curses, like young chicken, always come home to roost.
What our children learn will determine the future of America, and in that respect, there’s just nothing more important. They should have access to schools and teachers unhindered by political ideology and religious indoctrination, and who are proud to teach the truth even as it challenges power. They should be enriched and empowered with a full understanding of government procedure and taught to realize their responsibility as citizens for its success or failure.
Again: “… in the neoliberal universe, ethics reduces to calculations of wealth and productivity.”
(Post updated here.)