I was still half asleep at 9:00AM last Friday when I heard:
“I used to be like that… you know, one of those guys who throws their McDonald’s trash out the window.”
Now that got my attention. Sheltered in my bubble of likeminded green enthusiasts, this was the first time I had ever heard someone admit to this kind of behavior.
Driving up and down 75, I am always taken aback when I see bags of trash along the highway, especially in rural northern Michigan- litter always stands out more in country setting. Somehow, sadly, we’ve come to expect it in cities. In addition to feeling stunned, I usually become enraged. It is one of the few moments in life when I feel pure and utter hatred for my fellow man. Luckily, there is never an identifiable perpetrator. Why such a strong emotional reaction to seeing a bag of Taco Bell nestled in a patch of grass? Maybe there’s something about demonizing the litterer that makes me feel superior; “What a terrible person! I would never commit such an abhorrent act. The earth sure is lucky to have me here.” That’s a possibility. Maybe I am more like the smug, self-congratulatory variety of environmentalists than I thought. You know the type that has to tell the world about every single good deed they’ve accomplished and how they just can’t understand people who prefer to sleep in on a Saturday morning than wake up early to volunteer. Sure, that could be true. Lord knows I’m as desperate for approval as the next person. While there may be elements of truth to the former statements, in the end I think the combination of arrogance, laziness and lack of forethought that goes into the act of littering is so universally offensive that I would be surprised to learn that more people don’t have a similar emotional response. Because really, what is so hard about waiting until the next rest stop so you can toss your garbage into a waste basket?
“I’m very different now.” The ex-litterer, Charles, explained. As it turned out, when the economy collapsed, Charles was laid off and ended up going through a green jobs training program; the experience changed his perspective on how we as a society interact with our natural environment. In Charles’ words, he “did a 180.” Today, he works for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) which is how we came to meet.
Charles acted as our guide on the DWEJ’s, “Toxic Tour,” an eye opening, albeit depressing, trip to some of the most hazardous sites inside the city of Detroit. On this four hour-long journey we learned about the history and politics of the city’s largest sources of air pollution. Major offenders include: Zug Island, the Marathon Oil Refinery, Peerless Metals, Sybill and perhaps the worst of them all – the Detroit Incinerator.
By the third destination, my throat hurt. Even with the cool temperature and high winds, the smell at these locations was exceptionally unpleasant. People who live in Southwest Detroit’s Delray neighborhood say that the rancid odor that permeates their home causes nausea, headaches and dry heaves. Residents in Detroit’s 48217 zip code (Michigan’s most polluted) cover their cars with tarps to keep soot from chipping the paint. More recently 48217 residents have become concerned about the link between pollution and adverse health conditions. Many inhabitants acknowledge a rise in cancer, asthma and heart diseases, yet they assert that people simply do not have the money to move to an unpolluted area.
After spending multiple hours taking in the unsightly underbelly of Detroit’s industrial landscape, Green Garage and Earthworks Urban Farm –destinations on the latter half of the tour- were a sight for sore eyes. Additionally, it was encouraging to learn that the GM Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant is home to the largest photovoltaic solar array in Southeast Michigan.
The feeling in my throat cleared up shortly after the tour. The fact that many of us were thrilled when the tour came to an end is a testament to how generally unpleasant these place are to be around, let alone live next door to. Aside from a sentimental attachment to what used to exist in these neighborhoods, it’s doubtful anyone would choose to live near any of the sites mentioned above. People live in these areas because they don’t have a choice.
While the content of the tour was undeniably disturbing, I left feeling motivated to share the information with others. Ironically, Charles, a man whose former self I would have loved to hate, reignited a sense of altruistic empowerment that I lost somewhere in law school.
Later on that night I asked myself, where did my green values come from? Maybe it was the famous pollution awareness campaign that featured this guy (btw, his name was Iron Eyes Cody):
Or maybe it was my mom who insisted on using those embarrassing netted cotton reusable bags;“Can’t we just use the bags from the store like everyone else, mommmmm????”
Either way, where I once thought of this value as something obvious and intuitive, Friday’s experience made me remember that someone had to teach it to me as a child, just like someone had to teach it to Charles as an adult. Thank you Charles, for reaffirming my confidence in peoples’ ability to change.