How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Earth Day 2011 – Do One Green Thing - Saving the Earth One Plastic Bag at a Time

How quickly we forget. On July 12, 2008 in a radio address, President George W. Bush said, “Technological advances have allowed us to explore oil offshore in ways that protect the environment (1).” In hindsight, Bush’s speech seems tragically myopic, but the constant pressure to pursue offshore drilling continues in the United States and across the world, as nations clamor for the coveted crude elixir.

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Today, the hundreds of millions of gallons of crude oil suffocating the Gulf of Mexico are an abstracted post script for everyone except the aborted dolphin fetuses that continue washing up along Florida’s shorelines. The blowout of the BP Horizon offshore oil rig was not the first disaster of its kind, nor will it be the last, but how quickly we forget.

In 1969, a Unocal oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara blew, spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the beautiful California surf. At the time, it was a disaster of unprecedented proportions (although the event is now dwarfed by the recent BP disaster). Seabirds, otters, seals and dolphins suffocated in thick, black tar, washed up in the thousands, dead along the Santa Barbara coast. Although disastrous, the event precipitated a national environmental wake up call.

Inspired by the California disaster, Senator Gaylord Nelson established on April 22nd, 1970, the first Earth Day. Events across the country on that day cemented public support for environmental conservation. In what would today be unheard of, Republicans and Democrats joined together to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and to pass the landmark Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species Acts.

On Friday, April 22nd, 2011 we will again pause for a few minutes from our distracted, frenetic lives to pay homage to our home and habitat, the Earth. While the events of Santa Barbara and the Gulf of Mexico seem far away from most of us, we cannot escape our connection to them. The gasoline that propels our vehicles, the power that electrifies our day-to-day lives and the plastic bags and bottles that we use once and then carelessly toss away are all products of the necessary evil that is crude oil.

Just as crude oil slips into the niches of an ecosystem, it creeps insidiously into our every day lives without observation. Almost every consumer good sold makes its way to our grocery and big box stores aboard a fossil fuel-propelled rig or freighter from China. The food on our tables, cement in our houses, and chemicals in all our household products can trace their origins to fossil fuel. While one could argue that in the case of subsistence items, the cost of oil extraction is outweighed by necessity, in many instances our consumption of products produced from fossil fuels is simply careless and lazy. In the United States the production of plastic bags alone accounts for the consumption of 12 million barrels of oil every year. It is estimated that the manufacture and transportation of bottled water consumes the equivalent of 32-55 million barrels of crude oil every year. The price of convenience is high (2).

The same lightweight and sturdy physiology that makes the single use plastic bags and bottles convenient also makes them a perfect vehicle to catch the wind or float into waterways. As the refuse of our convenience blows away from open landfills and floats downstream, it makes its way to the ocean where it collects. In the Pacific Ocean, plastic now outweighs living biomass by a ratio of 6:1 (3). In the ocean, plastic is misinterpreted as food by marine animals and seabirds. The Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation estimates that a million birds and over 100,000 turtles and marine mammals are sacrificed each year on the alter of human laziness by ingesting single use plastics (4).

The single use plastic bag and bottle are the ultimate icons of our throw away culture. By some estimates, plastic bags are the most ubiquitous consumer good on Earth, with up to one trillion produced and used every year. Once a bag is consumed, it is here to stay, taking up to 1,000 years to decompose. At the Pacific Ocean Gyre, a great trash heap the size of Texas now plagues an ocean whose name literally means “to make peace.” As with all peaceful and passive entities on Earth, the human species is slowly but surely killing her.

Every bag used and carelessly tossed has the potential to take life, the life of a sea turtle, bird, whale, or ocean. The catastrophic environmental impacts associated with the extraction of oil and the toxic byproducts of production are also murderous residuals of human convenience. Conversely, every time a reusable bag or water bottle is employed, lives and the ecosystem are saved. Most people feel rightfully overwhelmed when confronted with the multiplicity of environmental problems that plague the planet. We feel like we are helpless to effect change, but we can all be environmental heroes by simply rejecting single use plastics. This small gesture goes a very long way.

Reducing our consumption of plastic will not ruin our lives or the economy. It is not an inconvenience to keep reusable bags and a refillable water bottle in the car at all times. The reusable bags, hold more, don’t split and are easier to carry, and who really uses those ridiculous plastic utensils anyway?

On Friday, April 22nd and for every day after, forever, commemorate Earth Day by putting your money where your mouth is and remember our lust for oil has consequences. Plastic bags, bottles and other convenience items are crude oil derivatives. We can carelessly gather them by the hundreds at the grocery store, allow them to blow off the backs of our pick up trucks, and throw them away. Or, we can be sentient, conscientious, citizens of Earth and for the price of convenience save a bird, a turtle and our world.

1- Background on Santa Barbara and Earth Day history
2- Energy cost of bottled water
3- Great Pacific Garbage Patch website
4- Blue Ocean Society website


  1. killing Mother, I wish you'd take a look at this artist. I think he must be a genius. This first link is especially relevant to your excellent post (Thank you!). Many of the pieces are meant to be clicked on for zooming in. Give those an extra moment or two. Absolutely awesome (and I don't use that term lightly). I offer three here just as a sample.

    The gyre

    Message from the gyre


  2. killing Mother, an excellent sentiment. When I was growing up, laundry soap was powder, not liquid in plastic bottles. Nobody had plastic bags for garbage - let alone leaves! - and life was just fine.

    I can remember remonstrating with my grocer about 20 years ago when they started packing brussels sprouts in plastic tubs. WHY??

    Have you tried opening a child's toy lately? They are encased in layer after layer of plastic.


  3. This post has inspired me to give up plastic bags entirely. You write such great posts and I thank you for your informed, intelligent and inspired perspective.

  4. Tsisagyea, fantastic links. Thank you for sharing them.