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The economic injustice of plastic

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    I am honored to be here,
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    and I'm honored to talk about this topic,
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    which I think is of grave importance.
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    We've been talking a lot
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    about the horrific impacts of plastic
    on the planet and on other species,
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    but plastic hurts people, too --
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    especially poor people.
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    And both in the production of plastic,
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    the use of plastic
    and the disposal of plastic,
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    the people who have
    the bull's-eye on their foreheads
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    are poor people.
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    People got very upset
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    when the BP oil spill happened,
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    for very good reason.
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    People thought, "Oh, my God.
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    This is terrible, this oil --
    it's in the water.
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    It's going to destroy
    the living systems there.
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    People are going to be hurt.
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    This is a terrible thing,
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    this oil is going to hurt
    the people in the Gulf."
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    What people don't think about is:
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    What if the oil had made it
    safely to shore?
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    What if the oil actually got
    where it was trying to go?
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    Not only would it have been burned
    in engines and added to global warming,
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    but there's a place called "Cancer Alley,"
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    and the reason it's called "Cancer Alley"
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    is because the petrochemical industry
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    takes that oil and turns it into plastic
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    and in the process, kills people.
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    It shortens the lives of the people
    who live there in the Gulf.
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    So oil and petrochemicals are not
    just a problem when there's a spill;
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    they're a problem when there's not.
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    And what we don't often appreciate
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    is the price that poor people pay
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    for us to have these disposable products.
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    The other thing
    we often don't appreciate is,
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    it's not just at the point of production
    that poor people suffer.
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    Poor people also suffer
    at the point of use.
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    Those of us who earn
    a certain income level,
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    we have something called choice.
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    The reason why you want
    to work hard and have a job
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    and not be poor and broke
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    is so you can have choices,
    economic choices.
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    We actually get a chance
    to choose not to use products
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    that have dangerous,
    poisonous plastic in them.
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    Other people who are poor
    don't have those choices.
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    So low-income people often are the ones
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    who are buying the products that have
    those dangerous chemicals in them
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    that their children are using.
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    Those are the people who wind up
    ingesting a disproportionate amount
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    of this poisonous plastic in using it.
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    And people say, "Well, they should
    just buy a different product."
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    Well, the problem with being poor
    is you don't have those choices.
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    You often have to buy
    the cheapest products.
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    The cheapest products
    are often the most dangerous.
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    And if that weren't bad enough --
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    if it wasn't just the production
    of plastic that's giving people cancer
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    in places like Cancer Alley,
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    and shortening lives and hurting
    poor kids at the point of use --
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    at the point of disposal,
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    once again, it's poor people
    who bear the burden.
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    Often, we think we're doing a good thing:
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    You're in your office, drinking
    your bottled water or whatever it is,
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    and you think to yourself,
    "I'm going to throw this away.
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    No -- I'm going to be virtuous.
    I'm going to put it in the blue bin."
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    You think, "I put mine in the blue bin."
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    And then you look
    at your colleague and say,
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    "Why, you cretin!
    You put yours in the white bin."
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    And we use that as a moral tickle.
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    We feel so good about ourselves.
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    If we -- well, OK, I'm just ... me.
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    Not you, but I feel this way often.
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    (Laughter)
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    And so we kind of have
    this moral feel-good moment.
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    But if we were to be able
    to follow that little bottle
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    on its journey,
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    we would be shocked
    to discover that, all too often,
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    that bottle is going to be put on a boat,
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    it's going to go all the way
    across the ocean
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    at some expense,
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    and it's going to wind up
    in a developing country, often China.
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    I think in our minds, we imagine
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    somebody's going to take
    the little bottle and say,
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    "Oh, little bottle! We're so happy
    to see you, little bottle."
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    (Laughter)
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    "You've served so well."
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    (Laughter)
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    He's given a little bottle massage,
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    a little bottle medal.
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    And they say, "What would
    you like to do next?"
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    The little bottle says,
    "I just don't know ..."
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    (Laughter)
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    But that's not actually what happens.
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    You know?
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    That bottle winds up getting burned.
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    The recycling of plastic
    in many developing countries
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    means the incineration of the plastic,
    the burning of the plastic,
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    which releases incredible toxic chemicals
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    and, once again, kills people.
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    And so, poor people
    who are making these products
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    in petrochemical centers
    like Cancer Alley,
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    poor people who are consuming
    these products disproportionately,
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    and then poor people who,
    even at the tail end of the recycling,
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    are having their lives shortened.
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    They're all being harmed -- greatly --
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    by this addiction that we have
    to disposability.
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    Now, you think to yourself --
    I know how you are --
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    you say, "That sure is terrible
    for those poor people.
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    It's just awful. Those poor people.
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    I hope someone does
    something to help them."
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    But what we don't understand is --
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    here we are in Los Angeles.
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    We worked very hard
    to get the smog reduction
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    happening here in Los Angeles.
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    But guess what?
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    Because they're doing so much
    dirty production in Asia now,
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    because the environmental laws
    don't protect the people in Asia now,
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    almost all of the clean air gains
    and the toxic air gains
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    that we've achieved here in California
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    have been wiped out
    by dirty air coming over from Asia.
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    So we all are being hit.
    We all are being impacted.
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    It's just that the poor people
    get it first and worst.
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    But the dirty production,
    the burning of toxins,
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    the lack of environmental
    standards in Asia,
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    is actually creating so much
    dirty air pollution,
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    it's coming across the ocean,
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    and has erased our gains
    here in California.
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    We're back where we were in the 1970s.
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    And so we're on one planet,
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    and we have to be able to get
    to the root of these problems.
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    The root of this problem, in my view,
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    is the idea of disposability itself.
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    You see, if you understand the link
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    between what we're doing
    to poison and pollute the planet
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    and what we're doing to poor people,
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    you arrive at a very troubling
    but also very helpful insight:
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    In order to trash the planet,
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    you have to trash people.
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    But if you create a world
    where you don't trash people,
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    you can't trash the planet.
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    So now we are at a moment
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    where the coming together
    of social justice as an idea
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    and ecology as an idea,
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    we finally can now see
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    that they are really,
    at the end of the day, one idea.
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    And it's the idea that we don't have
    disposable anything.
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    We don't have disposable resources.
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    We don't have disposable species.
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    And we don't have
    disposable people, either.
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    We don't have a throwaway planet,
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    and we don't have throwaway
    children -- it's all precious.
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    And as we all begin to come back
    to that basic understanding,
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    new opportunities for action
    begin to emerge.
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    Biomimicry,
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    which is an emerging science,
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    winds up being a very important
    social justice idea.
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    People who are just
    learning about this stuff:
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    biomimicry means respecting
    the wisdom of all species.
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    Democracy, by the way,
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    means respecting the wisdom
    of all people -- we'll get to that.
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    But biomimicry means
    respecting the wisdom of all species.
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    It turns out we're a pretty
    clever species.
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    We have this big cortex,
    we're pretty proud of ourselves.
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    But if we want to make something hard,
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    we say, "I know! I'm going
    to make a hard substance.
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    I know! I'm going to get
    vacuums and furnaces
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    and drag stuff out of the ground
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    and get things hot
    and poison and pollute ...
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    But I got this hard thing!"
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    (Laughter)
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    "I'm so clever!"
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    And you look behind you,
    and there's destruction all around you.
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    But guess what?
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    You're so clever,
    but you're not as clever as a clam.
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    A clamshell is hard.
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    There's no vacuums.
    There's no big furnaces.
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    There's no poison. There's no pollution.
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    It turns out that other species
    figured out a long time ago
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    how to create many of the things we need
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    using biological processes
    that nature knows how to use well.
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    That insight of biomimicry,
    of our scientists finally realizing
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    that we have as much
    to learn from other species --
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    I don't mean taking a mouse
    and sticking it with stuff.
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    I don't mean looking at it from that way,
    abusing the little species.
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    I mean actually respecting them,
    respecting what they've achieved.
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    That's called biomimicry,
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    and that opens the door
    to zero waste production;
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    zero pollution production;
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    that we could actually enjoy
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    a high quality of life,
    a high standard of living,
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    without trashing the planet.
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    Well, that idea of biomimicry,
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    respecting the wisdom of all species,
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    combined with the idea
    of democracy and social justice,
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    respecting the wisdom
    and the worth of all people,
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    would give us a different society.
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    We would have a different economy.
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    We would have a green society
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    that Dr. King would be proud of.
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    That should be the goal.
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    And the way that we get there
    is to first of all recognize
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    that the idea of disposability
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    not only hurts the species
    we've talked about,
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    but it even corrupts our own society.
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    We're so proud to live here in California.
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    We just had this vote,
    and everybody's like,
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    "Well -- not in our state!"
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    (Laughter)
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    I don't know what those
    other states were doing, but ..."
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    (Laughter)
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    Just so proud.
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    And, yeah, I'm proud, too.
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    But ...
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    California, though we lead the world
    in some of the green stuff,
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    we also, unfortunately, lead the world
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    in some of the gulag stuff.
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    California has one of the highest
    incarceration rates
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    of all the 50 states.
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    We have a moral challenge
    in this movement.
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    We are passionate about rescuing
    some dead materials from the landfill,
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    but sometimes not as passionate
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    about rescuing living beings,
    living people.
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    And I would say
    that we live in a country --
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    five percent of the world's population,
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    25 percent of the greenhouse gases,
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    but also 25 percent
    of the world's prisoners.
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    One of every four people
    locked up anywhere in the world
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    is locked up right here
    in the United States.
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    So that is consistent with this idea
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    that disposability
    is something we believe in.
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    And yet,
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    as a movement that has to broaden
    its constituency,
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    that has to grow,
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    that has to reach out
    beyond our natural comfort zone,
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    one of the challenges
    to the success of this movement,
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    of getting rid of things like plastic
    and helping the economy shift,
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    is people look at our movement
    with some suspicion.
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    And they ask a question,
    and the question is:
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    How can these people be so passionate?
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    A poor person, a low-income person,
    somebody in Cancer Alley,
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    somebody in Watts,
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    somebody in Harlem,
    somebody on an Indian reservation,
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    might say to themselves --
    and rightfully so --
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    "How can these people be so passionate
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    about making sure
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    that a plastic bottle
    has a second chance in life,
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    or an aluminum can has a second chance,
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    and yet, when my child gets in trouble
    and goes to prison,
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    he doesn't get a second chance?"
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    "How can this movement
    be so passionate about saying
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    we don't have throwaway stuff,
    no throwaway dead materials,
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    and yet accept throwaway lives
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    and throwaway communities
    like Cancer Alley?"
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    And so, we now get a chance
    to be truly proud of this movement.
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    When we take on topics like this,
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    it gives us that extra call
    to reach out to other movements
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    and to become more inclusive and to grow,
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    and we can finally get out of
    this crazy dilemma that we've been in.
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    Most of you are good, softhearted people.
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    When you were younger,
    you cared about the whole world,
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    and at some point, somebody said
    you had to pick an issue,
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    you had to boil your love
    down to an issue.
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    "Can't love the whole world --
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    you've got to work on trees
    or you've got to work on immigration.
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    You've got to shrink it down
    and be about one issue."
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    And really, they fundamentally told you,
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    "Are you going to hug a tree?
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    Or are you going to hug a child? Pick.
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    Are you going to hug a tree?
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    Or are you going to hug a child? Pick."
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    Well, when you start working
    on issues like plastic,
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    you realize the whole thing is connected.
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    And luckily, most of us are blessed
    to have two arms --
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    we can hug both.
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    Thank you very much.
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    (Applause)
Title:
The economic injustice of plastic
Speaker:
Van Jones
Description:

When we throw away our plastic trash, where does it go? In this hard-hitting talk, Van Jones shows us how our throwaway culture hits poor people and poor countries "first and worst," with consequences we all share no matter where we live. He offers some ways to reclaim our planet from plastic garbage.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
12:29

English subtitles

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