Who is to blame for pollution?

Photo by Casey Gomez

George, the Hawaiian snail; Sudan, the white rhino; the calf of Tahlequah, the orca: within the past year, the deaths of these animals have made waves in the news. They each come from endangered or extinct populations that have been plagued by invasive species, poaching or habitat destruction. In broader terms, they are victims of humans’ environmental irresponsibility.

These deaths should serve as red flags for humans. I often think about the negative impact that my actions have on the environment. I am guilty of wasting water and electricity, and many of the items I buy come in plastic packaging that will not decompose in my lifetime. 

Although I try to recycle as often as possible, sometimes it is more convenient to dispose of recyclable items in the garbage.

When I throw a plastic bottle into a non-recyclable bin, a sense of guilt lingers in the back of my mind. I feel as though the universe is keeping an imaginary tally of all the environmentally irresponsible things I have done throughout my life.

In a way, the universe is keeping a tally of these things. For example, it is reflected on Earth in the form of polluted beaches littered with plastic waste. One such beach is on Midway Atoll. Though it is remote and inaccessible to the general public, the beach is covered with trash that washes up on its shores from around the world. A recent episode of “60 Minutes” describes how the albatrosses that live on Midway are dying because they mistake plastics for food and feed it to their young.

This tally is also reflected in the polluted drinking water that communities are forced to consume and in the toxic landfills that cause entire neighborhoods to develop cancer. 

Last year “Guernica” published a story about Dawn Chapman, a woman who began fighting the EPA after discovering that a landfill near her home had been the site of an illegal nuclear-waste dump. The waste poses an even greater threat because of a fire burning underneath one side of the landfill. People in her community have died of rare diseases, but nobody was held accountable.

There are stories of nuclear waste dumps and landfill fires from all over the country. How are these things allowed to happen?

Think back to the last time you took a road trip and stopped at a scenic overpass. It is possible that you were stunned by the beauty of the Pacific coast, or that you gazed upon the Great Smoky Mountains with reverence. 

You may also recall looking down at the ground, past the guardrail, and seeing soda bottles, plastic straws and granola bar wrappers strewn across the rocky cliff or grassy hill.

It seems that society must address the individual attitudes people harbor towards nature. It is astounding that those who have the opportunity to visit such beautiful parts of our planet lack the compassion to leave nature in the same condition in which they found it. 

It is necessary for the government to provide more education about environmentally friendly practices. This should also connect an individual’s actions to larger scale issues; if more people knew that the single-use plastics they dispose of could end up killing baby birds on an island in the Pacific, they might consider cutting down on plastic consumption.

There are larger questions that society must address as well. Why are we sold so many items in plastic packaging in the first place? Why are there so few alternatives? Should consumers be held accountable for it? 

Millions of people go to Starbucks every day and purchase drinks that come in the admittedly distinctive, but non-recyclable and non-biodegradable cups. Does the fact that Starbucks also sells reusable cups or recently got rid of straws let them off the hook for the millions of pounds  of plastic its consumers send to landfills each year?

When corporations condone such blatant environmental irresponsibility, they hurt not only the planet, but also the people and animals that live on it.

Furthermore, the U.S. government has failed in its duty to protect its land and citizens. In Dawn Chapman’s case, the EPA has shown an unbudging unwillingness to take responsibility for that toxic landfill ­— the very one that made unknowing residents ill and  took their lives. 

Politicians and the people who run corporations know that their decisions have grave consequences for the environment, but most have demonstrated that they do not care about the long-term effects.

I have no expertise in environmental sustainability or public policy, but simply watching the news is enough to convince anyone of the great insensitivity people demonstrate towards each other and towards our planet. Compassion for people and for the Earth are intertwined. Disregard for the environments people inhabit equates to disregard for the people who inhabit them.