The Right (and Wrong ) Stuff: Youth activists foster a mission in Pike County

Text: Marygrace Kennedy

O.C.E.A.N. founders, clockwise from top left, are Star Irizarry, Jennifer Forgit, Brianna Fairbanks and Marygrace Kennedy. Not pictured is Dominique Marcial.

“If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying homes, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature as altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born.” Bill McKibben wrote these words in his book “The End of Nature,” the first book on climate change intended for a general audience. McKibben wrote that we are no longer a species living with the larger forces of earth. Instead, we have become those larger forces. The mark of humans is everywhere—in the more violent storms caused by a warming earth, in the chemicals in our groundwater, in the decline in so many different species, in the oil spilled into our oceans. What do these powerful human marks on the planet say about we value in our lives?

The value of ‘stuff’

I believe we have come to value our relationship with “stuff” more than our relationship with each other, with other living organisms, or with our home—the planet we share with millions and millions of other living things.
What does it mean to value something?
If I placed a plate of rice and a plate of gold in front of a starving man, which plate would he value more? The obvious answer is the plate of rice. But, sometimes we choose the gold, not just to buy more rice, but to buy so much more stuff than we ever really need.
What is the value of all this stuff? What if we were to buy less stuff? Won’t each thing we have or buy have more value? And what if we were to place a higher value on things other than stuff—things like sustainability, community, building relationships, personal well-being and the well-being of the planet? Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its ends.” Maybe beauty is not found in the newest, biggest, most expensive stuff; maybe beauty is in contentment with the simpler things, or the things that have gained meaning over time, or because they came from a friend or loved one.
I was fortunate to have the chance to have a conversation with Bill McKibben at Barnfest in Roscoe, NY this past summer, where he was the keynote speaker. He said he worries about the planet because we—i.e. Americans—are so attached to stuff that we are blind to what our desire for so much of it is doing to the planet. He talked about how we need to find beauty in people, in the earth and in our relationships with both. McKibben said if enough of us really think about how we live and what’s important, we can find our way to understanding that happiness in life isn’t about how much stuff we have. But, McKibben wondered, considering the pace that we are using up the planet, will we have time?
‘I need to do something’
After that conversation, I wondered how I could learn to live with less and appreciate more. At the same time, I wondered how I could participate in doing something immediate about the mess we are making on the planet, while helping others to consider McKibben’s bigger ideas about how our culture needs to change. The answer ended up being pretty simple: plastic.
The documentary “Bag It!” exposes the harm caused by our overuse of plastic and what we can do about it. Some friends of mine and I first became aware of “Bag It!” at Envirofest, the environmental film day of the Black Bear Film Festival in Milford, PA last October. A group of us were there to raise awareness about climate change for Bill McKibben’s 350.org-sponsored 10/10/10 day of action. “Bag It!” is entertaining and funny. It makes you laugh, but you cry at the same time. It reminds you to think about how you live and how what you buy, have and throw away affects things we all care about, like other people, animals, our health and our oceans. Once you see sea turtles or those beautiful albatrosses choking on all those non-recyclable plastic caps we throw away, you realize: “I need to do something.”
O.C.E.A.N.
So I, along with four fellow students from Delaware Valley High School (DV) in Pike County, PA, Star Irizarry, Briana Fairbanks, Jenny Forgit and Dominique Marcial, decided to form a group dedicated to reducing our neighborhood’s use of plastic. We have three simple goals: to get our school’s sports teams off plastic water bottles, to create programs that incorporate local businesses in encouraging our community to use reusable coffee mugs, and to persuade all DV parents to use reusable canvas shopping bags when making purchases. We call ourselves O.C.E.A.N.—Opting for a Cleaner Environment and an Aware Nation.
Our hope is that O.C.E.A.N. will turn from a small group of five into a community project. We will encourage student athletes to bring their own reusable water bottles to practices and games. We are enlisting DV coaches to support our efforts and to work toward influencing student-athletes as well. Local businesses will be asked to promote the use of commuters’ mugs as opposed to Styrofoam cups. (Styrofoam cups are lined with plastic and use plastic for their lids.) We will be hosting our own showings of “Bag It!” as well as organizing a public screening for the whole community this spring. Upon seeing the film, we feel that parents and students will be inspired to reduce their environmental impact simply by using their own water bottles, coffee mugs and shopping bags.
Words to live by
These three small easy steps will have a huge impact. O.C.E.A.N. member Star says that “we spend too much time worrying about small things; it’s overwhelming to think about what plastic is doing to our planet.  Still, it’s too big to ignore.” Dominique says, “It’s all about small steps that make a big difference.” Jenny can’t help thinking about the future. “This isn’t just about us,” she realizes. “The plastic we use now will be a problem for our children and grandchildren.” Briana admits, “I can’t buy plastic water bottles anymore. I know the cap I use will end up in the stomach of a baby albatross. I’d much rather use a reusable bottle than take a chance of doing that.”
And that’s what we want O.C.E.A.N. to do: to make people think about what they value and what they’ll do about what they value. History shows that our earth has a way of healing itself. If the time comes when it can no longer sustain human life, it will fix the problem. The planet doesn’t need us to survive; we need the planet. We are not saving the earth; we are saving ourselves. If one water bottle can have such disastrous effects on our planet, think of the impact choosing not to use plastic bottles can have. If one educated and devoted individual can make a difference, think about what a whole community can accomplish.  Join O.C.E.A.N. in reducing the plastic in your life—and on our planet.
Watch for announcements of our screenings of “Bag it!” around the community. For more information on plastic problems and solutions, see Bagitmovie.com for facts and additional links.

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