I was a child when the “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcement first launched in 1971, and I remember being captivated by it. Nearly 50 years later, the impact of pollution is more dire, and each of us must do our part. As the “Keep America Beautiful” announcement reminds us, “People start pollution; people can stop it.”
I was a child when the “Keep America Beautiful” public service announcement first launched in 1971, and I remember being captivated by it. With a dramatic, timpani-punctuated soundtrack, a Native American dressed in ceremonial costume is depicted traveling the countryside. He navigates a polluted river via canoe as factory smokestacks belch billowy gray clouds. He pulls his canoe up on a trash-littered shore as a bass-pitched voiceover actor speaks saying, “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country…” As a car rushes by on a highway, a passenger throws a bag of fast food refuse out of an open window. The trash spills and leftover fries land at the feet of the native man as the voiceover continues, “…and some people don’t.” The announcement ends as a single tear courses down the face of the Native man reminding us that “People start pollution; people can stop it.”
Nearly 50 years later, the impact of pollution is more dire. The average American generates 4.4 pounds of trash per day. While there have been efforts in recycling, the United States remains at the high end of global trash producers, and our practices are having a negative impact. The trash has to go somewhere, and those places are filling up. The National Waste and Recycling Association reported that there were once 8,000 active landfills in the United States; that number is now down to 3,091. Greater efforts are being made to recycle plastics, but the same issues exist for plastics as we see for landfills. The United States and other major industrial countries have been dumping plastic wastes in Southeast Asia for decades because environmental regulations are more lenient there. But these countries are now saying, “No.” China banned importation in 2018. Malaysia, which became the world’s largest importer after the China ban, asserted that they would begin returning plastic waste to exporting countries.
Of course, we know it’s not just pollution that is the issue, but the effects of pollution that have made a cascading and negative global impact. The billowing smokestacks depicted in the “Keep America Beautiful” announcement are the result of the burning of fossil fuels, which creates carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. The landfills that receive our trash emit methane. These gases and others combine and remain in our atmosphere. As the sun’s rays, which pass through atmospheric gases, are absorbed by land and in our oceans, the land and oceans emit heat in the form of infrared thermal radiation, and this weaker form of radiation cannot as easily pass out of the atmosphere. This result is called a greenhouse effect and it is the reason for global warming. As the planet warms, polar ice caps melt, and oceans rise, low-lying landmasses, plants, and animal species are threatened. The consequences are catastrophic. If the Native American man in the announcement were featured today, it would not be a single tear coursing down his face. I believe he would sob inconsolably.
All is not yet lost, but the window of opportunity is closing. We must continue efforts to reduce our carbon footprint by lowering fossil fuel combustion. We must continue to invest in scientific research that helps us identify possible innovations for handling greenhouse gases. “One potential solution scientists are examining is to suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and bury it underground indefinitely,” notes Dina Leech, associate professor of biological and environmental sciences at Longwood University, in an interview for LiveScience. We must also partner with other nations to seek collaborative efforts. Seventy-three countries signed the Paris Agreement, an international pact to combat climate change by investing in alternative, sustainable low-carbon solutions, in 2016. Sadly, the United States began the process of withdrawing from the agreement in June 2017.
We may be unable to influence what our nation does, but each of us can do our part. I remember the feelings of ambivalence as I watched that “Keep America Beautiful” advertisement all those years ago. I could not reconcile how the spread of pollution was deemed more personal to some than to others. Perhaps that was the case 50 years ago, and clearly the unpersuaded core of “climate change deniers” suggests that some do not believe this to be an urgent issue now. Nevertheless, I think it an undeniable fact that we all can do more. Consider what you throw away daily. Use reusable cups and mugs rather than disposable ones. Increase the amount of recycling that you do and eliminate the use of products that cannot be recycled. Drive less and opt for other modes of transportation. There is something that everyone can do. People start pollution. Now, people need to find ways to stop it.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is the Director of Operations for All Girls Allowed, a faith-based, non-profit that restores life, value, and dignity by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, building schools, churches, and women’s centers, and mobilizing churches and partners for global impact. She was previously the Director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her newly released book “Meant for Good: Fundamentals of Womanist Leadership,” is available through Judson Press.
Reprinted with permission of The Christian Citizen, a publication of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.