Sunday, June 30, 2013

what do you do when your sunglasses break? and other ethical dilemmas

Elvis glasses laying around the house
My sunglasses broke the other day. This brings up an ethical dilemma for me. Does this happen for you? I wonder, “Should I buy a new pair of sunglasses from the Dollar Store, where I only have to pay $1, therefore being a good steward of my resources, or do I buy them from somewhere else and pay $20 for them, knowing they were probably made in about the same sweat shop as the Dollar Store ones?” There’s no way I’m paying more than $20 for them because this is not an isolated experience. It generally happens a couple times a year. In fact, I’m pretty proud of myself that I held onto these ones as long as I did. I got them toward the end of last summer when I lost a previous pair, and I’ve had them for about ten months—albeit ten months of rain (plus a serve trip to Mexico and a vacation to Costa Rica).

Then come the questions of waste. What do I do with the old ones? They’re no good to anyone anymore, cracked and lens-less as they are, and they can’t be recycled, so they go to a landfill. Did you know there’s a trash continent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? It’s referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is mainly made up of plastic debris and decomposing bits of plastic that harm wildlife and introduce non-native species as the plastic floats from place to place. Search for “trash continent” on YouTube—it’s gross! And landfills are not any prettier. Worldwide and even in the United States, studies show that landfills are disproportionately near the communities of people of color. Americans cause a lot of waste worldwide, but the middle-upper class white population is hardly required to face into this waste because it’s sloughed off in minority areas or in less-developed countries. Not only is my trash an environmental problem, but it’s also an issue of justice that disproportionately affects minorities, the poor and those in the “Third World.”

This leads me to the question of my own sense of entitlement. When faced with a broken pair of sunglasses, or other cheap, relatively disposable item, my immediate thought is that I will go out and buy a replacement. I am not wealthy by American standards, but I do have a comfortable income with food on the table and more than enough to cover basic necessities. I so often act as if I’m entitled to just go to the store and purchase whatever it is I need or want.

In fact, it’s rather convenient that I lose or break sunglasses often, because then I can get some new ones with a higher “cool” quotient, since sunglasses and fashion designers ever-so-subtly-and-convincingly tell us that styles change from year to year (or month to month), and it’s so easy to believe them. While I’m grateful for the creativity and self-expression that some people are able to effortlessly exude through their clothing choice, I’m also aware that fashion and being in-style are luxuries that also have the effect of making people feel badly about themselves. Whether we like it or not, as a society we judge people based on appearances in so many ways, and the coolness-level of their sunglasses is one such way.

In purchasing the latest style of sunglasses, then, in many ways we’re telling the world, “Look at me! I have the means to buy this trendy pair of shades. I have the level of coolness to know what’s ‘in,’ and therefore I’m more worthy of your love than others who don’t have the economic or social resources I do.”

Therefore, as a reminder to myself and a way to try to break down this system that bases value on what we can afford and on how “cool” we can convince people we are, as well as this “disposable” culture, I’m going to try to make the commitment to wear “found” sunglasses that no one else wants, or to buy them used. If none of these options are available, I guess I’ll have to get used to squinting, or wear a hat!

"New" shades from a friend
Two friends already took pity on me and donated sunglasses that they no longer use or they found and can't figure out whose they's amazing what community can do!

If you’re interested, here are some sources regarding the distribution of worldwide waste and garbage in the oceans:

Bullard, Robert D. “Poverty, Pollution and Environmental Racism: Strategies for Building Healthy and Sustainable Communities.” Paper presented to the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN) Environmental Racism Forum World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) Global Forum Johannesburg, South Africa July 2, 2002.

Bullard, Robert D. “BP’s Waste Management Plan Raises Environmental Justice Concerns.” Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice. July 29, 2010.

Gorman, Steve. “Scientists study huge plastic patch in Pacific,” Reuters, August 4, 2009.

Norton, Jennifer M., Steve Wing, Hester J. Lipscomb, Jay S. Kaufman, Stephen W. Marshall, and Aitha J. Cravey. 2007. "Race, Wealth, and Solid Waste Facilities in North Carolina." Environmental Health Perspectives 115, no. 9: 1344-1350.Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 14, 2013).

Yandle, Tracy, and Dudley Burton. 1996. "Reexamining Environmental Justice: A Statistical Analysis of Historical Hazardous Waste Landfill Siting Patterns in Metropolitan Texas." Social Science Quarterly (University Of Texas Press) 77, no. 3: 477-492. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 14, 2013).

Katz, Eric. 1995. "Imperialism and Environmentalism." Social Theory & Practice 21, no. 2: 271-285. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 14, 2013).

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