Environmental activists challenge Mount Holyoke students to battle overconsumption

 Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

Graphic by Kinsey Ratzman ’21

BY  AVA BLUM-CARR ’21

Students gathered in Gamble Auditorium last Thursday to hear from a five-person panel of environmental activists at one of their stops on a nationwide tour of college campuses. The tour is sponsored by the Post-Landfill Action Network (PLAN), a national organization that equips students with the necessary resources to cultivate zero waste and sustainability movements on campus. 

Mount Holyoke Students for Zero Waste partnered with PLAN to bring this event to Mount Holyoke. “[PLAN] approached us with the Points of Intervention tour last year and we thought it was a really great and inspiring idea,” said Helena Littman ’20, a member of Mount Holyoke Students for Zero Waste. 

The panel united speakers from widely differing backgrounds under the overarching topic of “points of intervention,” which offers an analysis of activism focusing on coordinated, small-scale actions to disrupt a dominant system. The system in question is the linear consumption model currently dictating the production and sale of consumer goods. Ansley Pope, a tour coordinator at PLAN and the panel moderator, defined this as the process by which goods are created and eventually discarded. It begins with extraction of raw materials, then progresses to production, distribution, consumption and disposal. 

“You have to understand that it’s linear, so when you end up at the point of disposal, you don’t really circle back, you just start over again,” said Pope. “It’s not sustainable, it’s extractive and it’s oppressive. But there are so many ways people can shift and challenge this system.”

The panel included: Junior Walk, an anti-coal industry activist from West Virginia fighting the coal industry; Pashon Murray, the co-founder of a Detroit-based urban composting project; John Lively, the director of Environment and Materials at a company that manufactures recycled products; Adina Spertus-Melhus, the campus coordinator for PLAN, and Ahmina Maxey, who serves as the U.S. and Canada Regional Coordinator for the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA). 

The diversity of viewpoints represented in the panel was intentional — each panelist was able to relate their work to a different stage of the linear consumption model.

Junior Walk’s activism in West Virginia takes the form of intervention at the first stage of linear consumption: extraction. “The coal industry is the main economic force in West Virginia,” Walk said. “For the past hundred years or so, extractive industries have controlled the state — our laws, our state industries, everything.”

Walk works with a watchdog group that closely monitors the coal mining operations in his community, in hopes of forcing the coal companies to address some of the devastating environmental damage they are responsible for in the region. “Essentially, my work consists of trying to be a thorn in the side of the coal industry in any way I possibly can,” he said.

John Lively’s work involves intervention at the second stage of linear consumption: production. The company he works for diverts plastic waste from landfills by recycling it into a variety of practical consumer products such as toothbrushes, plates, and cutlery. “We captured our mission as reducing the harm caused by the industrial age,” said Lively. “For us, it’s always about stimulating and growing recycling industries.” 

The work of Pashon Murray and Ahmina Maxey relates directly to the disposal stage of the linear consumption model. The mission of Murray’s composting project, Detroit Dirt, is to channel the city’s food waste towards a constructive purpose, rather than letting it go to a landfill or incinerator. “We need to be thinking about our broken food system and how to fix it,” Murray said. “[Detroit Dirt] gets food waste from General Motors, herbivore manure from the Detroit Zoo, and basically processes it, packages it and puts it on the market. As we are creating this circular system or this closed-loop economy, we’re taking people and giving them a second chance and using materials that are normally sent to the landfill or the incinerator.”

GAIA, for which Ahmina Maxey is the U.S. and Canadian Regional coordinator, provides support to grassroots movements that are protesting waste-burning facilities in their communities and working toward the goal of zero waste. 

“Our waste system doesn’t serve the people or the planet,” said Maxey. “When it comes to the folks who are usually impacted by the current waste disposal system, these are low-income communities and communities of color. Those communities often don’t benefit from zero-waste policies and structures, but we have people like Pashon [Murray] who are working to bring that stuff into our urban centers.”

“That’s what I’m really interested in,” Murray said, “replacing those old systems that should no longer exist, and starting to get our country to look at the jobs that can be created through this.”

Littman hopes that Mount Holyoke students will be inspired to make changes to their lifestyles by keeping their individual consumption in mind. “There are a lot of easy things students can do, like bringing their own coffee cups, recycling properly or buying second hand clothes and dorm supplies,” said Littman. “What I loved about the panel was that each of the speakers came from a very different place and had a very different approach to challenging linear consumption and promoting sustainability. I think the big takeaway is that you have to find what you’re passionate about in the sustainability movement and then run with it. If it’s something you really care about you won’t get tired of talking about it, fighting for it and trying to make a change.” 

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