America is a great country, there’s no doubt about that. There’s abundance here, and the feeling of ‘Coming to America’ has not escaped me in my everyday move. Things are advanced—I tried to watch TV the other day, and just gave up on the idea: everything has become smart—smart phone, smart car, smart TV, smart house… But this is at the cost of some of America’s citizens, the rest of the world, and most importantly, our precious earth. I see abundance in the big cities I’m visiting. I am currently sitting at the historical site of Washington DC, between Capitol Hill and the Washington Memorial, and what I see is tourists of course, but also Americans jogging, doing yoga on the capital’s sprawling lawns, and generally living life with reckless abandon. Instead of having feelings of splendour wash over me, I am filled with contempt for the cost at which this ‘paragon of freedom and equality’ comes.
I was so very happy when South Africa introduced the law that plastic bags at supermarkets would be for sale, for a small amount. No matter the amount, people have taken to brining their shopping bags to pick up their groceries. I have no idea—and it escapes me constantly—why in the U.S. they would still give you plastic bags for free, and even double them for even the smallest package. This is one of the most dangerous material to the earth—it is not biodegradable—and to the animals who could eat it, suffocate on it, or get trapped in its handles (think of herbivores accidentally eating plastic; or the ecology of the ocean with plastic in it). I truly am dismayed by the free plastic bags in supermarket, in 2014, in, of all places, the U.S. of A.
It’s not only plastic bags; when you buy a sandwich or these overrated bagels, they come wrapped in foil. Foil?! Of all the material you can use you choose foil. It is even more dangerous than plastic, and mind you most people don’t even reuse it. In our house when we rarely use foil we reuse it until it is in tatters. It is that kind of material. This is also in recognising that it is one of the most toxic material to the earth. While at it, all the fast food joints, from the lower scale McDonalds/KFC/Burger King to the upscale healthy food outlets like Wholefoods/Trader’s Joe dispense unreasonable amounts of serviettes/napkins—no one would use those in one sitting. For most people, instead of returning them or receiving half of the batch dispensed to them for their one salad, they throw them in the bin?! It’s truly unbelievable!
I see some of my more health conscious and green friends use jars and bottle jugs as glasses in their homes. I would absolutely do that at the rate everything is bottled in the supermarkets here. We ordered Mexican food and chocolate mousse, and the latter came in a glass bottle with a tin lid; like one of those valuable Consol bottles with metallic ring lids that our mothers kept and reused for decades. I imagine people eat their dessert and throw these away. Such waste! It is at this point that I wish to talk about African people and recycling. As our friend from TV once proclaimed: we’ve been having it! We are not hearing of reusing our plastic bags and bottle jars just today; in fact that was the order of life. These days we make it seems like recycling is for the educated elite with capacity to think critically of the consequences of their consumption to the planet. No ways man, recycling is not a luxury but a necessity. And boy did we know about necessity growing up under apartheid and colonialism.
When I grew up we used plastic bags from supermarkets to carry books to school. They suited and lived up to that function, and when they were worn out my grandmother would collect them and crochet plastic carpets for the house or veranda. In the village I grew up in you would be hard-pressed to find plastic littered on the ground. It was a commodity with many uses, and if found, could be utilised. I remember we used to buy homemade juice and mashwangshwangs—chillies or barbeque flavoured Nik Naks knock-offs—on our way back from school to enjoy on the long road home. The woman who sold these from her house would give you discount if you brought your own plastic or container to put juice or mashwangshwang. This meant if you saw these lying around your neighbourhood, you would pick them up and save them for later. I suppose this explain my high intolerance to littering even today.
We would reuse the tin that all tinned stuff—baked bins, pilchards, cling peaches, cream, condensed milk, etc—came packaged in. We would take the tin and vigorously frisk it over a brick until the tin is hot. This way the rim on top would be released neatly without leaving any sharpness on the top, making it a metal cup. We would then use this tin as storage for toothbrushes, crayons, and other small miscellaneous things around the house. We would also use it to scoop rice, sugar, or mealie-mealie. Tins of refreshments, like soda, would be used to adorn our wire cars as colourful wheels carefully constructed and linked to the steering wheel, turning and swerving with scientific precision.
The parts of America I have been to are living in abundance. A very reckless one that is costing the rest of the world, some of its citizens, and unfortunately the earth. How much does it take to meet the demands of every fast food restaurant’s serviettes, glass jars, plastic bags, foil, and containers for the ever growing pre-packaged foods? How much does it take to fuel the cars of those who have given up on the idea of walking anywhere because they are exercising their right to live their ‘best’ life in the best country in the world? How best is a country when it’s not conscious of its dying members who are hidden from the family album which America displays to the rest of the world? How good is the country when its perceived strength is at the cost of other civilisations bombed for their resources so that Americans can own toilets that flush themselves, subway stations that are lit 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wifi on public transport, and mary-go-rounds that go round and round even when there’s only one person on their seat?
I’m now talking carbon footprint per person here, in New York, and everywhere in this country. I am appalled by the ratio of excess to consciousness. In the chase to make more money so we can afford bigger, shinier things, and holidays on ‘unspoilt’ islands we tend to forget that we only have one earth, and we will most certainly lose against nature no matter our wits or courage. I’m not saying countries should not have wifi in their public transport for example. I am saying the infrastructure can serve its people, but without knowledge these people will abuse instead of use those resources. America needs more education on consciously thinking of the planet. It needs to humble itself before nature and curb the power mongering. At this rate the infrastructure promises to collapse because the supply cannot meet the demand. What happens next? Another country with oil gets invaded…