2020 media review: what I’ve read, watched, and consumed in relation to my work as the land-based programs coordinator at Allegheny CleanWays
Dani Kramer, land-based programs coordinator. 1/15/21
Back in March of 2020 I found myself suddenly gifted with a wealth of free time. I won’t get into the details of the circumstances surrounding my windfall of me-time because it’s a tired topic. Suffice it to say that I was locked into a dream staycation with nothing but books, movies, and my own tortured thoughts to keep me company. In between bouts of tooth-gnashing and garment-rending, I took advantage of a golden opportunity to immerse myself in media that would enrich my understanding of the work I was physically unable to do. In the before-times, I was deep in the hustle and didn’t permit myself much time to take my nose from the grindstone to really consider the reasons for why my job matters and in what ways I needed to be more mindful of the systems surrounding my work. The following is a review of the media I’ve consumed, and how they relate to my work as the land-based programs coordinator at Allegheny CleanWays. Not only did they all help pass the time, but they enriched my understanding of our organization’s purpose (and my own).
Visual Art: Pat Perry https://patperry.net/art/paintings
I’ve been a fan of Pat Perry’s work for a few years. Many of his paintings depict subdued, pastoral scenes that include aspects not usually associated with fine art landscapes; derelict buildings, tire piles, roadside memorials, abandoned vehicles adorned with graffiti. I’m not an art scholar, and I can’t explain why they make me feel so calm, but I love these drawings and paintings. So much of my work is done in vacant lots, by abandoned buildings, cleaning up trash and debris under an often grey and dismal Pittsburgh sky. My goal is to return dumpsites to a pristine state, so I’m not sure why his images of trash are especially comforting to me. His work really encapsulates what I think of as a beautiful, imperfect, typically North American aesthetic.
Visual Art: Micah Albert http://www.micahalbert.com/blog/2015/2/25/the-women-in-the-photo
I’m new to this photographer and I’m not very familiar with his portfolio; just one photo, actually. It struck me so immediately and deeply when I saw it, I contacted the artist the same day to try to explain the effect the image had had on me. It was so powerful! The photo, Woman Reading In Dandora, depicts a trash-picker named Pauline Mweni taking a break from sorting through trash in what is considered the world’s largest dump site. It’s stunning. The issues of over-production and over-consumption contribute to a humanitarian crisis. It affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. This portrait is so gorgeous, and is worth so much more than a thousand words.
Documentary: The Story of Plastic https://www.storyofplastic.org/
This documentary is a heartbreaking and eye-opening piece. It puts the seemingly simple topic of the ‘life cycle’ of plastic into a global perspective. I can’t recommend it highly enough. This documentary really drove home for me my own need to recontextualize the way I think about consumerism, waste, and blame. The concept of ‘extended producer responsibility’ is discussed, and is a fantastic practice for anyone who cares about seeking real solutions to the climate crisis. Earlier this year, Allegheny CleanWays hosted an online screening and discussion of the film. I consider it required viewing for anyone even remotely concerned about the environment.
Documentary: Frontline, Plastic Wars https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/plastic-wars/
I watched this Frontline special as a follow-up to having my mind blown by the Story of Plastic. It’s a great supplemental piece and covers many of the same topics in a different style. For sure a worthwhile watch.
Book: Clean and White, A History of Environmental Racism https://bookshop.org/books/clean-and-white-a-history-of-environmental-racism-in-the-united-states/9781479874378
One of my main goals this year was to work to understand why my job at Allegheny CleanWays is just as much (if not more) about social justice as it is about the environment. This book is fantastic, and is a very easy, accessible read. I encourage everyone to read it, not just folks involved in the world of waste disposal. Clean and White is a history refresher for all of us who never really got a proper understanding of American history in school (that’s all of us). It explains what environmental racism is and puts it into a historical context, as well as a modern one. I gained so much from reading this book, not least of which is a newfound appreciation for the people who collect my trash every week. If you were to pick just one book to read on this subject, this is the one.
Book: The Color of Law, A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America https://bookshop.org/books/the-color-of-law-a-forgotten-history-of-how-our-government-segregated-america/9781631494536
Something I have to consider a lot in my work is the concept of property. Who owns the land where I work, who used to own it, who existed on the land before it was ‘owned’. Pittsburgh is still a deeply segregated city, and the inequities can be seen in any statistical map of our city; from where illegal dumping is found, to incarceration rates, to household income. None of it stands alone. This book helped me begin to understand how American cities are divided, and why. The information presented is upsetting, and shocking, again because my formal education of American history is so deeply lacking. As a homeowner, and simply as a person trying to exist in a functioning society in a city, this was another extremely worthwhile read.
Book: A Terrible Thing to Waste, Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind https://bookshop.org/books/a-terrible-thing-to-waste-environmental-racism-and-its-assault-on-the-american-mind/9780316509442
Where Clean and White approached the subject of environmental racism from a historian’s point of view, A Terrible Thing to Waste tackles the subject from a scientific and medical perspective. Again, nothing I’ve read has been chock full of happy news, but this book does conclude with some valuable and hopeful information on how things can improve toward a healthy, more equitable world. This was a fascinating read which details the ways that environmental racism effects the human body and mind. Understanding that mental health is not separate from physical health, that they go hand in hand, makes the need to work toward equity and justice feel very urgent.
Book (fiction): The Overstory https://bookshop.org/books/the-overstory/9780393356687
I had to take some breaks from non-fiction to let myself enjoy some flights of fancy this year. As a feminist who is basically always looking for a way to criticize the way women are depicted in media, I had some problems with this novel, but overall, I enjoyed it. If you’re already enamored with trees, this book can feel like you’re the choir being preached to by the author. It did inspire me to learn about real-life environmental activists, particularly the amazing folks of the Yellow Finch Tree Sit and the water protectors fighting against the Line 3 pipeline. If you’re looking for some fiction to inspire you, and remind you of the real humans who are dedicating themselves to the climate justice fight, The Overstory is an entertaining way to catch that feeling.
Book: This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs The Climate https://bookshop.org/books/this-changes-everything-capitalism-vs-the-climate/9781451697391
Also a documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xb4wp4QK2PU
To be perfectly honest, at the time of my composing this blog post, I haven’t read much of this book. I dove into it earlier this summer, and it was too much for me. My mindset this past summer was such that I was worried this book would get me fired up enough to shed all my earthly possessions and commit myself fully to smashing bank windows with bricks, which would not have been great for my career or future as a functioning member of society. The global impact of capitalism on our environment and our humanity is so staggering and overwhelming, I couldn’t really handle reading about all the gory details. But I will return to it because knowledge is power, as they say, and I encourage you to read it too. Maybe in 2021 I’ll start a book club that doubles as a Hard Truths Support Group.
I recently watched the documentary film adaptation of the book, which was much more digestible. In fact, I felt a bit of hope after watching it! The film focuses on everyday people and activists around the world who are affected by, and fighting back against, capitalism’s disastrous effects on climate. The book is dense, but I think the film has warmed me up to returning to it with a more open and prepared mind. During our dumpsite cleanups, we not only see the results of environmental racism, but capitalism as well; boldly branded single-use plastics, electronics built specifically to not last, etc. I’m striving to more fully understand how capitalism affects us all in regards to it’s impact on the environment and climate.
Graphic Novel: Letters to Survivors https://bookshop.org/books/letter-to-survivors/9781681372402
Last but not least, a delicious treat of a comic book from cartoonist and Charlie Hebdo contributor Gebe. This book combines so many of my interests: bicycle messengers, post-apocalyptic dystopia, the postal service, and the evils of consumerism! A beautiful book, and still so terribly timely despite having been written in 1981. It’s only recently become available in English, and I recommend that you take advantage of this gift and enjoy it. We all have experienced isolation in the past year. I think this was a comfort to me when I was feeling lonely and missing the companionship and joy of working with volunteer groups. While this selection has a bit less of a connection to my work at Allegheny CleanWays as a whole, I think it’s still worthwhile to include, as it’s a book with some cold comfort for the times we are living in as well as a bit of hope.