Professional big wave surfer and businessman Jeff Denholm sailed from Miami to New York to bring big money into the solution of marine pollution. By personally delivering a new yacht to a billionaire from K2 Ventures, Jeff secured three days together at sea to convince the venture capitalist to invest in his company. Jeff’s business, Atira systems, has engineered a toxic free alternative to traditional flame retardants used by firefighters across the U.S. Follow the chemicals downstream and many end up marine ecosystems across the nation. Waterways permeate a soup of man-made toxic waste that bond with plastic debris, causing physical harm throughout the entire food chain. Jeff created his company to solve one particular source of human waste, and works with other power players to solve bigger environmental threats together.
Journalistic coverage of marine plastic pollution rarely leads with an industry-centered story like Jeff’s. A picture of a decomposing albatross with a stomach full of plastic usually sums up the problem for readers. Images of trash wounding an animal help readers connect their consumption to the problem a world away. However, the solutions proposed by journalists focus on a select group of readers who have the time and money to live a socially conscience lifestyle. Clean up the beach. Live plastic free. Bring a shopping bag. Socially conscience solutions help, but most people lack the time of day to make choices with the ocean in mind. Journalists bring the fight to basic human behavior, instead of to the polls where ordinary people make eco-friendly a right.
Jeff explains, “Most people don’t have the bandwidth to look at global environmental issues. They’re not looking at what big corporations are doing. They’re just trying to get by.” Jeff’s past work as a marine archeologist has taken him around the world. He has witnessed first-hand the way countries from all over the world pollute the land and sea. Since then, Jeff has focused his career and connections to combat toxic pollutants. Outside of work, Jeff serves as an ambassador for 1% For the Plant to convince companies to invest in environmental nonprofits and brand themselves as eco-minded. Toxins and debris caused by overconsumption and waste continue to threaten California’s ecosystem and natural beauty, but rallying support from industry and consumers remains an uphill battle.
The enduring issue of marine debris that pollutes the world’s oceans has been covered for the past twenty years by journalists who must frame an issue with seemingly little impact on its readers, to one that seems relevant in their daily life. To illustrate the immensity of the problem, the majority of journalists appropriated the metaphors “Garbage Patch” and “Plastic Island,” embellishments used by seafarers to characterize the mass of man-made flotsam particles that accumulate in oceanic gyres. These bizarre metaphors captured the imagination of readers, and motivated them to propose legislation, start organizations, and invent solutions to address the issue. However, the metaphors were just that, not facts but weak representations of the actual thing, and their inherent misdirection caused nearly every attempt to solve the issue to fail. The public’s power that existed in information from journalists was rendered feeble.
The use of imagery and solutions that target consumer lifestyles demonstrate the American news media’s reliance on a model that champions individualism. Journalism researcher James Carey claimed as far back as 1996 that, “American Culture is ‘individualistic’. This overreliance …is a pervasive weakness of American Journalism.” The major drawback to proposals for individualistic solutions manifests when only a small percentage of readers have the ability to take action. Lifestyle changes from a group of readers will not solve humanity’s plastic crisis. Contrast marine debris coverage from the ‘Huffington Post’ or ‘CNN’ with France’s democratic model evident in outlets such as ‘Le Figaro,’ and the difference becomes apparent. French sources focus primarily on proposed legislation and the positions of politicians around the issue instead of ways for readers to solve the problem themselves. Journalists who assert legislation as the principle method for fighting marine debris tap into existing political and environmental advocate groups. Only galvanized collectives of politically active individuals and industry stand a fighting chance against the status quo.
Major news outlets dropped the “Trash Island” metaphor as data mounted against it, but one young man from the Netherlands continues to champion the idea and build an organization around it. That man, Boyan Slat, has gathered together investors and scientists to combat marine pollution with a massive floating filtration device that skims parts of the “island” surface from the ocean for recycling. After millions of dollars and years of testing, his team has had no proven success. Still, news outlets like the Huffington Post champion his work as a solution to marine debris. Boyan’s approach presents a simple solution to an over simplified issue. In order to develop new solutions to this persistent issue, concerned citizens need to look beyond the world of environmentalism.
“Just because the guy doesn’t’ have the same politics as you doesn’t mean you should alienate him, as a matter of fact you need to be closely aligned with him,” Jeff says about his wealthy prospective investor. The billionaire from New York didn’t invest. Jeff’s company was too far outside the venture capitalist’s field of expertise. Jeff spends money and time away from his company to gamble on meetings with certified investors. His company’s advisory board has renowned environmentalists and leading scientists, but they aren’t the only experts Jeff wants on his team. “Say I have a meeting tomorrow with the biggest environmental attorney in the world, or I (could) have lunch with the CEO of EXON. Guess who I am having lunch with?” “Exon,” I replied. “Exon…Those are the people who need to hear the story,” he explained.
Jeff’s adventure sports side career (yes, he has that going on as well) and charisma helps him gain an audience with big investors. High-end outdoor apparel company Patagonia took notice of his unique story and brought him on board as a brand ambassador. Jeff explains, “True influence, like what Patagonia is trying to do, comes from financial success, and leveraging your model of success which is more examined and more in balance with humanity and the environment than others, and proving to others that it can be done. That’s where the change is going to start to happen.” He is proposing a top down model to environmentalism, but that doesn’t mean consumers lack an important role.
At the consumer level, environmental groups and journalists suggest people become socially responsible consumers to combat pollution. American’s have begun to see social consumerism as a political act, one that replaces voting, according to a dissertation study published in 2013 by the University of Pennsylvania. That study found that people who cared about an issue were willing spend a 20% more on an alternative socially responsible product. What’s more impressive is that, “individuals who say they don’t care about an issue have a more than a 70% probability of choosing a socially conscious product if it is of equal cost as generic alternative.” Savings motivate consumer choices in general. For most, the environment only weighs in when price becomes irrelevant. That means, however, that prosocial consumers have less of an effect on industry than if they prioritize a top down model. Purchasing power helps, but voting hits the top levels of the problem hardest. To affect widespread change, voters can impact consumer options for disposable plastics when they vote on legislation that bans throw-a-ways or provides incentives for innovative environmentally conscience industry. Law can bind the ocean’s health to the profit of companies, something industry must adapt to.
Californian’s environmental legislation currently leads the Nation’s towards widespread use of alternatives to plastic food packaging and disposables. In Jeff’s hometown of Capitola in California, 12 ordinary citizens on the city’s volunteer Environmental Commission proposed a ban on polystyrene takeout containers. The ordinance was brought to city council and passed in 2009. On a larger scale, California’s ban on plastic bags took a collective effort from average voters, city councils, and state legislators. What began in cities became a statewide movement to end the use of potential sources of plastic pollution. The ban was met with pushback from Industry players. Major cities across the state were sued multiple times by a conglomerate of plastic manufacturers called Save the Bag. Some cities even had to vote to ban bags twice. The plastics industry argued jobs were at stake, and that legislators used questionable evidence to support environmental arguments. They were right, to a degree. Trace back sources of evidence used for city-led initiatives to stop plastic pollution and you will find a 1984 article on the impact of fishing nets on marine mammals. Californian voters didn’t need to wait for an updated and encompassing study on the harmful impacts of bags, the evidence was on their beaches and in their waterways. The proposition holds today.
Nonprofits aimed at tackling marine pollution have sprung up across the country in the past decade, and have brought a new level of research and advocacy to the issue. Journalists turn to environmental nonprofits like the California based 5 Gyres organization to shed new light on the fight against marine debris. 5 Gyres has focused years on researching the scope and impact of plastic pollution in the ocean. Now, they have begun a community advocacy program called 5 Gyres Ambassadors to give ocean-minded individuals the tools and contacts to catalyze change in their community. 5 Gyres asks individuals to begin with a pledge against plastic consumption. Next, the organization suggests methods for political action. On the homepage of their website, visitors find charts to look up their community’s current plastic legislation, links to email their state representatives, and a guide to create a plastic ban Kickstarter. All proven methods. However, political solutions rarely make it into news stories. Too often do media savvy individuals like celebrity/activist Adrian Grenier or the ill-fated solutions of Boyan Slat, both who lack significant contributions to the plastics issue, get the final say in a news article.
For “average” people, Jeff says, “I think the most baseline success humans can have on this planet would be to examine their own consumption rate.” Traditional news media agree with Jeff, but for different reasons. Jeff recognizes the bank account needed to enter the ring with the plastics and oil industry, but hopes averages citizens take the small meaningful steps available to them. Conversely, news idealistically presumes their audience can solve plastic pollution alone. Readers need to understand the role of big business and lawmakers in the issue of marine debris if journalists want to see their proposed solutions follow a top down model. Again, France has found success in their democratic media model. France remain the only country to ban both plastic bags and disposable cutlery. The more politically contextualized the issue becomes, the more avenues for change become available to citizens.
Jeff recently took a small group of billionaires skiing to get a moment alone with them, but spent of half of his rare time with investors to talk business. The other half he spent advising his wealthy audience to combine their charity efforts together. He explains, only a, “unified power elite…focused on just a few common issues,” can truly disrupt the status quo. That’s how Jeff operates, way beyond his own interests. For journalists who want to open up the discussion of marine pollution, the task won’t come easily. The already complex topic must now include policy and industry analysis. Fortunately, after two decades of coverage, the news media appears to have crafted a solid and foundational understanding of the issue to build upon. For the rest of us, we just need to remember that our problems are down stream and up Capitol Hill.
Locals often characterize Santa Cruz by the beaches and artistic vibes that adorn the city, but few ever refer to the river than runs through its heart. The San Lorenzo River provided a space for birders and fishermen, but landscape was not inviting to the general public. Then open space began to change though, when one of the many organizations who’s efforts seek to improve the quality and accessibility of the river gathered together all of the working groups to redefine the river’s role within the community. This video introduces the San Lorenzo River Alliance who is making significant changes to the levee environment with a diverse team of people. Check out the video, then see how you can get involved, and what the SLRA has already accomplished, at the website: http://coastal-watershed.org/sanlorenzoriver/
The Nueva Vista and Beach Flats Community Centers in Santa Cruz provide an after school program with a focus on community involvement. Local youth spend three hours after school doing homework and hands on learning activities with help from volunteers and Youth Coordinator Edgar Landeros. Community members can donate their time to touter children or teach them about a specialized subject. By sharing their expertise, like baking or swimming, the community provides an educational experience that the youth wouldn’t otherwise get exposure to. In the end, these skills and wisdom enable kids to better navigate the their own career path and foster a respect for the diversity that makes up this unique city.
This video about the Community Center was made for a halftime presentation for the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, who made a financial contribution to the center.
I had never interviewed kids before. The experience was also new to many of them, which made for a nonlinear Q and A session that promoted sincere answers. As with any interview, the most important thing was to get them talking. They did, and were kind enough to open the doors of the Center, and their little world, to the rest of the community. This receptiveness makes it an easy place to volunteer at, so call Edgar at 831-423-5747 and stop by.
A group of women known as the Leveelie Ladies clean up the San Lorenzo river mouth twice a week. They tally every piece of trash and use this data to excite citizens and politicians to support the restoration of a levy that is both a rich ecosystem and beautiful public space.
The most important journalistic aspect of this video for me was to ensure I did not portray the relationship between the homless population and Leveelies as a battle. No single group is responsible for the river debris, nor its cleanup. The Ladies encourage everyone to join regardless of class or level of commitment. Every little conversation they have with the myriad of people who use the Levy slowly changes the atmosphere. Restoring the river takes more than cleaning up debris; it takes getting the entire community’s respect and appreciation. Their attitude of humility towards service has proven to me that only together can we create a space for the entire community to use.
The voice of the Dragon Slayers Animal Therapy Program director Joseph Rivers will send you back in time. His loquacious and annunciated speech are a reflection of his own upbringing and confidence in his work which gives people with disabilities an alternative method to bring themselves up.
The program is free to anyone who commits to a regiment that they and Joseph agree upon. Animals are paired with students based upon their disability. Homing pidgins, giant tortoises, and mini chickens play crucial roles in developing the skills of students. Parrots provide alternative speakers to speech therapists. The back of a bull serves as a platform to practice stability, while its personality teaches confidence. Decades of work and feedback have shown Joseph that giving the students a choice to be there and choose the animal they wish to work with fosters a committed relationship. The results have been extraordinary, and you can read them here: http://josefriversdragonslayers.org
Everything, including the animals themselves, is donated to Joseph. Even the landscaping company who maintains the grounds returns for free every week because they believe in the good work being done there. The program always needs volunteers. You must be at least 21, a maturity requirement, and commit to some amount of time every week. You can reach the Dragon Slayers at: 831-688-6699
What’s an adventure without sweat, secrets, and something going very wrong?
A few of my friends and I wanted to go on a senior trip after high school and one of our teachers happened to be going on a voluntourism trip to Guatemala. A suave man named Paulo came to our class to invite us to volunteer with his foundation which built stove chimneys in the homes of impoverished communities. This would help to combat an asthma epidemic affecting a growing population of women and children in Guatemala, many of whom spent all day breathing carcinogenic fumes from cooking. Helping some folks who live in an exotic location sounded like the trip of a lifetime to me. The man gave off a weird vibe though. He wasn’t Guatemalan, but avoided nationality as a self proclaimed,”citizen of the world.” However, I trusted my teacher and really wanted to travel somewhere I’d never been.
Word of a relationship between our teacher and Paulo made its way through the small group of highschoolers on a seven hour flight to Guatemala. Amongst the youth in out outfit, a boy whom I had ever seen at school took notice of our math teachers daughter. These crushes though, would not enhance but only distract from a successful trip.
The recent infrastructure of Guatemala City began with an airport that spawned a city around it. This makes landing particularly strenuous as planes must clear a wall of skyscrapers that hug the airport’s walls, then dive into the runway, leveling out just before landing. We arrived safely, and took a bus to Lake Atitlan. Once hailed as the most beautiful lake on Earth, this lake now harbors the garbage brought in from foreign countries that locals now depend on for tourism and “modern life.” There are no dumps, nor any societal agreement for how to dispose of the plastic and glass in a sustainable way, revealing a dark side to an influx of products from the developed world. We were also products from that world. Would our presence only serve as a temporary service to that neglected sustained attention required for healthy progress? I hadn’t thought about it at the time.
We met up with the foundation’s leaders; Paulo and his until-recently fiance Anna. They lived in a three story tree house about a mile up the road from the lake. Wild coffee plants grew alongside towering trees whose canopy shaded us from the beating sun. That day we went to build our first chimney for a family two ciudades down from where we were staying. To our suprise, workers showed up to help with the construction. Paulo tried explain, “they’re here to show you how to do it.” Once the workers finished the chimney we began to get suspicious. We asked the men if they were volunteers as well. They explained that they were hired hands who received pay from the foundation commissioned by the family. Yes, the Guatemalan family was paying for the chimney, and so were we through a 300 dollar required-donation to the foundation for materials. Some of us were worried, but I kept my faith… until dinner. We had also paid 200 dollars for two weeks of food, which Anna had been purchasing while we were working. She brought back five cans of cream of wheat and ten bunches of plantain. “Food for the week” she said. Nine of us, multiplied by 100 for the week, and she gets that. I was devastated. Yes, that was more food that most locals would eat, but from my eyes it was starvation.
That night we met in the boys cabin to stage a mutiny. Those in favor of staying were swayed otherwise when the girls informed us of the love triangle formed by our teacher, Paulo, and Anna. Paulo was engaged to Anna, while dating our teacher in the states. He broke up with Anna the day before we arrived, presumably to hide his secret from our teacher. So we left. Into the night the nine of us scrambled down to a nearby village and checked into a hotel. It was the Fourth of July, and some of the girls made quick work of absconding alcohol from some drunk American tourists. Brave, and naive of us to just leave. The next morning we walked back to camp and confronted the three adults, revealing our knowledge of the scam and Paulo’s scandal. Our teacher, at her breaking point, left with us to seek other ways to volunteer in Antigua.
A coffee plantation opened their doors to us for a day of work. We sifted beans into three catagories: split, round, and rejects. Fair Trade agreements ensure families get paid at least 30 US dollars a day. For a family of fifteen that works out to about 10 to 75 cents an hour, depending on who works that day. They will not be pulling in the kind of cash that Starbucks does from selling their coffee later. We did this for eight hours, and never looked at a cup of joe the same way again. Just for fun, we chartered a van and went to the volcano Pacaya. On the way up we drove past a group of weeping locals who stood atop a cliff where a Chicken Bus had just driven off. Chicken Busses are decommissioned busses usually from the US and repurposed for mass transit in Central and South America. With no regulations or maintenance, it is likely that the brakes went out. Our driver did not stop for fear of causing more accidents. There were a dozen bystanders, but help wouldn’t come for another day or so. All anyone could do was pray, so we did. We hiked up the Pacaya and roasted marsh mellows over flowing lava, a typical tourist experience on a volcano with no restrictions on where you walk. I knew though, that the same freedom granted from lack of governmental presence in the area also took all hope of rescue away from the victims of the bus accident.
Finally, we found ourselves at Hermano Pedro’s Hospital. The hospital/orphanage/church/homeless shelter has been around since 1663. Everyone split up for the next few days and went to a wing of the hospital that they felt called to. Some went to the orphanage to play with the kids, others to help clean, but about four of us went to the mental health unit. We were seated by an employee directly across from seven women who suffered from some form of mental illness. Everyone was quiet at first, silenced by the language barrier. Then a couple smiles built up some rapport. A Guatemalan woman reached out her hand to shake mine. She grabbed hold with the strength of a gorilla, and did not let go. She kept shaking and smiling, as if getting a laugh out of my discomfort. Then I realized how funny it was, and we laughed like old friends do when they make fun of themselves. I had to yank my hand back after a couple of minutes to let my blood flow back in. But it was a blast. We just sat there all day making very small conversation with a little Spanish and a lot of nonverbal signals.
I can’t say we made a huge difference in the communities we visited, but I can say that I made some friends and began to see my own culture in a new light. It wasn’t the scam, the money or lack of it, or even the kindness that shook my worldview; It was the fact that everyone knew that I knew nothing about them, and they so much about me. I suppose we all got a little help.