Dissecting Ableist Bias in Environmentalist Thinking

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I was very excited to read about the Whole Foods peeled orange debacle on the internet. I don’t shop there (too pricey!) so I wasn’t even aware that they were selling peeled oranges wrapped in plastic until seeing articles reporting the public outcry forcing Whole Foods to cancel the product.

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/peeled-oranges-in-plastic-pulled-by-whole-foods-after-social-media-outrage-a6911611.html

My gut reaction was, predictably, to be very happy with this environmentalist success story. I am extremely opposed to the amount of plastic used to pack and display our food. I personally have already cut way back on the amount of food that I buy in plastic packaging and I’m working to reduce my consumption further. It is definitely a challenge, especially when shopping on a restricted budget.

One of the upsides to buying less packaged foods is it’s usually healthier and, in the case of produce, it ends up saving you some money which can really add up. The flip side is the time you invest in food prep, but I have more time than money right now so that’s no problem for me. For people with less time on their hands, this is a perfectly understandable conundrum. But if cutting back on packaged foods is important to you, I know you can be resourceful with the limited time you do have. Consider spending time on days off prepping produce for the week. Once you get a good rhythm going, chopping veggies can go really quickly. Most fresh fruits and vegetables will store extremely well for a few days in your fridge, and even longer if you freeze them.

But I digress.

The point of this article was supposed to be about ableist attitudes in environmentalism. Being a physically able person I will readily admit that I have not given this issue due consideration in the past and I am very glad it has been brought to my attention by CrippledScholar’s post regarding the peeled orange debate.

https://crippledscholar.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/when-accessibility-gets-labeled-wasteful/

I was extremely disappointed to learn of the ableist twitter comments attacking/disregarding the concerns of disabled people. And I understand, I think, where at least some of these people might be coming from. I had felt the same sense of victory when reading thatWhole Foods agreed to stop pre-peeling oranges. Little victories like this are some of the baby steps we need to a more environmentalist lifestyle. It was hard to let go of that feeling, of the sense of justice and rightness.

People often lash out at those who disagree, especially when it challenges our core values. I personally consider environmentalism a core value, so I can understand others feeling the same. But I think we all need to learn that attacking, or questioning, someone’s values is not the same as attacking that person. So, when out values are questioned or challenged we should take a step back and try to focus on facts, rather than feelings. When you focus on feelings, you are most likely to attack on a personal level, and this is one of the many reasons that comments sections on the internet can quickly devolve into hate-filled nonsense. It is also insanely non-productive.

When you focus on facts, and if you can be level-headed about it, you get much more interesting discussions. And, if you’re lucky, you can find solutions.

I had never considered the difficulty of food preparation until reading the CrippledScholar’s article. It has not affected me personally. Now I know better.

This has caused me to question some of my pre-conceived notions. Like lots of environmentalists, my perfect dream world would most likely include unlimited access to fresh and minimally processed foods for all and a ban on pre-packaged goods like the orange. At least the ones contained in plastic packaging.

As CrippledScholar so aptly points out in this article, my dream world has unfortunately left out people with disabilities. I love tiny houses. I think stairs are preferable to elevators in small buildings (I live on the fifth floor of a walkup. I don’t always love it, but I appreciate it’s simplicity and the exercise it adds to my daily life). I think everyone in NYC should ride bicycles everywhere. I have lots of other goofy notions, but I hope the point of this ramble is starting to emerge.

The point being this: unintentionally, due to my privilege as a non-disabled person, I have completely discounted the needs of those with disabilities. I didn’t do it on purpose, I wasn’t even consciously doing it at all, but it happened. And now it is time to correct that.

When we talk about sustainability, let’s remember to keep in mind the needs of all people. If we are trying to create a better future, let’s include everyone in that.

For those who have made nasty arguments on twitter implying that the environment is more important than the needs of disabled people, or even going so far as to say they shouldn’t necessarily be around, I say this: Aren’t we better than that?

The whole of human history has pushed us forwards towards more progressive ideals, although there have been plenty of setbacks along the way. At this time in our collective evolution, can’t we try to become more empathetic creatures? Can’t we begin learn to truly care for all of our fellow beings? We’re all on this rock together. Leaving people behind is not evolved.

Rather, let’s look at ways that we can include disabled people in our movement. There are many people living with disabilities and I am sure at least some of them are also concerned with the environment. Again, to reference the article from CrippledScholar, many of the tools and technology required to provide daily assistance to people with disability are, by necessity, not environmentally friendly. The answer to this problem it not to do away with those items. People rely on them.

We need to start to include this need into our discussion of sustainability and try to look at it as a design opportunity. I genuinely believe that there are innovative people out there who can find new solutions.

And ultimately, if plastic is necessary to provide surgical implants and tools to aid the disabled, use the plastic. And research ways to replace it with renewable resources in the future, if that is possible.

On a more relatable note for those not living with disability, let’s return to the original orange debate.

A lot of people seemed upset about the laziness of consumers who would buy pre-peeled oranges. My reply to that is, meh. I can be pretty lazy myself. The emergence of a product like this is not surprising. Everything about our food system (and really our culture in general) has been designed to promote convenience, which you can call laziness if you like. The point being: this trend isn’t exactly going anywhere. The industry is programmed to cater to the consumer, and the consumer craves convenience.

So, given the demand for convenience items, maybe we shouldn’t necessarily fight the trend. Again, let’s look at this as a design opportunity. There are already people developing bio-degradable packaging. Let’s support that movement. Let’s make that process as sustainable as possible. Because ultimately, if we’re battling convenience, we’re battling popular opinion. And we’re never going to make environmentalism mainstream by yelling at people and taking away their favorite things by force. We need to work with consumers and industry to make a lasting impact.

And while we’re doing that, let’s remember to take the time to consider as many different perspectives as we can. Let’s consider how our actions will affect others. And let’s include people living with disabilities into that consideration. Because they are members of our community. And as we struggle to save our environment, let’s remember why we’re bothering to do so in the first place.

Because the Earth’s not going anywhere. If we don’t correct course regarding our treatment of the environment, we’re not going to destroy the planet. We’re going to change the conditions of Earth’s environment so drastically that it will not be able to sustain the types of life that currently live here. And that includes us.

So remember, we’re not fighting to save the planet. We’re fighting to save ourselves. And if we’re going to do that, let’s focus on the type of people we really want to be. Let’s continue to evolve mentally and emotionally. Because if we don’t change our way of thinking, we’re not going to be able to make the changes necessary to keep ourselves around.

So let’s continue to work together, to build a world we can not only inhabit, but one in which we can thrive. A world where each individual can be encouraged to fulfill their best potential and to be most true to themselves and those around them. Because I don’t want to save the world only for it to continue on the way it is. I want to make it a better place.

 

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