When you’re a teenager, having a mom can really suck. They’re always worried about you, which tends to manifest itself into embarrassing you. They’ll call your friends’ parents to make sure you weren’t lying and are where you said you’d be, and now you and all your friends are in trouble because of your embarrassing mom. When you’re a teenager and your mom is an environmentalist, it sucks even more. Her fear about the planet far outweighs the humiliating moments caused from her fear about you.
My mother isn’t like most environmentalists. I’m sure when Greta Thunberg goes over to a friend’s house, she doesn’t inquire about what cleaning products they use or how they make their coffee in the morning, or make them promise her they’ll start composting, and then follow up for proof that they’ve made changes to all of the above. Instead, Greta inspires people to reduce their carbon footprint by quietly sailing to America. My mother cannot sail because she’s Jewish, so I guess she must find other ways to spread awareness, such as yelling at any friend of mine who comes over holding a plastic water bottle my entire childhood.
The only thing I’ve found that sucks about having a mom as an adult is that you eventually find out she’s actually really cool, and instead of spending your adolescence having had quality time with her and absorbing all of the many prescient things she says, you spent it with random kids, hating your mom for caring more about the planet than not embarrassing you. Luckily, my mom put all of the most important things she’s said into a book called Imagine It! A Handbook for a Happier Planet, which will change your perspective and how you go about your daily life, and will undoubtedly make you the most informed environmental activist in your circle.
CAZZIE DAVID: Just because it was the first question I asked you when you and your co-author, Heather Reisman, wrote this book, I feel like it’s important for everyone to know: Is your book made from paper?
LAURIE DAVID: Well, there is paper and then there is paper. This book wasn’t printed on pulp made from old-growth trees; it was made in accordance with certified sustainable-forestry practices and with recycled materials. There is almost always an eco-friendlier option for the things we do in life. You can apply this right now with, say, the toilet-paper brand you buy. If your fave gets an “F” in sustainability (we have a chart in the book) then you may want to make a change. Wouldn’t it be great if, when we made decisions, we factored in the damages left in the wake of our choices? That is a mindset that as a culture we aren’t used to having, but the times demand it.
C.D.: What made you want to become an environmentalist? What got you into these issues in the first place?
L.D.: Well, you actually had a lot to do with it! When I was pregnant with you, my firstborn, I started to really think about how to best protect you. It began with a heightened awareness of what I was eating, whether it was organic rather than conventionally grown with pesticides, and making sure the paint for your nursery was nontoxic. Once you start seeing things in terms of what is best for your baby’s health, it leads to questioning everything. And that is a good thing.
C.D.: What is the one change you would suggest someone make in their daily lives to help the planet?
L.D.: One change I am really hoping for is a shift in attitude—especially coming out of this pandemic. It’s past time to embrace the fact that we are not separate from the environment or nature. We are deeply connected to it. As goes the health of our air, water, and soil, so goes our own health. If we start connecting that dot, every day, it will make a huge difference in what we buy, eat, and toss.
Let me give you an example: You know I am obsessed with the enormous amount of plastic in our daily lives. We are literally drowning in it. We have polluted our oceans and landfills with it, and we have even polluted our own bodies from it. Plastic particles have even been found in breast milk. If we all started thinking of plastic for what it is, a petroleum product, then maybe we wouldn’t want to store our food in it or drink water from it.
Here is one of plastic’s impacts: the chemicals from this oil by-product leech into our food, water, and oceans. Another doozy: plastic never biodegrades. That means every toothbrush, Solo cup, or shampoo bottle we have ever used still exists somewhere today.
There is also the matter of where these materials are being manufactured—more likely than not, in low-income communities of color. That is why people of color have higher levels of asthma, lung disease, and cancer than their white counterparts. It’s also why BIPOC people disproportionately died from the coronavirus. It’s all connected.
So, imagine if we started considering all that when we use plastic forks, or buy groceries smothered in plastic containers. A mind shift to the real cost of these items would change how we view what “disposable” is. Once we get there, then we will reimagine a way out of our “disposable” culture.
C.D.: Environmental racism is one of the most disturbing topics you bring up in the book. It is such a massive issue and can make one feel so helpless. What can we do about a chemical plant or refinery built in a Black or low-income community? Is there anything we can do to confront environmental racism individually?
L.D.: Sadly, you can’t talk about environmental issues and not talk about racism. We need big, systematic changes to address these issues. As individuals, we can all help amplify the problems on our social-media networks, support local organizations fighting for lead-free water, or fight to stop a toxic plant from being built in anyone’s neighborhood. We can use our purchasing power to support companies that have real sustainability values and goals, and, of course, vote for candidates who are serious about addressing the climate crisis.
C.D.: You made me care so much about how much waste just one person can cause. How would you confront or talk to someone who doesn’t care, and have it resonate with them?
L.D.: As you painfully know, I believe in direct confrontation … but I also think information is power. That is exactly why we wanted this book to exist. If people understood that their favorite cookie, let’s say, Oreo, is made from an ingredient—palm oil—that is decimating carbon-storing forests, contributing to global warming, and eviscerating the habitat of many species, including the orangutan, they would demand companies stop using it or lose them as a customer.
The customer has all the power to force change. Our goal is that Imagine It! will help empower people with a ton of great information on every aspect of their personal footprints to better protect themselves, their families, and the Earth.
C.D.: Why is our planet a political issue? Why isn’t it unanimous to want a planet for our grandkids?
L.D.: Such a good question, and a real head-scratcher. Some of the resistance has to do with vested interests, meaning, the people making money from the status quo—the oil, coal, and gas industries. Historically, they have been the ones spreading misinformation and denialism, and lobbying lawmakers to keep us tied to fossil fuels.
Also, in the past there was a view that the impact of the climate crisis was decades away, but now we all can see that the effects are already here and accelerating. Every year we break new records for drought, wildfires, and flooding.
It’s ironic that a former Republican president, Richard Nixon, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and yet the current Republican Party is responsible for weakening that agency and rolling back hundreds of hard-fought environmental protections, including no-brainers like efficiency and fuel-economy standards. We just lost four years where we should have been accelerating our switch to clean energy, but I am hopeful that the current administration will be able to make up for lost time.
C.D.: You are the most passionate person I know. Who inspires you?
L.D.: That’s a compliment, right?
It’s an easy question! Black women inspire me. I can give you a long list of powerful Black women I know, and many more I don’t, who, despite enormous challenges, work to make the world a better place. I am thinking of my fellow N.R.D.C. trustee Catherine Flowers, who has been fighting for decades for wastewater infrastructure in the rural South. I am thinking of my girlfriends Dawn Davis, who just became the first Black editor of Bon Appetit magazine, and Dawn Porter, a documentary filmmaker who just gave us Good Trouble, a beautiful portrait of Congressman John Lewis; I am thinking of political powerhouse Hasoni Pratts, who I met on the Pete Buttigieg campaign, where she was the national director of engagement, and Michelle Browder, an artist and activist who I met taking one of her civil-rights tours in Montgomery, Alabama. When she isn’t educating visitors to her historic city, Michelle and her father take in newly released prisoners who have nowhere to go and give them a shot at starting a new life. I am so inspired by Black women artists, including Deborah Roberts and Evita Tezeno, both of whose work I am the proud owner of.
Finally, my girlfriend Angella Henry deeply inspires me every single day. Her beautiful son Danroy Henry was murdered by police near Pace University when he was a freshman in college. Angella and her husband have been fighting for 10 years to get his case reopened. Angella is full of grace, humor, and courage, and she is a role model to everyone who knows her.
These women make me feel like I am not doing enough and I need to do more. That is true inspiration.
Imagine It! A Handbook for a Happier Planet, by Laurie David and Heather Reisman, is out now
Cazzie David is a columnist for AIR MAIL and the author of No One Asked for This