Thursday, October 23, 2008

Daphne Zuniga takes a toxic tour

Did you grow up learning about being a good environmentalist?

I grew up at a time in a town in which helping people was the norm. In Berkeley in the late 1960s we recycled, composted and shared with other families—it was all about community. Because of this upbringing, I know that we are ALL stronger if we help each other.

More recently, living in Los Angeles, I began working with several environmental justice organizations and have learned firsthand how little attention these crucially important, hardworking organizations receive. Specifically, I’ve become very involved with Southern California-based Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). CBE works to bring environmental health to these poorer, toxin-burdened neighborhoods, which in turn cleans the air quality in the whole Los Angeles area, and reduces the millions of tons of pollutants which contribute to Global Warming. These communities, mostly lower income areas with large Hispanic populations, are the places where power plants, oil refineries, manufacturing plants, incinerators, and waste treatment facilities are built. In many, it’s so bad that the EPA won’t even measure the air quality. Mainstream media doesn’t cover this issue, corporations continue releasing toxic fumes waste, and the people who live there are stuck in poisonous environments. And as a result, as many as 1 in 5 people living in these neighborhoods have respiratory illnesses like asthma. And the rest of us suffer these violations on our water, air and land.

The CBE took me on a Toxic Tour; I saw this and I knew I had to do something to try and help bring attention to the issue.

How did you get involved with the CBE and why did you want to?

One day, I called Bill Gallegos, the executive director of CBE. He was surprised to hear from me, but I asked to have lunch, and then he suggested I take the tour. There is no doubt — seeing really is believing. I was shocked and troubled by what I saw, and grateful not to be living in one of these areas. That’s when I knew that others needed to take this tour and see for themselves what the media and lawmakers were ignoring.

What stood out in your mind that you didn't know before you went on the tour?

I was shocked at how residential homes with children were located literally right next door to oil wells. I could never have imagined the proximity of homes to these industrial, environmentally hazardous areas. My first thought was, "Well why don’t they move?!" But then I learned that residents were living there BEFORE the Conoco oil refinery—which illegally flares off their oil build up and offers neighbors $200 so that they won’t make a fuss—was built. And even if these residents were to move, where would they go? Many can’t afford to live in other areas.

How does being green helps to fix these problems?

The LESS we all consume and waste energy, the less of a burden it places on our fellow humans in the South Bay where the energy factories are located. It’s one thing to say we must act in a conscious manner, but bearing witness to how others live makes this much more important and real. We are all connected, and seeing these atrocities firsthand is different than just thinking about it or theorizing. Our neighbors are stuck breathing and drinking poisons.

What have you done in your own personal life to be green?

I’ve downsized tremendously by selling my house, which was too big for me—a single person with no kids—and now I have a smaller place that suits my needs beautifully. I drive a Prius, buy less over all, use organic cleaning liquids, wash clothes in cold water with biodegradable soap, use a natural dry cleaner, and buy local and organic produce. I’ve changed my lights (which I’m very good about turning out when I leave a room) to make them more energy efficient and I offset the CO2 produced in my everyday life through American Forests. I also give money to important environmental causes and work to help raise awareness.

When you’re trying to get the word out what obstacles are you coming up against and how do you overcome them?

I feel hesitant sometimes because it’s hard to make a Toxic Tour sound sexy. Asking people to take the tour is asking them to look at and deal with the ugly part of environmentalism—the dirty part of our lifestyle, which makes people uncomfortable. But people are actually very interested and want to go on it. While saving a baby seal, an owl, or a coral reef all seem the more appealing thing to do, we can’t shy away from the environmental risks affecting our own human race. At an Environmental Justice conference I attended, someone said, "Our children are the Snowy Owl; we need to save THEM."

What can we do?

I think the first and most important step is to look at your lifestyle with bare honesty. To look at and admit where you know you can be better, less wasteful, and look into a more impactful way you personally can correct the way we all have become used to living. People have the ability to help protect and improve the environment on all different levels. Whether small or large, any contribution to environmental causes makes a difference. You don’t need to be able to write a big check to fight for environmental justice. Taking a Toxic Tour, raising awareness about organizations like the CBE or other ones, and making choices that are better for the planet—which is obviously a better choice for the humans living on it, are the first steps!

Thanks Daphne!

Oh, and readers, check out my article on The Fixx's lead singer Cy Curnin right here!

I wrote that for the Bob Vila website.

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