From a young age, Americans are taught that they are responsible for saving the environment. “Don’t litter.” “Reuse plastic bags.” “Turn the faucet off when not in use.” These instructions have been drilled into our minds to the point where these small actions are regarded as the key to stopping the environmental plagues of global warming, pollution, and over-encumbered landfills. Each Earth Day, we celebrate our home without realizing that we are destroying more and more of it with every passing year. Yet many do not acknowledge the obvious fact that the actions we are taking collectively are not enough. But when did we develop this sentiment? When did we decide that there was no need to advocate for greater, more substantial change? This mindset was created and catalyzed by Keep America Beautiful, an environmental advocacy group from the 1950s. Through their borderline propagandist ads and influence in the political sphere, the companies behind Keep America Beautiful have fostered the mindset that consumers, not producers, are responsible for mitigating environmental damages. We must, however, overcome that mindset and focus on using collective action to target environmental issues at the source.
Keep America Beautiful (KAB) was founded in 1953 as a response to the rising concerns of environmental protection after WWII to promote environmental change through media. Though their name and infamous anti-litter campaigns suggest a benevolent background, there was more to KAB than the general public realized: the two companies behind this group were none other than the American Can Company and the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, who were later joined by Dixie Co. and Coca Cola (Dunaway). Unsurprisingly, these groups created KAB in order to preserve their right to manufacture and ensure that any proposed environmental changes wouldn’t hinder their volume of production. To achieve this goal, they focused on anti-littering campaigns—not consuming less single-use waste but rather disposing of the already created waste. Their first ad campaign, launched in 1953, features the child Susan Spotless chastising her parents for littering and calling them “unpatriotic” for doing so (Dunaway). By feeding into the post-WWII sentiments of hyper patriotism, KAB found success in passing the responsibility of managing waste to the consumer; however, Susan soon lost her spark as protests for industrial reform became widespread leading into the ’70s (Strand).
The companies behind KAB knew they would be held accountable for their actions if this type of protesting continued, so they created a new propaganda masterpiece: the Crying Indian ad. Beginning with a Native American man (who was actually just Italian) rowing down a spotless stream, the ad depicts more and more trash blocking his path until he ends up on the side of a highway. With a single tear and a one-minute ad, KAB was able to target people’s emotions, guilt, and respect for their country’s natural beauty. As Ginger Strand describes:
“Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that once was this country,“ intones a basso profundo voice, “and some people don’t.“ On those words, someone flings a bag of trash from a passing car. It scatters at the Indian’s feet. He looks into the camera for the money shot. A single tear rolls down his cheeks. “People start pollution. People can stop it.“ (Strand)
Needless to say, this ad was effective. In targeting the consumer instead of the producer, KAB convinced countless Americans that they are primarily responsible for fixing the growing environmental crisis. From then on, the environmental campaigns shifted to how individuals can improve the environment rather than how the production industries should improve their methods.
Although getting people to pick up a few pieces of garbage here and there doesn’t sound malicious, Keep America Beautiful also influenced groups beyond the consumer. As part of the growing concern with the state of the environment in the ’60s, a new effort to pass “bottle bills“ was born (Strand). These bills sought to place a ban on all single use waste, primarily to-go cups and bottles at that time, and instead opt for reusable containers that would lead to a longer life before inevitably being disposed of. While litter was the most visible problem with single use waste, these bills emphasized the extensive pollution, mining of natural resources, and other less obvious—but more serious—issues. The companies behind KAB did not like that idea: “The Keep America Beautiful leadership lined up against the bottle bills, going so far, in one case, as to label supporters of such legislation as ‘communists’” (Dunaway). Considering that said companies already held a great influence over the corporate world, they were able to translate it into political pressure in order to preserve their power.
After enough pushback, however, the bottle bills were abandoned and KAB was free to continue profiting off pollution without any changes for years to come. Even after their ads stopped running, KAB continued to operate and “co-opt the energy, goodwill and emotional commitment of those people, especially the young, who care enough about birds choked on plastic and beaches littered in plastic waste, to spend their own time, at their own expense, picking up the industrial detritus that the plastic industry creates” (Rose). Through their strategic use of advertisements and covert manipulation of politics, Keep America Beautiful successfully shifted the focus of Americans to the symptoms of the issue rather than the system that makes them for generations to come.
Between the emphasis on picking up pre-produced waste and the vetoing of the bottle bills, Keep America Beautiful does not align with their supposed values and instead contributes to greater pollution. Though plastic production from the 1950s-70s was not yet a noticeable problem, “researchers found that by 2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, 6.3 billion tons of which had already become waste; and the pace of plastic production shows no signs of slowing. Of the total amount of plastics produced from 1950 to 2015, roughly half was produced in just the last 13 years” (Hataway). Plastic production has not slowed down since 1953; instead, it has exponentially increased. A few potential factors behind this growth include population increase, rapid technological advances, and an ever-growing culture of consumerism. Had the bottle bills passed sixty years ago, there would have been an opportunity to stop this immense plastic production before we reached the proverbial point of no return. We can now see that no changes in that time frame have even made a dent on the plastic production in America.
But what about recycling? Isn’t it the end-all solution to plastic production? Not quite. “In 2012 only 9% of plastic was recycled in the US, and 27% in Europe, while it is estimated that globally, 32% is ‘leakage’ (environmental plastic pollution to air, sea, freshwater, soils), 40% is landfilled (from which some of it may still escape), and only 14% is “collected for recycling” of which just 2% is ‘closed loop’” (Dunaway). Unbeknownst to most, recycling actually doesn’t work. Even beyond all the recyclable materials that end up in the trash, most waste sent to be recycled never sees a second life. By preaching the power of recycling, corporations like those behind KAB have been able to conduct business while deemphasizing the (more valuable, less profitable) options of reducing and reusing. And though their ads no longer run, Keep America Beautiful has not changed either: “Over two million Americans acted on that belief [i.e., responsibility to help the environment] in 2006, volunteering for Keep America Beautiful activities: picking up litter, removing graffiti, painting buildings, and planting greenery” (Strand). The true nature of KAB still has not been revealed to the general public, allowing them to capitalize off the good will of consumers and only increase their plastic production. In addition to the statistical ramifications of KAB’s corruption, their influence has also created a toxic culture surrounding the proper way to save the environment that persists to this day.
The most detrimental impact of Keep America Beautiful’s campaigns is their focus on individual action. They have persuaded the American public to believe that they are solely responsible for repairing the environment and handling the effects of industrialization, rather than resolving the issue at its source. By holding the consumers accountable for not littering the already produced plastic, KAB instilled a responsibility for individual action, or each individual making choices to improve the environment (Pasaden). Other examples of individual action includes using reusable bags, shopping for clothing sustainably, limiting driving, and turning off faucets when not in use. While many feel a moral obligation to make environmentally conscious choices, the impacts of those choices only go so far. We recycle plastic that is already produced, the manufacturers of reusable bags still pollute during production, and new clothes are being churned out faster than necessary whether we buy them or not. Though individual action does make a difference, it is hard to deny that the industries behind our daily life are producing the majority of pollution and environmental harm; we are the consumers of these negative impacts, not the creators.
By placing the emphasis on littering and shaming consumers for the choices they make, the bottle and can manufacturers behind KAB have been able to continue producing their products with no changes to make their production environmentally friendly. The consumer became distracted by the overwhelming sense of responsibility they felt to keep the environment clean, therefore drawing attention away from the root of pollution. We are now stuck in a cycle of consumption: “The people bought; the people threw away. Then, the same industries and advertisers turned around and called them pigs. The people shamefacedly cleaned up the trash. And the packagers, pointing to the cleaned-up landscape, just went on making more of it” (Strand). Considering KAB was founded in response to collective protests against single-use container manufacturers, this impact was intentional. Emphasis on individual action and the use of language such as ”unpatriotic” has taken advantage of good-willed people and those who feel a strong connection to their country, leaving the citizens to quite literally clean up the mess of industrialization.
Even though individual action has proved to be ineffective for the past sixty years, some may argue that collective action is not the proper step. Some Americans believe that our current method of individual responsibility is sufficient and that consumers should make more environmentally conscious choices, while others do not think individuals have the right to interfere with business operations. While feeling a moral obligation to help the environment however possible is productive, it is clear that choices such as recycling and picking up litter have done nothing to target the root of the issue. Additionally, not everyone has the financial means to make changes in their lifestyle that benefit the environment more. No person, regardless of financial status, should have to spend more and buy more to fix the environment. Instead, we should not have to make environmentally conscious decisions, as the corporations producing the pollutants and waste should be producing in a way that does not require those consumer decisions. Though interfering with businesses is a sensitive matter, the fact that half of the plastic produced from 1950-2015 was from the last thirteen years (Hataway) is evidence enough that individual action is not effective and that other means are necessary. Though this type of interference may not have been necessary if KAB hadn’t interfered with bottle bills, the environment is deteriorating faster than ever, and action must be taken soon to prevent further irrevocable damage.
Solely practicing certain forms of individual action also feeds into the concept of performative activism, in which people make small efforts for a cause (throwing away their trash, reposting environmental infographics, etc.) without being educated or truly caring about the cause. This can be especially harmful due to the fact that it prevents people from taking their environmental action to a productive level and instead remain uneducated and participate in activism for show, creating complacency and no real change. While the responsibility to preserve the environment should not lie solely in the hands of the consumer, performative activism is dangerous because it distracts us from taking meaningful action to preserve the environment or change the system: “Too often, individual actions like recycling and green consumerism have provided Americans with a therapeutic dose of environmental hope that fails to address our underlying issues” (Dunaway). It is human nature to look for comfort in times of distress, but the situation will only worsen when everyone is trying to downplay the problem at hand. There will always be individual action to take if the system of production is continuously creating new problems, but if individual action is the only action taken, we will never reach the root of our environmental damage. Rather than solely practicing individual action, collective action must also be implemented to truly save the environment.
To change the problems within industrial production, the two primary options we face are system reformation and replacement. Reformation tends to be the more favorable option because it requires the least effort to modify However, as collective action proponent and designer Jussi Pasanen explains, this choice can be ineffective:
One interpretation is that it is demanding a change in the existing system—late stage capitalism—for example to be more ”sustainable” (a term that itself has been co-opted to the point that it has become meaningless). This is the capitalist’s favourite version, as it calls for a minor adjustment, which can be countered easily. For instance, if you convert a factory churning out 100,000 soft toys per a day to run on renewable energy, the system has been ‘changed’, and it is now a bit more ‘sustainable’ isn’t it? Job done. (Pasanen)
Though switching to a more “sustainable” model of production may have been a viable option thirty years ago, we are past the point where altering the existing system will create enough change to save the environment due to the extent that we have destroyed it already. Therefore, system replacement is the most viable option for the current state of our environment.
To do this, we must practice a mix of individual and collective action. The two form a dialectic relationship, in which they feed off each other and subsequently grow, as individual action is necessary to organize a collective similar in power to the system and to contribute to said collective. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that individual action is needed to combat the preexisting problems the method has created, but “system change is possible when enough people share an understanding of a problem, have a similar view on what needs to change, and take a coordinated journey in the same direction” (Pasanen). Before we can collectivize, a majority of individuals first need to be educated on the issue at hand. This education is not just that pollution is bad, that we’re killing the environment, and that global warming is real; but without understanding why these things are happening (namely at the hands of large corporations), we will never form a deep enough understanding of the issue to know where to begin in making improvements. The task of organizing nearly all of America is daunting, but with proper education and leadership it is certainly possible.
Despite the seemingly positive intentions behind Keep America Beautiful’s ad campaigns, they have harmed the environment to preserve their profits and power. While the general public only saw their propagandist ads that hold individuals responsible for waste, they were heavily influencing political decisions that could have stopped plastic overconsumption in its tracks behind the scenes. Through these ads, we have been trained to focus on how we can individually help the environment, rather than finding ways to stop the problem at its source—the companies behind KAB and others like them. Even though KAB has convinced us for decades that individual action is the only viable solution, we are at the point where collective action is necessary to change the systems of plastic production. Achieving this goal and breaking a nationwide mindset seems nearly impossible, but the first step is awareness. Once Americans realize that they are not the root of the problem, we can move forward and make lasting impacts on the nature of plastic manufacturing and pollution. We are not the problem—but the power to fix it lies within all of us together.
Dunaway, Finis. “The ‘Crying Indian’ Ad That Fooled the Environmental Movement.” Chicago Tribune, 31 May 2019, www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-indian-crying-environment-ads-pollution-1123-20171113-story.html.
Hataway, James. “More than 8.3 Billion Tons of Plastics Made: Most Has Now Been Discarded.” ScienceDaily, 19 July 2017, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170719140939.htm.
Pasanen, Jussi. “Individual Change or System Change Is Not the Right Question.” JussiPasanen.com, 25 June 2019, www.jussipasanen.com/individual-change-or-system-change-is-not-the-right-question/.
Rose, Chris. “A Beautiful If Evil Strategy.” Plastic Pollution Coalition, 26 Oct. 2017, www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/blog/2017/10/26/a-beautiful-if-evil-strategy.
Strand, Ginger. “The Crying Indian.” Orion Magazine, orionmagazine.org/article/the-crying-indian/.
About the Author
Sara Steber is a first-year student from Berks County, Pennsylvania. At Fordham, she plays viola in the Rose Hill Orchestra and has written for The Paper. Though her major is currently undecided, Sara plans to pursue English and continue to write in her free time. This paper, the final project for a nature writing course, reflects her interest in environmental activism and the impact of media on consumers.