“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
What can we do to fix it?
As we thrust forward, full-throttle into a modern era defined by convenience and consumption, it's easy to blind ourselves to the effects our everyday lives have on the environment around us. Whether it's the choking yellow clouds that pour from our smokestacks or the heaps of refuse we leave behind us every trash day, one thing is clear: we're living with the garbage we create. We've only mapped about five percent of our oceans, but our garbage has reached seemingly every corner. 19 billion pounds of trash, a large portion of which is plastic, is dumped into the sea every year. This number is set to double by 2025.
Most trash that ends up in the ocean lands somewhere in five "patches," located in our oceans' various doldrums. The largest of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a debris-ridden swath of ocean that's thousands of miles wide. Currently, it is estimated that the combined weight of the world's garbage patches is somewhere near 200 millions tons. To make matters worse, fish have begun consuming microplastics, creating a health crisis not just for marine life, but for the people who rely on the ocean for food. So, what's the solution?
Trash, trash, and more trash.
Unsurprisingly, it's pretty difficult to scoop up and remove millions of tons of plastic from our oceans. While nets are partially effective, they have a tendency of picking up fish and by extension, inadvertently destroying the ecosystems they (the nets) are trying to protect. Boyan Slat, a Dutch Inventor, famously came up with another solution in which he places gigantic trash capturing barriers in the ocean. According to his site, the plan is to launch a set of these barriers into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch later this year. Slat's own estimates assure investors that his company (The Ocean Cleanup) can reduce the amount of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50% within five years. Still, there are detractors. Many scientists insist that focusing on collecting trash with this method is a waste of time. According to a report by marine biologist Jan van Franeker, the negative effects of plastic in the water tend to dissipate after laws governing plastic use are put into place. It's "something that disappears in 10 to 20 years, if you stop the input," says van Franeker. The concern among scientists is that Slat's flashy invention could possibly move the spotlight off of more tenable solutions, such as legislation to prevent plastic dumping and the use of plastic bags.
The Ocean Clean Up project in action
Considering the fact that 80% of ocean pollution comes from land-based garbage, reduction of input is the definitely the more clear-cut way to fix this problem. One step would be the enactment of a federal container deposit law. Essentially, a deposit law forces consumers to pay a small fee (typically between 2 and 15 cents) for each bottle or can at purchase. This fee can later be refunded when the recycling is brought back to an eligible return center, such as a supermarket.
Presently, only ten states have programs in place to buy used plastic and aluminum containers, despite the fact that about 50% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. In states where bills regarding container deposits have been passed, the amount of aluminum and plastic beverage containers has dropped by as much as 84%. In many ways, these programs seem like a no-brainer but, unfortunately, many lawmakers conflate (purposely or otherwise) container deposit laws with their larger ineffective cousin, the litter tax. A litter tax is imposed on manufactures and retailers of recyclable goods and is used to fund various anti-littering campaigns. These taxes haven't proven to be effective. A deposit law actively incentivizes consumers to recycle, because they lose money if they don't. The problem is, beverage manufacturers don't want these laws, as they raise the in-store price of everything from beer to bottled water. For obvious reasons, this translates to lower sales.In order to correct our current course, Americans will need to adopt new attitudes and policies around how we produce and deal with our trash. Putting the health of our planet above our desire for profit may be a good place to start.