Saturday, January 5, 2013

Color of Poverty

 King of Beers, Lords of Litter, what's up with Blue?

I ride my bike on the back roads of Virginia as many days as the weather and my crazy schedule permits.  On these rides I frequently contemplate life's puzzles and today was no exception.  As the icy cold air pierced my pulmonary epithelial lining…o.k. I'll keep it real.

I had barely turned down Old Lynchburg Road to climb the first 100 ft of the 1,000 ft. of undulating grades I'd traverse today when the bright blue litter of a Bud Light can caught my eye.  A few feet further, another Bud Light can.  Over the past several years, I've been intrigued by the proliferation of roadside litter and I've been puzzling over why it seems that Bud Light cans, with their bold blue blaze, seem to outnumber all other forms of litter by a considerable margin.  So today, after my ride, I enlisted my environmentally aware son to do a little roadside recycling cleanup and litter research.  The results (now in our recycle bin) were staggering.  Bud Light is far and away the favored litter for drivers who drink while driving on our local roads.  Check out the cool graph below!

 But what was more cool than confirming my hypothesis was where my brain had gone as I rode past miles of Anheuser-Busch artifacts of moral bankruptcy and sociopathy.  I was intrigued by the fact that the blue of the Bud Light can - a remarkably unnatural blue when strewn among leaves and grass - bears an uncanny proximity to the blue of another symbol of moral bankruptcy and collective sociopathy.  The blue polypropylene tarpaulin.  If you've traveled around the world as I have, you undoubtedly have observed the ubiquitous blue that provides shelter to hundreds of millions of people around the world.  The blue tarp, a legacy of the 1954 innovation by Italy's Giulio Natta and Germany's Karl Rehn, has become the iconic shelter for those who society has thrown to the side of the proverbial road.  From Mumbai to Cuzco, from Cape Town to Ulaanbaatar, you can learn a lot about a nation by the approach into the international airport.  When you look out the window and see the blue tarps, you know that global economic injustice is alive and well.  (I think that's it ironic that the Federal Reserve used the acronym TARP to name its response to the persistent financial crisis given the euphemism of tarps being transient shelter in times of disaster).

Why blue?  Well, according to David Hudson, Vice President of Government Affairs at Strategic Materials Inc, "…blue is perceived by consumers as being a premium in the marketplace."  This, among other reasons, is why Anheuser-Busch selected blue as their iconic (and easily identifiable in roadside litter) color.  Blue in polypropylene serves as a nucleating agent and actually assists in the mechanical properties of tarps giving them more elongation and UV-resistive properties.  For beer, blue is better.  For keeping the elements off suffering humans, blue is better.  But in both instances, blue is not the natural blue of water or sky.  It's an industrial contrivance that says, "I'm not natural."

But that's the interesting bit that I pondered while I rode off the last of the holiday calories during my frigid ride.  The tarps that provide fleeting shelter from the sun, the cold, the rain, and the snow can be seen as an aesthetic assault on the landscape.  They can trigger a judgmental, "There but for the grace of God…" faux sympathetic impulse as we speed to our more suitable confines in hotels and homes.  Or, like the litter on the side of the road courtesy of consumers of Anheuser-Busch's products, they can invoke a call to action.  They can animate an impulse that acts to bring genuine shelter to those who storms of nature or storms of economic injustice have harmed.

Bud Light cans and Bombay tarp slums are more alike than one might think.  Both remind us of the unnatural malignancy of indifference.  A can thrown from a car window and a family huddled against the monsoon both exist in a broader consensus neglect of a conscious engagement with humanity and the environment in which we live.  Both evidence a personal disregard for the consequence of consumption at all cost.  Both are discarded in a moment with, at best, the fleeting thought that somebody else will clean up the mess.  But both of them are… blue.  Blue, the color associated with serenity, sadness, peace, aloofness, contemplation among western psychologists and social scientists, serves in Himalayan and Asian traditions as the color of sky and heaven for sutras and prayers.

Poverty exists in dimensions far outside of monetary status.  It is not merely a lack of material possessions.  Its yawning jaws stretch around lack of sensitivity, human awareness, environmental intelligence, self-care, and engagement.  And as we reflect on the parable of today's ride, I trust that you allow the blue of neglect to become your chromatic signal to engage with humanity.  Rush headlong into action - building houses for those without, inviting the homeless into your shelter, recycling refuse from the roads you transit - and in so doing, you'll be the richer!

1 comment:

  1. Very well said - thank you for sharing your journey and thoughts on 'blue.'


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave