By , it was 12 percent, and growing fast. As was the Ad Council. In my own family, the putative native progenitor was said to be a great-grandfather some times removed. Cherokee is what we were told as kids. As an adult I learned that this family mythology was common — though its most common manifestation is a mythic Cherokee matriarch. Considering this syndrome — you might call it delusions of Pocahontas — only fuels my obsession with the crying Indian. Keep America Beautiful tapped into something very deep in the American psyche.
But it took them a decade to figure out how to do it. In , Michigan considered a ban on no-return bottles.
Keep America Beautiful openly opposed it. Throughout the sixties, Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council battled a growing demand for legislation with an increasing vilification of the individual. This hypocrisy did not go entirely unnoticed. In the late s, a noncorporate faction within the Ad Council, led by Dartmouth president John Sloan Dickey, began to call for Keep America Beautiful to move from litter to the larger problem of environmental pollution. They threatened to scuttle Ad Council support for further antilitter campaigns.
Clearly a more subtle approach was necessary. The crying Indian campaign, premiering on Earth Day , had it all: a heart-wrenching central figure, an appeal to mythic America, and a catchy slogan. IN , as Marsteller hatched the ad that would seal his fame, Iron Eyes Cody was busy making film westerns. As in the earlier Indian plays, Indians in westerns are usually allied with nature, wilderness, old codes of vengeance and honor — the vanishing past that civilization must replace.
But in the questioning sixties, the inevitable march of manifest destiny began to be examined for its dark side. As social unrest accelerated, the counterculture began taking up Indian-ness to express a rejection of the status quo.
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Anti-war protesters adopted fringed jackets, beads, and braids. But, in a Mortonesque revival, he was also becoming a living alternative to the postwar culture of consumption. In adopting the Indian as a symbol but turning his rejection of consumerism into a rebuke to individual laziness, Marsteller and Keep America Beautiful — underwritten by the Ad Council — struck greenwash gold. Their Indian evoked the deep discontents afoot in the culture.
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But they co-opted the icon of resistance and made him support the interests of the very consumer culture he appeared to protest. There he stood, stoic and sad, a rebuke to individuals rather than a rejection of the ideology of waste.
But then, that was the very ideology the Ad Council had promoted all along. It was an elegantly closed circle. The titans of packaging pushed throwaways into production. The Ad Council preached the creed of consumption, assuring Americans that the road to prosperity was paved with trash. 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. I stand in front of the fridge staring at my options.
Soda, water, energy drinks, juice. Plastic, aluminum, plastic. I ask the clerk for a paper cup of tap water. Symbolic protest rarely is.
Today, every American throws away about three hundred pounds of solid waste a year, about one-third of it packaging. Sixty percent of that comes from food and beverages. Eleven states have succeeded in passing bottle bills. Beverage container recycling rates in those states are roughly double rates in nondeposit states.
But in shifting the debate to bottle deposit legislation — which it opposed — KAB still won, because it shut down debate over whether disposable beverage containers were a good idea in the first place. I find it in an unexpected place: about sixty miles east of Portland, Oregon, on the banks of the Columbia River. Once a waterfall with a peak flow about ten times that of Niagara, today Celilo has vanished.
It lies at the bottom of the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, a mile-and-a-half-long concrete mouth, gates lined up like teeth, that has swallowed this stretch of the Columbia. At the dam visitors center, on the Oregon side, talk quickly turns to Google. The sachems of search have built a giant data center about five miles downstream, in The Dalles industrial park. Outside, the reservoir glints flinty blue in the sun. I drive to the data center and park in order to circumnavigate it on foot.
The facility sprawls across the riverfront, the size of a shopping mall. Its chillers, humming like a Dreamliner on takeoff, cast waves of heat across the Columbia in an effort to keep the thousands of servers inside from melting. Across the street, a silent, cold blast furnace looms in stark contrast. Both industries — aluminum and information — came to this spot for the same reason: cheap electricity from the government-built dam. The smelter used about 85 megawatts. Based on projected square footage, the Google data center can be expected to use about — enough to power a small city.
The federal government began damming the Columbia in the s, but things really got going in the forties. Many were sited near government-built dams, especially on the Columbia River. In fact, beefing up aluminum production was used as a reason to build new electricity-producing dams. The result — especially after the war, when the government sold off its wartime plants to Alcoa competitors — was a glut of aluminum.
Even as Cold War fears were used to justify building more dams, the aluminum industry scrambled to find new, peacetime uses for its product. The tail of production began to wag the dog of demand: Alcoa and their new competitors began inventing scads of new uses for aluminum: toys, boats, appliances, golf clubs, cookware. But the real breakthrough was the aluminum can. John D. The first aluminum beverage can was introduced in The aluminum industry never looked back. In , the year Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council joined forces, containers and packaging composed just over 7 percent of the U.
Within twenty years, aluminum containers would produce more revenue for Alcoa than its second-, third-, and fourth-largest markets combined. Or have we? For three days, elders spoke, fishermen recalled fantastic salmon runs, children played games, and the community mourned the end of an ancient way of life. The federal government built thirteen more Columbia River basin dams in the s, another seven in the s, and six in the s.
Many destroyed Native American towns and fishing sites. It went on all across America. The result was always misery for Native Americans. Kinzua Dam on Seneca land in Pennsylvania.
Tellico Dam, drowning Cherokee towns in Tennessee. The larger, hydroelectric dams quickly attracted power-intensive industries, often aluminum plants. In , a deal was reached for the Three Affiliated Tribes Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara in North Dakota to sell thousands of acres — at thirty-three dollars each — to the federal government for its new Garrison Dam. In a widely published picture of the event, the secretary of the interior signs the document, his face impassive. Flanking him, several suited bureaucrats look anywhere but at George Gillette, rakishly handsome in his double-breasted, pinstriped suit.
Gillette has taken off his glasses, put his face in one hand, and begun to weep. Iron Eyes Cody may have wept on cue, but George Gillette wept for the land. Or is he its sole mourner, weeping its silent dirge?
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In the thirty years following his debut, Americans landfilled or incinerated more than a trillion aluminum cans — enough to encircle the Earth 3, times. I watch the crying Indian again on YouTube. As the Indian contemplates the trashed landscape and car-choked freeway, a dark possibility opens up: our way of life is destructive.