The Unconsumed Life

ANN BRADLEY, 54, STANDS outside the entrance to the Silver Lake Farmers Market, holding a sign that reads: Please Bring Your Own Bag.

To be exact, her sign reads, Please Bring Your Own Bag, Please Bring Your Own Bag, Please Bring Your Own Bag . . . nine times because she has stapled her message nine times to a larger cardboard sign.

At her feet there is a modest assortment of paper shopping bags from places like the Gap, brought from her apartment so that shoppers can use them as an alternative to the plastic ones that are handed out here, and which she fervently opposes. In addition, all of the parts of Bradley’s sign are recycled. The paper was used once before on the opposite side. The handle came from a sign she obtained last year at an antiwar protest. The cardboard itself is an oversize Valentine’s Day card that her neighbor discarded. In fact, red and pink hearts can be seen peeking out around the edges of her message, adding to the civility of it all.

Unlike the illustrious Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers markets, the Silver Lake Farmers Market is not a grand affair. The crowd this morning is meager — maybe 24 people in all stroll past outsize potted dahlias, organic asparagus and mounds of pesticide-free citrus. It’s chilly, and the gray-haired activist, who stands politely at her self-appointed post, wears a baggy black hooded sweatshirt, and another sweater and a knitted scarf tied around her waist — all items she proudly retrieved while dumpster diving.

It should be pointed out that when Bradley rescues items that her neighbors have tossed into recycling bins and garbage cans, or reuses paper that her partner of 17 years originally utilized to print out directions from MapQuest, it’s not because of poverty. It’s a lifestyle choice for her, a downshifting from the frenzy of consumerism that dominates American culture. Bradley, who has a master’s degree from Cal State L.A. in community-college counseling, is a member of the global Voluntary Simplicity movement, named for a term first coined in 1936 by philosopher Richard Gregg and more recently popularized by Duane Elgin’s book Voluntary Simplicity.

“I am someone who believes, quite frankly, that it is one person, one cup, one person, one shopping bag, one person, one parking pass, that will change the world,” Bradley explains. “And the problem I have perceived is that people look at big huge things, like [the] Kyoto Protocol, but aren’t changing what they’re doing in their individual lives. I have had people run up to me saying, ‘I’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth three times!’ And they will be holding a Styrofoam cup.”

Like many of her peers, Bradley wasn’t always this impassioned about saving the planet. There was a time, during her years as media director for the ACLU of Southern California and later for the Los Angeles Music Center, when, she says, “I spent more hours than I care to admit at Nordstrom Rack.”

But all that changed on September 19, 1998, when she tagged along with a friend to a conference at USC called No Purchase Necessary, featuring talks by sustainability gurus Carol Holst and Ellen Larkin. Not long after that she donated her used Honda Civic to the Midnight Mission and started riding the bus.

“I always had a love for the planet, but everything radically changed for me that day,” she says. “I walked into that conference one person and came out a different person.”

Bradley grew up in San Francisco and lived through the Summer of Love. Her parents were in local television. Her father, Bill Bradley, was believed to have been the first broadcaster to anchor a local news program in the Bay Area, at KPIX, and her mother was an editor at KRON.

She came to Los Angeles originally, as many do, to act. But she soon dedicated herself to academic studies instead. She has lived in the same apartment in Silver Lake for 29 years, spent a few years in the ’80s working at A Different Light Bookstore and started the store’s venerable Lesbian Writers Series.

“I stand here, a 54-year-old baby boomer,” she says, putting down a political essay she has been reading this morning on the Middle East.

“I have no lack of understanding that my generation is responsible for the ecological crisis we are in. And that is not hyperbole; that is really the truth. I was born in 1953. What we know is that more waste has been created since World War II than in all time prior. We brought this. We are the ones who said, ‘Plastic, plastic, plastic . . . convenience, convenience, convenience . . .’ and it’s taken us to the brink of planetary extinction.”

When making her sign, Bradley, who has a love of words, consciously decided to not overwhelm others with too many facts.

Instead, she opted for a simple “please.” And that seems to have been an effective choice. Her sign seems to provoke an almost immediate internal dialogue from those who pass. She consequently has to do very little talking. Instead, she watches as others talk among themselves or to themselves. She saw six people turn around and go back to their cars to retrieve their own bags. She held one woman’s dog while the shopper picked up one of the bags for shopping. And she’s received a lot of “thanks for the reminder” comments.

“What I am saying to my neighbors, and what I am saying with this sign is, ‘Can we just bring our own bag?’ I mean, it’s not that hard. Quitting smoking, that’s hard. Bringing your cup with you, bringing your own bag when you shop — I am sorry,that’s not hard.

“I have to bring it down to where I live,” Bradley continues while a passing shopper defensively tells her companion that she forgot her cloth bag this week.

“The other day I walked from my house to a breakfast meeting with Eric Garcetti at the new Laguna affordable housing [complex] on Sunset. I picked up about 40 plastic bags and pieces of Styrofoam. Plastic bags are so aerodynamic, they are everywhere, and we don’t have people who are making a conscious effort to pick them up. [The bags] are doing an extraordinary amount of damage.”

Bradley is deeply concerned with the plastic debris that gets into the waterways. There “is an island of plastic bags and Styrofoam that is twice the size of Texas,” she says, “which is floating in the North Pacific Gyre. It is literally a floating island, and if it were inert, that would be one thing, but sea life is perceiving it as food. [There are] pictures of the insides of sea life filled with plastic. And that is not hyperbole, that is really the truth.”

Bradley, who has retired early, now dedicates most of her time to her volunteer work. She is involved with the Silver Lake Chamber of Commerce Green Committee’s efforts to establish a local Dash bus, and she attends the city of Los Angeles’ Zero Waste effort’s monthly meetings.

“Recycling is not the biggest deal. When I say ‘zero waste,’ I mean, I am really trying to be zero waste. What we want to do first and foremost is refuse — like refuse that disposable cup, refuse that plastic bag or paper bag — bring your own. Number two is return.”If a business can use an item again, return it. “The third is reduce. The fourth is reuse, and the fifth is recycle. It is a whole different way of looking at things.”

Nearby, a cluster of women pick through an assortment of herbs and peppers. One, who has apparently completed her shopping, stands to the side, waiting for her companions. Her hands are full with plastic bags of vegetables and fruits. With a furrowed brow, she stares inquisitively at Bradley’s sign and looks away. Soon she is staring at it again.