Friday, December 26th, 2008

“The future of everything we have accomplished since our intelligence evolved will depend on the wisdom of our actions over the next few years.”
Barack Obama was elected — not just elected, cheered wildly into the U.S. presidency by a nervous planet — because a lot of people, perhaps the majority of us, in one way or another sense the truth of Ronald Wright’s words, from his 2004 book about how civilizations collapse, A Short History of Progress.
Something has to change about how we conduct our business and live our lives . . . no, that’s putting it too mildly. A spiritual awakening has to occur, the shock and awe of awareness as we look unblinking at the state of the world as it really is. This is everyone’s responsibility, everyone’s journey, but Barack Obama has generated such unprecedented global enthusiasm simply because he seems to agree.
What we expect of him now is the translation of vaulted rhetoric about “change” into policy that transcends special interests and politics, and begins to demonstrate that we really are, at last, creating a new way of being on this planet. This may be asking too much of him, but we dare not ask too little.
There is so much that I hope for from an Obama presidency, but for the moment, as the first rays of change poke over the horizon on Inauguration Day, I confine myself to a meditation on the Pacific Trash Vortex, a.k.a. the Eastern Garbage Patch, and everything it indicates about what business as usual has wrought over the last few centuries, and the last few decades in particular. We can no longer afford to be a throwaway society, because what we are throwing away is our own future.
I hope that the byword for the Obama administration is “sustainability.” This means many things, but above all it means that we must stop squandering our resources, or devaluing Mother Earth. Harvey Wasserman, in his visionary book about a sustainable future, “Solartopia,” writes that such a future demands, “first and foremost, that we ‘face the waste.’ To avoid extinction, ultra-efficiency became a vital necessity. . . . Nothing — NOTHING — on ‘Spaceship Earth’ is manufactured that cannot be . . . recycled or composted.”
So as the new year and the Obama presidency dawn, I urge the new president, and all the rest of us, to take a moment to focus on that which we value least — indeed, that which we do not notice, that which we banish from our consciousness with the most imprisoning of labels: Let us think about garbage.
The environmental issues our planet faces are enormous, and have many causes, two of the most egregious being war and energy production. But the simple generation of garbage, a ritual in which we all participate, may be where it starts.
Let us think about plastic bags and plastic cups and plastic bottles and plastic straws; those ubiquitous plastic six-pack holders that strangle birds; disposable cigarette lighters; old shoes; discarded tires and toothbrushes. You might even want to consider kneeling at the altar of your own wastebasket, or the dumpster behind your apartment building, or the litter-strewn vacant lot down the street. What we discard, if it isn’t biodegradable, will wind up somewhere on the planet for a long, long time — with a good portion of the trash, carried by the wind or deliberately dumped into waterways, ultimately reaching the ocean.
And what winds up in the ocean will get caught in the currents and accumulate. We have several enormous “trash archipelagos,” virtual continents of soupy plastic trash, that have become permanent fixtures of the world’s oceans. The largest of these, the Eastern Garbage Patch, lies in the Pacific, between Hawaii and the coast of California; one estimate of its size puts it at one and a half times as large as its major contributor, the United States.
“In the central North Pacific Gyre, pieces of plastic outweigh surface zooplankton by a factor of 6 to 1,” writes Thomas M. Kostigen in Discover Magazine. “Ninety percent of Laysan albatross chick carcasses and regurgitated stomach contents contain plastics. Fish and seabirds mistake plastic for food. Plastic debris releases chemical additives and plasticizers into the ocean. Plastic also adsorbs hydrophobic pollutants like PCBs and pesticides like DDT. These pollutants bioaccumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, biomagnify up the food chain, and find their way into the foods we eat.”
Why, I wonder, are there no cruise ships that include the Eastern Garbage Patch on their itinerary? I ask this without irony and without judgment or outrage at our wasteful ways. These are the ways that I have grown up with, and they are problematic, and they can change. Wasserman’s mantra that we waste nothing is a challenge to be embraced, not feared.
And the beginning of change is awareness. Mr. President, sir, please put awareness on your agenda. This is the beginning of tomorrow, the first day of the rest of our lives. Without awareness of what we have made of our planet, we won’t even wake up to it.