Ways of Seeing: Climate Change and ‘A Plastic Ocean’

Around this time last year, I was lucky enough to get to travel to the Great Barrier Reef and submerge myself in that overwhelming expanse. The reef stretches for 2,300km, which is around three times the distance between Glasgow and London. As such, it is home to thousands of species of fish and marine life, dancing and glistening under piercing sunlight, weaving through the coral reefs. While there, swimming among it, all sounds from above are muted by that underwater world.  I was struck by how overwhelmingly vast the ocean felt, how quiet and encompassing it was, how sleek and slowly time moved here beneath the surface. Despite the command of the ocean and the lingering beauty of the reefs, the effects of climate change had never been more obviously stated to me, so irrefutable, than here in this place. The bleaching of the coral reef, particularly since 2016 when 30% of the coral reefs died due to a record heat wave, was agonisingly plain to see. As we were on the budget tour, a fair portion of the reefs we explored showed the fading colours of the coral, the ghostly colour of their tendrils, and the carcasses of coral reefs that once would have flourished in a frenzy of vibrancy. The reef was dying.

When I got back on to the boat, one of the crew asked what we had made of our little dip. All of us, still awestruck, were left trying to conjure up the words to express how wonderful it was, grappling at trying to describe what it felt like to experience the planet’s natural wonders, each moved by this interconnected and complex system which had nurtured, given and sustained life since long before we were here. Despite this, none of us were unshaken by what we had seen: a natural world on the brink of destruction.  

The most recent report by the IPCC, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, stated that if global warming increased by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, all of the world’s coral reefs would be lost. The bleaching of the reef due to climate change, rising acidity in the ocean, and reduced oxygen due to increasing temperatures, had already caused irreversible damage, tarnishing nature and the ocean perhaps forever. If climate change continues at this pace, if it is not stalled, the cost is the indisputable extinction of the Great Barrier Reef itself, and the annihilation of coral worldwide.

It was around this time that I really began to see and think about what effect humans had on the world and what, if anything, we as individuals could do to protect the planet. The planet, which links us all, through our dependence upon it and in our responsibility to take care of that which has given life to us, was always on my mind. I was frightened, witnessing the impact our existence and our consumption had made on the planet and on the ocean, where every living thing is manifest and sustained.

A couple of months later, I went to see a film in some remote part of Sydney, which probably wasn’t very remote, but I found myself very lost and Google Maps was, as usual, not being very helpful. Despite all odds, I made it just in the nick of time for a free viewing of ‘A Plastic Ocean’, put on by an organisation helping to promote environmental consciousness. The film in its entirety is an ode to humankind’s dependency on the world, and our responsibility to nurture and care for her. It is a film born out of a deep desire to preserve what is so unique to us, exposing through exploring the oceans the extent of humankind’s waste.

The film showed how much damage plastic, something so everyday, did to the environment and to our oceans. Birds and fish were dying, suffocating on pieces of plastic they could not digest or break down. A significant moment in the documentary sees one of the experts gut one of the seabirds, exposing the contents of its little stomach. Scraps of colourful plastic, the remains of our discarded remotes, CD’s, splintered packaging, cracked water bottles, were bursting out of the flesh of this stiff, once unassuming bird. Images of plastic floating like a smog, a layer of debris at the surface of the ocean, along the coastlines and in the habitats of animals, had me writhing in my seat and staring at the plastic bottle in my hand that I had bought mindlessly before the screening.

As the film continues we are intermittently given facts about our plastic consumption, figures so unbelievable that one doesn’t have to be a mathematician to work out that logistically there just isn’t enough space to produce at this rate. Staggeringly, the film tells us that almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet in some form and this means it’s had to go somewhere. The documentary takes us to the Philippines to “Smokey Mountain” in the Bay of Manila, a gigantic 50-metre high mountain of garbage that consists of more than 2 million tons of waste. The volume of plastic waste there produces so much methane, that when the temperature rises throughout the year, the mountain catches fire releasing a swarm of black, chemical smoke, polluting the air and affecting the health of the mountain’s scavengers. With a third of the population living below the poverty line, many are forced to work amongst the trash looking for used plastic to sell day in day out. The film’s message was a simple one: unless something changed, we were going to destroy the world. We have been inflicting our damage out of sight and out of mind on faraway countries, whose populace, climate and environment our corporations and governments didn’t care about, and now the consequences are upon us, infiltrating every facet of our existence and changing it forever.  

I remember for a long time feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by how steeped in plastic this world was, how irreversible the damage seemed, how complacent governments were to act in defending the planet, how acrimonious and opposed big businesses were to environmental considerations when they stood in the way of profit. What can one person do? What is one less plastic bottle or one less car on the road? What difference does refusing a plastic straw make in the grand scheme of things? The answer to all these questions, it seemed to me, was not a lot.

And therein lies the problem and the deception embedded in the discussion and the tackling of climate change. While the film made me feel that I had a moral duty to reduce my plastic consumption, its biggest impact was on opening my eyes to just how many products contained it, were wrapped in it, and how unavoidable it was to consume. My focus stopped being how much plastic I used, but why it was being produced, in its billions of tonnes, despite its undeniable harms upon the ocean and the planet. Big businesses and multinational corporations want to pin pollution, global warming and climate change on individual consumer behaviour. They seek to atomise us, make us feel that climate change is a result of that single plastic water bottle we forgot to recycle.

But it is not our fault; after all, the blame is not equally distributable. While we feel guilty trying to act more environmentally conscious in our consumption and beating ourselves up when we fail to meet the mark, they plough on with their harvesting, cutting down trees, burning fossil fuels, producing plastic like there’s no tomorrow. In the light of reports, pressure from environmental campaigners and the obvious effects of climate change across the world, people must collectivise their response. The onus must be put upon the system which profiteers from the consumption of plastics, the burning of fossil fuels and the deforestation of our forests. Capitalism demands that profit comes before everything else. What is cheapest, what is going to increase the cash in some fat cat’s back pocket will always be prioritised above all else within the system we live in. However, when the greed of a few has implications for us all, and not just in the here and now, but for future generations and everyone yet to come, then decisive action must be taken against them, to limit and restrict what they can and cannot produce.

That is why we must remember when we berate ourselves for how much plastic we’ve consumed, stand disgusted at how much of it exists out there in the world, or feel helpless and guilty for what we perceive as our fault. We must react against modern capitalism’s throwaway society, not humankind. An IPCC report from 2017 exposed the top 100 companies as contributing to 70% of carbon emissions in the last thirty years. Those multinational corporations who exploit resources at an unsustainable rate are the culprits who shirk responsibility. They seek to distribute the environmental damage to each of us equally yet are the drivers of this destruction. They are so viciously opposed to implementing life sustaining measures which, while saving the planet, will reduce their profit margins. The system’s disregard for humanity, for animals, for nature, and for finding a balance that serves the environment while also serving the interests of the people, has been exposed.

Therefore, whilst change may start with the individual, like a seed sown in soil, and the desire to want to preserve the world must take root in each of us, it cannot be limited to this. It is only in our masses, in our lobbying and petitioning of our government, and in our collective action that we can reduce overproduction, waste and – I am not exaggerating – prevent the potential end of life itself. Political pressure could enforce, in law or through financial deterrents and taxes, the reduction of plastic production and carbon emissions, forcing companies to choose renewable alternatives over fossil fuels. Banning plastic bags, plastic straws and unnecessary plastic packaging, curtailing fossil fuel consumption, installing water fountains for reusable bottles, making it a legal requirement to only source plastic from recycled materials – these are policies that we as individuals don’t have the power to enforce. Yet we, as the electorate, the consumer, and the people of the world, must demand our government’s rally and halt the multinational pillaging of resources. All of these battles – global warming, animal endangerment, rising sea levels, torrential storms, plastic pollution – are contributing to climate change and are much bigger than us. Petitioning governments to act is fundamental to tackling climate change; otherwise, as time has shown, politicians will not impose any sanctions that can stand up against capitalist greed.

On the contrary, the British government, despite the environmental impact, is still pushing ahead with fracking, while the Norwegian government plans to allow exploration in the Arctic, seeking to exploit a potentially lucrative oil resource. Donald Trump and his insidious band of ultra-right-wing followers still to this day deny climate change, unwilling to implement tariffs on plastic consumption or reduce carbon emissions to the level needed in the face of global environmental catastrophe, despite the USA having historically been its greatest contributor. These actions tell us that the governments of this world support the system that continues to fuel climate change. They are on board with the rich getting richer at all costs, wining and dining far away from harm as millions suffer in poverty through drought, floods and disaster at their hand.

Yet hope lies in the increasing consciousness of the rest of us. We can see what is happening before our eyes. The costs are already too great and getting greater by the day. I want to live in a world that is not plagued by plastic, one where whales swim in the oceans, one that breathes easily surrounded by green places. I want this world to exist long after we’re gone. I want people to still be able to snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef and think: wow, what a wonderful world.  If you want that too, then you should certainly be conscious of what you consume: reduce your plastic; go on fewer holidays; walk more; ask for no straw with your gin and tonic; do whatever you can as an individual, be the change you want to see. Yet all of this, while admirable, is minute if it remains isolated. It cannot bring about the change that the world needs in the time the planet has left. It is our collective action and government pressure which can force companies and mass producers to take notice, to use environmentally friendly materials, to take responsibility for the plastic waste leftover from their product, to invest in renewables. Shout loudly: What we want is System Change Not Climate Change!

[Jude Mckechnie]

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