Great Reefs and Little Rats

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.09.24 PM
Bleaching in the NYTimes.

In Australia things are a mess.

First, the Great Barrier Reef: mass bleaching has left huge tracts of this 1,400-mile wonder dead. It’s the worst such incident scientists have recorded, and the third event of this type in two decades. In some places as much as half of the coral has been left dead.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures climb too high. The warm water makes the coral release its colorful algae, turning it white. And often once released the coral needs temperatures to come back down if there is to be any shot at recolonization. Corals that do survive such warming events often do not grow as rapidly as they should.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.12.13 PMSo that’s one. The other Australia story is also from the Great Barrier Reef, but this time from land: a small rat known only to live on one island is likely extinct, and the cause is us. Scientists are calling the Bramble Cay melomys likely the first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change, and they haven’t minced their words:

“Anecdotal information obtained from a professional fisherman who visited Bramble Cay annually for the past ten years suggested that the last known sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was made in late 2009.

The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals. Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys.”

“Human-induced climate change.” There it is. The rats have abandoned ship. Never a good sign.

I head to Belize next month with two missions: one to work on a social service project with American high school kids, and two to check out their reefs, which had their own bleaching event in March, also the third in recent decades. So I’ll get a look firsthand at what warming temperatures do to undersea life. So that’s to come.

Outdoors On Sale

Outdoors On Sale

13116472_1487458877946859_7391871088256538032_oI have an idea.

It’s one I’ve been batting around for weeks, something I’ve been brainstorming with friends and trying to figure out how to bring to fruition. It’s pretty simple, but it has roots: I want to use the outdoor industry to change the world. I want to use the outdoors to sell, but not products. I want to sell things currently struggling to make themselves marketable: to use the cultural cache of rock climbing, skiing, surfing and #vanlife to push a conversation about the environment, about climate change, about the plastics ending up in our oceans, the glaciers melting on mountaintops, rising seas and corals slowly bleaching on reefs. I want to use the culture of outdoor athletes to sell more than just jackets. I want it to make a difference for more than just some corporate bottom line. I want it to save the world.

Tall order, I know. But the outdoors sells. In this era of the Instafamous, of Jeep and Subaru ads, Prana and Patagonia catalogs, Redbull and Rossignol videos, this can work. These brands all count on the cultural hook outdoor sports offer to sell their products, so couldn’t the outdoors also sell itself? Couldn’t we use its cool-factor to remind people the world is changing, that it is itself threatened? Couldn’t the outdoors sell something invaluable for once?

I turned down an actual job in the outdoor industry to try this. I want people to hear the word “Patagonia” and think of a place, not a company, even if the company is a responsible one. It’s a concept I would hope even Patagonia would be on board with.

I have long ties to the outdoor industry. I’ve worked in retail, am a guide and athlete and I’ve done stints working as a sales rep. That last one was the hardest—selling outdoor gear. I remember listening to conversations about how some customer would buy whatever was the nice this winter, that a new set of skis had to go with a new kit. The job was to push people to buy a new jacket so they could get into the mountains, even if they already had a perfectly serviceable jacket already.

I couldn’t do it. That was not why I fell in love with the mountains. The outdoors were a step away from consumer-driven culture, a haven in an economy all about growth. Backpacking, hiking and climbing took me away from the blaring images of marketers, away from the constant stream of advertisements. There was something beautiful in that.

But the outdoor world has been co-opted; now it’s part of the pitch. The allure of #VanLife is the adventure, but it’s mixed up with a trendy lifestyle image used to sell things. A huge part is about the gear, about tricking out your rig. Van aficionados pour over websites and forums discussing how best to achieve their van dream, sinking money into solar panels that match the stove. Keeping up with the Joneses moved to four wheels.

And it’s not just the vans. I know people who revel in the breadth of their climbing rack. Others boast about their gear closets and post pictures to Instagram. The bikes, boards, kites and ropes are called toys, and he who owns the most toys wins, even if you barely have the time to use any of it. There are outdoor magazine articles and Instagram feeds dedicated to this stuff, and people surf the pictures from their office computers.

The dedicated outdoors people I know, meanwhile, don’t care about gear. They use whatever is around. These are guides, pro climbers, the people who make their living in the outdoors; they aren’t fussy about carabiners or climbing ropes because anything will do. Whatever is cheap and will get them outside is what they want. To them climbing is about action, not accessories, and as a result they spend more time and less money on the thing they love.

But that vision for the outdoors isn’t sexy, and it isn’t what dominates the outdoor industry today. The conversation is all about what is newest and latest and lightest. What is the best gear of this year?

Who cares? What piece of gear actually gets you outside? Your feet mostly, something you already own. Maybe you need a bike or a paddleboard, but what about all the knickknacks they sell alongside them? Some basics are usually useful, but most are useless. They are ways to make money off your desire and your passion. Most outdoors people wind up with a closet overflowing with stuff they never use, stuff they bought because they heeded the whisper of consumerism, stuff that could have been turned into time off, time outside, or plane tickets had it never been purchased. But modern American outdoorspeople are caught in the same consumer frenzy as other sectors, and they buy in. We buy in. We let ourselves get pulled back, let the consumerist urges we originally sought to escape return. They never let us stray far. They waited for us to put down our guard, and then they pounce.

That was feeling I had when I was offered the sales job, and it’s why I turned it down. It just didn’t fit. Selling to get outside stands exactly opposite of why I go outside.

That feeling was present this Sunday as well. It was my first real dive in the Pacific: Point Lobos, south of Monterey. A daytrip alongside a handful of other freedivers, all of them more experienced than me. I showed up with a surfing wetsuit, $5 dive fins I bought off Craigslist and a cheap mask and snorkel. It’s the stuff I’ve used since the day I started a year ago, some I accrued, some I sought out, some I borrowed. It is cheap, and it works. Everyone else had $200 freedive fins, top of the line low-volume masks and dedicated 7mm freedive suits. I got suited up, no gloves and no booties, and attached my bright yellow snorkel to my mask. The crew looked at me and laughed. “You did a course with those?” my friend Mika said, pointing to my short little U.S. Diver fins. “They let you do that?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

“They’re not freedive fins,” he said. “If you can keep up you must be twice the diver of any of us.”

He was right, and I was not. I watched the other three speed beneath the surface with each drop, kick after kick sending gushes of water upwards. Their equipment far outpaced mine, and they got deeper because of it.

But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to set records, I was there to explore the Pacific, to see the kelp forests and learn more about freediving. I was there to meet new people and to keep practicing this sport I’d discovered a year before, to get a glimpse of the underworld aquarium we call the ocean, to take a step outside of climate controlled and see the world in its raw state. There was no race. I wanted to be outside, in the water, and $5 fins were fine for that.

“I love the gear,” Mika told me later. “Half the point of any sport is getting the gear.”

Consumerism has found us. Going into the outdoors is no longer an escape.

But the originals, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Ed Hillary, Royal Robbins, they didn’t buy in. They may have made millions from the outdoors, but their own adventures were about making due. They figured out how to survive and adventure with what they had, never bought their way in. There wasn’t even the option in those days. They pressed things not intended for adventure into service, made them fit the fight. The first climbs of Royal Robbins were with a clothesline. The first ascents of Yosemite bigwalls required pitons carved out of stovelegs. Those were the hours of adventure, the moments of invention.

Not that we need to go back to stovelegs though. Without modern ice tools, screws, ropes and gear I would probably quit climbing—the risks those pioneers took were too much for me. Were I to attempt a grade five ice route with the equipment of their first ascent I would cower in fear. I know that. It is part of what makes original ascensionists so inspiring—they did it, and they did it with less. They did it when the oceans of rock above them were still a mystery, when there was no guidebook, no topos. They have shown us what original mettle looks like.I can only chase their accomplishments. There is something beautiful about that, something the advances technology can never equal.

I will eventually get freedive fins, and I will eventually get a dedicated freedive suit. But they will always be secondary, the necessary accessories rather than the point. Consuming is a part of existing—the lion eats, as does the mouse, and we are no different. It is neither good nor bad. But it is a pursuit in itself that remains without a purpose. Consuming for the point of consuming—I strove to escape. I went into the woods so I could live deliberately. And it has followed me here.

So I want to turn it around. I want the world to look at beauty I discovered in mountains, on cliffs, on the ocean and in the woods and see what I see. I want people to see the rawness of it and instead of thinking about buying think about saving. Think about the places so precious and rare, so tenuous and so perfect. I want them to think about those places as places, not brands. I want them to want the places to survive more than they way the goods to explore them.

I believe that is what the outdoors truly sells. I believe there is a market for that too.

A Collaborative Dance

A Collaborative Dance

Moz-1020781Nothing gets accomplished alone.

We are a country of rugged individualists with celebrity dreams. We dream of making it big, succeeding, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, a metaphor that indicates we can create our own salvation.

But nothing happens alone.

I have amazing friends. Some are climbers, adventurers, others photographers, videographers, others writers, teachers, environmentalists, businesspeople. Massage therapists and waitresses. Nurses, engineers and retirees. Together they make my world.

I have big ideas. All the time. Once I came up with writing a book. It died on the vine. Once I tried to fly to Haiti after the earthquake. That didn’t go anywhere either. Another time I came up with another book idea. It ended the same place as the first. All of these were ideas I took on alone.

Once I had an idea to go to Iraq and work as an embedded journalist. This idea I shared with a friend who also happened to be the news director at New Hampshire Public Radio. “Alright,” he said, “let’s make it happen.”

Three months later I was flying into Baghdad, utterly terrified about what I’d gotten myself into.

But I wasn’t alone. That made all the difference. Three weeks later I flew home having done what I set out to do. Nothing else compares to that.

klementovich-20160531-_JCK2368A few weeks ago I came up with an idea. It’s an idea bigger than I am, one that has to do with writing, reporting, adventure, the environment, the future of the Earth and the human race. It’s an idea I don’t want to let go of, one I don’t want to die like so many ideas before it. It’s an idea I need help with. So while it was still fresh, instead of rushing headlong into it I did something simple: I picked up the phone. I called my friends.

My friends can do anything. I watched them climb mountains, write books, build rock gyms, start photography businesses, start nonprofits, reinvent themselves and then reinvent themselves again. I’ve watched them change the world. I’m lucky to have such friends.

But I never understood how they did it. I always looked at my efforts, looked at my ideas, how quickly they withered, and wondered what they knew that I didn’t, what they had that I lacked.

Then one of them asked for my help. She had an idea, a project bigger than herself, something involving climbing and mountains and scientists and conservation and a documentary and college kids, something overwhelming and beautiful. She asked for my help, and then she asked for help from everyone who would listen. And the project grew. It built speed, became something real, took off. There were setbacks, but she kept pushing. It was a beautiful, inspiring dance, one I was honored to have a hand in. It was so big, so complex and powerful and challenging and different, I couldn’t understand how she kept it all going. But then I realized: she asked for help.

Want to do something amazing? Don’t do it alone. Share your idea. Trust it with people who inspire you, with people whose vision matches yours. Let them water it alongside you. Loosen control. Let it see where it takes you. You will not be disappointed.

I am making phone calls now. And my friends, those people capable of doing anything, are answering. It’s almost as inspiring as my idea. Maybe more so.

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

IMG_8066We pulled in after dark. A burning orange sun had plunged into the Gulf, streaking clouds red and purple and gold, and now the sky was a cool bluish-black. The night was warm and wet as lion’s breath. A stiff wind blew palm fronds skyward. Waves slapped the jetty. Our houseboat, Lil’ Bamboo, sat rocking at the pier.

“It’s perfect!” Sineah said. “I call the hammock.” Bethany laughed. We all went inside.

The ceiling hung low but the cabin was spacious, with three beds, a small kitchen, a bathroom and good air conditioning. One bed sat tucked under the helm. “I feel like Harry Potter,” Bethany said crawling in. Another hung in the back; I took that. Sineah claimed the third, a deep bench couch that served double duty. Our host showed herself out, but not before pointing to the roof deck: “Best sunsets in the Keys,” she said.

The three of us made our way topside without a word. Waves licked the hull 10 feet below, pushed tall by the breeze. We sat quietly, a bamboo awning overhead surrounded by miles of Gulf sky. Sineah was right: it was perfect.

The next morning the stiff wind held. I called a dive company to ask about going to the reef. “Anyone who takes you snorkeling today is just stealing your money,” the man said. “It’s three-to-four foot seas, far too rough for snorkelers. Tomorrow will be better.”

I hung up the phone and looked outside. Even here on the Gulfside there were whitecaps, I could imagine what things would look like offshore. But I was here to dive. The whitecaps outside didn’t look imposing, mild chop, so I grabbed my fins and mask. “I’m going in,” I said.

“I’m going with you,” Sineah replied.

Sometimes wildness seems far away. Sometimes it lives at your doorstep.

I waded into the water, fins tucked under my arm. The bottom was sandy, but soon it turned to seagrass filled with upside-down jellyfish. I would need to lift my feet and be swimming before I got to the grass, even in water barely waist-deep. I spit in my mask and rubbed it around the lenses, then pulled the mask over my head and put the snorkel in my mouth. Sinking into the water I pulled the fins on and set out. Sineah followed close behind wearing goggles.

We swam. 40 feet from Lil’ Bamboo was barely eight feet of water. The seagrass swayed everywhere, festered with bottom-dwelling jellies. Parrotfish jetted about. We dove and resurfaced, dove and resurfaced, exploring the world beneath the waves. Anemones hung from pilings and drowned mooring buoys, two-foot barracudas lurked nearby. Even here there was much to see. I held my breath and dove, clearing my ears as I sank, awash and floating in Caribbean warmth.

That’s when it came: dark, the size of a small grizzly floating just beneath the surface—a manatee, mere feet away. His face looked like a bulldog, nose pressed too close to his eyes. He flaunted a disk the size of a large pizza for a tail. It swayed up and down like a tremendous wave propeller. His body, both fat and sleek, glided. I saw him first, but Sineah was right at my side. I let out a shout through the snorkel, a twisted version of “OH MY GOD!” His head hovered a few inches from the surface as he drifted past, an underwater ghost. Nothing so ungainly ever looked so graceful.

I did not follow him. He moved peacefully, and I didn’t want to disturb him. He disappeared into the inky distance. In his wake the water seemed quieter.

“If you want to see wildlife, it is on foot, and quietly, that you must explore a forest. It is the same with the sea. You must stroll at a walking pace, so to speak, to see the wealth and abundance that it holds.”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Sineah and I kept swimming, kept poking around for more, waiting for another encounter with such a majestic sea mammal. But the show was over. We worked our way back to the beach. Climbing out I pulled my fins off.

“What time do you think it is?” I asked, spitting out my snorkel.

“I don’t know,” she said, “maybe 9 a.m.?”

Morning of day one. Welcome to the Keys. ⛵️

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

PP-1030179How long does it take to turn a ship? How long does it take to change course, to do something different, to avoid the metaphorical icebergs?

I say “metaphorical icebergs” because the risk of real icebergs is dwindling. It’s a warming world. Things they are melting, and there are real risks hiding behind the warmth: rising sea levels, drought, severe storms. These are the icebergs. Which of the levers do the turning? Does anyone understand the controls?

I spoke to ecologist Gene Likens last week, the scientist who discovered acid rain in North America. It took a generation to get from initial discovery to the passage of legislation aimed at curbing the pollution that caused it, or as Likens puts it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

There are important things to note in that timeline: his first study, for example, came out 9 years after the discovery, meaning 27 years falls to 18 from when the information was publicly available. And it wasn’t until a 1974 study that newspapers picked up the story. That’s when acid rain really became a household issue; now we’re down to 16 years.

16 years is not the generation 27 years nears. It is, however, a long time. Likens said his science faced pushback from industry. Entrenched interests like oil and coal rejected the premise they had any responsibility for acid rain. It took proving that link scientifically to end the argument.

Of course such proof is important—there is no use in regulating an industry innocent of the charges. If it wasn’t oil and coal those laws would have just been more wasted time.

But every day that passed was a lost opportunity. More acid fell from the sky. There is a saying that the only two days that are impossible to change are yesterday and tomorrow. A lot of todays, however, went by in inaction, todays that could have turned the ship.

arctic-death-spiral
Arctic sea ice volume since 1979.

Now we face a different iceberg. Scientifically climate change is undisputed. The argument over human involvement remains, but the planet is getting hotter. And every today gets us closer to whatever comes next. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps it is catastrophe.

Likens compared the struggle over acid rain science with what’s happening today with climate change. “The pushback was just like it is now,” he said, again pointing to entrenched interests. Another generation-long fight could be in store.

A decade ago An Inconvenient Truth exploded the conversation about climate change, much like the New York Times coverage of the 1974 acid rain report. So if we benchmark the two, we’re at 10 years. Maybe we can match 16; maybe some course alteration will come down in 2022. That is a long way off, but it’s also almost here.

And what would it mean? What would turning the ship at this moment do? Are we surrounded by icebergs already? Are the coming changes beyond our power to affect? Are we simply too late, caught in a disaster impossible to avoid?

Who knows.That falls to tomorrow, one of those days you can’t change. But we can change today. But to do that we need to have faith in science, something seemingly in short supply with some.

spiral_optimized
An illustration of global temperature change for the last 166 years.

Science is not the conspiracy of one man. It’s multilayered work, an exploration of chance, a process of search more than an answer. And while it can be mistaken (think of early experiments aimed to determine whether light was a particle or a wave—it behaves like both), those missteps are part of the process. The call is always daring to be proven wrong. Scientists strive for that, and yet climate change is not proving wrong.

Industry, meanwhile, as Likens pointed out has a mixed record, much more so than science. Tobacco companies, for example, showed the willingness of big business to subvert science for their own ends. Science’s agenda, meanwhile, has no choice but to bend toward truth. It’s built into the method, the practice of the discipline. It may be hard to put the two on a scale, but if you could the weight of replicable results would trump corporate claims, particularly when huge revenue losses enter the conversation. The skeptic sees industry with strong motivation to deceive; scientists, meanwhile, do not gain by being controversial, or by being wrong. They succeed by being right, precise and verifiable.

And these debates are the fulcrum on which the ship turns. Is there still time to spin the wheel? Even science doesn’t know. But we may all get a chance to find out. Tomorrow.

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

IMG_7875The ocean hides amazing things.

I grew up on the ocean. As a kid I spent my summers playing among schist outcroppings and granite boulders on the coast of Maine, hopping from rock to rock and splashing in tidepools.

In middle school, however, my relationship with the ocean changed: I got my lobster license, a dingy and a handful of traps. A 10-year-old kid, my working days began early, often before sunrise. I would row around, hand-hauling traps off the stern, collecting lobsters, rebaiting as I went.

It sounds idyllic—summer sunrises over a glass-calm ocean—but to middle-school-me it was not. It was hard work, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember finding out I’d brought in several lobsters that were just under the legal limit; I didn’t understand at 10 that “close” didn’t count in measuring shellfish. No one had gone over it with me step by step. I had a boat. I had traps. But when it came to the details, I was on my own.

Everybody has to muddle their way through youth somewhere. Much of mine was done on a lobster boat. The fish oil would permeate my skin, causing my hands to swell then the skin to die, peeling off in long strips. Back at school each fall I would have to explain why my hands were shedding. I spent off days working sternman (think “lobsterman assistant”) for a friend of my stepfather’s. His name was Earl. He was older, groaned every time he had to sit or stand, but he was kind, loved to tell jokes.

He also loved cheap cigars. And his black lab came fishing every day. I spent 1o hours a day filling baitbags with dead fish, breathing a combination of them, diesel fumes and cigar smoke. It was enough to put me off the ocean.

That was when I was 15. Almost 20 years later, after two decades spent among mountains, the call of waves came back to me. The space I needed from water was over.

Then last week I came across this:

 

I spent my youth at the ocean’s edge, whether that was at the shore or the surface. But of late I’ve been looking below. Or more accurately, within.

Today I fly south to spend more time within: the Florida Keys. I’m headed there for four days on the water, in the water, within the water. My blown eardrum is hopefully healed, and the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season is hopefully going to blow out to sea, leaving the water calm enough to enter. We’ll see.

But a dream of mine is a cyclone of another kind: the one of manta rays pictured in Peschak’s talk. That is a rekindling of the oceans draw that might leave me spinning, but this time I wouldn’t object.

Next trip. Or soon at least.

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

IMG_7896I love free pens.

As a reporter and someone who writes copiously in my free time, always scribbling in notebooks both for work or for myself, free pens are awesome. They’re like being sponsored—free equipment!

If I had a pen sponsor the company would have to be TD Bank. Their pens are basically my go-to: every time I pop in to deposit a check I grab one, maybe two. Green TD Bank pens are stashed in four different spots in my car, live in my computer bag, hide alongside my notebooks and ride shotgun all day in my front right pants pocket.

In exchange TD Bank gets lots advertisement out of me. The other day I was in line at the post office and a woman was looking around for a pen. I pulled one out of my pocket and handed it to her. “Keep it,” I said, “I get them for free.”

Cashiers and servers are often impressed when you pull your own pen out of your pocket to sign the slip. “TD Bank” — there it is again.

And there’s no feeling more satisfying than using a pen until it’s bled dry. When it scratches its way across a notepad, empty of its usual inky glide, I feel a sense of accomplishment: it’s proof I’ve dedicated a certain measurable amount of time to writing, that I’ve invested in my craft. Years ago I never used to run pens dry; I would lose them well before that was ever a risk. But these days I write enough that it occurs fairly regularly.

Lately, however, I’ve been looking askew at those stacks and stacks of pens. Every one I run dry makes me wince. I toss them in the trash after their last word and I hesitate: isn’t that a lot of waste?

Think about it: when I run a pen dry, it still works. The spring mechanism that clicks the point from retraction into action still operates perfectly. The plastic shell is intact. Even the ink cartridge remains. Everything about the pen is fine, still in perfect working order, it’s just out of ink.

But for my TD pens, this is the point they becomes useless. The only thing left to do is discard them, then swing by the bank to grab two more.

It’s a bit like driving a car until it runs out of gas and deciding to walk away: there’s no problem with the machine, but the liquid that makes it useful is spent. Fill up station? No, there are none of those.

When I just lost pens I never had to think about it—they disappeared without me ever considering their end. But when I’m running them dry, bleeding them to the point they have nothing more to give, I am forced to stare their untimely death in the face. And like I said, as a writer I find myself doing this a lot.

But then I go into my local TD Bank branch, where the bucket of pens is always full. From one perspective there is an endless supply; the cars will keep running out of gas, but there will always be another full one available. And apparently for free.

But really? Are these pens really “free”? I don’t mean in a monetary sense; I mean in the sense of consequences, in the sense of an endless supply. Plastic pens are not apples—they do not grow on trees. They are not the result of some miraculous act of nature that transforms sunlight and rainwater into ballpoint and ink. Pens are plastic, an oil-based technology. They require fossil fuel to make, and when they find their way into the garbage they do not decompose. They are offered up as free gifts, but the are only “free” in the banking sense of the word.

In the global sense, however, plastic is plastic, and it’s not going away. It is turning up everywhere: filling landfills, clogging up the oceans, killing wildlife. A new study found that microplastics—tiny shards of polymers now found throughout the world’s waterways—are stunting the growth of some young fish and killing others.

Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources, effectively starving them before they can reproduce.

The growing problem of microplastics – tiny particles of polymer-type materials from modern industry – has been thought for several years to be a peril for fish, but the study published on Thursday is the first to prove the damage in trials.

Microplastics are near-indestructible in natural environments. They enter the oceans through litter, when waste such as plastic bags, packaging and other convenience materials are discarded. Vast amounts of these end up in the sea, through inadequate waste disposal systems and sewage outfall.

“Convenience materials.” That sounds like my pens. And my grocery bags (I have two fabric bags, but I don’t always remember them). And my food packaging. It sounds like so much and so many of the everyday things we buy: toothbrush packaging and the toothbrushes itself; sunscreen bottles; electronic accessories; a new windshield ice scraper. Kayaks. Car parts. Tupperware. Printers. Plastics. Plastics everywhere. They are literally everywhere.

IMG_1043What does “disposable” mean? Where does “disposable” go? These are questions we don’t really wrestle with. There is not time to wrestle with them. They are big and unwieldy and quite frankly depressing. They seem too big to tackle, a societal issue that will never get solved.

But it has real implications. In the Pacific Ocean there is a patch of floating garbage roughly the size of Texas. It is called the Pacific Trash Vortex, a place where discarded refuse goes to swim. And as most of it is plastic, it will swim forever.

Add that to climate change, to ocean acidification, to coral bleaching and glaciers melting. There is a Texas of trash out in the ocean. And the Texas estimate is a conservative guess.

But I get free pens. So it’s convenient at least.

This is not someone else’s problem. This is something that is happening because of my doing, my contribution. Like so many of us, I live in a world of convenience. Like so many of us, I recognize I’m contributing to a bleak outcome but have no idea how to approach it differently. How do you change a society? How do we change our reliance on ease, find our way back to an era when what we “threw away” had a shot at actually going away? Even more basic, how do I change myself, my habits that make up a small part of the whole? Can I even do that.

That is ours to wrestle with, and we better wrestle fast: Trash Texas is growing. If our habits remain unchanged it will eventually cover the Earth.

I read a book recently by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. In the final chapter he wrote:

I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct.

What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed…

Watching another pen fall into the trash, I can’t help but hear his words echoing in my ears. I too wonder if we can outlast them unscathed.

 

Note: In researching this I found a place in California that recycles pens! Not enough to solve things, but hey, it’s a start. Also TD Bank recommends removing the internal mechanisms and recycling the plastic shell with other plastics. They were very quick in getting back to me:

IMG_7994

Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

IMG_5458Sometimes the economy and the environment are at odds.

In recent weeks I’ve been reading a lot about plastic, and plastics in the ocean in particular.

It started in April with a stop at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Wandering the exhibits I came across a pair of displays in the Sant Ocean Hall that caught my attention: two piles of trash. One was pulled from the stomach of a seabird, the other from the stomach of a whale. In each pile were hundreds of scraps—pieces of bags, bottle caps and boat parts—almost all of them plastic. Both animals died as a result of their ingestion choices. Plastics look bright and shiny, similar enough to edible tidbits these creatures have eaten for generations to be deadly. So they gobble it up. The result is a belly full of trash.

That was the first thing that got me thinking about plastic. Then I stumbled upon a “say no to straws” campaign highlighting the amount of plastic used each day for the completely arbitrary task of getting our drinks out of our glasses and into our mouths. It seemed absurd: like there isn’t another way to drink a drink? Is that really what we are doing, filling our oceans with garbage in exchange for saving us the trouble of lifting our glasses?

After a bit more research and a few conversations with friends I learned about this initiative:

 

Apparently the answer is yes, that is exactly what we are doing. Plastic is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In the ocean, ground up into little bits so small we can’t even see them, rolling among the waves.

That is plastic in the environment.

Then there is plastic in the economy. This morning a news piece from Marketplace.org called “The Next Global Glut: Plastics” popped up on my news feed. The gist is this: with crude oil prices at record lows production of oil-derived goods like plastic are going to increase.

Several new petrochemical plants are being developed, especially around Houston and Louisiana. Vafiadis said the high output from the natural gas industry in the U.S. makes it financially feasible for companies to spend billions of dollars in new plants. 

“There’s enough natural resources available to make the majority of the projects that are being considered today viable,” Vafiadis said. 

As new plants come online, global plastic output will swell. IHS expects that more than 24 million metric tons of new production capacity of polyethylene alone will be added to the market by 2020. About a third of that new capacity will come from the U.S. and will come online within the next few years.

Not mentioned in the story is with increased production comes increased disposal. The giant pile of trash already swirling in ocean will grow.

The environment and the economy—when it comes to plastics there seem to be two distinct conversations: one about growth, the other about impact. Watching these conversations unfold in tandem and without intersection is like watching someone with multiple personality disorder argue with themselves. It’s two halves of the brain unable to connect directly. There are questions of demand, but also of impact. Where is that, the complete conversation, supposed to live?