When I walk along a beach, it has long been my habit to pick up bits of trash, plastics mostly, along the water line. Occasionally there is an old flip-flop or water bottle. What is remarkable is what I no longer find.
In 1980, when I arrived in Southern California the beaches were festooned with refuse, a multi-faceted array of beer cans and associated pull tabs, cigarette butts, medical waste including syringes, sea-glass-smooth and rounded bottles, to whole bottles of sea water Coke. The array of items was an anthropological description of its progenitors; profligate, wasteful, unsanitary, and selfish. Offshore, the trash swam in a salt-water cesspool of toxic chemicals discharged with abandon into the sea, creeks, landfills, and sewer systems. It rained down from above, leaked up from below.
Science had already identified the downward spiral we still ride. The ecology movement (as it was still known) was well aware of the dangers: acid rain and the greenhouse effect, the ozone hole, water pollution, lead-laden vehicle exhaust, chemical pesticides in our food, rainforest destruction, and species extinctions.
Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey called from the wilderness; John McPhee and Edward Abbey sent out conflicting response strategies; the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Sea Shepard Society cried, “Save the Whales,” while bundles of weed washed up on Florida shores, prompting the call to “Save the Bales.” Jacques Cousteau begged us to understand the oceans while NASA sent people to the moon.
And us? We failed to respond.
Now we sit on the hard chair of our failures, our inadequate responses, and blatant disregards. If you have gray hair, you are guilty as charged. Certainly, some things took hold, but they are as wispy and impermanent as Stevie Nick’s wardrobe.
Recently, I’ve gone back over older writings from the early “Whole Earth Catalog” days, books like “Spaceship Earth,” “Silent Spring,” “Encounters with the Archdruid,” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”
I find it fascinating to look through magazines from that era—Time, Life, Look, Newsweek—and see how ecology was covered (sometimes eerily prescient), but more often as a thorny adjunct to contemporary economics. Chemicals gave us prosperity, the green revolution, and most importantly, consumer convenience. I’m not talking about the articles; the real record lies in the Ads.
While Fuller, Carson, Goodall , Dillard, Cousteau et al begged us to act, we bought. We bought cars, appliances, and knick-knacks from Japan, Taiwan, then anywhere the labor was cheap and essential resources available, with regulations that were spurious at best and un-enforced at least. We had Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, PCBs, Chernobyl, and DDT. The life of family farms and local produce was replaced by blueberries grown in CA and shipped to farm stands on Cape Cod (about as far as one can ship across the U.S.), while the wild blueberries of the Cape seemed to mysteriously disappear.
When I walk along the beach on the Cape, or along Santa Monica Bay, I feel a bit better, it is cleaner than when I was young. I also know that for every clean beach here, there are hundreds of formerly pristine beaches along the coast of Asia, Africa, and South America that choke in our plastic and unidentified toxicities. I know I will never see the great flocks of bird migrations of my youth, even as I can feel in awe of the return of great white sharks to the Cape Cod coast. I can still stand at the base of the largest living thing in the world, a Sequoia that dwarfs me in mass and centuries, or take a day trip to see dolphins and whales, even blue whales (though I have not seen one yet). I can travel up the coast to chuckle with sea otters and envy soaring condors. Still, they feel like artifacts, imprints of an earlier time…remnants.
Japan continues to hunt whales, condor habitats diminish, otters dwell in a fraction of their historical range. Even pelicans seem thin, missing these last few years along the coast as their food sources ride new ocean currents responding to our warming spaceship.
Yes, we have nibbled around the edges, picked up trash along the shore, but really, what’s the score?