Three years on from the January when Australia burned, it’s time once again to celebrate ‘Perihelia’ – so named because it marks the three days when Earth makes its closest approach to the Sun. (Which we did this morning, at 3.17 AM Sydney time.)
Today – January 5 – is the third and final day of Perihelia, a day of:
Public promises and commitments made for the coming year by government and business leaders, by local communities, by families and individuals, and a revision of goals – ever upward!
At its end, Perihelia looks forward: how can we do better in the next year than in the one just past? I can not speak for the government, nor for business, and while I am a member of my community, I could not claim to speak for them. I can only speak for myself.
Here are my own affirmations for the next year.
Thursday is ‘bin night’ in my Sydney suburb; by early evening the street will be crowded with bins segregated by color: red waste bound for landfill, yellow recyclables destined for – well, we’ll shortly come to that – and green garden cuttings, destined for mulch. Over the last few months a series of rolling scandals has exposed the reality of recycling – very little of it happens, and almost none of the plastics we so carefully separate have been or can now be recycled. Collectively, this has generated a growing mountain of plastic waste that seems destined for landfill, where it will spend the next few thousand years decomposing and polluting the environment.
Given what we know about plastics, we should already be limiting their uses to the ‘strictly necessary’ cases, where other packaging or structural materials that have greater recyclability can not be used. Instead, nearly everything sold to me in a supermarket comes wrapped in plastics, hard and soft, immediately unwrapped and disposed of. This growing mountain of immediately binned plastic waste comprises a growing percentage of my waste stream. Every time I deposit yet another plastic container of berries into the recycling I wince – both because that plastic had the useful lifespan of a mayfly, and because it will not be recycled in any meaningful way.
Plastics recycling is a hard problem: This year, Veena Sahajwalla received a well-deserved AOEM for her years of work on this problem. While UNSW does offer some intriguing solutions, these need to be adopted at scale – and quickly – in order to meaningfully remediate our growing stream of plastic waste.
Main Sequence VC-funded startup Samsara Eco claims to have solved the problem with a bit of selective biology that’s evolved an enzyme capable of breaking plastics down into recyclable components. Again, this needs to be tested, then scaled and deployed. We are a long way from that. Decades, most likely, and I’m not sure that we have the time or the focus needed to make that work the way it needs to.
It’s not clear to me that the answer involves more technology. To use less plastic we must use less plastic. It’s not really much more complicated than that. Yes, of course, we need fair and effective substitutes for plastics, but to effect a one-for-one substitution of something (such as glass) for plastic does nothing to change the embedded patterns of production and consumption that landed us all here to begin with. To use less plastic, we must think carefully about the ways we use plastic, the reasons we use it, and how those ways and those reasons have substantially transformed human behavior over the last half century.
All of which is beyond the capacity of a single individual. This is why we often simply ignore the problem: because it is beyond individual scale. But the microplastics invading our bodies in increasing concentrations are inherently an individual-scale problem. So we can not avoid the problem: one way or another, our plastics will find us.
In order to make the best possible decisions for ourselves and our planet, we need to be both well-informed and armed with experience. We need to know what is happening, and how to best work with the world as it happens to be.
We have done remarkably well on both fronts: we can lay claim to being the most well-informed and experienced generations in human experience. (While that’s come paired with its opposite – propaganda and mendacity – these are both unavoidable, and can be remediated.)
Being well-informed helps us perceive some of the big loops between our behaviours as a culture and planetary impacts. Experience allows us to translate those perceptions into behaviours that can limit or even reverse these impacts.
These are necessary – and insufficient.
We have need of one other element: to be able to measure our progress, or lack thereof. “What you don’t measure you can’t improve,” goes the oft-quoted statement. We know this – and yet we have done almost nothing to build that measurement into our culture.
Measurement carries with it a cost; it’s always cheaper in the short term to open the spigots and let it all flow, unmetered. But the bill inevitable comes due: a lack of measurement eventually outweighs any costs of measurement. Our culture has reached this delicate point, and we now find ourselves needing to measure – well, basically everything – in order to keep from being overwhelmed by the consequences of our profligacy.
Where does the planet get a look in? We imagine ourselves the only participant-actors on Earth, a decidedly anthropocentric view that inevitably runs aground on the sharp rocks of reality. It’s less and less clear how much agency we actually possess. Atmosphere and soil encompass countless tiny organisms – archaea and prokaryotes – that neither know nor care about our existence. This applies equally to our own internals, as we come to learn more about the microbiota that work with us to keep us healthy in a living world where we do not have the only (or even a majority) voice.
Yet we continue to act as though our voice (which only we can hear) means more than any other – or indeed, that it means all. We appear to have reached a point where this fantasy of species-egomania can no longer be sustained. The planet’s other voices speak to us – softly now, but with increasing clarity. It seems inevitable that we will be able to read the Book of Life, should we choose to learn its vocabulary, study its grammar, and follow its narratives.
This is not simply the story of RNA and DNA and the proteome and connectome and so on. This is the story of the subtle connections that create the webs of ecosystems, from a patch of dirt all the way through to the contents of the atmosphere. None of this can be neatly divided, because all of everything alive engages in continuous communication with the world. This, to quote from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, is “how God hears the world, as an infinite chorus of voices, singing together.”
Whether or not we choose a mystical framework to interpret the collective unity of the planet – and this almost inevitably becomes our default position, in its gentle disguises as Gaia, Mother Nature, Demeter and so forth – we can no longer deny the reality of our senses. We can hear the planet. Very probably we always could, but lacked sufficient confidence to trust that we know what we know. Now that we do know (and we do know) we have agency. We can choose to do.
Over the next year I will reflect upon, celebrate and affirm that agency – and, far more importantly, our growing ability to listen.