World Environment Day is marking its 50th anniversary, during which time it’s seen a global crescendo of concern over the planet’s health.
This year, the focus is on the problem of plastic pollution; an area where collective action has actually made recent progress, as Sir David Attenborough reflects here (the result was banning plastic straws in the UK).
There are few more visually arresting consequences of our despoiled environment than those owed to single-use plastics; whether it’s an impossibly large floating island of garbage, or creatures of the sea, land, and air becoming entangled in our endless debris. Technology will undoubtedly play a significant role in mitigating and managing damage, as many innovative solutions continue to offer some hope. But this, of course, needs to be aligned with a strong political will very much in the manner of banning single-use plastics. Then there’s our responsibility as individuals, as we’re increasingly reminded of the imperative to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. Focusing on practical solutions is hugely important, but it’s also worth considering why we made such a mess of things in the first place.
One of the words we might most readily associate with our consumption of plastic is convenience – a factor which lies behind so many of our consumption habits today.
It’s convenience that means most parents will buy single-use nappies rather than reusable ones; it’s convenience that finds us buying bottled water, single-use coffee cups, and plastic cutlery. We’ve carried on like this for decades, our collective conscience largely untroubled by the knowledge of where our waste ends up; the land it fills or the seas it fouls. The problem is that we are sold on convenience, having continually been slipped the lie that convenient lives are significantly better ones, unencumbered by the onerous frictions of a less convenient life.
I don’t wish to sound ungrateful to convenience and efficiency; I’m regularly delighted that life is less demanding than it used to be for a thousand different reasons. However, there are significant losses that accompany a convenient life, with negative impacts on social and psychological health as well as the environment, as Oliver Burkeman explores in this BBC documentary series. L.M Sacasas wrote this essay on the late Albert Borgmann, where he laments the way ‘convenience technologies’ (those requiring little effort and delivering predictable results) have given us much less satisfying lives, robbing us of the effort and focus that everyday tasks used to require.
Perhaps one of the key things we seem to have surrendered in our insatiable quest for convenience is care. Care requires time, focus, investment, and a deep affection for what it is we are caring for. It demands that we slow down and attend differently to others and our surroundings. The writer Madeleine Bunting wrote about the crisis of care in her 2021 book Labours of Love, pointing out that in our modern, industrialised world where we like to measure and quantify everything, care is in crisis as it has become a denatured commodity. Whether talking about other people or the environment, care takes time and attention, and is rarely convenient. Yet just as our lives are made possible by the care of others, our lives are made immeasurably richer and more meaningful (if less convenient) by the care we choose to give.
Dealing with plastic pollution is a worthwhile aim for World Environment Day, but surely the meta crisis within which plastic pollution is nested is essentially one of care. Changing how we care and attend is about changing what we value. When the planet is treated as a gift we are to steward and care for, we attend to it differently than if it is just a resource to be extracted from.
The creation narrative in the Bible’s book of Genesis tells us that humans were given a garden to tend, be stewards of and live in harmony with. Things went awry when we sought to use it for our own ends (and convenience). As the novelist Paul Kingsnorth commented in a recent talk for Unherd, we have been following the way of the snake, and such selfish ambition has been a very quick route to mischief. Taking care of the garden we have been given is inextricably connected to taking care of one another, as farmer and essayist Wendell Berry writes, ‘Do to those downstream what you would have those upstream do to you’.
World Environment Day will hopefully make strides towards reducing plastic pollution, though profound and lasting change will emerge not from technical or political solutions, but from the realisation that nothing short of an ethic of care is what we need most.
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