Before Christ and Beach Cleaning
Later this year stratigraphers are likely to agree that we have entered into a new era titled the Anthropocene http://www.stratigraphy.org. Humans have for quite some time given wonderful names to immense periods of time marked by the geological record, names such as; Cambrian, Devonian, Permian, Cretaceous and the current epoch called the Holocene.
Image from https://climateandsecurity.org/2011/09/12/the-end-of-the-holocene-complacency-welcome-to-the-anthropocene/
Human beings have turned terrestrial ecosystems into artificial zones for agriculture, pasture and cities, dug up coal in vast quantities and also tapped hydrocarbons to generate and create energy. It is also estimated that we humans have produced over 245 million metric tonnes of plastic between 1950 and 2014, all of which still exist somewhere on the planet. It is this and other activity that in turn has led to this proposed new term, to describe human activities that have had significant global impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Recently a feature on the Guardian website by Robin McKie discusses how plastic is a major key marker in this term used to describe geological history. In the Gregorian calendar, the key marker B.C. stands for an epoch used in dating years prior to the estimated birth of Jesus. The Anthropocene for me is the significant plastic marker.
The beach or littoral zone is a one place where one can clearly see some of the resultant matter created by human beings. Here in the UK the tall smoke stacks of heavy industry and the coal slag heaps that once signified industrial and imperialist strength have receded – in its wake it is the beach where for many the observation of a kind of spewing or regurgitation from mother earth can be witnessed, plastic strewn across the tideline has replaced the aforementioned visual scene. For centuries the beach was a zone to be feared, in antiquity the ocean was viewed as impenetrable and immense. Beyond the distant horizon sea monsters lurked and the vast oceans seemed endless.
The sea shore was the limit for many a traveller or local inhabitant, but over time we humans overcame our fears and concerns, driven by the desire for trade, power and to feed our thirst for ‘knowledge’. The beach in contemporary life is now both the site of play, surfing and rejuvenation as well as a place spoiled by waste matter. It is also a habitat where the public can take part in a large organized ‘beach clean’. Beach cleans now take place all over the world from Malta to the Maldives and from Cornwall to California. This week in many parts of the UK will see the start of a major beach cleaning event with Surfers Against Sewage.
All over the world various organizations [such as Ocean Conservancy] coordinate similar events removing many tons of material. The question one must ask is to what extent can this very well meaning and valued activity stem the flow of plastic across the world?
There is little doubt that the columns of press and recent media attention given to such activities motivates individual responses and might change personal habits. The discourse surrounding waste has a long well studied history. Trash and waste might be seen by some as a problem of economics and politics, for others it is a muse from which to make art. Art that is both on the one hand a serious critique of the capitalist system and on the other a more personal and subjective creative act motivated by genuine concern to ‘rid the world of plastic’. For others this multicolored bonanza of stuff is harvested to make into extraordinary decorations or refashioned into useful bags and items of clothing. Perhaps sometimes it also serves as an excuse for a trip to some far flung sun drenched beach with white sand and surf to see for oneself this cataclysmic spread of utilitarian matter.
For me I am just as much interested in a philosophic approach: in the work of the philosopher Michel Serres, he discusses pollution both as a hard and soft material. Pollution it seems come in many forms: from the billboard advert extolling the sexy pleasures of glacial mountain water to the human piss and shit that marks out our territorial conquests. In 2013 I was privileged to explore the Alaskan Coastline on an art and science project dedicated to the topic of ‘plastic waste’, at one remote location we carried out a ‘beach clean’. In this out of site location we removed a lot of beached material.
Given my own personal history it occurred to me that this was the first time I had actually carried out a ‘proper’ beach clean. Whilst on this expedition, and after hearing a fellow artist Pam Longobardi discuss ‘how cleaning a beach puts one into a position or duty of care’. my previous sometimes cynical approach to it in Cornwall (home) was disrupted. I have previously suggested it would be a good idea to abandon beach cleans and leave it to pile up so all can see this waste. Let the first world see the results of our profligate use of such plastic – a little like the kinds of ‘plastic pornographic imagery’ that populates my Facebook stream. The beach clean I took part in Alaska I do believe affected my synaptic arrangement. I thought to myself ‘perhaps this act of cleansing is my contemporary atheistic communion’? Perhaps the thousands who will undertake beach cleans this spring might also feel the same?
It should not however take our eyes away from the bigger picture: we should not take at face value when we see corporate ‘green washing’ from those who peddle the continuance of petroleum based plastics. Grandiose engineering projects that aim to clean the world’s oceans and fashion trend setters marketing training shoes made from old fishing nets might seem at first glance to offer a solution. Perhaps it is worth exploring our thinking and our thoughts just like Serres explored ideas about the wanderer and the defiler, the “homelessness” of Christ seeking shelter in the believer. His proposition suggests that the world should belong to no one. Thus any potential solution to the effects that we might observe in this new age of the Anthropocene is entirely in our own hands.
Andy Hughes | Cruxified Gannet, Perranporth Beach | C-Type with Oil Paint and Plastic Waste © 2016
© Andy Hughes, 10 April 2016
Further research and to take part in a beach clean near you take a look at these links.