Some marine biology students from different Western universities of the world come here to observe and study some coral reefs as well as other marine species. They are always accompanied by one or two professors and local diving guides.
In their schedule they have a designated time to clean the beach and gather some of the plastic laying around. The large scale damage that the plastic is inflicting to the oceans is not a secret to anybody anymore.
But here, on the east coast of the Indonesian island of Bali, the beach looks more or less clean for the naked eye. It is okay. It feels even nice to detect a small plastic rubbish and to put it somewhere in a garbage bin; where does it go next? We don’t want to know. The other day, it was more windy than usual and as I went snorkeling like I do every morning, I noticed that there was much more plastic in the water than usual. I mentioned this to an American marine biology professor who was visiting here. And he told me there was probably some rain somewhere and runoffs from rivers combined with currents bring those plastic particles everywhere. He even told me that he took some plastic from the sea as he went diving today. A very nice gentleman.
Bali is a volcanic island, full of elevated lands and mountains. Just few minutes drive from here, the landscape totally changes and there is a wall of mountains we can easily notice from the sea level. Up there, water is abundant, even in the dry season. There are huge lakes, water falls, springs… In the rain season, the amount of water coming down the mountain must be much more important. And of course, it goes to the sea.
There are so many kinds of rivers and runoffs coming from those mountains. If one takes a scooter and drives just few minutes, the amount of garbage that is thrown in those runoffs is really incredibly fucking huge! Everything is there from plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic packaging, everything you can imagine is thrown there in industrial quantities and in so many wide spread places. All of it is just waiting for the water to come from the mountains or from the sky to go directly into the ocean.
It is impossible that those marine biology students and their professors did not see those high scale continuous production of garbage to be thrown in the sea that they are coming to observe and to study. Everybody knows what is happening. You know that there are tons of garbage coming there very regularly, and you go to pick a small tiny plastic thing from the beach where you are. This is the fascinating behavior I wanted to talk about here. There are two sides I want to talk about, one is psychological, the other is political.
“I feel happy!”
Individually, each of us feels probably totally impotent in front of the scale with which the garbage is being daily thrown into the oceans. Like a psychologist I know likes to say: “Out of sight, out of mind”. The Westerners coming to those kind of plastic ravaged places do not want to see those water-plastic falls. They cannot bear the sight of it. It is just too painful for them, and even more if they are fond of marine life. This feeling of impotence and uselessness is relieved when they go to clean the beach a bit.
When I find a piece of plastic while snorkeling and put it into my pocket and then in the garbage bin, I really feel happy. I even wish someone could see me taking this small piece of plastic from the ocean and put it in the garbage bin. I’d feel even happier! What about you?
Otherwise, how to explain my behavior? Do I really think that I’m cleaning something? Do I even really want to clean? In that case, why do I not go with a big garbage bag directly to those runoffs, and there in only 15 minutes, I would collect much more plastic than what I’m collecting here on the beach for a month? Too lazy to do that. My real goal is not to clean, it is to feel good. I feel happy!
Preventing the plastic from going into the oceans is very easy, especially here in this rural area of east Bali. All we have to do is to go remove all the plastic from the runoffs, create a system of garbage bins and a periodic collect. In the same time, we can create methods of recycling and discarding all that rubbish, educate the people to use as less plastic as possible and to never throw it outside of designated places.
Now, what looks so easy will become very complicated. Those biology students and their professors possess an incredible knowledge about marine life. They have sophisticated equipment like underwater cameras and lights, expensive diving equipment, lap tops, projectors, etc. They could tell you with an incredible accuracy how the corals live, how they feed and grow and what kind of ecosystem they are part of. On the other hand, it looks impossible for them to be able to prevent tons of plastic to go into the oceans they are fond of.
How to explain that paradox: That the most brilliant biology students are unable to make a garbage system happen?
The answer lies in the educational system as a whole. Universities are designed to produce specialists. Yes, you can tell me with molecular details about the way a marine species live and reproduce but you have no cue about how to stop the garbage dumping into the ocean even on a small island like Bali. No clue! You can have three PhD’s, one in biology, another in physics and a third one in astronomy and you still don’t know anything about important topics like human psychology or politics. You are just clueless, because you don’t have a stop-garbage-dumping-into-oceans PhD. Your specialty is somewhere else. There are no classes of politics if you study biology. And there are no classes of biology of you study politics.
And since such PhD’s do not really exist, because science seems more important than fighting disastrous pollution, the job is left to politicians. From time to time, and more often, we hear about eminent scientists signing letters and urging politicians to take immediate actions in order to stop this unprecedented collapse of biodiversity. Do those scientists really think politicians acting under our political systems can, if we suppose they want, address such global and profound issues?
And who are those politicians? Why don’t we just replace them? Can we become politicians? Are we allowed to? Can you please tell me: can a biologist be a politician? Or should he just keep using all his time and skills to look into organic molecules and watch life vanish?
That’s when we could maybe achieve something in terms of environment; it is when we will understand that our global political system as a whole is finished. We, specialists or non-specialists of any field, we have to pay more attention to politics in order to build new systems that give less importance to money and more importance to life.