Friday, June 8, 2012

On Fukushima Debris Washing Up on Remote Beaches in Alaska and Washington

I have a blue glass globe sitting on my shelf, along with other nick-nacks and mementos from my past that I consider "cool". It’s a hand-crafted Japanese fishing float from the latter part of the last century. I found it on a deserted beach in Western Washington when I was working there in the wild salmon industry. At that time, the mid-seventies, there were no other salmon industries other than wild ones, but that’s another rant.

It was unusual to find a lot of manufactured flotsam washed up on the beach in those days. What you did find oftentimes fell under the category of “cool”. When you found this cool flotsam, you were considered to be “beachcombing” because you were actually searching for “cool” things, like blue glass globes that ripped off of Japanese drift nets far out at sea, floated through untellable adventures and end its mystery journey landing magically at your feet.

We knew at the time that rogue drift nets were a terrible thing. They captured and strangled non-prey species back then, just as they do now, and we knew that. But there was only about half the population on the planet as there is now, and, in hindsight, that seemed to warrant a more forgiving perspective. I don’t have any other plausible explanation for our negligence. In other words, notwithstanding the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, we considered that since the Japanese were still making these otherwise-deadly fishing floats out of hand-blown glass, and that since those little hand-made blue bubbles would float and bob hundreds, even thousands of miles of wild, open sea before landing, unbroken, on some wild shore, we could therefore allow ourselves the luxury of random blessing. That since there were a few billion less people trashing our increasingly and disturbingly modern world of thirty years ago, the blue glass balls that floated the deadly ghost nets would be considered just short of quaint, something to beachcomb for. This illusion wasn't hurt by the fact that, in those days, we didn’t trip over a lot of actual garbage looking for them.
As we all know now, in the few short decades since then those wild shores quickly, almost magically, became littered with actual Filth. Plastic bags and wrappers, pop and beer cans, disposable diapers, oil slicks, you name it. In a word, anything that you’d find in your neighborhood landfill was now on wild beaches become garbage dumps for cultures and communities hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

Because of our negligence.

The worst was yet to come, and now it has, as we knew it would. The Fukushima disaster is just the latest filth for us to trip over on our "wild" walks. We’ve all heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the pool of plastic garbage in the North Pacific Ocean, estimated at anywhere from twice the size of Hawaii to twice the size of our continent. Unimaginable at any size, but leave the size argument for scientists to figure out. We the People know about this garbage patch because it exists, its existence is logical and it gets a fair amount of press coverage. What’s less well-known but as equally-obvious as the nose on your face is that there are other of these giant monuments to our abusive ways, in every great body of oceanic waters covering our beautiful world where ocean currents gather and trap our floating filth, our cultural disgrace, on a huge, almost unimaginable scale.

And imagination, my friends, is the key to this thing. Thirty-five, forty years ago, a mere half a lifespan, in the post-Silent-Spring environmental awakening, we knew that things were pretty bad and heading south, but we didn’t use our imagination. We couldn’t imagine how much worse it could get how quickly. And now that it has, and our cultural filth encircles us by the simple physics operating within every natural current of our living Earth's breathing mechanisms, we still can’t quite get a bead. We go on, sipping our coffee, smelling the diesel-tinted air around us, scheming about vacationing on a 3,000-passenger ocean liner while simultaneously blanking out the unimaginable thought that a typical ship of that size and type produces about 16,000 pounds of solid waste a week (not counting the unimaginably-copious diesel fumes it belches out 24-7), much of which ends up swirling in one of these unimaginably-huge, toxic toilet bowls. How sad is that?

We used to call them Tidal Waves, back when unimaginable things seemed almost quaint. Now a Tsunami wipes clean the coastline of a modern, carbon-centric culture. What are the real consequences of that? Imagine, if you will, a swath of just one modern city, with its cars and buses, oil slicks and unresolved toxic secrets getting washed out to sea in a matter of hours. Where’s it all going to go? Where else? Just like the handmade Japanese fishing floats, Japanese industrial waste will bob the waves for hundreds, thousands of miles, having their secret adventures we will never be privy to, finally washing up on a formerly pristine beach in Alaska, Washington, Oregon. At our feet. Is anything pristine anymore? Have we ever had the right to think of anything as "wild", since Silent Spring was published in 1962? Are we really that small yet?

What a tiny little world we live in, if we so choose. We can be interconnected in a broadbased, wholistic way, where we imagine and then pay attention to these realities and trends, and respond appropriately. Or we can be interconnected in ignorance and tragedy, sharing only in each others’ toxic flotsam. The former is an expansive discipline from a human perspective.The latter is very small and tight indeed.

Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, and from that time til now we have quite clearly not heeded, nor even honored the knowledge she gifted us. So barring what we should but somehow can't do, how about we do an exercise instead? Kind of like doing our morning stretches, or practicing on our guitar? Imagine our mom dying of an inexplicable, rare cancer, or our kid born with an inexplicable, rare deformity, or a neighbor’s mom or kid, or some stranger’s mom or kid. Then think of Rachel Carson, and all the other messengers who gave us the clear and unignorable warning decades ago when we could have actually done something with it but instead we blithely ignored. Then let's visualize four decades, an incredibly short span of time to have fit the negligent damage we have done to our ourselves and our Earth within. 

Then let's take a deep, cleansing breath, and act appropriately.

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