The Energy Issue

The Energy Issue is a Columbia University GSAPP initiative to make energy a cultural issue, launched in partnership with Oldcastle Building Envelope®.

Seas of Change: How We Are Facing the Rising Waste in Our Largest Ecosystem

Seas of Change: How We Are Facing the Rising Waste in Our Largest Ecosystem

Despite covering 71% of the earth’s surface, oceans persist in our minds as a perpetual final frontier. Vast and mercurial, they have become fixed in the popular imagination for the possibilities and terrors they might hold. From The Odyssey to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Moby Dick to The Abyss, the sea has been viewed as the epitome of the dark and inhospitable other.

Illustrations from Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"

Illustrations from Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

Science has validated these beliefs and, ironically, the more we uncover, the more impenetrable it seems. Yet we are doing our best to demystify the depths. In the past century, we have traversed, fished, probed, and studied the seas to a degree never before imagined. In many ways, the persistent cultural image of the ocean as some remote and powerful netherworld has blinded us to the ways in which we are increasingly impinging on and exploiting it. This discrepancy is perhaps most apparent in the rise of “trash vortexes”—largely plastic debris—swirling in the center of large systems of rotating ocean current called gyres.

Adapted from “Oceanic gyres” by NOAA

There are five major gyres, and the largest, the North Pacific Gyre covering most of the area between the western coasts of North America and Canada and the eastern coasts of Russia and Southeast Asia, is also the largest ecosystem on the planet. It is host to the so-called “Great Pacific garbage patch,” a zone of exceptionally high concentrations of marine debris spanning anywhere from 270,000 to 5.8 million square miles (0.41% to 8.15% of the ocean). First predicted in a 1988 paper published by NOAA, the Great Pacific garbage patch is one of an ever-growing list of massive trash vortexes that have formed in our oceanic gyres.

Recently, as the environmental consequences of gyres—and the plastic waste they harbor—have become increasingly apparent, gyres have been the subject of a number of op-ed and investigatory pieces. These articles illuminate the seriousness of the problem: most plastics biodegrade very slowly over the course of centuries, leaching toxic chemicals and forming a confetti-like suspension almost invisible to the naked eye. Hideshige Takada, a Japanese scientist studying plastic particles from the Western Pacific Garbage Patch, found these plastics to be one million times more toxic than the surrounding seawater. We now also know that these plastic particulates are being ingested in large quantities by fish that feed the pelagic marine species we consume, like tuna and salmon.

"South Pacific gyre sample" by 5 Gyres, Flickr

“South Pacific gyre sample” by 5 Gyres, Flickr

As Charles J. Moore, oceanographer and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Institute, points out in his New York Times op-ed, no effective clean-up solution has yet been developed or implemented. Unfortunately, a change in course appears unlikely if global attitudes towards manufacturing and recycling remain the same. Annual global production of plastics—essentially non-existent prior to the 1950s—has been growing at an almost exponential rate, reaching nearly reached 300 million tonnes in 2010. In that same year, the U.S. only recycled 8% of the plastics it produced.

Adapted from “World plastic production” by Quartz

Yet while we have yet to seriously address how we produce, consume and dispose of our plastic products, we are beginning to see ways in which an evolving culture around energy use is can activate a meaningful segment of the population. Using the tools of contemporary culture, communication, and emotional engagement—social media, design, humor, GIFs, fashion—creative producers are reaching an audience the scientists, environmentalists, and energy pundits are missing. By shifting our narratives and talking about environmental problems in seemingly “low” cultural terms, these creators are beginning to help shift our perception of the ocean from a remote “other” to a compelling part of our daily lives.

Several recent cultural projects bring this kind of clarity and relevance to ocean pollution, reimagining the ways we can understand and acknowledge it that go beyond beyond facts, figures, and expert opinions.  One, a series of photo collages by UK photographer Mandy Barker entitled “Soup,” displays meticulous arrangements of plastic debris collected from beaches. The images are beautiful, dynamic, and unabashedly frank in their presentation, and through them, Barker accesses more serious issues. As a converse to the ocean’s natural ecologies, the collected objects appear to be unique species in a bizarre new “ecosystem” of manufactured waste. The collages also underscore the longevity of even the tiniest plastic fragments: though easily discarded and forgotten, they persist in the ever-mounting stores of ocean pollution.

The “Catch of the Day” guerilla campaign by advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi LA  similarly broaches  the issue, favoring the cultural power of aesthetic clarity and accessibility. Produced for the non-profit environmental organization Surfriders Foundation, the campaign involved collecting trash from beaches around the U.S., carefully re-packaging the items like fresh seafood, and leaving  them on display at farmer’s markets. Discarded  objects included hundreds of cigarette butts from Venice Beach, California; aerosol cans from South Padre Beach, Texas; and a rather remarkable number of used condoms from Newport Beach, California.  By addressing consumers at the point of purchase, “Catch of the Day” highlighted the ways in which seemingly remote environmental issues affect individuals on a daily basis.

The project that may come to have the largest cultural impact, however, may be a recent collaboration between record producer Pharrell Williams and clothing company G-Star Raw on a line of denim products called “RAW for the Oceans.” The collection is made from cotton threads woven with recycled ocean plastic produced by New York City-based startup Bionic Yarns and reportedly makes use of some nine tons of discarded plastic.  But rather than focusing on a dark reality, the initiative, represented by a cadre of adorable animated octopi, emphasizes the optimism—and stylishness—of change. Indeed, the “RAW for the Oceans” website, populated with quirky GIFs and inspiring soundbites, seems to be optimized for Tumblr,  and bright ads starring trendy young faces emblazon New York City buses. In treating sustainability as an opportunity instead of a sacrifice, the project unites environmental concern with personal style, treating it as a desirable component of everyday life.

These cultural projects stand out for the way they enrich a very real issue, bringing the hard science, data, and statistics into a realm that can engage and inspire the popular imagination. As we begin to tell new stories, the unsustainable energy practices we had nurtured may no longer speak to our culture or reality. If the ocean is present here and now as a cultural issue and not just an environmental one, we might finally claim a stake in ownership. Who knows, the next page may start with a GIF.