by W.R. Weiland
Last week I managed to find a brief window of sunny skies and relatively mild temperatures to sneak out of the office and make a paddle across the Sinepuxent Bay to the North Point of Assateague Island. It’s a privilege to be able to do this as part of my work, and with each visit I make it a mission to learn something new in hopes that I can share a new story, a new philosophical thought, or even a photograph with folks in an effort to encourage others to utilize the Nature that is around us to learn, better ourselves, and better the planet.
Those who know me or are familiar with Assateague Coastal Trust’s Trash Free Assateague (TFA) campaign know that the North Point of Assateague is the birth place of the TFA program, but it is also a sentimental area of the island which I often visit to gather thoughts, write, and seek refuge for a few hours from the spinning wheels of society. Though it is located just several hundred yards from the concrete beach of Ocean City, the seclusion of Assateague’s northern most extent has a way of invigorating the senses, spawning creativity, and rejuvenating a tired mind.
I grew up surfing in Ocean City, Fenwick, the State Park at Assateague, Chincoteague, and this part of Assateague I habitually refer to as “The North Point,” though it’s genuinely referenced by the surfing community as The Wedge. It was my time in the ocean at The Wedge that I believe put into motion the lifelong habit I’ve carried with me to seek out the more secluded parts of our land. I am always looking for these spaces that tend to be more tucked away than the rest because they offer something that I have yet to find in the busier realms of life that we refer to as society. If you offer your time and respect to these secluded spaces, they will always offer something in return, and I am beginning to hear the voice of our planet much clearer than I did when I was in my youth making paddles across the inlet to surf south swells that would notoriously wedge off the rock jetty.
Now 31, and with a recurring back injury that has significantly reduced my surfing time, I’ve found that the majority of my time is spent contemplating the predicaments of our time and how our society has managed to create the economic, social, and environmental problems with which we are all dealt. That particular day last week, walking along an overgrown trail that meanders through a portion of the North Point’s dune field, I found myself asking a question that I have been trying to clarify for over a year now, and it has to do with the validity of the Trash Free Assateague “campaign” I, almost unintentionally, developed in February of last year. What is the significance of picking up trash? Overflowing landfills, waste incineration, wasteful habits, reduce-reuse-recycle, and, extensively, the debate surrounding plastics have swept the environmental community by storm over the past few years. Why? As I walked over the east side of the dune system, looking out over the Atlantic I peered over at the surf spot that set the compass needle which would direct the path I’d take in life. I thought, here I am with 14 pounds of trash that I’d collected in just 20 minutes without even trying, and I knew that I could come back the following day and do the same thing, endlessly picking up plastic bottle caps, Styrofoam cups, plastics bags, and anything else that has washed up onto the shores of Assateague from days long ago, last year, and the last tide cycle.
Despite all the cleanup efforts underway, it seems that the plastics and trash just keep exponentially accumulating. Why do we continue with these cleanups when there is seemingly no headway being made? Why is it that now, all of a sudden, we are acknowledging the problem of plastics in our environment? We have known for quite some time that plastics in the environment do not behave in a manner conducive to healthy ecosystems, yet, as far as I recollect, I don’t recall the kind of attention just a decade ago that plastics are receiving today. Why? Though I don’t have an explanation for the situation completely figured, and many will argue that my explanation is mere opinion, I believe that what we are witnessing unfold today is absolutely critical to understand and necessary to address the much larger problem at play. The root of the problem lies in our societies disconnect from the rest of Nature and the manner in which time has permitted generations of out of balance ways of living to permeate culture. Before I expand on that, I should clarify that we as individuals are not the primary guilty party in this case of economic, social, and environmental disarray, but rather willing, and some unwilling, victims of a system that has been manipulated by greed for corporate profits and short sighted “progress.” We have found ourselves in a tumultuous sea with money and politics sailing the ship.
Plastic is merely representative of the society we have created, and our planet is coughing up the poly virus we transmitted to it. Trash, plastic, littering. These are arguably the easiest environmental issue to understand. We learn, or should learn, not to litter when we’re children. It’s the first environmental ethic we acquire as kids, and yet the plastic problem today is becoming increasingly pervasive. Perhaps the plastic crises, with its images of large tracts of Ocean clogged with a plastic goo, emerging science that reveals the drastic health concerns associated with plastic once it enters the food web, and the inability of communities, cities, states, and nations to agree on how to property handle all the single use plastic is, in some way which I continue to understand, our planet’s way of demonstrating how our out of balance lifestyles are sickening the one and only planet with which we depend on, all the while sickening ourselves the further removed we are from a natural means of living.
If we think about the plastic crisis along the same lines as the difficulty many of us in modern day society are confronted with when it comes to seeking out a modest, comfortable living, the root of the problem begins to become more apparent, and we can better understand why our planet is slowly being poisoned, and why it is so difficult for us as individuals to change the course we’re heading.
Plastic has only been around for approximately 150 years, and it wasn’t until World War II when the idea of plastic’s ability to make our lives easier and more convenient was sold to us. The throw away, single use plastic concept that developed post WWII invaded our everyday lives, and so began the plastic addiction. We are now in a period where nearly everyone, whether they are genuinely concerned about the plastic issue or not, is aware of the label that has been placed on plastic. Most of us are aware of the harm plastic inevitably causes on our environment, and a growing number of us are now learning about the health implications of plastic. To that extent, plastic continues to dominate the products we consume. Like the opioid crisis that has swept our country, the plastic crisis has swept the globe because our way of living has grown so accustomed to the kind of convenience that was sold to us, and now that convenience is almost necessary in order to survive the fast-paced societies that have developed as technologies continue to change our world.
What has happened to our control over our own lives? Some may argue that we, as individuals, have the power to choose plastic or the planet. But I feel that this kind of “green” approach to the problem is attainable only by those who are much more financially stable than others in society that face the challenge of financial security, and as such, it is a biased argument. Green is in, and because it can be sold, the driving components of the market economy saw an opportunity, took advantage, and utilizes our desire for a healthier planet to capitalize upon. Too often I witness the haves pointing at the have nots for the planet’s environmental issues. Those that have secured a comfortable living financially are able to allocate their attention and excess money to other matters, such as those that the green trends portray. Then there are those that struggle to make ends meet and secure that comfortable lifestyle. They live most of their lives allocating their attention to surviving and simply cannot join the greenies because the market economy has placed a biased price tag on supposed means to a cleaner planet.
Today the allure of an off the grid lifestyle is becoming ever more prevalent. Ironically, that manner of living, getting back to Nature, and sustainable living is sold to us by the very market economy that stole that way of living from us in the first place. All of us want a simpler way of life, and the fact that obtaining it has become increasing difficult and out of reach in a technologically driven, convenience oriented market economy that our society thrives on is evidence that there must be a change in how our society thrives, how it operates, and what drives it if we are going to make any headway on the slew of problems today, including plastics. As individuals, we must take it upon ourselves to produce this change by our own action, ethics, and morals. It will be slow, it will be difficult, it will be challenged. It will take perseverance on behalf of each of us.
As individuals, as neighbors, as communities, as human beings we must acknowledge that we can break the mold that we’ve been taught to bend to, and we can begin by working toward a modest lifestyle and learning to listen to and respect the land. Without a doubt, when the masses learn to get back to Nature, the morals and ethics that have dissipated through the decades will be rekindled.