Plastic, people and the universe

by Caspar Henderson

Last night on my street we put out the blue bins, filled with materials earmarked for recycling. This morning the rubbish truck, announced by the squish of its air brakes, spirited the contents of the bins away. Cardboard, paper, metals, plastic all go off to fates that my neighbours and I are unlikely ever to see with our own eyes.

I don’t often think very much about this. Lord knows, there is enough else to be thinking about. True, there is something, if not exactly comforting, then at least orderly in this fortnightly routine. It punctuates the everyday dukkha. But sometimes, as I fumble over a piece of packaging, usually a food wrapper, trying to work out whether it can go into the recycling bin or not, a dim sense of my own absurdity rises arises, like a mild headache, or as if I had stumbled into a Samuel Beckett play without knowing my lines.

This week I found myself giving the matter a little bit more thought. There were at least two triggers for this. The first is that I have joined the Perspectiva team, where I will help with communications. A central purpose for Perspectiva is to ‘deepen the process of system change’, and I have been asking myself what that really means, and what I can best do to help.

The second trigger was an article on our relationship to plastics. Stephen Buranyi’s The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference? is a long read. I won’t attempt to summarise the whole thing here, though I do recommend taking the time to read it all. Suffice to say that one of the points in it that brought me up short was this:

To this day, some environmental campaigners refer to household pickup as ‘wish-cycling’, and recycling bins as a ‘magic box’ that assuages people’s guilt without really helping much.

Buranyi’s takeaway point, however, is that there may be a positive side of the ‘paradox of plastic’:

If plastic is a microcosm of all of our other environmental problems, then following that logic, so are the solutions. In just a few short years, scientific evidence of the environmental damage done by plastic has spurred people to organise, pressured governments to regulate, and even been noticed by fossil fuel corporations…Our obsession with plastic has registered. In the much larger battle over climate change, the plastic backlash could end up being a small but energising victory, a model for future action.

The article got me to thinking. Could we be living at a time — thirty years after James Hansen first brought the matter to wide attention — when action that is actually commensurate to the scale of profound challenges such as (but by no means limited to) climate change is beginning to happen? There is evidence for those who choose to see it, from the vitality of new-born campaigns such as Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion (and let us see how these develop) to hints of economic system change such as the announcement earlier this month that Generali, the third largest insurer in Europe, will no longer insure the construction of new coal mines or plants.

Could enough components in the massively interlocking systems of our societies be shifting sufficiently that, overall, we see step change for the better? Or is this hope deluded? One can, after all, find plenty of evidence for scenarios in which humanity remains locked on an increasingly damaging path.

“All the crises of the world stem from one underlying meta crisis,” observes Perspectiva’s co-founder Tomas Björkman: “our collective inability to handle to increasing complexity of our world.” This may well be true. But it is also true that some kinds of intelligent tinkering — or ceasing to tinker — are likely to be more helpful than others, and that there are ways to get a better handle on which these are.

One vital element is the work we do on and for ourselves and others — on what Perspectiva refers to as our ‘souls’ — as individuals and necessarily social animals. For my part this includes what I can learn from my colleagues and friends at Perspectiva and beyond. It includes cultivating and treasuring a sense of wonder, which I have described as a radical openness in which we think clearly and feel good, and connect to phenomena or people beyond ourselves.

Another vital element for more intelligent tinkering is as clear a grasp of systems thinking as one can manage. So down from the top shelf comes my dusty copy of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. Out comes John Sterman’s All the Models are Wrong.  My current reading also includes Paul Collier’s The Future of Capitalism (at the time of writing No 1 on Amazon UK in books on ‘economic systems’) and Thinking in Systems  by Donella Meadows. She writes:

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is non-linear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behaviour on the way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organises and self-evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.

These are just a few of the texts and just a few of the approaches that some of us may find helpful. Please, as Perspectiva continues on its hundred year project, join us, talk to us, work with us.

In 1938, as Europe’s future looked increasingly dark, the poet Louis MacNeice wrote a magnificent poem called Autumn Journal. These lines towards its end I take to heart:

…What is it we want really?
For what end & how?
If it is something feasible, obtainable
Let us dream it now,
And pray for a possible land
Not of sleep-wakers, not of angry puppets
But where both heart & brain can understand
The movement of our fellows…