“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”
Guy Debord - The Society of The Spectacle (1967)
Our preoccupation with hyperreality and images as a society distracts us from the consequences of our actions, and makes us believe that what we cannot see does not affect us.
As humans in late capitalism, we consume while being unable to comprehend the scale of what we consume. If it is difficult to picture the amount of food we eat every month, it is near impossible to imagine what the total mass of our consumption looks like - the fuels burned to power our laptops and run the vehicles that we use, but most of all what we throw away.
That is because we do not need to look at it. It is taken away in the dark to be treated or most often buried in the ground. The alternative resting place is the sea, with 8 million metric tonnes of plastic per year making its way into the oceans.
However, this plastic is very rarely dumped directly into the sea on an industrial scale, but is an accumulation of small pieces of plastic that are thrown into the street and washed into drains. All waterways lead to the same place.
The sheer mass of pollution that goes into the sea and into the air is fucking terrifying, and because of that, it’s easy to assume that the actions of one person will not make any difference, just as my body keeps telling me that one more cigarette won’t matter every time I try and quit smoking.
But that’s patently bullshit - you can’t sit around with your friends and talk about how capitalism is evil, while blindly enjoying its toxic conveniences. Plastic water bottles, plastic straws, plastic bags, these are all made in their millions every year, perhaps not because the people running big businesses are inherently evil, but because we as consumers expect and demand them.
It seems so simple as to be reductive, but carrying re-usable bottles, bags, and straws (if you really need them), and refusing plastic when it’s offered is the kind of behaviour that makes businesses listen.
There is a growing movement happening. In the first few months of 2017, Johnson & Johnson announced they would stop selling plastic plastic cotton buds in half the world’s countries, France announced that all plastic cups, cutlery and plates will be banned from 2020, and after a huge public outcry Coca-Cola came out in favour of a bottle recycling scheme in the UK to mirror successful schemes in countries like Estonia. Since introducing the scheme in 2005, Estonia has seen amazing results, with 75% of all cans and 87% of all bottles sold being recycled.
This is obviously great, but we have to realise that plastic is biodegradable, and that every piece of plastic ever made still exists in some form. A lot of the time, the endgame is the plastic separating into smaller and smaller pieces, until it is absorbed into the water supply, where it makes its way back into our bodies. And it turns out that eating plastic is pretty fucking bad for you, with many studies linking it to cancer, heart disease, and a whole load of other horrible shitshows.
Unfortunately, there are of course a lot of people making a lot of money from the production of plastics, who don’t want our current habits to change. In 1967’s The Society of The Spectacle, Guy Debord wrote that “The more powerful the class, the more it claims not to exist”, and this is certainly true in the case of the plastic industry, who employ an army of well paid executives to lobby governments around the world to support the production of plastics.
The only way to combat this is to let your government know that this something you give a shit about. Tell your MP that you want your city to join the 200 plastic-bag-free cities around the world, campaign for a ban on disposable plastic cutlery, and products that contain microbeads. Outside of that, support amazing projects like the 22 year old entrepreneur Boyan Slatt, who is running The Ocean Cleanup, and using new technology to clean up The Great Garbage patch in the pacific ocean, which is about the size of Texas right now.
The world is a scary place right now, but we must overcome attempts to make us feel powerless. Future revolutions will be subtler - there will be no act as simple or symbolic as the Bastille, because there is no Bastille; the slow, insidious corporate revolution of the last 50 years has seen to it that there is no one building or person to be held accountable any more. If we are able to collectively take responsibility for our own actions, then change will be piecemeal, but it will happen. In the long run, our survival as species may depend on it.
Words by Rob Greer.
This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of Hate zine, published in July 2017.