A few days ago Victor Vescovo, a pony-tailed Texas investor and former naval officer, dived about 11km to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific – the deepest a person has ever gone. While peering out of his titanium submersible at the moon-like vista he saw a couple of fish, some sea anemones and, of course, a plastic bag.
I have not checked the diving trade press, but what regular
journalists found the most interesting part of this wonderful story of human
endeavour is the presence of plastic 11km down.
Would this fascination with plastic happened if Victor had dived
a couple of years earlier and found the same things? Probably not. We First Worlders have become
super-sensitive to single-use plastic. We may still use it every day, but we
love to vilify those who supply the straws and take-out spoons as we suckle on
our plastic-covered, plastic-lined coffee cups bound for landfill.
The anti-plastic tipping point has happened, sending panicked
packaging executives scurrying about to find solutions to the enormous problems
they have created while we enjoyed the huge plastic benefits.
Tipping points are when a bunch of things mysteriously come
together to convince us to change old habits. My most memorable was highlighted
by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book, The
Tipping Point. It was his story about
Hush Puppies, those comfortable crepe-soled suede shoes previously worn by an
ever-decreasing number of dull, middle-aged, middle-Americans. Adopted by young
club-goers in lower Manhattan in the mid-1990s, Hush Puppies suddenly became
the shoe of choice for trendy dressers in the late 1990s. This happened without
any intervention from the brand owners who were befuddled but delighted by
their unplanned and totally unexpected market success.
A revulsion for single-use plastic is our 2019 Hush Puppies
moment. The big question is whether the momentum behind the moment is strong
enough to propel us beyond plastic and towards a cleaner, more biodiverse world
where nature is protected.
We have had environmental Hush Puppies moments before, most
notably the publication of Silent Spring in
1962 which kickstarted the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s book on the consequences of
the indiscriminate use of pesticides helped tip the international community
into codifying concerns about nature through the UN process of reports and
conventions that eventually produced the definition of sustainable development
in the 1980s. It was the same bureaucracy that led the world on a painfully
slow process of responding to climate change and the need to protect
biodiversity. The UN Framework Convention
on Climate Change (UNFCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) were
the two conventions that emerged from the Rio Summit in 1992.
Tipping points may be needed to bring about change but the UN’s
cumbersome process should not be underestimated as a critical agent of change.
Without the conventions and endless meetings of the parties there can be no Hush
Road to Beijing
Consider the number of recent biodiversity reports published,
and the many more expected. The timing of these reports is not an accident but aimed
at delegates to a significant meeting of CBD signatories scheduled for Beijing in
October 2020. This gathering will set the global framework for protecting
biodiversity after 2020. Governments and environmental campaign groups are
positioning themselves to influence the outcome because it will affect
international law and trickle down into national policies and, eventually, business
Beijing 2020 will not in itself drive the rapid change
needed if we are to protect the threatened fabric of nature that keeps us alive.
We are in desperate need of a big Hush Puppies moment. This won’t come from the
UN but more probably from the David Attenboroughs and Greta Thunbergs who have
the media power and the emotional connections to get us to change.
Perhaps the combination of David, Greta, deep-diving Victor
Vescova and supporters of Extinction Rebellion will combine in some magical Harry
Potter way to create the tipping point needed to help us save ourselves from