Blog 15.05.19

How Hush Puppies could save us from extinction

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.

Tipping point

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 Puppies moments.

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 behaviour.

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 extinction.

We live in hope.

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