Boyan Slat is a young engineer from Holland who has a plan to vacuum plastic particles out of the gyres with a giant array of high-tech machinery. It’s a bold notion and he’s attracted a lot of investors who have put up a pile of good money in the hopes that he is correct in his assessments. But in the end, I’m pretty sure it will play out as a daft idea fraught with integral deficiencies and will soon be gone, along with all the cash. But the plastic will still be around.
To debate the relative worthiness of the idea, however, might be missing the point. Whether Slat’s invention will actually function as advertised, the real story here may be our genetic hunger for instant solutions to complicated problems. “Seven-minute Abs,” for example, will take care of all those slack years of beer and pizza, just like that. Just seven minutes a day. And then there are the emails: “I work at home for just a few short hours a week and I made $64,000 last month. You can too.” We are hardwired to listen to these lies, and we are steadfast in our belief that some savior will arise to solve these problems for us, these things that we messed up even though we should have known better. We seek someone or something who will save us from ourselves.
Which sounds kind of like religion because it is. We want an omnipotent being to put it all right again, whether we’re talking about our weight, the dismal state of our finances or the immense ecological problems facing the planet. We are looking for a reset button for all of these and more, looking for a god-like solution all the time, almost always against the backdrop of our own poor judgment.
The blueprints for any real environmental change may not include the degree of instant gratification that we seek, but there are still paths to success that involve time and commitment; they are slower, to be certain, but unlike the alternatives, they work. When it comes to plastic in the ocean, reducing demand is key. There is more to it, but that is the one critical component. The personal decision to use less of the stuff is its own force of nature, and can gather momentum and size as it goes forward. Less consumption will lead to less production, which will limit what gets into the water beyond what any machine can suck up after the fact. (If all that sounds too simple, if there are not enough moving parts or engineering genius or carbon-fiber Fetzer valves for you, you can always write a check to Mr. Slat.)
When it comes to real change, Margaret Mead nailed it a long time ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”