It’s easy, sometimes, to forget that we – all seven billion of us – are visiting this planet.
We get lost in the myopia of our own lives – juggling work and school and friends and family and hobbies and chores – and we forget that we are visitors.
We behave like spoilt children who feel entitled, rather than privileged, to be here. We dump tonnes of plastic into the sea, emit harmful man-made chemicals into the air, and impress upon the earth huge carbon footprints.
We don’t approach the environment with the same mindfulness we might exercise in a friend’s home. We probably wouldn’t leave bags of rubbish on her sofa or break a bottle and leave its green remnants on her floor. We would pick up after ourselves out of respect for her space.
But we don’t treat the earth with the same esteem, and this lack of consideration has far-reaching consequences. We pollute and litter and degrade, unaware of (or unconcerned about) the exorbitant cost not only to plant and wildlife but also to our human brothers and sisters of present and future generations.
It’s important for every one of us to remember our actions have consequences that ripple outwards. We are mere threads in an immense fabric of people and countries and belief systems and economies. We are parts of the whole, and as a result, each of us in some way changes the world as other people know it.
There’s a science-based theory called the butterfly effect, popularised by the 2004 movie starring Ashton Kutcher. It postulates that every action – even the flap of a butterfly’s wings – somehow alters the course of the universe.
If that’s true, then every time I release a plastic bag to the wind or drive a kilometre or bend down to pick up a piece of rubbish and dispose of it properly, I am changing the world.
As we begin to feel the effects of human irreverence – climate change and overfishing and deforestation are becoming realities – we can be sure that the world we leave will be worse off than the world we entered.
But the good news is that each one of us has the power to create ripples of positive change that might mitigate the onslaught of pollution.
It’s refreshing to see an individual become aware of that and take action accordingly. It’s doubly refreshing to watch that action become collective. Clean Up the World – a global movement to employ the butterfly effect and stem the tide of environmental degradation – is an example of one person’s vision creating worldwide change.
Australian Ian Kiernan is a yachtie who sailed around the world more than 25 years ago. During that journey, he has said, he was shocked by the enormous amount of rubbish floating on the surface of the earth’s oceans. When he returned to land, he organised a grassroots event called Clean Up Sydney Harbour. Forty thousand people participated in the inaugural clean-up, and several years later, the event became national.
Today it’s worldwide, and over 35 million people in 120 countries -- the Cook Islands is one -- participate annually.
The act of picking up a few cigarette butts on Clean Up the World Day might seem futile – after all, over six billion kilogrammes of waste enters the ocean every year. But as the people of the Cook Islands comb the beaches for rubbish on Friday, millions of people in dozens of countries will be doing the same thing. That’s change on a massive scale.
But even beyond that, it’s important to remember that there are 364 other days in a year. Our commitment has to be long-term.
Last week I met a woman named Michelle and her partner Jeremy who run five businesses between them. They have little to no free time, but feel so passionately about protecting the ocean that they are skipping sleep to launch a small-scale, non-profit, local organisation.
Their long-term goal is to encourage people – youth, mainly – to appreciate the ocean and its immeasurable value. They want to pre-empt pollution by running awareness campaigns and encouraging people to be conscious of where they dispose of rubbish. They also want to mitigate it by arranging large-scale clean-up operations at the beach.
But their overarching goal is to effect lasting change that continues throughout the year, whether or not it’s Clean Up the World Day.
“We can spend one day of the whole year cleaning up, and that’s cool, but that message is going to last until 8 o’clock that night,” Jeremy said. “Everybody’s going, ‘I did my good deed for the year,’ but it needs to be an everyday decision where people are part of an organization or community that’s aware.
“We’re all reaping the benefits of the ocean but (if) nobody gives back to it, eventually the well is going to run dry.”