Plastic Beach

Despite its harshness, Svalbard is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. But it is a beauty that deceives, because the eyes can’t see what lies buried within the land. If they could, they might turn away. PCB’s, heavy metals, plastics, and other toxic chemicals course their way through the air and water of Svalbard. The levels of these pollutants are so high across the entire Arctic as to imply the region is at the center of the industrial world.

To quote from Marla Cone, whose book Silent Snow explores this issue in-depth,

“What was once pristine has become a deep-freeze archive that stores memories of the industrial world’s pollution. This is the Arctic Paradox, arguably the most severe case of environmental injustice on earth.”

How does the “most severe case of environmental injustice on earth” occur in a place in which, small-scale mining aside, there is almost no industrial activity?

The same ocean currents that keep western Svalbard warmer than the rest of the Arctic also carry pollution into the region. This pollution originates in cities and industrial centers further south. Chemicals produced in these centers spread into rivers and lakes, which in turn are carried out into the oceans, or evaporate upwards into the air where they will be carried along by the currents that snake their way across the globe. Chemicals like PCB’s, which freeze in cold temperatures and evaporate when warmed, eventually make their way north along the various natural highways of the planet. All roads end at the top of the globe, in the High Arctic. There, they finally come to rest. As time passes, more chemicals make their way north, continuing to pile up like the trash we would find on the beach at Smeerenburg.

One of the unique aspects of Arctic wildlife is that it is composed primarily of apex predators - animals that have little to no competition, existing as they do higher up the trophic food chain. With few smaller animals along the food chain to absorb toxins, the various chemicals that accumulate in the environment are quickly absorbed into the body fat of fish and the mammals that eat them. Same goes for the humans who live off those wild animals. While wild game makes up little of the diet for the mostly transient population in Svalbard, it is still a mainstay for native Inuits living in northern Greenland. This chemical buildup is responsible for making both the animals and native inhabitants of the region the most polluted on the planet. Dangerous levels of mercury, lead and other toxic chemicals are routinely found in the bodies of Arctic inhabitants. But when we landed on Smeerenburg on the fifth day of our trip, I knew nothing about this.

 Approaching Smeerenburg

Approaching Smeerenburg

The guides had picked Smeerenburg, a popular stop on many Svalbard cruises, so that we could have a chance to see the remains of the old whaling station and the walruses who routinely rest on the beach nearby. The sky was soft and blue when we landed, the sun not yet fully risen. A large huddle of walruses lay around the curve of the shore, resting on the beach as silently and still as a pile of small boulders. We approached, quietly, slowly, in a single line stretched across the beach before our guide Marte stopped us about 25 yards short of the pile. A flatulent stink rose from the herd as they lay prone in the morning light. Marte whispered that it was OK to take our cameras out. Cameras raised, the group began to snap away like tourists on safari. Staring out at the walruses, I was unaware they could be carrying toxic loads of chemicals in their body fat. The refreshing blue light of the morning sky, the wisps of clouds that were disintegrating along the mountain tops across the bay, made the scene “picture perfect.” But there we stood, photographing with cameras and clothes constructed in factories so far away that nevertheless contributed to the pollution all around us that we could not see.

A walrus, as leathery and wrinkled as they appear in photos, yet with a threatening physicality completely absent in images, lifted its head to see what was going on and let out a loud snort in response before lowering its head back down. Cameras clicked loudly across the otherwise quiet landscape.

As the sounds of the cameras became sparse, one of our guides let us know that we could go with our guide Sally to explore the stretch of beach behind us or stay to observe the walruses. I opted for the whaling station.

 Timber foundations of a building at Smeerenburg

Timber foundations of a building at Smeerenburg

After walking around the calcified remains of the old copper smelting pots and filming the area, Sally offered us the chance to stay, or walk further down the beach to collect trash. I wanted to stay and see what else I could film, but as more of the group split off to join her, I felt I should pitch in and not worry about my camera, even though my reason for being in this place was predicated on filming it. I shouldered my camera and walked towards the group.

We walked and talked along the beach, stopping every few steps to bend over and pick up the plastic netting that lined the shore, placing them in one of the large Polypropylene bags Sally had handed out to volunteers. At first, we only encountered green strands of plastic netting, often as small as an index finger. Like mushrooms sprouting after the rain, they poked up out of the stones and ground around us. Occasionally we’d come across single pieces of fishing net with an individual strand sticking up that seemed easy enough to pick up, only to find it betrayed a more substantial portion that would require two hands to violently pull loose, trailing long pieces of netting that had been buried deep in the sand. Sometimes whole chunks of net emerged like enormous plastic cobwebs after struggling to pull one of these lone strands free.

As we continued to walk down the beach, the pieces of plastic became larger. The previously scattered remains of net and trash coalesced into piles of debris that dotted the shoreline. Where you would typically expect to see piles of seaweed, there were piles of plastic.

At first, these larger items seemed helpful, as it made collecting them easier. But as we continued, a painful, frustrating monotony set in. The immensity of the amount of that much plastic on that small a strip of beach, on this remote an island, so far away from the world we’d left behind, settled over me like the knowledge of a dark secret. The surrounding landscape, in all its beauty, began to recede as my eyes increasingly focused on the ground and objects at my feet. Round buoys. A pair of high heels. Food containers. A gasoline canister. Coils of rope and nets larger than any we had encountered. Much of what we were looking at was the waste produced by fishing vessels, but some, like the high heels, were wild cards, lonely castoffs that roamed the world’s oceans, finally coming to rest on this stretch of shore.  The circularity of their presence became all the more apparent the more substantial the nets became. Where whales had once been ‘fished’ to be melted down for oil to fuel the nascent capitalist trade networks that would give rise to the Industrial Revolution, we now collected fishing nets that existed thanks in part to the process set in motion so many centuries ago on this island. The plastic the nets were constructed from could only exist thanks to the discovery of petroleum, and petroleum owed its use, in part, to the overfishing that whale populations had suffered from their contact with European people. This was a dizzying circularity, but what were the coils of rope and net laying around if not objects that told this story? A single piece of net represented a node in an infinite web of irreducible trash our species had only recently created.  The abstract was made legible here, and that legibility was damning.

The minutes passed. We continued collecting trash, gathering it all up into our arms like waste pickers in a landfill until they were full, then we made our way to Sally to deposit our haul into one of the large bags she carried.

“Every trip it’s the same,” Sally told me sullenly that morning as we stood on a rise near the shoreline, looking out over the beach. “We come and clean with every landing, but every time we come back, there’s more to clean. It never ends.”

 Sally holding plastic trash collected along the beach

Sally holding plastic trash collected along the beach

The further the distance we covered and the more the bags began to fill, the more I felt a growing sense of frustration. The process became mechanical, and I lost interest in talking with the people around me. There were only my arms, my legs, the unsteady surface of the beach below me, and so many pieces of trash that needed to be picked up. The more frustrated I grew, the more I felt a growing sense of pointlessness in this task I’d volunteered for. I should be back with the group that had remained near the ruins of the old settlement, filming the scene and the guides while the light was bright, instead of stooped over, picking up another piece of fishing net that would be replaced by another soon after I left. The size of the problem we were attempting to confront was so overwhelming that a feeling of nihilism settled over me.

In the same way the statistics of climate change often induce apathy, the act of picking up so much trash, in such a remote corner of the world, made physical the sense of helplessness that occurs when intellectually confronted with the severity of the environmental crises we face.


Yet not long after the realization that we would never thoroughly clean this beach had turned to nihilism, it began to pass. The act of looking for, and picking up trash, secure in the knowledge that the task we were engaged in was Sisyphean on some level, began to numb my frustration. I could sense myself moving past the hope and pleasure of the morning, through the disappointment that inevitably followed, into a middle ground where the act became an act in of itself, carried out without attachment to a determined outcome.

Rachel Solnit has written eloquently and convincingly for hope in the face of hopelessness, but I’m not entirely convinced. Personal experience has led me to believe that the environmental activist Derrick Jensen has a better grasp on our situation when he writes:

“False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities…Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state…When we stop hoping for external assistance when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free — truly free — to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.”

The paradox of the situation we find ourselves in is that it is seemingly too big for either individual or collective action. There is on the one hand, the potential of individual choice - imagine if 50% of the global population that uses air travel decided not to fly again unless in case of an emergency, and of collective action on the other - imagine if governments banned the use of certain plastics, fossil fuels, rationed meat consumption and non-essential air travel by say, 2025. But individual and collective action are often intertwined. One can’t sort the two apart as easily it can be imagined. Or, as Timothy Morton points out in Being Ecological, climate action is a sorties paradox, because where do you draw the line between between the individual and the collective?

“Nothing that you did, such as starting your car, has had a statistically meaningful effect. Yet billions of car starting and bursting of coal into flame and so on have totally had an effect. There is an uncanny gap between little me and me as a member of what is called a species. The human species caused global warming…but species is exactly what you can’t point to. I find that I am and I am not human, insofar as I did and did not contribute to global warming, depending on what scale you think I’m on…”

In other words, when do individual objects, in our case, strands of plastic on a beach, become a heap of plastic? How many individual objects must be added before they become much larger than the sum of their parts? Or conversely, if we were to start pulling away single strands at a time, when would it cease to become a heap?

And this philosophical approach leaves out the political question entirely.

It is, after all, individual choices that at some point reach critical mass, influencing and guiding political systems, and vice versa. Individuals like myself, aware of the severity of the crisis, could give up flying, but I have yet to take that step. Politicians and policymakers have known since the 1980’s about how severe climate change could become, but made decisions not to act, and this partly because the issue hasn’t even be viewed as a political problem!

This paradox was exposed in Nathaniel Rich’s massive “Loosing Earth” article for the New York Times Magazine, when he summarized an argument from Curtis Moore, a Republican who served on the Committee on Environment and Public Works in 1986 and was fully aware of the existential threat greenhouse gas pollution posed.

“Political problems had solutions. And the climate issue had none. Without a solution — an obvious, attainable one — any policy could only fail. No elected politician desired to come within shouting distance of failure. So when it came to the dangers of despoiling our planet beyond the range of habitability, most politicians didn’t see a problem.” (1)

The banality of our own inability to make necessary sacrifices, that is of people like myself and others who are fully aware of how severe the situation is, was best illustrated when I interviewed one of our guides, Kristen, on the slope of a glacier at Bockfjorden.

“In the act of living here, I go against everything I say. Because living in Longyearbyen, at the end of the world, is probably with one of the highest carbon footprints in the world, because everything in town is brought there. To get here you have to fly. So living in Longyearbyen, you live here because you love the Arctic, but it's probably the worst thing you can do…So it's a lot of…you say one thing, and you do another, even when you're aware of it.”

This is why confronting climate change appears so staggering, and thus unlikely to succeed. Civilization itself, as a social and economic model, is fundamentally antagonistic towards balanced resource management. This drive predates capitalism and could continue after its gone (2). While the distribution of resources could, and should, be vastly more equitably distributed, and acquired with less damage to the environment, so long as civilization itself exists, there will always be a threat of environmental overuse. No matter what “ism” that might someday replace capitalism, it will remain reliant on extracting resources to fuel food, construction, and cities. And these traits are driven just as much by individual desires for material security, and prestige, as the collective systems that under-gird the extraction and distribution of resources. All this said, the uncomfortable truth is that were governments able to find it within their interests, and power, to impose radical regulations on the range of issues affecting environmental destruction, the odds of averting major disaster would increase. And as hopeless as the situation may seem when you drill down into the climate scenarios that are already baked into our future, there still may be a slim window for popular, mass movements married to government action.

These issues are maddeningly complex, and beyond me other than simply try to outline a few of them in a small amount of space. I'm only scratching the surface. In some attempt at closing this entry, all I can do is offer my personal experience from the day.

Walking along the beach that morning, bending over to pick up trash every few steps, felt both maddening and liberating. While it would be easy to cynically write the morning off as a feel-good exercise - the waste would come back, after all, we were actively choosing as individuals to lessen the amount of trash on Smeerenberg, and we were actively choosing to do so together. In doing so, we tentatively stepped into the void of climate catastrophe and without hope or fear of failure or success, did what had to be done at that moment.

Even if the outcome of all the forces we have set in motion overwhelms us, there is no reason not to keep trying to clean up the mess we have made. It is the absolute least we can do and we owe it to ourselves, if only to die with some self-respect, and perhaps without total condemnation from future generations. And although the future is bleak, it still contains multiplicities. In the words of climate activist and writer Wen Stephenson, “The climate fight was “lost” a long time ago, maybe before it began. And yet science also tells us that, even at this late date, some versions of “losing” could look far worse than others. We can still lose less badly! Not the most inspiring battle cry, perhaps, but when you understand the stakes—human survival—still a cause worth lifting a finger for.”

 Nanou holding a clump of plastic.

Nanou holding a clump of plastic.


1. This seems to imply that without the rise of a popular, radically re-distributive political and economic movement, or a Stalin like dictator in the US and China, that has an unlikely zest to confront the world’s environmental challenges by gradually shutting down the different sectors of our fossil fuel dependent economy through force, we are screwed. This seems more likely than a representative Republican system voting in politicians who would support the potentially extreme economic sacrifices that would necessitate leveling carbon emissions. For more on this issue see Climate Leviathan, by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright. The political solutions are woefully limited, and I’m skeptical of the ‘more democracy will save us’ solution proposed by people like George Monbiot. To further the point - these words from Mayer Hillman, an influential British social scientist, “Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

Creating workers councils on the floors of a Ford plant and including them in a profit sharing scheme will improve their lives and communities in the short term, but if the Ford plant keeps producing gas guzzlers, then their children are still cursed with an uninhabitable planet. That said, a necessary step forward seems to call for a rapid transitions to a commons based approach for managing land and resources that will eliminate the ability of industry to offload negative externalities onto populations. If democratic processes offer any way forward, it would likely come in a return to commons based resource management.

2. "We are all still Mesopotamians" in the words of Timothy Morton. While the Left isn't factually incorrect to point to European imperialism and capitalist systems as being responsible for the current environmental crisis, focusing exclusively on those elements creates a limited historical analysis that misses the deeper roots of the crisis we are undergoing as a species. Farmers from Anatolia displaced indigenous hunting and foraging European populations after all, whether through force, interbreeding, lifestyle example, or some combination of all these elements, the evidence is still being collected, but the fact remains the model of hierarchical, patriarchal, slave based societies that utilize large-scale, mono-crop farming to secure increased population densities and complex city states, seems to have originated in the Middle East as a result of climatic changes that brought on the Neolithic period. The rest, as the cliche goes, is history. It's this Neolithic model that is the real crux at the heart of the current dilemmas.

See SCOTT, JAMES C. AGAINST THE GRAIN: a Deep History of the Earliest States. YALE UNIV PRESS, 2018.