Your recycling is in a Turkish river

Last week I was listening to the Today Programme, and the presenter was saying, ‘Are you suspicious about what happens to your recycling after it’s taken away? Well you’re right to be. A new report from Greenpeace has found British plastic piled high and partially burnt in Turkey. They found waste from Lidl, Sainsbury’s, M&S and Tesco dumped by the roadside, in fields, or spilling in waterways and floating downstream.’

I felt anger towards the corrupt people in government and in businesses who are responsible. I felt sadness, powerlessness and despair, that something I do every day, thinking that I’m doing a small positive thing for the environment, might actually be doing more harm than good. I had a desire for whoever was responsible to be punished, and ideally humiliated.

Which just goes to show how deep my conditioning is that the harms that happen in our society are caused by a few bad apples, and that removing them will solve the problem.

I’m watching The Wire, about 15 years behind everyone else, and realising that it is indeed one of the best TVs shows ever made.

One of the reasons it’s so good is that you can’t work out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. It shows it actually doesn’t matter what the police do, they can’t stop the sale of drugs and the murders that go along with that.

Even if they lock up one of the top drug dealers, he’s replaced before he sets foot in jail, by several more. To be one of those cops within the system must feel so infuriatingly futile.

And it’s the same with our waste problem. If we changed the governments and businesses involved, it wouldn’t change the fact that the amount of waste we are producing is going up every year. It wouldn’t change the fact that our whole economy is based on the myth that we can limitlessly extract from the earth and limitlessly dump toxic waste back into it.

Global primary plastics waste generation (in million metric tons) according to industrial use sector from 1950 to 2015. Geyer, Jambeck, Law, ‘Science Advances’, July 2017

This myth, again, isn’t being propagated by a few bad apples — evil capitalists who are pulling the strings to enrich themselves at the expense of the earth and the majority of people.

This myth is woven into our entire civilization. It’s the myth of separation.

The myth that I am a discreet separate self, in a Universe of separate selves, who are all in competition with each other for survival. The earth and other living things are separate from us. We are superior to them. All living things came about through a random series of mutations and through the playing out of the survival of the fittest and when we die, nothing happens. Nothing has any inherent meaning. There is no reason we are here except to pass on our genes to the next generation. Humans are greedy, selfish and always looking to maximise their own rational self-interest. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

This myth completely justifies the extraction of ‘resources’ and dumping of waste because the earth is separate from us, it is just a thing for us to exploit. If we start to run against limits we will use technology to use the resources more efficiently, or remove the waste more effectively.

Well that doesn’t seem to be going very well so far.

But there are other cultures who have a different understanding of reality. They see us all as interdependent. Being kind to you is good for me, and harming you harms me. They see the earth as a living being that we are in relationship with and will only keep giving to us if we give back to her. The Buddhist monk Tich Naht Han calls this the ‘Story of Interbeing’.

Until we change the lens through which we see the world, we won’t stop destroying it.

But how do you change a story that is so pervasive and runs through every aspect of our society?

The only way I know how is to act as if the Story of Interbeing is true in my own life. By showing kindness, care and generosity to others, whilst also looking after my own wellbeing, as I am also an integral part of the whole.

Also, crucially, by not wasting my energy on hating the ‘bad apples’, but when I notice that that feeling is being evoked in me, redirecting it towards compassion and reminding myself that this is a systemic problem.

I think it is actually a good thing for us to be feeling the despair and hopelessness about the inadequacy of our current solutions. Hopefully that feeling will lead us to slow down and realise that more of the same is only making it worse.

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.