02/09/15

One year ago, the young Dutchman Boyan Slat, aged only 19, claimed to have found the solution to cleaning up the oceans. His project created a buzz and even won several awards. The media were quick to be speaking of a ‘genius idea', a ‘solution' for our oceans, a project seeming to rally several researchers around this potential genius. His concept is, above all, being well marketed and makes people dream; and this is exactly what is annoying about it.


Without even talking about the feasibility of the project because we do not have the details, what is worrying is the way in which this solution we hardly know anything about is being promoted, when it really is a case of a young inventor presenting pure R&D. Far too much time and attention are given to the hope for a clean-up solution. And yet, is the issue really to find a way to clean up the oceans, or to avoid their pollution as much as possible in the first place?


What is happening here highlights a new phenomenon consisting of a form of viral dominance of the media by structures which I am reluctant to call NGOs. We are witnessing a new form of ‘philanthropy' by entrepreneurs and businessmen who present a simple idea – more of a marketing concept than a real answer to an existing problem – in a format which appeals to the public, with simple ‘consumable product information' that can be easily promoted. It is not until later that one looks into the essence of the idea to discover the problem in depth. They may well be promoting great causes, but the real issue may not even be addressed.


One of the main problems blocking the emergence of real solutions for the waste in our environment lies in the permanent subversive shifting between solution options and the ideological visions of society.


There is a real danger when a problem is approached backwards in this way: Beyond the attraction of a young man who seems to present a revolutionary idea, one utterly forgets that the issue is not how to clean up the oceans but how to put a stop to their pollution. This is rather upsetting to watch for those who dedicate their work to bringing about the necessary societal change.


It is also annoying to see why this idea has so much appeal, i.e. the reason behind the buzz it has created: It requires zero effort on our side. The waste would just collect itself and we could carry on with our lives without having to question our modus operandi. This may appeal to many, but it is no longer possible. On paper, the project is expected to be operational by 2020, and it has been claimed that the clean-up would only take five years. But would it be final? Surely not, if we do not treat the origin of the pollution. Have we ever seen a home which only needs to be vacuumed once in its entire existence? We might waste many years during which the oceans would keep getting polluted.


So how many years are we going to wait, or ‘lose' you may say, before we treat the root of the problem? In 1987, the term ‘sustainable development ‘ was coined, and yet what is it we are really discussing here? A giant super-vacuum-cleaner, rather than a change in behaviours. The worry here, as with all approaches seeking super-solutions, is that the underlying problem is being overlooked: our society will remain obsolete until we achieve a circular economy. The world's population is still growing and we need to find ways in which to manage our space well, rather than carry on functioning by merely dressing the wounds. The comedy duo Pierre Dac and Francis Blanche said, in their day, something very true and surprisingly topical today: “Face au monde qui change, il vaut mieux penser le changement que changer le pansement” (“Faced with a changing world, it is better to think about change than to change the plaster”). I completely understand those who exasperate when the plaster receives more attention than the bleeding.


Today, energy is being expended by the toing and froing of experts since Boyan Slat has found the marketing means to promote a simple idea. Details about his age, his studies, and his ‘530-page-report' feed into the buzz, without offering any scientific credibility. But the experts on the other side are just as serious. Make no mistake, he has my support and I wish him all the success, but this is not where the issue lies. Let us rather focus on the essential, namely on transforming our society, because we no longer have a choice and because it must happen sooner or later. The earlier we engage in this task, the less severe the measures we have to take.


Within the context of a rapidly changing environment, while we need numerous solutions, there is only one direction in which we can advance. It begins with a sober and realistic analysis of the changes to be made, voluntarily, before they impose themselves upon us.

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