So this has been an incredibly exciting, and arduous, and rewarding period for me. From the first year of my plastic divestment journey, I have been aware of the work of the 5 Gyres Institute and their founders, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins. I shared their work with my students. I blogged about the research, I based Plastic Free July events on their work around gyre memory. Meeting them in Hawai’i was exciting enough – hosting them in Aotearoa has been an honour.
Over this month (with the help of Okeanos Foundation and Massey University) we are touring through 8 towns and cities, in nearly 20 events and workshops around plastic pollution and the conversations that have arisen have been significant, and at times challenging.
I want to speak to some of these issues today because there are some very specific facets to this journey that we, as a nation, need to address if we hope to step into a solution space around our role as plastic polluters.
I think, at times, there is an expectation that the discussions we offer through this tour should center on “hard science” – and certainly, with a “hard science” background, and having produced numerous papers and, together with Algalita Marine Research and Education, the bulk of science in relation to microplastic pollution – 5 Gyres would certainly be well equipped to load us up with all the facts we need to scare the bejesus out of us about the extent of the problem and what this means for our planet, and our survival.
But we need to get past scientifically documenting and commentating our own demise. There is a bulk of information, stretching back at least a decade now, that affirms and reaffirms that there is too much plastic in the ocean, and that this is not a good thing. Plastic pollution denial at this point can only sit alongside climate change denial as intellectual self-harm.
At this point more work is required to better understand the nature of the impacts upon our food systems, and ourselves – but this “hard science” needs to sit alongside social science, to understand the diverse range of social, cultural, political and economic factors that influence, and are influenced by, plastic waste. Not least because we know that plastic pollution is caused by all of these dimensions, and can only be solved through responses in all of these dimensions. I, for one, want to know how the accumulation of microplastic toxins through fish impacts the health of Pacific peoples whose diet consists largely of seafood. I lost my father to digestive cancer. I’ve lost grandparents in the same way, all of whom had diets centered around seafood. The majority of Pacific Island peoples and indeed Maori have seafood based diets – and in fact this is probably true of many coastal communities in Aotearoa, in general. Are we at greater risk of acquiring these toxic carcinogens, linked to digestive cancer, through ingesting plastics? And if so… what is the level of risk? How much is too much? What can be done? There are a lot of questions that still need exploring.
But secondly I want to say – that the “hard science” approach marginalises too many of these voices who bear the brunt of impacts from issues like climate change and plastic pollution. The business of faceless numbers, statistics and graphs is borne of an imperial knowledge system that has displaced Indigenous knowledge systems in much the same way as imperial expansion has displaced our bodies. There is a system of knoweldge that is borne of these lands, of these waters that surround us, and it can not, nor should not, be ignored.
This brings me to my second major reflection of this tour. It’s not new – it’s a topic that I have visited over and over, but it has crystalised within this tour at the forefront of my consciousness in a way that again, needs reflection.
If colonialism is a system of power abuse – the uninvited occupation of spaces for the purposes of economic exploitation and political domination, then surely what we are all facing here are forces of waste colonialism.
Waste colonialism has often been described as the means by which large, privileged countries export their waste to economically marginalised nations – then turn their backs on the subsequent environmental devastation in these regions, and worse still, judge them for it.
And I can’t deny – this is a thing – especially here in Aotearoa. Hat tip to China for refusing to take the world’s waste – they’ve too long been the world’s closet, where we hide our dirty waste secrets – whisked away from your curbside and in two blinks of an eye, fouling China on your behalf. You know what else they do on our behalf? They make the thing you throw away in the first place. Factory Asia is responsible for 60% of the world’s stuff. So many times I’ve seen and heard people talk about how pollution is China’s fault, or is Asia’s fault…. but I would challenge any room of people to check the labels of their clothes, of their shoes, to check the point of origin of the seat they’re sitting on, of the car they’re driving – and maintain that they and their own governments have no responsibility in the waste issues surrounding Asia. We love to buy cheap, and our corporations and suppliers love to source from Asia – but we also love to blame them for the obvious, predictable environmental implications of producing all OUR stuff.
So yes, this form of Waste Colonialism is a thing – but I’m going to revisit this term (that has drifted somewhat from public discourse), and expand it out a little, as someone that has had a thing or two to do with colonialism.
I didn’t invite wasteful corporations to my economic or geographic landscape. I have never consented for them to occupy my body, to impact my health, or to take liberties with my land in order to produce their goods from the oil under my marine territory and attempt to sell it back to me in the form of plastic goods. I never consented for them to impose their systems upon the minds and bodies of my daughters through saturation of media, and political manipulation, and social domination. Their presence is exploitative, uninvited, oppressive – they take from the many, disadvantaging most for the privilege of the few. Without a doubt – this is corporate colonialism.
And just like climate crisis – nobody will be able to escape it.
And just like climate crisis – there will be different sections of our society that it will impact differently. The impact on women is distinct. The impact on minorities is distinct. The impact upon Indigenous Peoples will certainly be distinct.
We all need to be at the table. We all need to speak to the responses. Groups that are marginalised and negatively impacted by Waste Colonialism DO NOT NEED SAVING by well intentioned observers, scientists, or NGOs. We certainly don’t need you to speak over us, or erase us, in this equation. Meetings about climate change and plastic pollution in the Pacific should be accessible, affordable, and appropriate for Pacific peoples and indeed Indigenous Peoples at large. Western science, if it’s to be applicable at all, needs to meet the minimum standards of working alongside Indigenous Peoples – we have well deserved expectations now that relationships be forged with us, as the embodiment of our territories. Nothing about us, without us.
With that in mind, I am incredibly proud of our waka hourua, Te Matau a Maui, trawling our eastern seaboard, as the first marine microplastic transect in Aotearoa waters. 5 Gyres have provided the training to our youth, and the manta trawl to our waka community, and in doing so our youth are not only extending their scientific toolkits – but are also becoming ambassadors for plastic waste for their communities – first hand, fluent witnesses to the damage of microplastics in our ocean. This is the same youth crew that travelled out to the Schlumberger Amazon Warrior last year to issue our trespass notice – and advise them that the oil industry is not welcome in our marine territories.
Our relationship with 5 Gyres has been invited, and forged in ceremony, in shared space and on our own waters and lands, and on our own terms. This is how intersectional work should be.
Our resistance to the plastics industry – through science, education, food sovereignty and zero waste systems – is very much an extension of our opposition to big oil. Not only because we recognise that plastic comes from oil – but because we recognise that the two industries rely upon the same colonial, patriarchal systems of oppression, resource theft and exploitation of power. This link is no better exemplified right now than by the fact that the oil industry recently invested over $180billion US to boost plastic production by 40% – a move that could irredeemably damage our oceans and the earth.
For us – it will be in this space that we forge our resistance – through our acknowledgement of our ancestral roots as peoples of the ocean, and stewards of the land. We are growing new generations of passionate, informed, bright, culturally grounded advocates for our rights, and the rights of our waters. We will march for our ocean – this Tuesday 27 February – calling upon our government to ban single use plastic bags, alongside 5 Gyres and Greenpeace – and this is just one drop of what will be an unconquerable tide of the Ocean Peoples calling for the rights of our great ancestors Tangaroa and Hinemoana.
A tide that will ebb. A tide that will flow. A tide of force. A tide that will outlast. A tide that will encompass the world.