Recently, my Facebook page and Twitter account have been full of stories about plastic. It seems that plastic is everywhere…literally. One study determined that the mind-boggling 5 trillion particles of mircroplastics across the globe is likely an extremely conservative estimate. We already knew about the Rhode Island-sized island of floating waste in the Pacific Ocean. Really, we didn’t need to be told any of this since we see discarded plastic in our everyday lives. I’m continually amazed by how much I find even on remote mountains and seemingly forgotten moors. Since the 1950s when high-density polyethylene made plastic affordable, we have managed to pollute the entire global with our rubbish. That means that in less than 70 years we have filled the planet with waste that will outlast our civilisation and those that follow.
We praise the Greeks for their enduring philosophy and political thought; the Romans for their enduring buildings and legal codes; the Middle Ages for their enduring Gothic architecture; and the Renaissance for their enduring art and ideals. But we’ve topped them all with plastic. That water or coke bottle you just finished off will potentially outlast anything they created. People will be stumbling across our plastic junk long after the pyramids have crumbled into the sand.
The thing is, we shouldn’t need yet another campaign to wake people up to what we’re doing to the environment. We’ve been here before with air pollution, toxic rivers, massive top soil erosion, chemical landscapes, and acidification. Over and over again, we seem to need to reach crisis point for us to respond, to stop for a moment and consider the costs of our cherished way of living.
One benefit of the plastic crisis is that none of us can even pretend to be innocent. I know absolutely what plastic is doing to the world, and yet try as I might, it’s almost impossible for me to avoid buying plastic products. In my home, we get our milk delivered in glass bottles, bake our own bread, buy produce in brown paper bags and local meats wrapped in paper, and try to avoid plastic drinking bottles, and yet each week we take a plastic bin full of plastics out to be recycled. We long ago sold our souls to plastic, and so it won’t be easy to win our freedom.
What are we then to do? I’m all for people joining in plastic free campaigns, pressuring business and the government to reduce the use of single-use plastics, and making people aware of what we’re all doing to our beautiful, God-gifted creation. But they don’t go far enough, not least because it’s hard for us to sustain these campaigns. Worthy causes so often become just another occasion for virtue-signalling.
Within the Christian tradition, there’s the idea of metanoia. This Greek word literally means to turn around or change direction. It’s what lies behind the Christian practice of repentance, which is far more than just saying sorry. It means using the occasion of your own sins to reflect honestly about yourself in order to turn your life around. You get caught gossiping, you become aware of the malicious delight you take in bad-mouthing others, and that painful, honest self-awareness encourages you to stop gossiping. You refuse to acknowledge your anger until suddenly you explode and hit a loved one. That action forces you to confront the real you and do something about it.
We need to use social sins like plastic waste to shake us out of our self-satisfied complacency. That waste hasn’t happened accidentally. It has come because we demand unlimited choices. The ‘right to choose’, that highest virtue of consumer culture, has created a civilisation marked by its waste. Cheap goods, throw-away items, food from far-flung corners of the planet preserved in plastic, supposedly pure water, soft drinks, and so on require plastic. Multiply that 6 billion fold and you end up with a planet that’s quickly becoming less a paradise of God and more the trash heap of humanity. In short, as with most other forms of pollution, plastic waste is showing us that we must learn to accept limits, that there really is no such thing as ‘free choice’.
We desperately need a social, even global, metanoia. And the only way that will ever happen is if we as individuals and local communities embrace metanoia, seeking with each other’s support, to turn our consumer lives around by striving to live well with creation. Early Christians won converts by demonstrating a different way of living. ‘How do these Christian love one another!’ they exclaimed. Likewise, we badly to live so that people today might exclaim, ‘How do these people love their environment!’ For Christians, this means extending the uncompromising command to love to include all of creation.
It’s only by embracing lifestyles in harmony with the nature that we can begin to show the world that there’s a radically different way for us to live, that we can be better than mere consumers, and that we can produce ideas, art, architecture, and literature instead of just plastic that will outlive our civilisation.
I must confess that I don’t like even to think about what that demands of me. My own pathetic attempt to reduce my use of plastic have shown me how much I remain a consumer and how little I really want to change.
But, God-willing, that self-awareness may be just enough that, with a bit of patience and a lot of grace, I may finally live out my Christian faith in a way that does some good to this world God has gifted to us all.