I took the above photo while hiking on the most breathtakingly gorgeous beach I’ve ever seen, Playa Llorona in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica.
This seemingly lonely Coke bottle was actually found just meters from a giant trash heap on the beach that contained a myriad of man-made items, chiefly plastics. If you’d like to see the photos I took of this scene click here and click through to the right. Although our guides weren’t entirely certain of the origin of all the trash, they were nearly positive it was not a dump, as the national park is miles away from any residential areas. What was apparently going on was ocean currents occurring a certain way that a lot of the crap that gets put into the ocean, in Costa Rica or elsewhere, ended up here. I even hypothesized that some of the trash may have migrated there from the great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Needless to say, I found the scene disturbing. I continued the rest of my hike with a lump in my throat and a feeling of dark hopelessness creeping up my spine. Here I was what felt like a lightyear from civilization, taking a 10 hour hike…*ahem* I’ll say that again, a TEN HOUR hike out into the wilderness to see a corner of the earth not yet subject to human “progress”. What do I find? Trash. And it wasn’t just in the heap. I saw discarded containers every so often as we walked. I saw small fragments of plastic among oystercatcher (a bird similar to a sandpiper) eggs. I saw man-made debris just feet from a sea turtle nest. To say I was shocked would be dishonest because I have long known how far the problem of human wastefulness has stretched. However to be physically confronted with it was something I was just not emotionally prepared for.
So this is my beef with humanity. Waste. Not just any waste, but casual, pervasive, even encouraged waste. In our industrial era we have “progressed” so far yet taken care of so few of the problems that come with growth. Our culture of consumerism constantly encourages new purchases, while offering limited to no constructive options for what to do with the old “stuff”. To use the words of the director at the lodge I volunteered at, “I buy something, I enjoy the contents of this package, this thing I have purchased. But when I am done with the packaging or the item it becomes society’s problem, not mine”. Here is the underlying problem. Every thing that is produced, every thing that is purchased has externalities. These go all the way from enabling childhood labor to fossil fuel depletion (in the case of plastics for example) to the creation of trash when the item is no longer needed. Currently, these externalities are factored into neither the cost nor the decision to buy such a product, for most people at least. Because there is no personal ill effect of this waste, people go on purchasing until their heart’s content (hint: which is never) and there are oceanic garbage islands the size of large states.
Now I’m no idiot. I do not expect people to see images of trash heaps and lonely Coke bottles on beaches and suddenly develop a bleeding heart like mine and vow to overhaul their lifestyle. Not only is this a lot to ask of an animal, considering we are more or less programmed to think in terms of our own personal success, not that of our surrounding environment, but it’s also just not a practical means of changing an entire culture. The problem is not necessarily that people suck and I hate them (this is still up for debate), it’s that the evolution of our culture has completely ran away with the idea that material wealth equals success and happiness.
On a separate outing during my volunteer time in Costa Rica, I visited a coworker’s home. He was, by American standards, quite poor. His house consisted of two small bedrooms and an open-air front room and his shower was a bucket of water with a bowl to dip inside and pour over your head. He is also one of the most genuinely pleasant and seemingly happy people I have ever met. I say seemingly happy because I believe it would be inappropriate for me to decide whether someone is truly happy or not, but this guy sure acted like it. To avoid sounding cliché, I’ll assume you get the picture here. No, most people who live in abject poverty are probably not happy. But I tend to believe that once a certain standard of living is attained, more wealth and more stuff isn’t really going to do that much for your actual well-being.
The bottom line here is something big needs to change in the next few decades about how we as human beings view happiness and our place in the world. Before it’s too late. To me, finding a plastic graveyard on Playa Llorona convinced me for some time it’s already too late. In the interest of preserving my own will to live however I reserve a bit of hope that we may still have a chance to turn this around. I’m starting with my own life because really that’s all I can do right now. How will you be a drop in the bucket for positive cultural change?