Sea of Optimism: The Time to Clean Up Our Coast is Now

This coming Saturday is California Coastal Cleanup Day, volunteers pitching in along our beaches, lakes, and rivers to pick up some of our mess. California Coastal Cleanup Day is held in conjunction with International Cleanup Day. Both happen every year. You've probably missed a lot of them. I know I have. It's an easy thing to shunt aside. We have so many other things to do. Maybe we'll pick up trash on our own next Saturday instead, or the Saturday after that. I am not imagining these excuses. They're the ones I've used year after year.

But the years, they are running out.

"Fifty years ago, we could not see limits to what we could put into the ocean or what we could take out," writes undersea explorer and crusader Sylvia Earle. "Fifty years into the future, it will be too late to do what is possible now. We are in a sweet spot in time. Never again will there be a better time to take actions that can ensure an enduring place for ourselves within the living systems that sustain us."

I quote Ms. Earle because she has spent her life studying the oceans. She knows what she's talking about. I also quote her because hers is a call to optimism in, well, what can often seem like a sea of pessimism.

I keep a folder of clippings, culled from newspapers, magazines, internet reports, and various other sources. This now bulging folder is marked, unimaginatively but accurately, "Ocean Dumping." This might seem a triflingly dark and pessimistic occupation, but I am simply an optimist who loves the ocean and believes we can turn things around. And knowledge can provide a nudge to action, although I'll be honest, some of what I've stuffed into my folder scares the willies out of me.

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Take the so called "dead zones." In science-speak, dead zones are areas of the ocean with oxygen levels so low that most life can't survive. These dead zones are caused by nitrogen-rich runoff -- our farms, sewers, street waste, dish detergent, and stuff too disgusting to mention all finding its way to the sea. There's a whopper of a dead zone off the mouth of the Mississippi River, whose watershed drains some 41 percent of the continental United States into the Gulf of Mexico. The size of these dead zones wax and wane, but sadly, as a general rule, they are appreciable. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is larger than New Jersey. On the surface, the Gulf of Mexico sparkles prettily. Just beneath the happy skein, shoals of fish flick and dart. But sink deeper and you pass through a hazy shimmering layer. Below that, stretching to the horizon and beyond, empty murk and muck; a vast dirty snowfield, a boneyard of sea creatures smothered beneath a white mat of opportunistic bacteria. No surprise there are dead zones off our Southern California coast, which, as you might imagine, has a pretty appreciable runoff of refuse and gunk. Doomsday? Certainly not. But it's no Syfy Channel imagining either.

And yes, there is also the matter of trash. In the Pacific, roughly halfway between California and Hawaii, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, assembled by converging currents, is not just any trash pile. It is its own vast, oozing ocean, possibly larger than Texas. Much of the debris is plastic. The Atlantic Ocean has a trash patch, too. Scientists aren't entirely sure how large the Atlantic patch is either (much of the plastic breaks down into pieces too small to see; and some of the plastic, weighted down by organisms, drifts out of sight), but some think it might stretch all the way across the Atlantic.

I know. This stuff is so damn depressing. It's enough to see you quit your job, take your credit cards to infinity and beyond, and maybe throw in a luxury cruise across the Atlantic. Or, if things keep going the way they are, maybe a trans-Atlantic hike. Yes, there are some very serious problems. But they are not at all beyond our reach, and we are the ones who have to reach.

"We may be the planet's worst nightmare, but we are also its best hope," sums Earle.

Of course, we are talking about more than picking up trash. The California Coastal Commission knows this, which is why Saturday's clean up is part of a larger effort they're calling "Countdown to Trash Extinction" and why you can go to Facebook and Twitter to learn more about the trash floating in our seas and spilling down our rivers and what you can do to help prevent this.

As for this Saturday, the Coastal Commission is making it hard to find excuses. There will be cleanups all over Ventura County: at Emma Wood State Beach, Mugu Rock, Silver Strand and McGrath State Beach, the Ventura Promenade, Calleguas Creek in Camarillo and Arroyo Conejo Creek in Thousand Oaks (go to www.vccoastcleanup.org to find where you can lend two hands, or here for events statewide). If you have a student who needs to pad their sparse volunteer hours, here you go. I'll be at the beaches across from Ventura Harbor (meet at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center at the end of Spinnaker Drive) because I know the time for making excuses has passed.

It is complicated. It is depressing and seemingly overwhelming. It is true that picking up trash for a few hours won't realign the Earth's axis. But it is also true that it is a fine place to start.

On my office wall there's a small piece of paper. I taped it there because it cheers me on many fronts. It's a simple but not so simple Chinese proverb, and we would do well to remember it when we bend to pick up trash this Saturday.

The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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