The view from the beach in Svalbard.

© Kt Miller/Polar Bears International.

8/26/2013 7:42:41 AM

Pristine Arctic: The Power of One

Everyone had something that caught their attention and caused them to linger. Peter and I were photographing big pieces of iridescent ice on the beach with a massive glacier front behind. Doris found the skeleton of a Svalbard reindeer caked in sand and perfectly pressed into the earth. The other Peter was photographing the tiny tundra flowers, and Barbara was perched on top of a rock, birdwatching through her binoculars. Getting us to move along at a decent pace was like herding cats, but you’ve got to soak it all in, right!?!

Eventually our guides succeeded in cresting the horizon of a small sandy spit of land on the northeast coast of Nordauslandet in the archipelago of Svalbard. On the lee side of the ridge was a small beach and the crew of the Stockholm had set up a beach barbeque! The first mate, Martin, hauled over gigantic pieces of driftwood and assembled a bonfire. Annika and Marlie laid out appetizers and passed around warm Glögg, a Swedish Christmas wine. Kjelle captained the grill and passengers and crew alike sat around the fire enjoying a delicious meal and wonderful company.

As folks finished dinner people drifted into conversation, some gazed into the fire lost in thought, others wandered among the large piles of driftwood exploring our newfound little treasure cove. I immersed myself in conversation with Peter, laughing and joking about something or other. I glanced to my right and noticed a handful of the guests putting together a piece of beach art. There was a weathered pole sticking out of the sand. Someone had found a small piece of wood with a hole in it, resembling a magnifying glass. This was wedged upright on the top of the pole. Another small stick was added to create a cross, and a few stones and small bits of turf decorated the base. It was no Andy Goldsworthy, but it was neat. The thought that these adults could quiet their busy minds enough to be present and create with such whimsical delight filled me with joy.

Then I noticed Martin, Christian, and Doris walking among the large driftwood poles collecting garbage. Litter of every color, shape, size, and material head washed ashore on this tiny beach nearly 80 degrees north of the equator. Gigantic plastic barrels, coffee tins, ketchup bottles, twine, spools, soles of shoes, hangers, kids’ Lego pieces, crates, and shredded pieces of plastic bags were scattered about. The quantity was overwhelming.

The wild thing is that all of this trash has been washed up on the beach after traveling massive distances on ocean currents. There is no doubt that the litter came from Russia, Scandinavia, and both coasts of the Atlantic. There are no settlements large enough to produce such waste in Svalbard, particularly because there were no Inuit people native to the archipelago, and because the waste the small settlements do produce primarily washes up in the fjords along the western coast.

I get an empty, mildly nauseous feeling even thinking about it. How could we be so wasteful? I have a really hard time understanding why; it goes against all common sense. I feel the same way about plastic bags at the grocery store and paper to-go coffee cups. They are so unnecessary! But re-training our cultural habits is like teaching an old dog new tricks; it’s an uphill battle.

Peter and I joined the litter-collecting group. We soon accumulated the equivalent of three garbage bags full of waste, mostly plastic, and we probably could have collected three more, at least! A few more guests walked over and contributed their own collection of trash. Christian marked the point with a GPS and passed it along to a government entity that would have a passing ship collect it later in the summer.

Of course this little act is miniscule in the grand scheme of our human impact on the earth, but it felt empowering and inspiring. Doris expressed it best, “Did you see how everyone joined in, without even talking to each other, working together silently, towards a common goal?” It was true, no one said a word, we just worked silently, appreciating the company, aware of the exponential growth of our actions with each new person that joined in.

I suppose in a way it was a small movement, a small-scale demonstration of the power of momentum. It just takes one person. Perhaps you and I can be that one person in our own circles of influence, whether that is a small beach in the Arctic or downtown Los Angeles. I ask you, please, join me, in whatever way you can. Our actions can create ripples of momentum, which together have the power to initiate cultural change. The time is now… no, really… the time is now.

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