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  • Brooke Bowen

The Plant Messiah, A Big Fat Lie, and an Earthy Word...

Updated: Dec 2, 2020


“If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet


 

1. Each Organism A Book


One of my first inspirations as a plant enthusiast was Carlos Magdalena; still is today. In 2017, he wrote a book called The Plant Messiah: Adventures In Search of The World's Rarest Species.

From humble beginnings and with no formal “scientific” training, Carlos Magdalena came to be known by his coworkers at Kew Gardens as "The Plant Messiah". This nickname spread as stories about his ardent and adventurous conservationism spread. Traveling all over the globe, Carlos works his horticultural magic to keep the world's endangered plant life alive. Requests from the global horticultural community have propelled him far from his tropical greenhouse in London, to the island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean to save the ill-fated café marron (amosmania rodriguesii) and to rural Australia to collect distribution data on a disappearing waterlily. The stories in his book are incredibly fascinating, and often humorous - like the entire chapter devoted to a pollination party of a specific beetle species, and how this exclusive rager leads to the reproduction of the largest lily pad in the natural world (that of the Victoria amazonica).


Magdalena likens germination to code breaking and admits that when there is a problem that "can't be solved", he becomes obsessive in his pursuit to save. In a favorite photo of himself, Carlos is chest deep in a pond surrounded by aquatic greenery, and he is delicately showing the photographer a purple waterlily flower. The Plant Messiah's eyebrows are raised in inquiry, as if asking: "Do you see how important this is?"


Photo: Courtesy Doubleday

Magdalena's dedication to conservation can be felt in one of my favorite excerpt from the book:


"Each gene is a word; each organism a book. Each plant species that dies out contains words that have been written only in that book. If a plant species becomes extinct, one book is lost, and with it the words and messages it carried. We are burning the Library of Alexandria every time we destroy a hectare of pristine habitat."


There aren't as many videos of Carlos and his work as I'd like, but the few that are out there are worth watching. In a 2015 interview, he briefly tells his story and gives you a great insider peak at Kew. There's another video on BBC's facebook in which Carlos swoons over waterlilies. And lastly, a presentation he gave that basically overviews my dream job.


 

2. It's not valuable, it never has been, and we (not you) knew it all along.


We’ve been duped yet again by big business. NPR and PBS Frontline spent months researching the current state of the world's recycling efforts and released their findings last week. This one really hurts because the very people who made you think you were saving the world are the same people negating your efforts.


The 1990s were rife with ads and commercials, like this one, encouraging the American public to recycle their plastics, assuring the audience that these bottles were “anything but trash” and that they would go on to produce new and usable products. I remember thinking that these were environmental calls to action, that they were probably funded by the same people who created Earth Day. But the opposite side of the fight has been funding them all along. The plastics industry, big oil and gas companies and their lobbying and trade organizations, paid for these commercials as a way to ensure room in the market for new plastic production. The executives of these big businesses have known since the 1970s that recycling on a large scale would never make sense because the process to turn used plastics into new things costs significantly more than making brand new plastics.


Why is this coming out now?


Up until 2018, most recyclable plastics from the U.S. were shipped to China to be “taken care of”. In fact, China had, up until this point, handled almost half of the entire world’s recyclable waste for over 25 years. Many countries have transitioned from requiring their citizens to separate out paper, plastics, and metals to a system where all recyclable waste goes into the same recycling bin. This is known as “single stream” recycling. This lack of attention created more contamination from food and other waste, which left large quantities of the waste unusable.


So if not into new materials and goods, where does the plastic go?


In 2017, the EPA estimated that of the 35,370 tons of plastic produced in the United States, 76% ended up in landfills. And over the long run, according to the EPA, in the last 40 years, less than 10% of plastics have been recycled.


Much of the world’s plastic ends up in the ocean and this pollution is the single largest issue affecting the marine environment.

  • Plastics lead to declines in ocean health: Marine wildlife suffocate when ingesting plastics or die of starvation due to stomachs full of plastic waste.

  • Plastics threaten food safety and human health: A new study from Washington State University shows that more than 90 percent of tap water in the U.S. contains nanoscale plastics that are invisible to the human eye. These invisible plastics contain carcinogenic chemicals and other chemicals that are known to interfere with the body’s endocrine system, causing developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders in both humans and wildlife.

  • Plastics decrease coastal tourism: Decreased coastal tourism decreases the income and threatens the livelihood of many communities who survive solely off a tourism economy. This plastic waste also increases operating costs relating to property cleaning and maintenance.

  • Plastics contribute to climate change: The production of plastics begins with the distillation of crude oil in an oil refinery, a well-known global warming culprit. Additionally, when plastics are lit on fire, which is a common disposal method in many countries, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing carbon emissions.


Why does this matter?


While it takes roughly 400 years for one plastic bottle to decompose in a landfill, it takes only one year for the oil industry to make $400 BILLION in plastics revenue.


Take a quick peek at the decomposition rates of everyday products:


So any good news?


Members of the international community acknowledge that traditional modes of recycling aren’t working. Here’s a high-level Circular Economy solution, proposing we eliminate the plastics we don’t need, circulate the plastics we are using, and innovate via new business models, product design, materials, technologies and collection systems.


A list of 250 Corporations made the commitment to make all plastic packaging either reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. The list includes PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Unilever, Colgate, SC Johnson, and H&M. In signing the pledge, each company is required to put out public reports on their progress each year. Some interesting future reading.


Many start-ups are focused on profiting from our heavy reliance on plastics, some are focused on curbing it. But the truth is, we need the support of major corporations. A good reminder that everything matters; every dollar you spend is a powerful choice.


 

3. Describing the Natural World with New Words


petrichor [pe-trahy-kawr]

noun

a distinctive scent, usually described as earthy, pleasant, or sweet, produced by rainfall on very dry ground.


 

4. The Video that Changed My Mind


Before this video, I thought of plants, like most people, as immobile. Beautiful and interesting, moving with the help of a breeze, sure… but self-propulsionists? No way. This changed everything...





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