Friday January 03, 2014 | 09:38 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

People ask me, as I explain my passion for a clean world free of plastic pollution, "What hope do you have to change things?" I tell them the truth:

I have little.

The problem is vast, the politicians are feckless, corporate interests are rich & entrenched. Plastic is everywhere. It’s used for literally everything now. It covers our “paperback” books; it’s embedded within “paper” salt and pepper packets; it’s even being used in currency.

We live now in a single-use, throwaway world of K-cup coffee and polystyrene dinnerware. Convenience is king, so we’ve all bought the lie that plastic is cheap.

And the 100% predictable result has already happened.

This is Tromso, Norway. 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. (Source: Bo Eide)

Albatross nest amid washed-in plastics on Midway Island. Midway is an uninhabited Pacific atoll 2000 miles from the nearest mainland. (Source)

Some of the 20,000 individual pieces of trash I’ve picked up so far from Curtis Cove in Biddeford, Maine -- one tiny, deserted, untouristed beach.

So. Hope? No. Not really.

Then why keep picking litter off the beach, writing stories, trying? Because there's a difference between losing hope and giving in to despair. Despair is paralysis. Despair is also extremely arrogant -- it presumes that we can know with certainty that our actions are useless.

I don't know how the story ends. I do know that I love my daughter and I think the world is beautiful and I want to preserve it. So I keep going to the beach & picking up debris & writing about it. Even without hope.

And, it turns out, there is a strange freedom & energy that comes from leaving both hope & despair behind. "Hoping" puts the burden on someone else. "Doing" puts the burden -- the control -- in our own hands. No, I can't change the world. But I can change my part of it. And no, I can't make it better forever. But I can make it better for today.

This one moment when the beach is deserted and the gulls are crying and the surf is pounding and the breeze is carrying salt on the air... and the sand is clean.

Sometimes, the point isn't to do the right thing because you hope or think something awesome will come from it. It's because, it's the right thing. And because "even the wise cannot see all ends." As I've witnessed, the actions of one person have a funny way of reaching beyond them in ways & times most unexpected.

In 2014 I'm going to keep doing what I can do, and increase what I can do.

Not because of hope, but because despair isn’t an option.

About this Blog

Subscribe to
Undercurrents RSS

About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

Previous entries

April 2014

March 2014

February 2014

January 2014

December 2013

November 2013


October 2013

September 2013

August 2013

July 2013

June 2013

May 2013

April 2013

March 2013

February 2013

January 2013

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)
Prefer to respond privately? Email us here.