As I spent time studying abroad in the United Kingdom, I was overwhelmed — overwhelmed by unfamiliar experiences, novel places and the constant bombardment of new information. Yet, it was the extraordinary amount of natural beauty, in particular, that stunned me the most.
Even amongst all of the astonishing sights and dizzying novelty of the experience, I didn’t stray too far from my usual Upper Peninsula-inspired tendency of wandering about. Just like the numerous times I disappear from my apartment to walk around the Arb, if friends and classmates from my study abroad program couldn’t seem to find me easily, I was probably roaming about the forested walkways located next to the college.
Almost every day, under the cover of a sky perfectly tinted to match the hue of a robin’s egg, I ventured onto my favorite wooded path. Cascades of brilliantly gradated green leaves rustled and wavered overhead, and with each subtle sway of the branches above, slivers of light gilded the contours of the trees and illuminated splotches of the muddy ground. To my left, the sometimes mint — sometimes darker — green waters of the Cherwell gently flowed past reflecting flickers of the purple flowers dotting the grass alongside the sloping riverbank. This was not the England I had expected. Nor was it the England I had been continuously warned to bring an extensive amount of heavy-duty rain gear to.
A similar path, albeit one that possesses less sentimental value for me, led me to a concerning realization. On a more stereotypically English (Welsh, if I really want to be specific) day, my classmates and I walked along a dirt path enclosed by a tunnel constructed by overarching branches, twigs and leaves. Eventually, the tunnel funneled us out to a verdant shoreline and an unending expanse of steel blue water of the bay blurred against a misty gray sky above. I stared out at the horizon, looking toward Cardiff in the distance.
My gazing and daydreaming were interrupted as one of our instructors began to describe the variety and amount of trash and debris that continually washed upon the shoreline directly below us. The conversation then shifted to the amount of trash floating in the ocean. Later, I’d look this fact up to find out that roughly 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are currently floating in our oceans. The lecture continued as I began to imagine flocks of plastic bottles, wrappers, plastic bags and other random articles of trash bobbing up and down in the water beyond my line of sight. As the lecture shifted to rising sea levels due to climate change, the scene in my head evolved to an overly exaggerated image of a dramatic swell of trash-infested water flooding the land.
Before this trip, I had been near the ocean only once before in my life. It was only after traveling all the way “across the pond” that I began to understand how polluted it is. While I’m certain I’ve learned and known about water pollution before, it’s a topic that rarely received any attention in my mind. This phenomenon is probably quite common in our society. Our society and our actions are the driving force behind a myriad of today’s environmental problems. In the particular case of marine pollution, 80 percent of the debrisoriginates from land-based human activities. These actions lead to a slow accumulation of devastating consequences. As a result, we don’t immediately know the impact of our actions, and other issues take precedence in our lives.
However, as we continue to knowingly, or unknowingly, alter the environment, the damage done is never a singular issue. Water pollution is merely one concern. Research has shown that far more issues, such as acidification of the water, glacial melting and rising water temperatures as a result of climate change and subsequent disruption of marine ecosystems, all are lurking beneath the surface and could pose significant changes to the world as we know it now.
Climate change, as a whole, is a subject we’ve known about, have discussed, have debated ad nauseam and have still exhibited a dangerously delayed response to. President Barack Obama, in a recent attempt to shift the conversation, recently proposed plans for stricter regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bolster the use of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Although the administration of the Clean Power Plan could be offset by dissenting opinions, legal conflicts and the ideology of the next person to assume charge of the White House, Obama’s actions, at the very least, will help secure a place for discussions about the environment in the endless stream of upcoming debates and campaign speeches.
Throughout my wanderings, I was a student and a tourist seeking to find the beauty of the country I had found myself lost in. Whether it is manmade or natural, we as humans seek to uncover these astonishing sights, but we sometimes all too easily forget how easily the stunning natural environment can be tarnished. We, in order, to protect the numerous paths we wander upon, need to relinquish our roles as mere spectators and begin taking action.
Melissa Scholke can be reached at email@example.com.