Reid Diamond: Boyan Slat's work needs media coverage

Monday, February 10, 2020 - 10:11am

The conversation around the climate crisis in the United States lacks substance and instead focuses on sensationalized activism. Social activists are receiving more coverage and popularity than the engineers and innovators designing real solutions to the existential problems we face. While Greta Thunberg was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2019 for her social activism, Boyan Slat is receiving little recognition for single-handedly taking on the responsibility of cleaning up 90 percent of the plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean. Slat designed the world’s first maritime plastic cleanup system, The Ocean Cleanup, yet Thunberg and her celebrity activism take center stage in the realms of media and politics. Real innovators should be championed and celebrated. Boyan Slat is solving one of the most complex problems of our generation despite few knowing about him.

Plastics and derivative microplastics have accumulated in dangerous quantities throughout the ocean, having an adverse impact on the health of complex marine ecosystems, and consequently, humans. Most of this plastic pollution is concentrated in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive area now twice the size of Texas. Undoubtedly the consequence of human negligence, the monstrous rate of world pollution is only getting worse. Higher-income countries have successful waste management systems and therefore contribute less to the pollution in the oceans. Ninety percent of ocean plastic pollution comes from just 10 rivers, eight of which run through Asia, bordering poorer villages that lack the proper waste management infrastructure. 

Many countries are at a stage in development where people are wealthy enough to consume plastic goods or goods wrapped in plastic, but there isn’t sufficient waste infrastructure to deal with the situation effectively. People dump their waste into the local rivers because it’s the easiest method of disposal. With high densities of people around major rivers, trash accumulates and flows through these arteries into the ocean, where the plastic ultimately remains. Importantly, it isn’t that people don’t care about the environment or are somehow less civilized. The reality is there is a large number of people consuming plastic goods while there is no infrastructure for effective disposal.

Little has been done to address plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean or the efficacy of waste management until recently; few know of its existence. Boyan Slat is taking the issue head-on and plans to permanently end plastic pollution in the oceans. Slat’s approach is two-sided. While Slat is working to clean up the existing plastic pollution in the ocean, he is also working to address the issue at the source with “interceptor” systems that catch plastic at the river source. Currently, with working prototype systems, Slat plans on expanding his fleet of ocean cleanup systems to 60 in order to reach his goal of reducing the amount of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in half by 2025. Slat’s company, the Ocean Cleanup Project, is saving the ocean, and can’t even gain an audience. 

In such a dysfunctional political climate — where little environmental legislation has any chance of enactment — such technological innovations should be championed and celebrated, but they aren’t. Climate change is a political issue and it attracts a lot of media and political attention. But this attention is focused around superficial ideas and moral activism instead of coverage of the practical solutions to the very real problems we face. Slat’s lack of fame isn’t a fluke; It’s a symptom of sensationalized news and token climate activists getting more coverage than those on the ground fixing the problems of our generation. 

This is not to say that celebrity climate activists such as Leonardo DiCaprio or Greta Thunberg don’t play a critical role in enacting change. In fact, Thunberg addressed heads of state at the United Nations and inspired four million people to participate in the largest climate demonstration in history. She captured the frustration and anger of the millions of young people who carry the burden of inheriting dysfunctional governments in the face of the global climate crisis. That being said, Thunberg’s activism has made little substantive change in international climate policy as many governments still don’t care enough, especially the U.S.

Rather than being seen as a climate activist pushing for rapid reform, Thunberg has become adopted as a political lightning rod. The political left uses her as an anti-Trump totem while the political right uses her to support their “crazy socialist” narrative. The result of all this sensationalized coverage is that token activists get more coverage than those on the front lines treating the symptoms of the climate crisis. Slat, and many like him, need media coverage to promote investment. This is precisely where social activism and innovative problem-solving overlap. To promote innovative solutions, we need to start championing the designers and the engineers just as much, if not more than the lead social activists. 

The climate crisis needs real solutions. Activism has a key role to play in saving the climate and protecting human well-being, but it won’t get anything done unless it’s targeted towards concrete solutions. Instead of carrying a sign that claims the world is burning — even though it is — carry a sign that points to a solution. “Invest in Boyan Slat” is tangible and can be echoed by the media or addressed by politicians. It would also look great on a picket sign.

Reid Diamond can be reached at reiddiam@umich.edu.