Some problems mankind has had to cope with since time immemorial, including famine, plague and sickness.   Yuval Harari in Homo Deus argues coherently from this premise.   However in his recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker eloquently describes the comparatively peaceful times in which we live in the 21st century.   Per capita, there are fewer threats to personal well being than have ever existed in the past.

Indeed, I have personally been influenced positively by Pinker’s arguments, and have taken much comfort from his detailed comparative analysis of the eradication of famine as well as the reduction in conflict at the present time.    Plague has been eliminated except for minor intermittent episodes.

Today’s Challenges

However, there are two existential challenges around today which need to be on the conscience of all grandparents – the problems created by plastic pollution and the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

This morning I attended a lecture by Professor Peter Ryan who is involved with the Fitzpatrick Institue of Research at the University of Cape Town.   He offered us a vivid picture of the research that he has done whilst supervising both masters and doctoral students.

He cut an elegant figure as he took the stage for his presentation.   Whilst his feet were bare, his nicely-fitting t-shirt together with causal draw-string pants, created an apt image of minimalism for a man talking about plastic pollution!

I found his opening comments alerted my attention when he announced to the audience, “What you are about to hear may well be different to what you expected!”

Plastic Pollution

Peter shared with us the fact he had been playing with plastic for a long time.   He illustrated and endorsed this statement as he went into the history of the aggregation of plastic waste and his team’s efforts to control it.  He has been actively researching  the damage that plastic pollution has created since it’s introduction in the early 1960s

Yes, I was born into an era before plastics were developed.  We managed with paper packets in my youth.   I  recall that when plastic bags first became part of our shopping experience, we would wash them out after the first use, and reuse them multiple times.  Maybe that is something we should think about doing once again!

A time before Pollution!

I also recall the first time I ever heard the word ‘pollution.’   It must have been the late sixties when my children were in conversation with some American youngsters who had accompanied their parents on a sabbatical to this country from Philadelphia in the USA

“You know,” they said, “you should not throw things out of your car as that will cause pollution!”   At that time pollution was not part of my everyday vocabulary.  So this concept came as quite a shock to me.   Can anyone remember when we actually did throw things out of the car window when disposing of waste matter?


Professor Ryan showed us some haunting pictures of dead sea birds photographed adjacent to a range of plastic objects.   This matter had been found in the stomachs of dead birds which had been washed ashore.  Often scores of bottle tops and assorted materials were part of the collection of man-made products retrieved from these deceased birds.

Other photos of sea creatures enmeshed in plastic string or netting forced me to contemplate the agonies experienced by sea animals due to mankind’s inability to dispose of his waste in a manner which was respectful of the natural habitat.

It would be difficult to live without plastic wrapping today.   One of its main benefits is its ability to preserve certain foods.  It is cheaper than glass to manufacture.  Without plastic, the production of fruit and vegetables would need to be increased putting further strain on the earth’s resources.

Carbon Emissions

The surprise came when after presenting such startling evidence of the damage plastic has created to our oceans and our sea animals, Professor Ryan went on to let us know that a different man-made problem was even more worrying.   He reminded the audience that we may have already passed the time of no return due to the pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.   Many authorities believe that the melting of icebergs, the consequent rising of the oceans, the floods and droughts affecting more and more parts of the world, are all the irreversible symptoms of a dire future for the inhabitants of planet earth.

Youth Activism

Greta Thurnberg at age 16 has made a name for herself internationally for castigating political leaders for neglecting to pass legislation limiting the emission of noxious gasses.   Due to her leadership, 1.66 million people in 133 countries participated in demonstrations in major cities around the world earlier this year.   Their aim was to urge the world’s leaders to take the needs of future generations into account when making political decisions.

Senior Activism

Have you thought about what you would like to do to ensure that your descendants enjoy the earth’s natural resources as much as you do?     Will your grandchildren be able to enjoy nature walks, mountain climbs and beach strolls in an unpolluted environment?

Maybe you would like to make some suggestions about practical steps which could be undertaken by senior people.     The Comment Box below is awaiting your contribution.

2 replies
  1. Nikki Viljoen
    Nikki Viljoen says:

    Well written Grace and I think it is something that needs urgent attention.

    I form part of a body of individuals in the community and we call ourselves the “We Love Windsor West” group. We have a community clean up once a month and report broken street lights and illegal electrical connections and illegal shabeens and what have you. The majority of us are in our 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and even beyond.

    The complex that I live in is tiny compared to some of the housing estates and it only contains 12 x 2 bedroomed units and two domestic one bedroomed cottages (this being the old domestic quarters which we have renovated and converted into cottages which we, the body corporate are able to rent out to help with the cost of the complex maintenance etc.)

    8 of the 12 units are home to children who range in age from about 2 to about 16.

    I, as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees (and the only trustee in residence) decided to start a campaign to go ‘green’ and started with a huge canvas bag for plastic. I saw an ad on FB that reported that for the grand sum of R200 we could get a canvas bag (fully erected it is about about a square meter). The plastic has to be flattened and once the bag is full we contact the Owl Sanctuary in the Magaliesburg, who come and collect the bag and leave us with a replacement. The financial ROI that the Owl Sanctuary get from the recycled plastic is enough to build 3 to 4 owl houses, which of course then gets sold to the farmers, since owls are a great natural pest control on the farms.

    Trying to get the residents of the the complex to dispose of their plastic waste for recycle is a constant irritant and frustration for me. I’ve had engine parts, air filters, polystyrene, children’s books, old shoes, old wooden shelving and believe it or not even used condoms thrown into the bag, which made me lose my sense of humour because in an attempt to get the children engaged in worthwhile activities, the complex pays the younger ones to sort through the plastic, keep all the ‘soft’ plastic in plastic bags and then flatten the plastic bottles etc., which they do by jumping up and down on them. A great source of fun for them, judging by the amount of laughter and a sigh of relief for the mothers who get 5 minutes to have a cup of tea in relative peace and quiet, so not the greatest of finds for them when they come across a used condom.

    Every now and then I watch the dustbin divers, rooting around in the bins before the trash is collected on a Friday morning and I must say I get really annoyed when I see them hauling out masses of plastic bottles from the trash . . Then I have to remind myself that I just have to keep at it.

    I was hopeful that a year down the line we could get a bin for bottles and then metal and finally paper, but at this rate I will be dead and buried before they learn how to separate the plastic from the rest of the trash – I sometimes despair.

    Anyway . . . since I am usually the only adult around during the school holidays and therefore the only one around as the children get up to all sorts of mischief, I am also the one that doles out the punishments and and settled into a RXX fine (up to R250 per infringement) or XX number of community service cleanup Saturdays depending on the severity of the mischief they got up to – the always cash strapped parents are only too grateful to have an option and most community clean up days will evidence a white haired Gogo or Grandmother paired with a young-un (to ensure that they work for the two + hours of the clean-up and don’t get into any other mischief along the way), Our eldest community member is 84 and she can always be found with huge gardening gloves, a scraper (to clean the posters off the electrical boxes etc) and a huge floppy hat carrying her black bag, with a youngster in tow, picking up papers and trash on the sidewalks.

    Some of the older children are also gainfully employed by the complex to make sure that any papers etc. are picked up inside the complex as well as on the pavements outside of the complex as well as several other jobs around the place. I made the parents open up bank accounts for the children who get paid to do stuff and at the end of the month their money gets paid into their bank accounts and they have to come to me to “Sign” for their pay slips. So I’m teaching them the basics of entrepreneurship and cash flow and admin as well. Hopefully this will encourage them down the line.

    The one youngster now charges R15 a month to take your bin out on collection day and then he will bring it back in and once a month he will also wash the inside of the bin. It’s quite funny to see him emerging from the wheelie bin, which is lying on its side, scrubbing brush in hand, having scrubbed the inside of the now pristinely cleaned bin.So something has ‘rubbed’ off and I’m told that he has a very healthy little bank account. That warms my heart.

    Hopefully though, the whole recycling thing will also create a “light bulb” moment at some point too.

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