Alpha of existence, omega of trash

NIALL FERGUSON is a professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Website:

“I MUST DOWN to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.... " Ever since I was a schoolboy leafing through “Palgrave’s Golden Treasury,” those lines of John Masefield’s have never failed to thrill me. Not that the sea is very lonely at this time of year. August is the month when half the world “must down to the seas again.”

We swim in it. We sail on it. We fish in it. We walk our dogs beside it. We stand, knee deep, just gaping at it. It is as if humanity, whose distant ancestors crawled from the oceans, subconsciously yearns to return to what W.H. Auden called “the alpha of existence.”

So strong is the sea’s pull that more and more of us now opt to live by it full time. Amazingly, two-thirds of the world’s population now resides within 50 miles of the sea. All but three of the world’s 16 biggest cities are located on one coast or another. About half of all new homes in the United States are built near one or other “shining sea”; a survey in the late 1990s estimated that Americans were moving there at the rate of 3,600 a day.

And yet, for all our professed love, we simultaneously treat the sea with the utmost contempt. Masefield saw only a “gray mist on the sea’s face.” The face of the sea today, however, is smeared with an appalling rash of rubbish. We may yearn to go down to the seas, but when we get to them, inexplicably, we pelt them with plastic.


Last year, we joined that rising proportion of families that actually owns a house by the sea. And it has been here, not far from the Welsh seaside town of Porthcawl, that I have spent August, pursuing -- with all the obsessiveness of a middle-aged man bitten by the surfing bug -- the perfectly breaking wave. And the perfectly clean beach.

Fat chance. A recent survey of 269 British beaches found, on average, one piece of litter every 2 feet -- an increase of more than 80% over the past decade. Our beach is no exception.

Some of the culprits are those insufferable types who cannot see a scenic spot without dropping an empty potato chip bag and a beer can. Yet the congenital litter louts are not the biggest problem. All along the sands and rocks of the “heritage coast” that stretches from Porthcawl to Cardiff lies an odious scum of plastic bottles and cartons that can only have come from the ships that ply the Bristol Channel. In the old days, I suppose, the refuse that sailors discarded either sank or was eaten by fish. But plastic -- surely the most loathsome product of our Hydrocarbon Age -- floats. It is not biodegradable. It makes a racket when you stand on it. It even glints and glimmers on sunny days, as if to advertise its presence.

Dumped plastic is now a global problem. When the naturalist Tim Benton recently visited the uninhabited atoll called Ducie Island -- the farthest-flung of the Pitcairn Islands, 5,000 miles east of Australia -- he found 953 objects washed up there, including 268 lumps of plastic, 71 plastic bottles, 29 pieces of plastic pipe and two plastic doll heads.


And this charmless flotsam and jetsam is only the most visible part of the torrent of filth our species pours into the sea every day. Last summer, Orange County collected enough garbage from six miles of beach to fill 10 garbage trucks every week, costing taxpayers $350,000, according to a beach cleanup website. New York pumps in 500 tons of sewage. The total daily volume of oil coming from human sources is just under 1 million gallons. The North Sea now contains four times as much nitrate and eight times as much phosphate as it did just 20 years ago.

The sea may still be deep. But blue?

There are, in theory, ways of stopping this -- of enforcing the existing legal prohibitions on dumping rubbish at sea. All merchant ships, for example, could be fitted with the trash compressors developed by the U.S. Navy. But my suspicion is that even this would not deter seamen from tossing empty Coke bottles over the side. After all, they never see where they wash up.

So what is to be done? I have agonized about this during all the hours I have spent this summer filling bin bags with other people’s rubbish. And I have come to a pleasingly simple conclusion. I am already doing it -- as are the volunteers who have joined me, my family and our friends from the nearby nature reserve in a collective effort to clean our coast.


It is, in short, the old story: If you want something done in this world, do it yourself. You may remember that Masefield called his poem “Sea-Fever.” But now it is the sea, not the poet, that has the fever. Only we who truly love the sea can cure it.