What happened to the reset, lads? You know, the mind-shift that British Vogue has just celebrated with a cover by David Hockney, a painting of a field. I thought we were all going back to basics, feeding birds and baking bread?
Remember how we all acknowledged the need to rethink “the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves”, as Arundhati Roy described it in her polemic on the great pandemic shakedown? And how we all got busy retweeting Roy’s wisdom on the “portal” through which we would walk, unencumbered by prejudice and hatred, on our way to build a better world?
Turns out that the only things we’ve been discarding in these early days of freedom are a ton of empty hummus pots, decibels and excrement. Urban skies are no longer filled with lusty birdsong, but with the roar of police helicopters and sound systems that have accompanied the outbreak of illegal street raves.
Fifty tonnes of rubbish were picked up on Bournemouth beach in the aftermath of a heatwave in which half a million people descended on its sands and delivered a horror show of pictures that recalled Dante’s hottest circles of hell.
“The sights and smell were horrendous, like nothing I’ve ever come across before,” said Peter Ryan, of the Dorset Devils, a group of local litter pick-up volunteers, talking to The Guardian. “There was the smell of weed, urine and excrement, and we found so many empty beer bottles. There were cans, wrappers, wet wipes and even underpants. It was horrific.”
There have been similar scenes of carnage all over Europe — in Berlin, Manchester, Paris and Porto — as huge groups of people have congregated for post-lockdown prosecco picnics and enormous late-night raves. Charged with cleaning up London’s Clapham Common, which last weekend was just visible under a carpet of beer bottles and plastic bags, Lambeth council tweeted the following message: “Have a nice time at the Common yesterday? . . . Good for you, meanwhile our teams have been out all morning trying to clear up the mess you left behind.”
The hypocrisy is mind-boggling: did we forget that until recently we were applauding our heroic key workers — including rubbish collectors — in a great performance of appreciation on our doorsteps? We might just as well have lobbed empty cans at them instead.
Meanwhile, an avalanche of corona-litter is gathering in every gutter — and every corner of the globe. Face masks and gloves have already been targeted as a new concern for environmental agencies worried about the impact of so much single-use protective gear — to say nothing of the disposable hand-sanitiser bottles that will add to the 8m tons of plastic that already end up in the oceans every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Brightly coloured latex gloves are especially nasty as they are mistaken by sea creatures for food.
The scale of the problem is highlighted in a corona-litter gallery set up by Maria Algarra, founder of the Miami-based organisation Clean This Beach Up, who uses #theglovechallenge on Instagram to exhibit sad, abandoned gloves on shores and sidewalks round the world.
In Hong Kong, OceansAsia has found discarded masks on even the most remote of the territory’s beaches, while French environmental group Opération Mer Propre is trying to raise awareness about the Covid waste it has detected on the seabed near Antibes. France has secured more than 2bn disposable masks for its citizens, and the agency is concerned less with the presence of plastic already in the water than with the deluge of pollution yet to come.
It seems a tragedy that the pandemic has so quickly become an adjunct of an even more dangerous environmental catastrophe. Or that we who parroted on for weeks about how we would do better in future have fallen back on disgusting habits in the space of a few hot days. It’s especially sad that places we claimed as cherished sanctuaries have so quickly turned into dumping grounds. So much for a post-lockdown Damascene conversion.
Perhaps the more distressing legacy of Covid is that we really will go on as normal, with the assumption that some other “hero” will clean up in our wake. I think of all those slightly nauseating exhortations that have been circulating lately, about everyone being mindful and kindness being the new cool. Total nonsense. Let’s forget the big ideas, and start out with the basics. Item one on the agenda: take your rubbish home with you.
Email Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org
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