Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Toxic Floods: Let’s Talk about the Weather

By Simone M. Müller

We’ve probably all been thinking about the weather lately. Our officemates are sneezing, others are coughing, the first one is turning in a sick note. It’s the time of year when weather-related topics start dominating our everyday conversation: the change of the season, the turning of the leaves from deep green to ruby-red, tangerine, or a sun-soaked yellow. Fall is reigning. And let’s not forget, fall is also hurricane season in the Northern Hemisphere. As the difference in temperatures between the North Pole and, let’s say, the South of Italy grows, storms and even hurricanes become an everyday weather phenomenon across Europe and the Atlantic. With the storms, we usually get it all: wind, flood, and destruction—and if we’re not immediately affected by these events ourselves, they are neatly brought to us via our daily news feeds in easily digestible news snippets and images from the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, or Northern Germany.

Yet when, in recent weeks, those of us lucky enough to be watching from our cozy armchair at home, from our office, or while squeezed up close to our fellow commuters on the metro saw images of, for instance, Americans wading waist-deep in mud-brown water, few of us realized, perhaps, that some of these people trying to save their life and livelihood had also been in there waste-deep.

There is more to these floods than meets the unsuspecting eye. These mud-brown waters are not solely the result of an everyday weather phenomenon in the fall in the Northern hemisphere gone a little out of control. Beneath the surface, these waters harbor a story of unresolved toxicity and waste management. Let’s take a closer look. Continue reading


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Introducing “Trash Talks,” a New Series on Our Everyday Encounters with Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste surrounds us. We may not realize it, but toxic, hazardous, and harmful waste objects are part of our everyday encounters. They form part of our daily routines of consumption, mobility, work, leisure, and travel. We could stumble across a hazardous waste story when watching the news or going shopping. Often these stories are hidden from sight, and more often than not, we also choose not to see or care about hazardous waste: the outdated batteries in our trash, our old cell phone in the drawer, let alone the consequences of all those plastic items that we accumulate.

The four blog posts in Trash Talks: Hazardous Waste and the Everyday comprise the first instalment in an ongoing series from the research group Hazardous Travels: Ghost Acres and the Global Waste Economy. In this instalment, we tackle our everyday encounters with hazardous waste material. Each post explores a different aspect of how hazardous waste is present in our everyday items and activities, ranging from the weather or calling the plumber, to going on vacation or taking a stroll along the beach. Hazardous waste is our everyday companion, whether we like it—or see it—or not.

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Worldview: One Piece at a Time

Guest post by Judith Selby and Richard Lang

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who collaborate in an ongoing project to collect plastic along Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They also recount their adventures in Plastic Forever, the blog they jointly manage. This is a  follow-up post to last week’s Snaphot on Seeing the Woods. All photographs are courtesy of the authors.

For related content about the journey and transformation of waste, take a look at our RCC Perspectives volumes: Out of Sight, Out of Mind and A Future without Waste?


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Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang with “Trophy Fish.”

Our story is one of human inventiveness and metamorphosis. It is about how the simple act of picking up trash landed us on national TV, with money in our pockets to continue the work we love, to begin a marriage, and to lose ourselves in a compelling vocation. All of this forged in the crucible of trying to make a visual blight into something good to look at. So, yes, it is about art making. But we wish to point out that in this era of everything standing in for everything else, a world made meaningless by the glut of meanings, something of consequence happened. Bending over, picking up, bending over, picking up one piece at a time. Several tons of plastic collected—one piece at a time.

In 1999, information about a mysterious patch of garbage in the middle of the North Pacific was just beginning to roll in. Charles Moore, a boat captain returning from the Transpacific Yacht Race, came across a befuddling density of plastic. He engaged the help of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and their research showed some alarming results. On the planktonic level, plastic particles numbered six-times the number of living creatures. Plastic does not “biodegrade”—as it floats in the ocean, it is simply broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, wearing down to the molecular level. Plastic enters the food chain with some ugly results. Albatross chicks have died by the thousands with their gullets filled with plastic. Chemicals leach out of debris, creating a disruption in the sensitive endocrine systems of birds, fish, and mammals. Dangerous levels of toxins are showing up in humans. Continue reading


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Snapshot: Plastic Beach

Guest post by Judith Selby and Richard Lang

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who collaborate in an ongoing project to collect plastic along Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They also recount their adventures in Plastic Forever, the blog they jointly manage. Stay tuned for the follow-up post on their work on Seeing the Woods.

A casual diversion—an amusement—turns into an enthusiasm, turns into a life’s work.

Why create art out of the tons of plastic we’ve found? Why make these objects and show them in an art context? And since we want our art to engage the polity, to inspire action, are we simply making more propaganda?

At first glance, our project is about evidence gathered to address the consequences of marine born plastic garbage in our oceans. The evidence, in this case, has been gleaned from just one beach: Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California. But it is about more than that. It is the story of being witness to how a creative life is lived. It’s not about creative arts, per se. That yes, but it’s also about the implications creative energy has for any endeavor.

Sometimes, beauty can be a call to action. Here the call to action is to follow some simple rules of planetary housekeeping; but in a larger sense, the call to action is to follow those strange voices of inspiration each of us possesses, if we dare to listen. We know after years on the beach and in the studio, the real opposite of beauty is indifference.


This is part one of a two-part post about Judith and Richard’s ongoing work collecting and transforming waste into art. For related content about the journey and transformation of waste, take a look at our RCC Perspectives volumes: Out of Sight, Out of Mind and A Future without Waste?


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Snapshot: Our Future in the Anthropocene

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Prominent visitors at the Anthropocene Exhibition. Left to right: Wolfgang M. Heckl (Director General of Deutsches Museum), Ministers Gerd Müller and Peter Altmaier, and RCC Director Helmuth Trischler.

On 15 September the Deutsches Museum hosted a Zukunftskongress (Future Congress) together with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Club of Rome; the event brought together international visionaries, experts, and activists to discuss ways to tackle problems such as climate change and hunger and move towards a more sustainable society. Continue reading


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Snapshot: Beach Litter in a Sustainable Exhibition

By Katrin Kleemann
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Examples of recyled materials used to construct the exhibition displays. Photographs: Katrin Kleemann, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

A few weeks ago, “Snapshot: Zero Waste?” featured an exhibition exploring global waste production. Today’s feature looks at what happens to that waste. As part of its Planet Oceans Initiative, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich hosts one of London’s first sustainable galleries: the “Environment Gallery.” It’s sustainable because all of the displays are made from recycled coffee cups, yoghurt pots, plastic, and crushed CDs. On show is the permanent exhibition: “Your Ocean,” which focuses on marine waste. Huge amounts of waste end up in the ocean; this pollution doesn’t simply disappear but becomes part of the water cycle. Among the top ten items of beach litter in the UK are everyday products such as crisp and sweet wrappers, sanitary items, caps and lids, as well as cigarette butts. The exhibits raise awareness about the many issues threatening the marine environment in the twenty-first century. Knowing about these issues can help and empower people to make informed decisions about their lifestyle and environment.


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Snapshot: Zero Waste?

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The amount of garbage accumulated over ten days by the average four-person French family. Photograph: Samantha Rothbart.

At the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) in Paris, the third floor of La Grande Galerie de l’Évolution (the Great Gallery of Evolution) is dedicated to humans’ impact on the environment. This collection of garbage represents a meager portion of the waste we produce globally. The RCC’s latest Perspectives volume, A Future without Waste? Zero Waste in Theory and Practiceasks if a world without waste can ever truly be achieved.