Tapping the capacity to transform society

At 16 years old, he went diving during his family holidays, and what he saw in the Mediterranean dismayed him. The stirring beauty of the aquatic ecosystem was sullied by the overwhelming number of plastic bags, which outnumbered the fish.

Boyan Slat felt concerned by the pervasive marine pollution he witnessed, and has spent the years since then researching a solution to clean the oceans of plastic pollution. He presented a first cleanup concept in 2012—then aged 17—which was followed by a thorough 530-page feasibility study in June 2014. By then, about 100 people had joined him in this challenge, forming a team of experts from various fields dedicated to the same vision. A foundation was created to structure the work and a $2,000,000 goal was set to be reached by mid-September in order to fund the implementation phase of the project. As this deadline has come to an end last night—the goal was reached and even exceeded—let’s review some key features of this project that has gathered tremendous momentum over the past year.

There are lots of insights to draw from Slat’s initiative. The organic unfoldment of the project is one of them. It all started with one youth who, moved by a sense of purpose and seizing the opportunity offered by a high-school science project, spent months on work and research and finally presented his initial findings, calling upon people to join him. The response was overwhelming. What had once been a passive cleanup concept turned into a sound project that appears to be feasible. The project as it is today, while based on Slat’s original idea, is the result of collaboration, the input of a growing number of contributors, several small-scale model tests and field explorations. Let’s hope that this approach of seeking to constantly refine the project concept by carrying out extensive research and welcoming constructive criticism is a sign that the endeavour will be sustained.

We can draw an even more essential insight from this project when we focus on the initiative itself. Since its inception, the ocean cleanup project has faced several attacks, which Slat undertook to respond to one by one once its feasibility was determined. Of course, the solution he offers is not an end-all one. It will not clean the 71% of the Earth’s surface—that’s how much of it is covered by oceans—of the millions of tons of plastic that have entered it. And yes, serious work needs to be done at the root of the problem, i.e., the way plastic is used and disposed of. Slat admits it himself: The ocean cleanup solution would be ineffective if it weren’t combined with a simultaneous effort to “close the tap” and prevent plastic from entering the oceans in the first place. But rather than viewing the two options as contending with each other, he considers prevention and cleanup to be two essential aspects of the same effort and hopes that, now that a viable solution to clean the oceans has been found, it will serve as an incentive to act and draw more attention to the prevention side of the issue.

So no, this project is certainly not a panacea for stopping plastic pollution; it may not even yield the results anticipated. But that is not the point. The simple fact that a youth is directing his energies and capacities towards a noble common cause should be commended. In an era when the force of lethargy is so strong that it is often the protection of our personal interests that draws us out of passivity, such initiatives offer a refreshing and startling contrast. The role of youth in the positive transformation of society has long been recognized. They have a unique ability to see beyond obstacles and contemplate a horizon of endless opportunities; they believe nothing is impossible when one has the willpower to act. In those precious years of their lives, they are gifted the time and energy to contribute to the betterment of their community—from the very local level to the international one. By doing so, the youth set a positive example for those younger than them and prepare to shoulder the responsibilities that await them by developing the right mindset, one that recognizes in selfless service a powerful means for both personal development and contribution to social progress. How can youth best tap their capacity to transform society? What are the arenas in which they can engage? How can older ones accompany and support their efforts?

Boyan-2This young man’s initial observation could have added up to the many more we make every day when something—a behavior, a word, an image, an inescapable reality—triggers our sense of justice, honor and dignity by revealing an incompatibility between our value system and a given situation. Our reaction to this incompatibility may range from a slight unconscious discomfort to a strong conscious refusal. Most of us, for a variety of reasons that won’t be evaluated here, often choose not to react at the time and eventually forget about the whole thing. Some of us choose to react immediately to put an end to the situation. And a few others decide not just to react, but to act. Understanding that the issue at hand, in order to be effectively resolved, requires a more elaborate response than just a quick fix, they engage in consultation with people, take action, and reflect on the actions taken. In a nutshell, their “consciousness of the failings of society impels them to work for its transformation, not to distance themselves from it.”

Thank you, Boyan, for setting such an example. You demonstrated that the desire for action needs to be fueled by two fundamental qualities: dedication and an infallible faith in the vision we’re striving for.

Slat developed the first one by pausing both his aerospace engineering studies and his social life as he knew it to dedicate his full time to the project, and the second one by never giving up on his idea, contacting professors and experts to further explore the feasibility of his concept, asking over 300 companies for sponsorship without receiving a single positive response. Yet, his efforts were confirmed and the project moved forward very quickly. Everyone can ponder how dedication and infallible faith would translate in the endeavors they choose to engage in, according to their capacities and the current circumstances of their lives. Nonetheless, we can all agree that these two qualities are to be developed to some degree for the actions taken to yield effective results.

This being said, we were puzzled when we saw that only Slat’s name was mentioned on the cover of the feasibility report while it is clear that he is one among more than fifty authors. How sustainable is a project if it is recognized as the work of a single individual—even if that person was the initiator—when clearly it would not have been viable without a large number of people? What would leadership that brings about the desired change look like? This deserves an entire post unto itself!


For this reason, when posting updates on this topic, we will refer to it as the “The Ocean Cleanup” project to call attention to the collaborative nature of the initiative and as our small contribution to encouraging Slat in his selfless service.

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