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Captain Charles Moore: Oceanic Muckraker

“Recycling is a myth. We are making more junk than we can reuse. Today, we only recycle 3% of the total production of our garbage.”

– Captain Charles Moore

Cpt. Charles Moore (Photo: Jonah Raskin).

The reporters who built their reputations in the Golden Age of Muckraking raked muck on dry land, not at sea. Ida B. Wells, Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens exposed racism, political corruption and corporate greed in books like The Free Speech (1892), The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) and The Shame of the Cities (1904).

Upton Sinclair uncovered the nauseating meatpacking industry in The Jungle (1906) and helped bring about the passage of The Pure Food and Drug Act. Carey McWilliams, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and Edward Snowden have carried on the tradition.

More recently, Captain Charles Moore has revealed what might be called the “shame of the oceans.”

A sea captain and an oceanographer, he has brought to the attention of the world, over the past two decades, the existence of the “Great Pacific Garbage Pack,” an area in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas that’s littered with plastic and that’s rapidly destroying sea life.

Moore originally called the area a “plastic cesspool.”

I caught up with Captain Moore recently at a high school in California where he talked to students about the crisis of garbage that’s engulfing the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian oceans.

Moore also spoke briefly about garbage in outer space.

“There are one millions pieces of trash orbiting the Earth,” he said calmly. Indeed, not once did he raise his voice. He added, “We’re constantly putting trash out there.”

Moore had just returned from Shanghai where he had taken his message to Chinese students and adults.

He lives and works in Long Beach, California where he founded the Algalita Marine Research and Education project that raises environmental awareness about the growing crisis of plastic at sea.

Wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a bow tie, Moore showed color slides and delivered a grim message to 350 California students, most of them firm believers in recycling.

“We are making more junk than we can reuse,” he said. “Recycling is a myth. We can’t do it. Today, we only recycle 3% of the total production of our garbage.”

Moore lambasted Amazon in particular for manufacturing and distributing tons of cardboard and plastic products.

He also pointed out that, human beings all around the world once thought that plastic was a wonderful innovation and that over the past fifty-years many consumers have bought into the whole idea of disposable products they could use and then throw away.

In 1997, Captain Moore discovered what has since come to be known as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” while sailing from Hawaii to California.

“I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic,” he wrote in an article for Natural History magazine. He added, “It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. No matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

Moore told the assembled California high school students, “We’re becoming plastic people. Plastic is woven into the fabric of life itself.” He added, “It’s my hypothesis that plastic kills more animals every year than climate change.”

The students might have dismissed Moore as a grumpy old man. After all, he told them, “In the U.S. we don’t do anything except watch TV.” He added, “We will have to deprive ourselves of glitz.”

But the students gave him a standing ovation, and as a parting gift a shirt made of 100% cotton that brought a smile to his face. Before the school day ended, dozens of students signed up for a “clean the beach day” on the California coast as part of their “service requirement.” Captain Moore had not made them feel helpless. Oddly enough his bad news had inspired them.

Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.

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