→ Alexandra Milne
This piece will be published in Tattoo – BSP's 2018 nonfiction anthology.
Permanence is the continued existence of something indefinitely – a tangible thing, like a tattoo. Yet permanence is not one-dimensional and it exists in the things we cannot touch as well. In our lives, there are junctures; moments when we make a decision and its effect is equally as permanent as an inked needle put to skin. When we encounter these junctures, we are not always aware that the decision we make in that moment will have percussive ramifications.
There are things we know are permanent and that’s all part of their appeal. Taking that job, saying yes to the ring, having a child. We know before we commit that these decisions will stay with us eternally and we embrace that. I remember showing a friend the design of a tattoo I was about to have inked on me. She asked me if I had thought about the fact I was going to have it forever. I told her that’s the whole point.
As I reach my late twenties, I begin to realise the shape of my life is an accumulation of good and bad decisions that I only now know were permanent. When I was 18 I finished school. I had just spent close to two decades in the sheltered care of my parents’ home and the schooling system. With my well-rounded education I was in a privileged position – I could do anything I wanted! I emerged from school with no life experience and little knowledge of who I was and where I wanted to go.
Coming from a family of high achievers, university was the only acceptable option. So, I dived into an expensive course with a passion for the content but no thought about where I would go from there. I did not finish the degree I started. I have barely used the skills I learned. According to my vague notions of how life works, by now I should be living and working overseas, probably for the UN or an NGO of some description. Doing what? I have no idea. That decision cost me four years and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. I am unlikely to ever pay that back and it hangs over me as a heavy financial burden. I consider my peers who have completed their studies; they are all working full time and saving for their first home. When I chose to go to university, I was going through the motions. I picked my course and subjects as casually as I would pick a movie. I never realised how permanent that decision would be, following me for the rest of my life.
On a global level, I sense that as a society we have reached the point of no return. We have made discoveries that exponentially advance us, but at a price. The industrial revolution heralded the age of machines and technology. The decision to replace human labour with metal and smoke was a turning point. We didn’t know we were being carried to devastation by the rhythmic beat of the factory production line. We chose luxury, convenience and profit over health, nature and humanity. Now the world is heating up and there is nothing we can do to reverse it. We must accept our rising oceans and melting ice caps. They cannot be undone and we must, instead, adapt.
I read in the news that the last remaining male white rhinoceros died. There are only two females of the species left. The CEO of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where he died described the extinction of the white rhino and thousands of other species as the ‘result of unsustainable human activity.’ As hunters stalked the African continent, taking horns and shooting beasts for sport, they were making a decision that resulted in the loss of a magnificent creature. The ‘genetic material’ of the last male white rhino has been collected in the hope that technology may save the species. To me, this only demonstrates great hubris. Like the start of a cliché science fiction movie, we wielded power over nature without responsibility and lost the white rhino. What kind of creature would we artificially bring back? It is ironic that the same species that brought an end to the rhino uses the same tools to attempt to bring it back. When do we stop?
It was with great sadness that I watched a video online of a diver encountering a huge amount of trash in the ocean. He swam for kilometres through a great mass of filth. It turns out the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is 1.6 million square kilometres in size and contains over 78,000 tonnes of plastic. That’s a pile of garbage as big as Queensland; the most recent man-made wonder of the world. I wonder what we can do with this plastic. Maybe we can solve over-population by living on a mountain of our own making.
Every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists today. Plastic bottles take 450 years to break down, forks and plates take 1000 years and plastic bags take 10,000. Will plastic be our great ancestral legacy? Is this what we will pass down through generations? Forget heirlooms, here kids; take this plastic bag, good luck destroying it. We know what plastic is and how destructive it can be, but it makes life so easy. Every time we choose to use cheap, disposable plastics we send our world spiralling closer into becoming one great garbage dump.
But there is hope. The Ocean Cleanup Foundation says that with funding and research, in five years they can reduce the size of the patch by 50 per cent. Here is our opportunity to make the right decision. Right here and now is the juncture. We have been given an out. I want our generation to be known as the one who saved the ocean.
I cannot remove the tattoos on my body, I cannot get a refund for my unused undergraduate degree. We cannot unmake the trillions of tonnes of plastic that choke up wildlife in the sea. We cannot cool the atmosphere and we cannot bring back the white rhino. Every action comes from a decision and every decision has an effect on the whole. We just have to know what ones cannot be unmade and then we must act accordingly.