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Darse cuenta (To Be Aware)

Text read at the symposium for Controversial Environmental /Sustainable Practices


Alicia Barney, 2014


Considering the progress of Westernization in highly populated countries, like China and India, it is worth asking whether this Westernization invites us to almost automatically identify the word “conscience” with the examination of our own guilt. What does censure hold above conscience, what brings mental clarity? Why not Orientalize something of our Judeo-Christian DNA? Why not focus our conscience on its most agreeable, and possibly more efficient, aspect for our activities? Why not orient our conscience towards activities such as “being present”, to bring things back to basics, to honor our humanity, to exercise awareness.


Through this talk I invite you to be aware of one of the many possible journeys of a plastic bag...


I know of a Japanese doctor, and another from Indonesia, who view the human body as a tube from the mouth to the anus. It would appear that between eating and defecating lays the core of our lives… Let’s see some of the implications of the latter action in the journey of which I will speak. In Bogota popular general stores sell individual units of toilet paper, wrapped in thick paper; in supermarkets they are sold in packs of two, four, six and twelve, all wrapped in plastic. The pack of twelve comes with a handle and, yet, in the checkout they are placed in another plastic bag (a big one at that), god forbid, the neighbors see we are buying toilet paper.


When we were little we were taught that all rivers run to the sea.




Two enormous islands now float in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, made up of plastic bags and other trash, among smaller garbage islands...


A few years ago, to the north of Australia, some swimmers found an alligator on the beach that, although alive, was in very bad shape. It was the first animal of this species found in those waters. The swimmers called the authorities, which, on arrival, found the animal already dead and decided to bring it to the zoo for an autopsy. They found in its digestive tract almost three hundred plastic bags it had ingested, confusing them with food (for example, jellyfish) floating in the saltwater and which, of course, had caused its death.


When we were little we were taught that all rivers run to the sea.


Not long ago, a young man from the Netherlands, Boyan Slat, proposed a project to trap one of these floating trash islands, which already has a name: “The Subtropical North Pacific Garbage Vortex.” He proposed to press it into packets that later would be dragged to land and recycled; the investment could be recuperated in ten years by selling the recyclable materials. Even though the idea (and its 530-page feasibility study) seems perfectly possible, two years later nobody, nor governments nor private companies said to be interested, has put up the two million needed for the pilot phase hone the project. Slat warns the following: “Even though the cleaning would have a profound effect, it is only part of the solution. We also need to close the flow, to prevent more plastic from reaching the oceans in the first place” (1).


...I invite you to be aware...


To be aware that everything is related to everything.


People have always needed containers. The Wanaunana indigenous people take a week or longer to weave a wuerregue, made from palm shoots and so perfectly woven that not a single drop of water filters through. Single-use plastic bags were introduced in the 1965 and 70s and quickly became popular. They are manufactured and consumed by the billions: in 2006, Californians consumed 30 billion; this year, 2014, they were forced to be more conscious due to the drought so, before their prohibition, their consumption was reduced to a mere 14 billion; nothing. According to Wikipedia, worldly circulation of plastic bags. One only needs to think of the statistics of the DANE (National Administrative Department of Statistics) to see how they are manipulated in favor of current governments.


Depending on their intended use, bags can be made of various densities of polyethylene, polypropylene, or the smelly and poisonous polymer, absolutely impossible to degrade. (As a personal note, twenty years ago I made a piece titled “Estratificación de un basurero utópico" [Stratification of a Utopian Landfill]. When I explained that it was about a landfill wherein almost all of the elements were biodegradable, people in Cali thought that I had invented the word! Now most people are familiar with that word, and, still, they don’t recycle!) (2)(3)


I am not familiar with the minutiae of business, but bags given away in supermarkets, called “t-shirt style” for their handles, show us that they are very convenient for businesses as they can print their logos and become very cheap advertising. Other versions have an extra cost: one must buy them. High-density bags can be strong, carry more or less weight, protect food from moisture, contain liquids, and vacuum-seal food. Bags are very versatile, which is why they are popular, and they seems to be here to stay… unless millionaires, instead of focusing on the ozone layer or outer space, finance projects to study algae or the inner membranes of eggs in order to produce totally biodegradable bio-plastics. Plastic variations are produced from petroleum, gas, coal and salt-based resin, manipulated at high heat, either melting or fusing it; these different methods produce the different types of bags. Even though its fundamental element is petroleum, this only accounts for 5% of the extracted world petroleum.


The final product carries with it the seal of a way of life pernicious for the health of the planet. It is used in automobile parts (their frames, interiors, instrument boards), telephones, inside refrigerators, in bottles for harmful liquids or that poison supposedly pure water. However, it is always lucrative for industries like advertising, transport and import-export of food, containers, and at all the ports and ships that run over whales and dolphins in their path. And that’s it! A great business! Plastics, they tell us, have been one of the great developments of the past century. They are economical, light, humidity and chemical-resistant; some types are recyclable when submitted again to heat, while others are highly durable and rot-proof, a word which replaces: NON-BIODEGRADABLE. And, unlike glass, for example, it is non- recyclable.


When we were little we were taught that all rivers run to the sea.


The Siding Spring comet takes a million years, speeding at 56 km/h, to pass by Mars, a planet orbited by five space vehicles, among them probes, some Chinese, some European, some from the United States. The ones from the US informed us through NASA that in the meteorite shower produced by the comet’s passing, eight distinct kinds of metallic ions were detected, such as iron, sodium, and magnesium. More results are being awaited from the various devices on the surface of Mars. (4)


Just for the takeoff, a great sum of resources in the form of fuel was invested into each space vehicle, which without a doubt contributes to the poisoning of the atmosphere and the widening of already-existing holes in the ozone layer.


The millionaire R. Branson of Virgin is conducting a contest worldwide with a prize of fifty million, for the scientist with the best proposal to reduce or close those holes.


This may sound like a wild conspiracy theory, but to me it seems clear that the future pillage of nearby planets is being prepared, now that the imminent exhaustion of our planet’s natural resources can be taken as given. According to scientific calculations, we have between three and five decades to reverse the climate change, and we would have to start right now.


However, nobody to this date has offered to finance the development of a sensitive and economical project that cost between two and forty-three million (compare that to the millions needed in fuel for a space ship launch). I repeat: nobody has offered to finance a project to clear the floating of garbage islands in the ocean.


Millions are wasted in space programs while marine animals confuse plastic bags with food, which increases their mercury levels, and then humans, with our high population, continue to consume them by the ton at a frenetic pace that does not allow for the natural cycle of reproduction: exhausting them and bringing them to the edge of extinction. According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), continental and offshore fishing reached 148 million tons in 2010. Meanwhile, humans continue not only eating them unconsciously, but continuing the destructive practices without noticing... (5)


While poachers keep on murdering wild animals for their tusks or skins; or cutting off the dorsal fins of sharks to sell in China, their main market; criminal groups finance themselves by cutting down exotic trees in jungles of Colombia. Boko Haram continue kidnapping and imposing forced marriage on Christian teens. Forty-three students murdered in Mexico, the forty-seven students murdered in Nigeria, the violence all around… but we all continue feeding ourselves, defecating, and above all reproducing without changing our habits. At the same time, some smart guys are already advancing on to the next plunder, this one stellar. I wonder if their delicate space instruments are adequately protected by plastic bags.


A while ago I saw a photograph of a bag floating out of the hands of an astronaut repairing the outside of the International Space Station...


The journey of the plastic bag is also made by our individual and collective actions.


Eliminating plastic bags entirely would reduce emissions of 175 thousand tons of greenhouse gases every year. 300 species of wild animals would avoid consuming or being trapped in the plastic waste. Studies indicate that sea turtles confuse bags with jellyfish and now twice as many bags are found inside them compared to twenty-five years ago. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has calculated the price of plastic pollution in the ocean: 13 billion. The damage includes the death of marine creatures and losses for tourism and fishing industries, and the proliferation of invasive species (of fish, algae, etc) that use the plastic as a transport vehicle to arrive to new habitats, where they become predators and destroy native species.


The executive director of the UNEP, Achin Steiner, said, “plastics have come to play a crucial role in modern life, but the various environmental impacts in the way that we use them cannot be ignored.” In 2013, an organization called “Ocean Conservancy” organized a program called “International Coastal Cleanup,” where 650.000 volunteers in ninety countries picked up tons of trash, among them 441.493 million plastic bags.


I invite you to be aware of some facts related to the movement of water.




Allopathic medicine is the most common in the West. Alternative medicine is an umbrella covering many kinds: from traditional medicine, practiced by wise men and shamans, found all over the world, from Siberia, Africa, and the Americas, to the indigenous Australian peoples and their dream healing. In urban areas it is more common to find modern practices like homeopathy, or others very old, like Chinese acupuncture and yoga, which is not understood as a set of bizarre exercises, but as an integral part of Ayurveda.


The various forms of Alternative medicine always emphasizes the importance of diet and tends to prescribe, in my experience, at least seven or eight almonds per day.


To produce 9/10ths of an almond (less than a whole of 1 almond), one needs a gallon of water. The body of a recently born baby is 80% water, and the blood and muscles of an adult also contains 80% water. (6)


Depending on their size, a person should drink between six and eight cups of water daily.


          -· A cup is eight ounces

         · - A gallon is 128 ounces

·          - A gallon is sixteen cups

·          - A human consumes six or eight cups

·          - The seed consumes sixteen cups


The earth is a peculiar landmass, with an incandescent core that we cannot properly call solid, and with a surface that is mostly water; it is more liquid than solid, 75% water, and 25% continental land. The majority is saltwater, about 97.5%. (7)


Only 2.5% is fresh water. Compared to the total, it is very little, and one might say precious, because it is non-renewable.


When we were little we were taught that all rivers run to the sea.


California has suffered from droughts for centuries. The circles surrounding the nucleus of the trees, known as rings, tell of a particular drought that lasted forty years! However, the current drought also threatens to be very long, and particularly interesting as it fully uncovers the perverse relation of human intervention in the exploitation and distribution of resources. In the county of Kern, California, in which 82% of almonds consumed in the world are produced, a single family owns almost half the almond trees, using 58% of the county’s water. We should point out that this water is government-subsidized. California exemplifies how the mechanisms of power are woven into the use of water in the current economic order. (8)


How innocent we are, to think that water is owned by everybody… we should become aware… of the alliances between the government and some of the governed.


Humans eliminate 60% of their water by urinating, and 20% by breathing or sweating without movement.


Again, to be aware...


A few decades ago, it became trendy to talk about the “global village.” With time, the “village” was forgotten and replaced by “warming.” At that time, a book called “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher, was published. Translated into Spanish twenty years later, the book advocated for a return to the model of the “village,” understood as a commune, as the ideal human settlement, in which the economic system provided for the needs of its inhabitants without a great effort (or mega-works) and without causing significant damage to the surrounding habitat. But the greatest advantage of the “village” model was that it allowed its inhabitants a comforting sense of belonging, of community, whom assured their quality of life, to the extent that mental illnesses barely existed. It was proposed as a system in which the economic system could almost be categorized as that of subsistence, which did not allow for greed. Here, outside of that village free of greed, we may reflect on other definitions of “quality of life.”


Are there other standards than those promoted to draw us into the desire to have more and more? Can we have such quality of life in a system that drowns people in seemingly endlessly multiplying debt that pursues us beyond death? What is the result of living in constant agony? Debt after debt, incited by the artificial stimulation of consumption that propagates the stimulation. Can an individual anguished by debt, in the thrall of the permanent stimulation of consumption, reflect and leave this model? Clearly yes, but not in great numbers, the reality of statistics shows us that most people are crushed by insecurity, anxiety, anguish, depression, hysteria, obsessive behaviors, compulsions, phobias, tics, and permanent fear and paranoia caused by continues massacres of innocent classmates, coworkers, or strangers. These mental states, these failed mental processes developed in individuals or groups, end with the overwhelming statistic of 804,000 suicides worldwide in 2012, because of a lack of awareness, caused, in turn, by a lack of financial government support: between 47% and 66% of the seriously mentally ill end up in prison or on the streets, according to data from 2008. Speaking of “quality of life,” the WHO published a pamphlet entitled “Suicide Prevention,” a global imperative, claiming that suicide makes up 50% of violent deaths, and is even higher in young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, the second-most common cause of death in this demographic (9) (10). Between the communitarian sense of the small “village” and the economic liberty that has enthroned multinational corporations even more powerful than governments in the current system, it is clear that the village, the commune, a more cohesive system, is a model that protects people from mental illness by creating a wider sense of community. This book, “Small is Beautiful”, was popular with North American youth in the 1960s and 70s, a time in which many “communes” flourished. Sadly, with time, these valuable experiments failed spectacularly not only because of the whirlwind of drugs and sex also present there, but, even worse, because it spew a new generation which would be enthroned on WALL STREET as the most predatory “yuppies,” even more addicted to money, velocity, sex, and cocaine. I think that one could change the definition of quality of life by attempting, maybe for the last time, a new model to govern our lives. By realizing that all of our actions have consequences, our new model primarily requires, first of all, kindness towards our environment.


Other distinct alternatives, almost opposite to the aforementioned, come from places whose inhabitants are pressured by need and scarcity of water.


Singapore, a leading country in the conversion of water resources, is an island nation on the tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It is made up of 63 urbanized islands, with an estimated population of 5,469,700. One of the “Asian tigers,” it has a semi-authoritarian regime with one party in power since 1959. There are very strict laws, with very little freedom of press and restricted political and civil rights. For more than five people to legally gather, they must request permission from the police. The death penalty is mandatory in cases of murder and arms or drug trafficking. (11) (12)


Protests may only take place at one designated site. According to Amnesty International, “It may have the highest rate of executions per capita.” The government argues in its defense is that it is the country with the lowest rate of drug consumption and has been repeatedly categorized as one of the least corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. Four official languages are spoken and the population is equally diverse. The median age is 39.3. It is a young country with an average lifespan of eighty to eighty-five years. It has the lowest fertility rate in the world, .8 children per woman. The economy is enviable, mostly based on export of manufactured products made from imported materials.


In 2005 it legalized gambling, allowing for the construction of two enormous casino resorts. So-called “medical tourism” generates three billion dollars annually. It has one of the highest percentages of millionaires and one of the highest rates of inequality among the developed countries. However, it also has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the developed world. In a survey, three out of four employees reported feeling proud to perform their work well, which contributes to their self-esteem. It is one of the most densely-populated islands in the world, having recovered 718.3 kilometers from the sea, with 10% of the islands kept as to natural reserves and parks. Its highly humid tropical climate but abundant rains are not enough to supply the population, which has led the government to develop advanced technologies and alternative resources to manage the liquid. For example, greywater, generated when one showers or washes clothing, can be treated and converted into potable water or desalinated with solar energy. Blackwater is treated with a complex system of tubes, filters and chemicals, to the point that one may say that almost all of the island nation’s water is recycled.  (13) (14) (15)


Let’s keep in mind, there is now a place where rivers do not run to the sea.


Either calling all art “political,” or only the art whose condemnations are most evident, ART does not appear to have “guts.” Its consequences, its effectiveness in changing daily life, in the public individually and on a mass level are limited. Its sphere of influence seems to fluctuate between art as a show, widely co-opted by the media, and the timid denouncing that suffocates in the tiny circles of interested people without energy or transformative power on a mass level. In my mind, one cannot compare, not by a long shot, the impact of five spaceships orbiting Mars with very clear intentions of colonization with an artist in Colombia planting yucca and teaching women batik in a remote village without health facilities or even a paved road in the area, terribly exposed to the guerrilla forces and narco-traffickers (pardon the redundancy) roaming the region. Art has no guts, it seems to stumble poetically in a planet that, soon without life, will be unable to host music, art or poetry.


I invite you to open your eyes, and to be consciously aware: if we don’t change our habits NOW, the future will not be in art, but in Mars!



(1) Adios, Pacific Garbage Patch: This Teenager's Invention Could Clean It Up |TakePart


(3) 7 'Ways California's Plastic Bag Ban Is Great News for Planet Earth |TakePart



(6) What is the percentage of water in our planet? In

(7) What is the percentage of water in the human body? What is the percentage of water in organisms?

(8)  http://takeport/welcometoCalifornia

(9) Suicide data, WHO - Google Search

(10) Suicide is the second cause of death in the world among young people, between 15 and 29 years.

(11) Singapore - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. At

(12) Index of Singapore-related articles - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(13) Pacific lnstitute analyzes the Potential of Greywater Reuse in a New Report Pacific

(14) Desalinators - Solar Powered ,Water & Wastewater Treatment, Singapore (Singapore)

(15) Green & Eco Friendly, Environmental Industry I Green Singapore Directory


This text was read on November 12, 2014, in the Colloquium of Errata Magazine #10, entitled “Polémicas ambientales - Prácticas sostenibles” [Environmental Polemics - Sustainable Practices]. Free for use, non-modified, with author credit. Alicia Barney Caldas Pratt M.F.A. Institute ´77

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