is it true that if the oceans die, we die?
We speak to Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch to find out just how bad it really is.
Photography Jason Childs
This is it. We are out of time. In 20 years the oceans will be lifeless. There are five trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean already and every year we add 300 million more. It’s an incomprehensible amount of trash. Ocean plastic breaks down into microscopic pieces that are ingested by the fish we eat. It goes into our water sources. It goes into us. It’s full of toxins. Every single day we lose species, some that have not even been discovered yet. How many? A number too big to absorb. This isn’t about being sad that future generations will never get to see a whale, this is about losing the source of half of our oxygen supply — the living creatures within the oceans’ ecological systems are essential to it.
Unfortunately this isn’t scare-mongering, these are cold hard facts. There are better facts though. We can stop this. We can’t bring back what’s lost, but we can save what’s left. We can keep the oceans alive. We have a moment to grab, to make our generation’s legacy this: the ones who were brave enough to create radical change, the ones who ended what would have been the irreversible destruction of earth.
Luckily for us, there are people already working to make this happen urgently. Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, is one of them. Parley was founded in 2012, when Cyrill was confronted with the knowledge that most ocean life will be dead by 2048, and that when it’s gone, life on dry land will get bad. Really bad. Cyrill acted, he made a risky move. He transformed his design agency into a new kind of business — one determined to find a different environmental strategy for survival. He realised the greater risk was doing nothing. This is the story of how Parley are driving a material revolution. This is their call for creative action as told in Cyrill’s own words...
“I am a designer but also a strategist, that’s my background. In 2012, after I met Captain Paul Watson – the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and one of the founders of Greenpeace – my partner and I decided to turn our design company into a new form of environmental organisation. I was sitting in Paul’s office and he was telling me that in 2048 the ocean will be dead if we continue as we are. The idea that the oceans are dying was too big for me, it shocked me. What he described, and what we are heading for is such a monstrous disaster that at that moment I decided things have to change. It was also at that moment, I realised that the creative community has a big role to play in that change, because all these environmental issues and all the big problems in the world are caused by the way business is being done.
Parley is not about protest, it’s about identifying core environmental issues and developing new models to solve them. It’s about finding brands, governments, individuals that want to make a drastic change. Environmentalism can’t be about warning anymore, it needs to be about a total redesign of our economy. As business is the operating system that our society runs on, we built a business with Parley, and we do what we know how to do best. We’re treating the oceans like a client. We’re doing exactly the same thing that we’ve always done, but our client is now the sea. Our first objective was to work out what can we do to help end this problem, or at least die trying.
You can’t solve it yourself. It’s not all on your shoulders, it’s about doing the best you can – you give everything, and then you see what happens. You can’t control or predict the outcome. But by giving all the energy you have, you inspire others. It’s often very unexpected where the support comes from, but it always comes. No business plan on earth can live up to what happens when you follow your heart.
“The planet is already broken. We’re not looking at something that will happen in 100 years, it happened already. Climate change is real. We missed the deadline. We’re already in the red zone. I’d say we have 15 years, maximum 20... the youth are our biggest hope.”
After six years of Parley, we have finally found a strategy to end marine plastic pollution, and we are funding a model to do so. We call it Parley AIR. We have to avoid plastic wherever we can. We have to intercept plastic debris, ocean plastic, and use that instead of making more plastic – don’t use virgin plastic anymore. Then we have to redesign the material, because even if we intercept it, even if we recycle it, plastic is not the future, plastic is the past. We need to replace it for good. Protecting the ocean has to be a better business than killing it. And to do this we have to treat the new materials as the next luxury goods, hype them and make them really desirable.
The planet is broken already. We’re not looking at something that will happen in 100 years, it happened already. Climate change is real. We missed the deadline. We’re already in the red zone. We’ve already lost too much life. We’re driving so many species into extinction. They will not come back. The reality now is: how much can we still save? It’s not about saying in 20 years time I will do this. Recycling is not the answer. We have to say in seven years we will all have stopped using virgin plastic and in 12 years we will have stopped using all plastic, that’s a better time frame. I’d say we have 15 years, maximum 20, and then our quality of life, our health, everything, will go downhill drastically. We will find ways to survive, but the question is, will life be worth living? Of course, you will see massive environmental catastrophes because climate change will not make it any easier. We’re already seeing that impact. The oceans will die, the forests will die. We will see death everywhere.
This feeling of being overpowered, overwhelmed, frustrated and sad about it – I think if you allow yourself to dive into that feeling and to really explore what this means to you, if you go deep into that and confront yourself, you’ll find strength. If you give the best you can, even in little steps, then you will feel joy. It’s not about solving it all, because this is too big to even comprehend. It’s about the intention and energy. You have to start with one thing. Say to yourself, I will not buy plastic water bottles anymore. Of course you’ll only save around 1000 bottles per year. But you know what, that’s 1000 bottles less, and probably 10,000 less animals being affected by you. Other people will observe what you’re doing, your friends and co-workers will wonder why you’re doing it and you probably won’t even have to preach to them. Today we’re broadcasting all the time. we’re always sending signals to our networks. The impact an individual has is bigger than you would expect, it’s huge. It’s all about positivity. Blame and shame don’t have a place. We are such a young species, we created, and we were so excited about surviving on this planet without being equipped for it.
But we just can’t afford to be surrounded by plastic anymore, and that’s why we call it the material revolution. We have the skills, we have the knowledge, we have the communication tools, we just need to redesign pretty much all the materials that are destroying our life support system and our planet.
That’s what we have to do – let all this stuff go. Which is beautiful. Suddenly we’ll have a big blank canvas and we can create everything anew. It’s a huge opportunity that you can compare to the time we all switched to digital. Everyone who misses this development will very soon be out of business.
“If we continue as we are the ocean will be dead in 2048. The idea that the oceans are dying is too big for me, it shocks me, we are heading for such a monstrous disaster... Environmentalism can’tbe about warning anymore, it needs to be about a total redesign of our economy.”
We’ve been preaching this for six years to the business industry and they were often very resistant. But I had a call a few days ago, one of the biggest soda companies – making sugar water in plastic bottles – and they said ‘We finally get it, if we don’t switch then we’ll be out of business, we have to let plastic go.’ I think this is a huge achievement. Finally people are questioning this material. This isn’t about banning straws, this is about developing new materials. That’s what the big players are realising. I was recently in San Francisco, where I had meetings with tech companies, and they all get it, they’re like ‘OK, what can we do?’
Everyone aged 15 and younger, they 100 per cent get it. They know. You see a totally new generation of activists growing up. Kids that are very good at articulating their thoughts and not ready for compromise because they understand. They are also having a very strong impact on their parents, they educate. We have a youth ambassador programme where we identify youth in pretty much every country in the world to fly the flag and work in schools, with governments, with households. The youth are our biggest hope.
The second big hope is the creator. I believe that the creative community has to own this issue. We can’t shy away. The creative community are the wizards of this planet, we can form and mould reality. Business is built on design, technology and media. The creative community really has to step up and own this movement. We have to use our skills to influence industry, to change the economy and to call out for a new time, a time of material revolution. That’s the next big step for us — to give a platform to everybody who is willing to be a part of this movement. We want to create this big platform where everyone can find the knowledge, the tools and the connections they need to bring change to life. I really believe that uniting all creators for the oceans is the only solution.”