Ours Is The Age Of Plastic, And It Needs To End

The legacy of our time will not be our literary or architectural monuments, but all the plastic trash we leave to poison the seas and choke our future. Fortunately, change is in the air.

Crumpled plastic bottle.
Crumpled plastic bottle.
César Rodríguez Garavito


BOGOTA â€" What will survive of us is love, the poet Philip Larkin wrote in 1956. Little did the Englishman know that what would really survive us, plastic, was being invented as he wrote.

The calamitous trail of billions of plastic bags, bottles and containers used since Larkin's time runs so deep and wide, and is so lasting, that it would be no exaggeration to call ours the "Age of Plastic."

This is no metaphor or verbal formula. The International Commission on Stratigraphy has tasked 37 experts with determining whether or not we have entered a new geological age. The question is whether or not the Holocene, which began 11,700 years ago, has given way to the Anthropocene, the first age marked by profound changes to the earth provoked by one species, humans.

Scientists are slowly concluding that we are, indeed, creating (and destroying) a planet in our own likeness. They are placing the origins of the Anthropocene in the 1950s and estimate that traces of plastic â€" on rocks, in the sea, in the guts of fish and birds â€" will probably be our most visible footprint.

When viewing the fossils of the Anthropocene, scientists will not find remains of skyscrapers, books or monuments, but pieces of water bottles, shampoo tops and shreds of supermarket check-out bags. The geologists of tomorrow will scratch their heads trying to understand the voracity with which we consume and dispose of substances that take 500 to 1,000 years to decompose. They will read about the five great islands of trash floating in the oceans today, the gathering points of some eight million tons of synthetic material annually.

But they will also note how at some point, humans abandoned their addiction to plastic. When we stopped the nonsense of drinking bottled water when potable tap water was available. Or when supermarkets, shops and drugstores stopped bagging everything, even a single pack of gum, inside plastic. Or when we stopped serving food in styrofoam, another lasting, toxic material, itself carried in plastic bags!

This moment has already arrived in many countries and cities. And it hasn't come from such lukewarm measures as those recently decreed by Colombian Environment Minister Gabriel Vallejo, focused only on teaching, asking and advising people not to use bags. The changes came instead from orders outright banning the most harmful bags (the thin ones) and putting a price on the thicker ones to shift the costs of using plastic bags and packaging onto consumers. That is what the fee of 150 pesos (about 40 cents) proposed by Sen. Antonio Navarro Wolff of the Green Alliance would do. It deserves serious discussion and should be extended to styrofoam.

The age of unfettered plastic use is coming to an end in a good part of Europe, in countries like South Africa and China and in U.S. states like California, where there is a charge for bags. The same should happen in Colombia, so that our legacy to the future is more than just shredded bag remains from our friendly neighborhood supermarket.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!