The buck stops here

Interview by Beth Finney
Words by Liz Bonnin

“It left me feeling very much like an astronaut of Earth’s inner space instead of Earth’s outer space.”

For more than a decade, animal biologist and television presenter Liz Bonnin has travelled to some of the most remote places on Earth and witnessed how the natural world has changed. Since working on Big Blue Live, Galapagos and Drowning in Plastic, the impact humans are having on the environment has become impossible for Bonnin to ignore.

We catch up with the naturalist and activist about how her work has evolved, her experiences with plastic in nature, the realities of plastic pollution and what needs to be done about it.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When did you first connect with the ocean?

Liz Bonnin (LB): When I was really small. I grew up in the south of France, but a lot of my family are from the Caribbean and ever since I was tiny, we visited them for holidays. I remember being in beautiful, tropical waters with my granny just loving the water, loving the ocean. Back in the 1980s, there were beautiful coral reefs off Tobago – they’re a bit decimated now unfortunately – but I grew up loving the sea, particularly snorkelling around coral reefs. That’s definitely when my love for the ocean began.

OM: How do you cope with balancing the joy of working in the natural world and witnessing its destruction?

LB: It’s hard to put into words because there’s a lot of joy in my life, not least because of the incredible conservationists and scientists that I meet on the road that really renew my faith in human nature. I’m very grateful for that. But there’s a lot of worry, pessimism and despair. I’m learning more about what’s happening to our planet, understanding in a very real way why the obstacles to saving our planet still remain and in some cases are getting greater. That’s been really difficult. At the moment I’m having meetings with all sorts of different organisations to see how I can better help the cause, so I do have a fire in my belly about it. But there’s an internal fight going on with respect to how I feel about life, the human race and what we’re doing to the planet. I will persevere to make my way through it and do the best I can do.

OM: Of the marine conservation projects you’ve reported on, which one has had the most impact on you personally?

LB: Over the years I’ve worked on different programs and, with respect to the oceans, I’ve had the great privilege of filming with all sorts of marine life. I remember filming a story in the Galapagos. We spent two weeks on the water, travelling around the islands and picking up various incredible scientists along the way who were exploring different aspects of the Galapagos. It meant that I got to go to a thousand metres beneath the waves with a scientist, seeing species that were entirely new to us in a part of the planet that no other human had set eyes on. It left me feeling very much like an astronaut of Earth’s inner space instead of Earth’s outer space. I have been blessed with this career to immerse myself – quite literally – in different parts of our blue planet and it’s been extraordinary. Nature makes me realise how beautifully insignificant we all are and how majestic and miraculous this planet is. Unfortunately, a lot of what I see is rampant destruction now. That’s just as poignant to me, it stays with me in an equally powerful way.

Liz Bonnin Plastic Pollution NOAA
Liz Bonnin Plastic Pollution Shearwater
Liz Bonnin Plastic Pollution

OM: What did you learn while working on ‘Drowning in Plastic’?

LB: The whole thing was extremely eye opening and overwhelming. I’ve had some pretty harrowing experiences and rude awakenings from conservationists, but Drowning in Plastic was my first real hard-hitting documentary where I saw the scale of the problem. The first thing we shot was Shearwater chicks on Lord Howe Island. We knew they had plastic in their bellies. I knew what I was going to film. And yet when I saw it with my own eyes I just couldn’t help thinking: ‘This is what we’ve done. This is what we’re doing.’ This helpless little chick, three months old, hasn’t even seen the world yet, has just emerged from its burrow and it’s got 40 pieces of plastic in its belly. That’s what we’re doing. It changed me forever.

OM: Is that what made you become an activist?

LB: Since making Drowning in Plastic, I’ve had to stare down the barrel of our modern world and how we choose to live on this planet. I have a bigger picture now of what and why we still are not fixing our environmental problems. I am now pretty well informed about how our world works, where the buck stops. During filming we were going where the plastic buck stops and it’s all about politics and big industry. I’m just a biologist and a communicator. All I know is that to fix our environmental problems, people like myself are going to have to step up and point the finger and chip away at the juggernaut that is big industry that refuses to slow down and refuses to stop business as usual.

Industry is increasing production from 400 million tonnes a year to eight hundred million tonnes a year in the next 20 years. Plastic bottle sales went up 7% last year. We’re still exporting all our dirty plastics to Southeast Asia. In fact, the UK exported more plastics to Southeast Asia than ever before in May 2019. I couldn’t fathom how the UK’s public response to things like Blue Planet II was fixing nothing. That’s the reality. It’s absurd, it’s disgusting, it’s immoral, it’s corrupt. It’s unbelievable to me that human beings can continue lying, greenwashing, and justifying their role in this when we know what we know. It’s not about how wrong we have been, it’s how misinformed we have been kept. Now I know what I know, I can’t stop, and I won’t stop. I’m in it now.

OM: There’s a great deal of focus on what individuals should be doing at a grassroots level, shifting focus away from big industry. Do you think the issue is being painted too simplistically for consumers?

LB: Absolutely. It is complex, but it’s explainable. Unfortunately, with social media, you get all of these polarised views – it’s difficult to cut through the noise as consumers. Ultimately, as much as the onus is too much on the consumer, the other side of that coin is that the consumer does have the power to chip away at where the change needs to happen. We can have serious clout. It’s about writing letters to your MP every week, not just changing to a bamboo toothbrush. I’ve heard from certain organisations that sometimes they’re in big industry boardrooms or sitting in Parliament and they’re hearing certain voices go: ‘Ugh, they just won’t let up!’ That gives me hope, because that’s how we’re going to create change as members of the public.

Liz Bonnin Plastic Pollution Gannet Greenpeace
Liz Bonnin Plastic Pollution Indonesia

OM: Globally, our model is capitalism, therefore big industry stakeholders are largely going to focus on profit. Do you think that will ever change?

LB: I’ve questioned the economic model that runs the West for a while now. I’m inspired by economists like Kate Raworth, who talk about the irony in the fact that we’re trying to fix our environmental problems using the same economic model that got us into this mess in the first place. And again, I’m a biologist – what am I doing talking about economics? But ultimately you can’t separate that anymore, just in the same way that we can’t separate natural history from environmental crises, or politics from big industry. I’m motivated by the fact that there are economists and people in business talking about rewriting the 20th century business model.

The 20th century economic model said: “What economic value can I extract from this resource, before I throw that resource away?” It’s a linear, degenerative model. But these economists are talking about “If I make a material or a new product, how can I design it and make it in such a way that it contributes to society, but also to the natural world of which we’re a part? What can that project give back to the natural systems of the planet that we rely on for survival?” If we approach how we live on this planet with a paradigm shift in our relationships the natural world, we can solve all of our problems – all the while supporting our society. And I think that’s a really exciting concept. Not just one industry being circular, but all of the different industries working together. It’s called an ecosystem of resource use. Nature works this way, and we should look to nature for solutions.

I believe that the leaders of industry and the people who individuals and the general public will follow are those people who lead the way with a fundamental change in how we approach all of this. At the talks I give I encourage businesses to be the ones to stand up and say: “I’m going to do this differently.” I do believe that the general public will support that. To really solve our environmental crises we need to take a long hard look about how we do business, how we take from the natural world. The conversation is beginning to happen so, potentially, the real solutions will come.

OM: Why are public campaigns so key to catalysing change?

LB: I think for each of us as individuals, we need to step up how we make our voices heard and how we want to protect the natural world. It’s almost irrelevant what the environmental cause is that you support. I think we need to put the pressure where the buck stops. I think we are all activists, by the way. I think activism is being given this very convenient box for people like Greta Thunburg and, you know, what certain members of society call ‘tree huggers’. But I mean, if any one of us on this planet isn’t an activist, we’re part of the problem. To me activism is just caring about this planet that we live on and wanting a better world. So, let’s embrace that, let’s all be activists. To make the difference is to make the difference at policy level, at industry level, and that means fighting a little harder, making your voice a little louder.

Liz Bonnin is on the judging panel for the Surfers Against Sewage Plastic Free Awardsclick here to find out more.

Photographs courtesy of: Greenpeace, Liz Bonnin, NOAA, Patrick Kavanagh, Andrew Crowley and Cody Burridge for Raw TV.


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Words by Liz Bonnin