Origins of the “Life on the edge of the abyss” exhibit

The objects that make up this exhibition were collected during a beach clean at Ettrick Bay on Thursday 23rd February, 2023. The beach clean was organised by Beach Watch Bute and attended by members of the group and two of the Waste Stories Future Archaeologies team. The tideline was littered with small scraps of soft plastic, plastic film, plastic twine and rope, all knotted together and trapped in the bladderwrack and dune grass. There were also some larger objects – larger sectios of rope, plastic roofing materials, bits of broken fish box, and so on.

When the rain that had been visible over the sea finally reached us, we retreated to the Tearoom where the owner generously donated cups of tea and coffee. After this, a group of us chose both a selection of objects to include in the exhibit, the future that the exhibit would belong to, and some of what happened between now (2023) and that future (an undetermined period at least 500 years in the future). This is one version of story that bridges between us and one of our possible futures.

What happened after 2023 AD?

In 2023, we were looking over the edge of the abyss. We – or at least some of us – stepped back and realised we had to change.

A social movement began to take hold, growing particularly quickly in regions such as the islands which were faced with the evidence of the danger we were in on a daily basis. The never-ending plastics and other rubbish that washed up on our shores were symptoms of the damage we were doing to our planet and thus also ourselves. If you saw them every day, you could not ignore them.

The pioneers of this movement replaced the previously popular mantra of the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle – with just one R – Reject! Realising that reliance on an increasingly venal and ineffectual governing class was pointless, they developed a collective approach to life and community, in which governance through centralised control was replace by individual and distributed decision-making guided by simple principles of critical, ethical rationality. Members of the movement constantly asked themselves questions: why am I doing this? What will the impact of my actions be? Are my actions contributing to the wellbeing of the planet, my fellow community members and myself? It was thus that the question mark or eroteme – ? – came to symbolise the movement.

Of course, not everyone embraced this approach. Those that did found themselves inevitably owning less, travelling more slowly and avoiding the use of motor vehicles, and engaging in more physical labour as they dug, sowed, harvested and repaired. Others clung to dreams of technological fixes just around the corner – endless sources of clean power, miraculous systems that would extract microplastics from the waters and soils, perfect closed loop recycling systems. Others, still, refused to think at all. Those that wanted to reform society drifted towards the rural and island areas, producing a rebound in what had been collapsing population levels. Those who wanted continued access to the products of 20th and 21st century petro-capitalism moved away from the increasingly poorly-supplied remote areas, concentrating themselves in cities and urban areas. Thus began the Great Schism.