In 1933, at an ICI lab in Norwich, England, two scientists — Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson — accidentally created polythene. In 1965, a Swedish engineer patented the one-piece shopping bag. Today, 500 billion disposable plastic bags are used worldwide each year, usually for an average time of 12 minutes before being discarded.

In 1997, Charles Moore, a sailor and researcher, found the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of several floating garbage ‘islands’ in our oceans. The world was shocked.

In 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established the Global Plastics Platform to reduce plastic pollution. However, with a market worth expected to be 654.38 billion US dollars by 2020, the focus is less on elimination, but on redesign to include reuse and compostability.

Overall, consumer wastage has led to a growing movement for ‘upcycling’ or creative reuse, where discarded materials and objects are transformed into new products. It is something commonly practised in countries like Pakistan where, for example, old airline food trolleys become filigree stainless steel decoration on trucks and buses.

The real impetus in Western societies is said to have emerged from assemblage art, where found objects were incorporated into artworks. Picasso, inspired by African art, was one of the first to use found objects, along with Marcel Duchamp, and later Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson. Assemblage soon became a mainstream art technique, along with carving, modelling and painting.

Art has also been the one industry which has consistently addressed nature — either as a subject matter or through its uses of natural materials. Return to natural materials has travelled from the domain of crafts into the mainstream. In architecture, basket-making inspired Frei Otto, in the 1970s, to design the flexible grid shell structure. Increasingly, architects are looking to natural materials and ancient construction methods. Fibres, bamboo, coconut trunks and adobe are some of the materials making a comeback in modern design aesthetics.

In 1977, the sculptor David Nash started his living ‘ash tree dome’. in which 22 ash trees planted in a circle were trained to form a living dome. The tree-shaping system named ‘Botany Building’ is new in the developed world but has an ancient history, such as the living Ficus root bridges of Indonesia and India.

Natural fibre products, from basketry to shoes and furniture, are found all over the world. Pakistan is fortunate to be at the cusp of tradition and modernity. Reed, grasses, and cane are used to make functional or exquisitely ornamental baskets and furniture of daily use across Pakistan. The water cooler has not completely replaced the matka and surahi. Adobe houses are still built in villages. Handwoven and hand-embroidered textiles are still valued. We need to ensure these become part of our future and not just our past.

Art has also been the one industry which has consistently addressed nature — either as a subject matter or through its uses of natural materials.

While traditional products feed well into revivalist fashions, and are easily adapted by designers for modern tastes, language is quietly losing its connection to nature. Urdu idioms that linked us to nature are rarely used, such as humay aam khanay hain, guthliyan nahin ginni (we want to eat mangoes, not count the seeds). We call colours maroon, purple, grey and shocking pink instead of kathai, jaamni, surmai and tarboozi.

The British journalist George Monbiot writes, “Words encode values that are subconsciously triggered when we hear them.” Critical of the vocabulary of environmental scientists, he suggests we would feel more connected to nature if we said “places of natural wonder” instead of “protected areas.”

Nature is not just a holiday destination, but a teacher that is always with us. As Albert Einstein has said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 7th, 2019