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Saving our Oceans from Plastic; Feminist and Novelist on the "Me Too" Era. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired April 19, 2018 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Tonight, the plastics plague choking our seas, littering our beaches and entering our food chain. As Britain leads

the way, for a start, plans to ban plastic straws, the famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle tells me what we must all do to help.

Plus, my conversation with one of the world's most celebrated novelists and feminists, the award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She joins me

here in the studio.

Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

The anti-plastic wave is at a tipping point, finally crashing onto the sores of public awareness. Our single-use, throwaway culture is so harming

our seas and our planet that today, here in the U.K., the government has proposed banning the sale of plastic straws and cotton buds.

In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently tweeted, "We need to ban plastic bags. The time for this debate is over."

And in Kenya, those found violating the world's toughest laws against plastic bags can receive fines of up to $38,000. Of all the discarded

plastic, only around 9 percent is being recycled. It's a stark reality that the legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle knows all too well, having

spent a lifetime at the bottom of the sea and still, at 82, campaigning to save these waters, which were as much the planet's lungs as our forests


She joined me here earlier to talk about how we can turn back the clock despite the alarming statistics.

Sylvia Earle, welcome to the program.


AMANPOUR: Well, it's wonderful to talk to you about this really important issue, plastics. And you've been diving - let me just get the precise

number of hours - 7000 hours underwater over the 65 years you've been diving. It is incredible to think that.

So, all of this exploration, plus the fantastic pictures, plus as we know David Attenborough in the "Blue Planet" --

EARLE: Oh, it's fabulous.

AMANPOUR: Phenomenal, right? He has been credited with really boosting awareness of the dangers to our oceans, and particularly the plastics.

Would you say that plastics are the biggest danger right now?

EARLE: They're a great threat. There are actually two categories. What we're putting into the ocean is one of those categories. And it's excess

carbon oxide from burning fossil fuels that is not only warming the planet, but it is causing the ocean to become more acidic.

So, it's all the trash, all the toxins, the things that we allow to flow into the sea and the deliberate trash.

AMANPOUR: Well, we're seeing some trash and the like over here. We know that CNN did a wonderful documentary at Midway Island, plastic island,

which is just shocking to see.

EARLE: This port albatrosses just making nests out of plastic fishing net.

AMANPOUR: And being cut open and umpteen amounts of plastic coming out. But something that really shocked me was this sperm whale that washed up on

a beach in Spain and had -- listen to this -- 64 pounds of plastic and waste in his stomach. I mean, ropes also. Pieces of net, other debris

lodged in its stomach. I mean, this is the whale here. I mean, here we have all the stuff that the scientists have taken out.

EARLE: It's just --

AMANPOUR: It's awful.

EARLE: It should cause people to just sit up and take notice and realize there's no way on Earth, especially when you think of the plastics. They

don't go away. They sometimes break into smaller pieces, but they're very durable.

Microplastics are now an increasing problem.

AMANPOUR: So, tell me about that a little bit because I think people start to become aware when they see things like this, mountains and mountains of

garbage and plastic. Tell me the story of plastic.

It's our disposable society, right? Everybody has got a --

EARLE: It's marketing. Humankind got along perfectly well without single- use plastics until we started to get into that habit and it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century.

When I began diving and explore when I was a child, we didn't need -- because it didn't exist -- plastics, but they've become remarkably useful.

Plastics are really not the big problem. It's what we do with them and the way that many plastics are created to be thrown away. Use it once, toss it

as if there is some place that it goes.

[14:05:07] It does. It goes into the ocean largely.

AMANPOUR: This is the albatross that we were talking about before.

EARLE: Right.

AMANPOUR: I mean, it is really just a tragic thing.

EARLE: That bird never got to fly. This looks like a young one.

AMANPOUR: Oh my god.

EARLE: Gets so stuffed with --

AMANPOUR: How do they even put that stuff in their mouth. It's huge.

EARLE: Well, moms and dads come back thinking that they are giving them sustenance and often they do have fish eggs or other things going on them,

but in all innocence with the best of intentions they stuff their babies with these colorful pieces.

Well, there is another thing. There are fewer squid, fewer small fish in the ocean to feed their little ones and that's part of the problem, what

we're taking out. We've taken on the order of 90% of the sharks, the big tunas.

AMANPOUR: Well, so as of 2014 more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic, collectively they weigh something like 269,000 tons, were floating in the

world's oceans. As of 2010, 8 million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans annually.

So, I mean, look, we're describing a catastrophic problem. Am I correct? Is it catastrophic?

EARLE: It is catastrophic, but it's not the only problem. It is matched by what we are taking out.


EARLE: It is matched by the changing chemistry of the ocean. But the worst problem of all, I'm so glad we're having this conversation, it is


People either don't know the magnitude of what's going on or they don't know why they should care. So, we lose the whales. So, there's a lot of

junk in the ocean. So what?

People will think or don't think about the real reason they should be concerned and that is that the ocean drives climate and weather. The ocean

is the basis of Earth's life support. It's where most of the oxygen is generated.

Trees and grass and ferns, all of that photosynthesis helps, but the heavy lifting is done by the small creatures in the ocean. They are now getting

clogged with all the bits of plastic in the ocean too. And the creatures that feed on those microorganisms are now feeding on a lot of plastic as


So, if you look inside a little fish or a jellyfish that takes up some of these small bits, it's become part of the food chain in that way. When the

big fish eat the little fish and the bigger fish eat them, it just goes right up the food chain, exuding toxins along the way.

So, we can blame plastics because it's nice to point fingers at the problem, but we should point the fingers at ourselves.

AMANPOUR: Precisely. Because plastics, we put them there, so we need to figure out how we, the people, can fix this. So, how do we do that in an

environment where many, many people would like to protect their environment, but many, many governments are hostile to that kind of

environmental protection, including the biggest government?

EARLE: More are coming around them.

AMANPOUR: Yes. But the United States of America has a bit of an issue when it comes to this, especially under this administration. Are you not

worried about that?

EARLE: It's a new phenomenon because President Obama established the largest marine protected area in history and the first US president to do

something as magnificent as that was President George W. Bush. It's just the Obama quadrupled the size of it.

Actually, the idea of protecting the environment goes way back. And every president since Theodore Roosevelt has taken action, mostly for the land,

but increasingly, starting mostly in the 70s, ideas about - oh, well, maybe the same idea of parks, blue parks can be extended into the sea.

AMANPOUR: And, of course, you have your own Mission Blue NGO and you've created - or you're trying to create what you call hope spots.


AMANPOUR: Tell me about that. How is that going to change this dynamic?

EARLE: Well, it empowers people to identify places that they love, they care about, places that are either in great shape or those that, with care,

can be improved, and reason for hope.

If we really use our power to embrace the wild, our life support system, there's a good chance to recover from the depletion of what we have

witnessed, the poisoning, all of the things that are now problems.

AMANPOUR: So, are you encouraged? I mean, I couldn't believe it that this week British scientists say they may have identified a plastic-eating

enzyme that could significantly degrade plastic bottles, for instance.

EARLE: Well, that's cause for hope. I don't really expect that will be the big solution to this problem. There is no free lunch. There is no

magic wand. What we'd have to do is take personal responsibility for our actions, of choices we make or don't.

The awareness that, together, if we look at what's happening to our life support system, our highest priority, it really has to be to keep the world

safe. Everything else depends on that. If you can't breathe, that's a real problem.

AMANPOUR: I mean, you're not saying boycott plastics. You're saying we have to be responsible by how we use them and how we dispose of them.

EARLE: Absolutely. And to challenge the whole concept of single use, whether it's a bottle or a bag or a fork or a plate, where did this idea

come from? It looks convenient until you realize what you do with it?

AMANPOUR: I know. But generations have been brought up in this disposable income and disposal environment.

EARLE: But I come from the preplasticozoic.


EARLE: I know that we can do without much of the stuff that we have generated that doesn't go away. It's being mindful.

AMANPOUR: You've been doing this, as I said in the beginning, for about 65 years. You've been diving. How was it for a woman to do the heavy lifting

over these years? Was it - did you encounter sort of prejudice, sexism or anything even underwater?

EARLE: Well, it's still going on, of course, but it's better today than it was in terms of being accepted as a scientist or as a professional.

Really, I have always felt that I'm doing what I'm doing because of what I love. It's exploration, research, caring for the world.

AMANPOUR: It's a beautiful picture of you there.

EARLE: Yes, I took my children to meet that dolphin in the Bahamas. Out of school, we went to the big blue school.

Well, it was fascinating to come along at a time when it was unexpected for women - well, you know.


EARLE: To be doing certain things in certain places. And I, in 1964, as a scientist, was invited to go on an expedition out of the country. First

time, I'd been out of the United States. I went to Indian Ocean for six weeks on a ship. And I was the only woman and there were 70 men.

AMANPOUR: 70 to 1.

EARLE: Yes. And the headline read, Sylvia's sails away with 70 men, but she expects no problems.

AMANPOUR: "The New Yorker" in 1989 says, at least once Sylvia Earle was denied a value teaching assistantship for which she was the best qualified

candidate because of her sex. They said it has to go to a mad because a woman would just get married and have babies. Of course, I was indignant,

but that attitude wasn't considered unusual in those days.

EARLE: Well, I think how things have been shifting now. And colleges around the world, there are sometimes more women than men coming on as

marine biologists, marine scientists, oceanographers. I look forward to the headline someday that Roberto sails away with 70 women, but he expects

no problem.

AMANPOUR: That would be good.

EARLE: Well, it's coming maybe, at least to be equally represented.

AMANPOUR: You're in your 80s now.


AMANPOUR: You don't look it and you're still diving.

EARLE: Last week in Indonesia. It's great. As long as you're breathing, you can be diving.

AMANPOUR: Sylvia Earle, thanks for being with us.

Words to live by. As long as you're breathing, you can still dive. Sylvia Earle, of course, has devoted her life to telling truths about the world's

oceans, as you just heard.

And my next guest has used her blockbuster books and the platform they've given her to tell often deeply uncomfortable truths about race, gender and


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the world's most celebrated authors and she joins me now here in our studio. Great to have you with us,



AMANPOUR: You must have resonated with some of what Sylvia was saying. It must have resonated with you.

Let me start by asking you then around the whole #MeToo debate, which you talked a lot about. You surprised quite a lot of your devotees and the

people who hang on every word with a speech you made in Stockholm this week where you revealed for the first time that, at 17, you had been aggressed,

you had your own ugly unpleasant #MeToo moment. Tell me about it.

ADICHIE: There was a man in (INAUDIBLE) who I thought would help me with my first - I published a book of poetry. A terrible, terrible book that I

hope nobody ever reads. But I was young and I thought it was a wonderful book. And so, I thought the world should know about it. And so, I wanted

to do a book launch. And I went to this man's office.

[14:15:14] And he was very nice, very helpful. I was sitting across his desk and he said he was so impressed because young people were not reading

and I had written this book at 17 and then he got up and came round and very casually slipped his hand under my shirt, under my bra and squeezed my


AMANPOUR: Just like that.


AMANPOUR: Did you even get a sense of foreboding when he got up --

ADICHIE: No. Because nothing had prepared me for it. Nothing in his behavior had suggested that he was going to do anything like that.

AMANPOUR: You were 17.


AMANPOUR: So, how did that shape you? How did that turn you into the feminist you are today?

ADICHIE: I think I was a feminist before then. I've been a feminist for as long as I can remember, which is simply to say that as a child I was

very much aware that the world did not treat men and women the same way.

AMANPOUR: Just like we heard from Sylvia Earle.

ADICHIE: Yes. I didn't read any feminist text. So, I didn't have a moment when I rose up and said I am a feminist. Actually, I didn't know

what the word feminist meant for a long time, but I was one.

AMANPOUR: Why did you decide to tell this story now given that it's been six months or more since this whole revolution had started?

ADICHIE: I think partly because - and I am not interested in naming names because that's not what it is for me. It's simply to say this is

happening, it happens to most women, it's not unusual, I don't think I'm remarkable, but I wanted to use it to talk about why we don't talk about


Like, the thing about social conditioning that women go through that makes them reluctant to talk about these experiences that somebody will say why

you are talking about it now, why didn't you do something, why didn't you push him or slap him, and how our socialization teaches us to be nice and

kind even to people who hurt us.

AMANPOUR: And you do describe an internal change that happened to you after this. I mean, all the women are asked why didn't you, why you are

only telling us now, why did you keep quiet, why weren't you, et cetera, as you just said. But your whole body broke out, you described.

ADICHIE: I broke out in rashes shortly after that and all over my chest, my neck, my face and I remember -- and the only person who knew was my best

friend, Uju. And I remember Uju saying to me, your body is saying what your lips do not say. Sort of this loathing that you feel -- and I don't

know if that's why I broke out. Maybe I was just using the wrong moisturizer.

AMANPOUR: Stress can do that.

ADICHIE: Ye. But the point is that even if the rashes had nothing to do with it, my spirit had a very visceral reaction to it.

AMANPOUR: Now, is this best friend, the same one who told you that -- or was it another friend, who told you that feminism is not part of our


ADICHIE: Oh, no! No! My best friend is too reasonable to say that.

AMANPOUR: But it was a friend who said that.

ADICHIE: It was a friend who said that and this friend meant well. And this is just a way of silencing women because, of course, the idea that

feminism is part of any culture or not part of any culture is ridiculous.

I think my great grandmother was a feminist because she spoke her mind, wanted her own, to be her own, if that makes sense and was known to be a

troublemaker, which I think is a wonderful tag for a woman, which meant she was feminist.

And for me, I don't really - so now because I'm sort of being this feminist icon, which is something I feel very ambivalent about, it was never the

plan, but the kind of feminist discourse in the West, when people talk about first way feminism, second wave feminism, it doesn't really appeal to


I don't really feel a connection to it because it's not my story, but I didn't become a feminist because I read about second wave feminism. I

became a feminist because I grew up in Nigeria and observed the world, and just so what felt to me like an injustice that made no sense.

Why were women judged more harshly? Why were all the positions of real power occupied by men? Why were the cultural practices that had prestige

somehow only for men? Those things, just it didn't make any sense to me.

AMANPOUR: I mean, I do again recount in one of your TED Talks, an extraordinary story where you are with a male friend and you are in the car

park or something and you want to give a tip to one of the workers there. And you give a tip and what happens?

ADICHIE: And this man to whom I gave the money, my money from my bag, he looks --

AMANPOUR: Your hard work.

ADICHIE: Yes. He looks across me and says to my friend, the man, thank you, sir. But here's the thing --

AMANPOUR: I mean, that's stark.

ADICHIE: It did stick. But it was a wonderful moment for my friend because until then he had often said to me I don't really understand what

you mean when you say that there's a problem, I don't really understand. And he says to me women are equal, there is no problem, women should stop

complaining. And in that moment, he said to me, why did the man thank me. You gave him the money.

[14:20:03] AMANPOUR: Do you have hope that this is actually on a tipping point? Are we on a curve that can only go in the right direction?

ADICHIE: I think it could go either direction.


ADICHIE: I hope it will go in the right direction. And one of the reasons that I find #MeToo hopeful is I think it's remarkable because it's the

first time that women's stories are finally being believed.

It's the first time that kind of the impulse, the sort of cultural impulse is to believe women. It has never happened. And so, that's why I am


But I also know that the history of women's movement, the history really of any justice movement, is one in which there's always the possibility of --

AMANPOUR: Of rolling back. Yes, exactly. We see that with civil rights in the United States. We're all wondering whether this amazing #NeverAgain

movement, the anti-gun movement by the young people in America will keep moving forward or will get marginalized.

And then, the same about race, obviously, particularly in the United States. Black lives Matter and the seeming - it just seems that that

struggle never gets to the top of the mountain.


AMANPOUR: And I know that you're always asked about it and you've often said that you're tired sometimes of catering to white sensitivities and

sensibilities about this issue.

And sometimes you get yourself in trouble in various audiences because of that, but you're obviously saying something massively important. So, where

do you see the struggle over racism in your own environment, whether it's in the United States, even in Africa, if I could say so?

ADICHIE: It's hard for me to talk about racism in Africa because it's really -- the context is so different, right? I don't think of myself as a

black woman home in Nigeria because we have many problems, but race is not one of them. I think we have ethnicity and religion, which are really the

things that divide us, I think.

But in the US, which is a country that racism is at the sort of genetic center of America. And because of that, I think it's going to take a long

time. It took -- I don't know -- 250 years of racism to create America.

And since the civil rights movement, which hasn't quite achieved what it's supposed to achieve -- because you look at the US and you look, for

example, at cities, and I remember when I first came to the US and I thought why are the really terrible parts of the cities so full of black


And, ostensibly, it's because they don't work hard or they don't want to live, but that's not true. And you start to read the history and you

realize that there are government policies that excluded African-Americans.

And I think what's happening -- I do think that Black Lives Matter has done remarkable work. I think that if we can measure progress in terms of what

we can now see, I think Black Lives Matter has contributed a lot.

There are many conversations that black people had in private, but they're now having publicly in the --

AMANPOUR: So, that's cause for hope.

ADICHIE: That is progressing.

AMANPOUR: Particularly 50 years after Martin Luther King's assassination. And as you mentioned, these reports - I mean, we just reported on one that

had been done by Stanford and a bunch of other scholarly areas where it's sadly said that black boys, even if they're born into a wealthy family and

they get all the educational opportunities that their white neighbors may have, right after school, they drop right off that precipice back into the

pit of racism.

I said you used your platform, your fame as an author to move these agendas along, where are you right now in your writerly life.

You've done - obviously, "Americanah" was the last book. What have you -- what's happening next? Where do you feel that this writing and activism is

going for you?

ADICHIE: They're two very different things. The person who writes fiction is very different from the person who sort of pontificates about things and

thinks she knows a lot of other things.

And I'm a writer. I really do think I was born to tell stories. I think of it as a gift from God, a gift from my ancestors. But talking about

things that matter to me happened because I had this platform that came with my fiction writing.

And many times, I really just want to stay at home in my study and read poetry and write. That's what gives me the greatest joy, but then

something happened, and I can't help it because I get so angry about injustice that I feel like I need to say something.

So, right now, I'm trying to read more poetry. I'm also trying not to have the social issues that I care about be the things that propel my fiction

writing. I want to tell the stories that speak to me. I want to write about love and - but, again, even love is political.

AMANPOUR: It is indeed. And it just leads me on because Nigeria has this issue, Kenya has this issue of criminalizing homosexuality. Tomorrow, I

have an interview with the president of Kenya, who told me some quite - it will be viewed as quite controversial, but there are Kenyan things about

this issue, which is that then this is not an important issue for the people. Is it? The idea of gay rights, of protection?

ADICHIE: I think it's very important. And the reason is that to criminalize something that isn't criminal is immoral. And so, we have gay

Nigerians who live in fear. We have gay Nigerians who are threatened, who have violence committed against them.

I know one in particular, for example, who says that he's sometimes blackmailed by his driver, his gateman because the driver and the gateman,

they say to him, oh, I'm going to go report and tell them that man comes to your house, that you're gay.

It matters. It matters because the dignity of human beings -- we need to uphold that. They're not doing anything criminal. I think people should

be allowed to be who they are.

AMANPOUR: Well, keep reminding and keep agitating. Thank you so much for being with us today.

ADICHIE: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

And as we were saying earlier in the show, back to plastics, they are a big subject around the world. The legendary oceanographer who we just had on,

Sylvia Earle, telling me they're a great threat to our oceans. Sometimes it is hard to imagine the scale or how to cut down on the harmful side


So, we leave you this evening with this advice from our digital team. And thanks for watching. Goodbye from London.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here are five things you can do to use less plastic. Cut out plastic straw. Use stainless steel or card ones instead.

Bring a reusable carrier bag with you instead of relying on plastic ones.

Pack meals with reusable containers. Invest in reusable bottles for drinks instead of plastic bottles or takeaway cups.

And here's a surprising one. Stop chewing gum. It's made of synthetic rubber, which is a type of plastic.

So, remember, your plastic picks can make a change.