A Most Interesting Man: Marcus Eriksen

Marcus Eriksen

The first time I spoke to Marcus Eriksen, I knew he was like no man I had ever met. It was in August of 2008, and he and another environmental activist named Joel Paschal had just sailed from Long Beach, Calif., to Honolulu on a strange raft called the Junk, which was literally made of junk.

The aptly named Franken-raft was pieced together out of 15,000 plastic bottles, a deck of old sailboat masts and the body of a wingless Cessna airplane. Eriksen and Paschal had created the raft in two months and embarked on the voyage to raise awareness about the monstrous "sea of marine debris" they had encountered during previous research trips through the North Pacific Gyre, better known as the Garbage Patch.

During the long voyage, Eriksen told me that he spent hours at sea, wrestling with old demons and retracing the strange journey his life had taken. He had grown up in New Orleans fishing and hunting in bayous like Huck Finn, but his idyllic life had taken a dramatic turn when he joined the U.S. Marines and fought in the first Gulf War. After struggling with PTS and guilt over the war, the former warrior went on to earn a Ph.D. in science education and later became a peace activist.

Eriksen is what I would call an eco-adventurer in that he is constantly undertaking exotic expeditions to help educate people about increasing threats to the natural world. Like the “most interesting man in the world” in the Dos Equis beer commercials, Marcus Eriksen seemed destined to be a perennial bachelor, always thirsty for knowledge, adventure and distant shores — but he finally met his match.

In the summer of 2009, Eriksen and his fiancé, Anna Cummins, biked along the entire West Coast, from Vancouver to Tijuana, giving talks about the dangers of plastic marine debris and the environmental damage caused by these petroleum-based products. Since then, the handsome pair married and created the 5 Gyres Project, with the goal of exploring the swirling soup of debris in the world’s largest oceans.

Disturbed by BP’s disastrous oil spill, I decided to reach out to Eriksen to get his response to the gushing geyser of oil in the Gulf, where he grew up. I caught up with him on an archeological excavation in Lusk, Wyo., where he was “digging for dinosaurs.” During our interview, he wove an intriguing narrative about his life and the connections between oil and plastics, Independence Day and our dependence on oil, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mexico, dinosaurs and the future health of our environment.

Stuart Coleman: I know you grew up in New Orleans, but have you been back recently to see the damage from the oil spill?

Marcus Eriksen: I was actually there with Anna [his wife], walking on the beach along the Gulf of Mexico in Waveland, Miss. My step dad had a fishing camp there when I was a kid. I remember it being clean and pulling in gill nets, catching crabs and gigging for flounder. And now on the beach are tennis ball-sized blobs of oil every yard or so, and between these are tiny bits of plastic, including the pre-production pellets called nurdles. So there are plastics and oil on the beach, and they are both petroleum. Four percent of each barrel of oil becomes synthetic materials like plastics, and another 3 perdent powers the industry to make plastics.

So how exactly is the plastic debris related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?

When I was there, Anna was holding up a sand-encrusted blob of oil and plastic, little nurdles in her hand. This is a tale of two oil spills, and they’re very different. With the oil spill in the Gulf right now, you can point your finger at the company that did it. It’s a localized impact that you can see close to shore. Plastic is a very different story. It’s also a form of petroleum, but that spill is global. It’s accumulating in five of these sub-tropical gyres around the world. And you can’t point your finger at any one entity or company or individual. And the chance of a cleanup is extremely unlikely and impractical because it’s so spread out. The only solution is to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics on land.

When you were a teenager, you left New Orleans and became a Marine. How did you go from an idyllic childhood in the Gulf of Mexico to fighting a war in the Persian Gulf?

I finished high school at age 17, walked across the stage and got my diploma. Six days later, I was in San Diego and became a Marine. A few years after that, in the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I had this feeling that we were going to war, and we did. I remember on Thanksgiving Day, we left the United States and headed for the Persian Gulf. During the war, I knew, and so did the Marines around me, that the main reason why the United States rallied to go save the richest country in the world was because they had oil. It was obvious to me as I stood outside Kuwait City covered with oil, all over my clothes, in my mouth, in my nose and in my hair. I remember looking at those burning oil wells in the aftermath of this very swift and brutal war and thinking that we were there because of petroleum.

What do you think of the ongoing war in Iraq?

I would argue that the current Iraq War is largely a continuation of that same policy. We use war as a means of foreign policy to secure access to energy sources in other parts of the world. It’s deeply morally wrong and un-American, yet we do it.

Is that when you became a peace activist?

Back in 2003, I joined the anti-war movement because I knew that this war was about oil and we were going to lose thousands of people. We’ve already lost 5,000 Americans on our side and over 100,000 on their side — just so we can have access to petroleum.

Were you involved in the peace movement in Los Angeles where they put crosses on the beach?

I joined a group called Veterans for Peace, and we had one big project called Arlington West. It began as a memorial of 540 crosses to commemorate the first 540 Americans who died in Iraq. And for two years, we kept adding crosses every time someone died. Once it got over 1,000, we decided to take this memorial across the country. So we built 1,000 crosses, and we went to 10 universities and other sites across the country, including the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. We talked about the Iraq War and the need to take care of the veterans coming back home. It was a very interesting experience for me because most of the people we talked to agreed that we went to war partly for petroleum, but they felt powerless to do something about it.

As Independence Day approaches and the oil spill in the Gulf continues, what would you like to see us do as a nation?

Without a doubt, we need to move toward energy independence, away from petroleum. Americans can become leaders in sustainability, leaders in the development of alternative fuels that don’t cause damage to our environment or to the health of our people, here and abroad. It’s deeply immoral that we persist in this dependence on fossil fuels to the degree that we commit young people to kill and be killed. We need independence from that.

How did you feel when you were back in New Orleans and seeing the damage from the oil spill?

Overwhelming sadness that this was happening in my backyard, especially knowing how it was 30 years ago and how it is today. In 30 short years, we’ve seen climate change ravage the coast of the Gulf of Mexico during Hurricane Katrina, and now we’ve seen this dependence on fossil fuels create this oil spill. This addiction we have to petroleum just struck me to the core — enough is enough!

Tell me about your work with the 5 Gyres Project and how it relates to oil?

The project is specifically focused on plastic waste in the five subtropical gyres around the world. We have created this toxic plastic soup across the planet. What the 5 Gyres Project does is gather the evidence to show the world that there is this confetti of plastic waste blanketing 2/3 of our planet, and that trash comes from petroleum.

After sailing on scientific expeditions across the world’s oceans, I hear you are now on an archeological dig this summer — what’s that about?

I’ve always had a dream since I was a kid to build a museum that looks at the beauty and fascination of nature and natural history. So for the last 19 years, I’ve been coming up to Wyoming in the middle of nowhere, digging up dinosaurs. So right now, we’re finishing up a triceratops excavation for our future Sustainability Science Center.

How does this project relate to the 5 Gyres Project?

The 5 Gyres Institute will grow into a full-blown science center, which will have exhibits on oceanography, paleontology and other sciences. So we’re building up those collections.

You certainly lead a strange and exciting life as an eco-adventurer! Are you worried we are destroying the environment and dooming ourselves to extinction?

I’ve been to some diverse parts of the world, from the middle of the North Pacific to the middle of the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans. And now I’m in the middle of North America digging for dinosaurs. I’ve been in the middle of the Middle East, fighting a war for petroleum; I’ve been at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa — and everywhere I go, I always see our heavy, human footprint. You talk about fossil fuels, but what I’ve learned is that we are all fossil fools! And we’re digging ourselves into the ground like the dinosaurs.


DISCUSSION: Share your thoughts about this article and the meaning of independence 234 years after the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

A writer, teacher, surfer and environmentalist, Stuart H. Coleman works as the Hawaii Coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation. Coleman is the author of the award-winning book "Eddie Would Go," and his second book, "Fierce Heart," just came out in paperback edition (St. Martin’s Press, ’10).

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