Why did the owl and the pussycat get so confused about what not to flush?
Updated: May 9
Have you ever wished you hadn't bothered typing a comment on social media? I was going to write this article some time ago following a bizarre interaction on Instagram – I’ll come to that later. But I’ve been compelled to write this now because of the situation we now find ourselves in and the continual irony I see whilst standing patiently 2 metres away from my people in a queue. My thoughts were drawn to the question, "what can this teach us about being clear in our messaging and making it super simple for people to make more conscious choices now and in the future?"
Why Humanity Destroyed Itself
Here is a video from one of our favourite sources, The School of Life, “Why Humanity Destroyed Itself”. The video, posted 3 years ago, offers a simple insight into why humans do what we do. They offer three reasons why humanity will destroy itself – all to do with the wiring of our brain – Tribalism, Short Term Thinking and Wishful Thinking.
Tribalism – I don’t like you because you don’t have the same beliefs/outlook/passport colour as me therefore I will kill you. Or at the very least, do what I can to prove you are wrong and I am right. Even if that means finding evidence and making it fit my mould.
Short Term Thinking – I can’t see past the end of my nose. I have an inability to think of the consequences of my actions beyond a few years so I won’t bother doing anything and will deal with it as and when/if it ever happens.
Wishful Thinking – I don’t want to assess why that went wrong or what I did right. I won’t bother planning for the worst or putting a contingency in place. It’ll probably never happen anyway. I know we have all this evidence but I’ll just ignore it and hope it will all be fine.
We may have a fully functioning brain yet we’re still bound by the irrational reptilian/chimp brain. So we generally don't use the big part of our logical brain to think clearly and make sound decisions. No matter what we might tell ourselves. It’s the reason we do silly things. It’s the reason we make the same mistakes over and over again. It’s one of the reasons people buy stuff they don’t need. It’s one of the reasons people buy stuff without thinking about what it is they’re buying. And could it be the reason why people sit idling the engine in their cars during a pandemic and don’t think to wear masks at any other time?
The owl and the pussycat went to sea but didn't really think to see…
The owl and the pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat. The boat was powered by oil and the engine would chug along and spew black smoke that often caused the owl and the pussycat to cough and splutter. Whilst at sea, they were often surrounded by boats and ships and planes flying overhead. The sea was covered in plastic and fishing gear. But they didn’t seem to mind. In fact they didn’t really think about it at all. They were used to it.
One day, the owl flew to the pier to meet the pussycat. Eventually the pussycat arrived, it’s whiskers and mouth covered over with a muzzle. “Why are you wearing that muzzle?” asked the owl. “A factory has opened right next door to our home", replied the pussycat, "it smells really bad and there’s lots of people coming in and out in cars. So I put this on to stop the smell and so that I could breathe a little better”. “Oh I see,” said the owl. “But you’re not there anymore, you’re here by the sea. And we’re going out in our boat. Surely you don’t need it anymore.” “Yes, you’re quite right”, said the pussycat. He took off the muzzle, the owl turned on the engine and off they went in their beautiful pea green boat.
Irony and idleness
There are people wearing masks during the current pandemic who would never think to wear one at any other time. Yet everyday, before the pandemic, we were exposed to levels of pollution that affect our lungs and our respiratory system. Hope Street in Glasgow has been declared the most polluted street in Scotland. We wander around the streets of Glasgow, and in our own home towns, beside buses, old black cabs and white vans spewing invisible (sometimes very visible black plumes) of noxious gases from their exhausts without much consideration for the effects on our respiratory health.
Just in the last few weeks during lockdown, I've been stood in queues to go into shops whilst hearing the constant rattle of engines idling. The driver sat inside as they comply with physical distancing rules but fail to comply with the law on idling. Saving themselves from the prospect of catching a virus but not finding it necessary to follow the rules around switching off your engine when stationary. Failing to grasp that by their engine rumbling away, they are creating a different kind of respiratory problem and virus.
This failure to recognise that idling is illegal, or even if it wasn't, that it is harmful illustrates the difference between clear v unclear messaging.
People are being compliant with physical distancing, standing 2 metres apart because the Government have made it very clear – through consistent and repeated messaging on TV, social media, radio and with the help of visual aids like stickers on the floor, what that requirement is. The reason we still have people idling in cars during a pandemic is that the Government have done no such campaign to stop drivers idling, continuing to cause pollution, lung disease and respiratory problems. Collectively, and ‘en masse’, we humans need things dumbed down and spelled out for us clearly and concisely.
The owl and the pussycat went to the shops in a beautiful pea green Tesla
The owl and the pussycat went to the shops in a beautiful pea green Tesla. The owl and the pussycat were careful about what they bought. They would visit ‘zero waste’ shops and choose products that were better for them and for the environment. But on this particular day, they had returned from a road trip around Scotland and needed to stock up on some essentials. A visit to the local 'zero waste' shop wasn't possible. So off they went to the supermarket ready to choose carefully what they needed to buy.
They picked up vegetables that were loose and free of packaging. They bypassed ready made sauces in plastic packaging in favour of tins of tomatoes so they could make their own fresh sauces. They came to the household cleaning aisle and needed to buy some toilet paper.
They spotted packets of what was described as moist toilet tissues, which looked very similar to their usual brand and so they popped a few packs in their trolley. They paid for their shopping. And wandered outside to put it all into the boot of their beautiful pea green Tesla. One lovely Sunday morning they ran out of the moist toilet tissue they'd bought at the supermarket. The owl used the last square. And so she took the packet from the bathroom and went to dispose of it in the landfill bin. Which is when she couldn’t believe what she saw.
The problem with 'flushable'
“Please do not flush.” Written in tiny letters on the back of the packet. They realised there was no information about them being ‘biodegradable’ or what they were made from. The owl was horrified. They had been happily flushing the wipes down the toilet without thinking. Just like they did with their usual brand.
She ran into the livingroom to tell the pussycat, “what will happen to those wipes we’ve flushed down the toilet? Where will they go?”
“The wipes we usually get say they’re ok to flush,” commented the owl. “Look, those ones have passed the ‘fine to flush’ test by Water UK.” The owl and the pussycat were looking at Water UK’s website and noticed that whilst they were approving their usual choice of moist toilet tissue as ‘fine to flush’, they were also running a campaign to ask people to #binit4beaches
Their little brains were now totally confused! Why would an organisation campaign to raise awareness of using the bin for wipes but then also approve wipes as ‘fine to flush’? The owl and the pussycat needed a drink. So they poured themselves a large glass of wine and continued their investigations.
“Look owl, there’s a BBC article here from 2018 saying that, “No 'flushable' wet wipes tested so far pass water industry tests.” The more the owl and the pussycat looked, the more they could see why they had been confused. The different information was misleading. They felt so bad as they were always so conscious about what they were buying. They vowed never to buy any kind of wipes again, and would stick to plain old, trusted toilet paper on a roll. That way there was no room for making a mistake or being misled.
There are a plethora of similar products on shelves – they all look the same. Facial wipes, baby wipes, disinfectant wipes and of course, wipes for your bum. But not all of them are flushable. And it’s causing a shit show in our sewers and for the environment. Some state that they are ‘flushable’, some state ‘do not flush’. So what will people do? Put everything down the loo, because they once bought, were told, or read that wipes were ‘flushable’. They look the same, so must be the same.
And therein lies the problem with human behaviour and the need to have clear cut messaging across the board. Our reptilian, chimp brain is no bigger than our friend the owl or the pussycat’s. We need clear cut, simple messages. Stay 2 metres apart. Stop idling. Don’t flush anything other than the 3 P’s down the loo – the third 'P' is paper – not tissues, or wipes, or any other kind of ‘biodegradable’ fabric.
Why truly sustainable businesses must lead the way
“The fate of civilisation…lies in our ability to master the most short term, selfish, violent of our impulses active in the dense folds of organic matter between our ears. It lies in learning how relentlessly to try to compensate for the flawed architecture of the human mind.” The School of Life
All businesses, especially those that have people, planet and purpose at the heart of what they do – must be particularly sensitive to the imperfections of the human mind. We are the businesses people look at as a source of trusted information.
As responsible businesses, we need to ensure we're super clear in our messaging so that people can make good, easy peasy, lemon squeezy conscious buying decisions. We need to remove ourselves from the noise and stand out from it. If we don’t truly think about what we're doing now, then we will suffer in the future. We simply cannot rely on everyone understanding our message as that would be wishful thinking. Which brings me onto the Pebble Magazine interaction.
My comment on Instagram was in response to Pebble Magazine sharing a new product from the lovely people at Natracare - their 'Safe to Flush Moist Toilet Tissue'. I'd like to make it clear that I love the Natracare brand and their values. Before switching to a menstrual cup, I used Natracare’s tampons. However, I do have an issue with any type of wipe from a square pack that says it’s ‘flushable’. The same as I have an issue with the unclear messaging around recycling. My comment on Instagram mentioned that, “people are inherently stupid”. Which was of course not meant as a personal insult to anyone in particular, but was a nod to the emotional, irrational part of our brain that largely drives humans to do bizarre things without thinking. Things that are destroying people and planet. And then later we rationalise those bizarre choices.
We need to take this glimpse in time as a chance to not return to ‘business as usual’. In fact, we need to use this situation to return to a future that could be more ‘business unusual’. We can use the time to take a moment to assess whether we're contributing to the noise, or cutting through it like a hot curved knife through butter. Are we turning off our engines when stationary? Are we united in one message, 'do not flush'?
We need to return to a better way of living. A more serene, calm and cleaner way of living. A life where pollution takes a massive nosedive. Where the birds are singing loudly the songs they love to sing. The bees are buzzing merrily around the blossom. The trees are taking deep, trunk filling breaths from the base of their roots to the top of their beautiful branches. And the fish are gliding through clearer waters, winking and waving at each other for the first time in years. Undisturbed by floating white debris that's made it's way through the human sewerage system. We need to take this time to be truly clear about what we’re putting out there into the world. We need to return to a world of ‘Conscious Humanism.'©*
If we do, might we all breathe a little better and think a little clearer?
* 'Conscious Humanism' © is a term first used in an article published on the Undisturbed website in December 2019. Conscious humans are not 'consumers'. Conscious Humanism is a move away from the mindless destruction of 'consumerism', buying disposable, fast, cheap products with no consideration for start or end of use.
Instead Conscious Humanism is the next step forward towards the purchase or use (without ownership) of quality products that are built to last, that work with nature and humanity. Buying decisions are more rational, considered and compassionate, working together to protect the needs of humanity and nature.