Belgian cartoonist Pieter De Poortere was trying to do his bit for the environment: eating less meat and diligently sorting his rubbish – glass, paper, plastics. He realised it wasn’t enough. “I thought if we all sort out our trash, then everything will be recycled, everything will be OK, then we are doing great. But actually that is not true,” he said pointing to the problems of the global waste industry, where wealthy countries’ plastic may be dumped, or burned on open fires in poorer countries.
So he put his best-known character to work, as part of an international art project that launched in April, aiming to draw attention to the problem of plastic production.
Dickie, a pudgy antihero with a bristly moustache, is a perpetual loser, whether in the guise of farmer, astronaut, fairytale hero, or biblical character. “I always try to imagine what is the worst possible thing that could happen to Dickie,” said De Poortere of the character he created nearly two decades ago, who now has a permanent home in the Comics Art Museum in Brussels.
Known as Boerke in the original Flemish, the series is drawn in a childlike style, but with a spiky black humour aimed squarely at adults. It has won prizes in Belgium, a country where comic strips are celebrated as high art.
After years of mishaps, Dickie is now wreaking havoc on the environment – striking a disastrous deal with “Plastics Inc”, or shooting a kangaroo in a misguided attempt at cutting down on packaging waste. “A lot of my work is very ambiguous,” De Poortere said. “Dickie is sometimes bad, sometimes he is good, sometimes he is a loser, sometimes he is really greedy, he is selfish, he uses people … People start reading it and they are laughing, but often they have to think twice, is this really happening?”
Camille Duran, founder of the Swedish-based Cosmic Foundation, the organisation behind the Magnify initiative, the art project featuring De Poortere’s work, said the aim of the project was to shift people’s attention to the production of plastics, not just consumption. “Even if demand is going to start to decrease as policy gets more ambitious, more [petrochemicals] facilities are getting permitted around the world.”
Earlier this year, 173 countries pledged to develop a legally binding treaty by 2024 to end plastic pollution. The agreement, which will include measures to tackle plastic production, has been described as the most significant multilateral environmental accord since the Paris climate deal. Yet on current trends, plastic production is expected to double within the next 20 years and by 2050 could account for 15% of the world’s annual carbon budget.
Duran, who hopes to expand the project to other parts of the world, began by choosing three artists near some of the world’s biggest petrochemical hotspots: Louisiana, Taiwan and Antwerp.
The organisers hope the Dickie pages will help galvanise opposition to a giant plastics plant in Antwerp, planned by the British petrochemical company Ineos. Campaigners have launched a legal challenge to Antwerp’s decision to grant Ineos a permit to build a chemicals installation to make ethylene from fracked US shale gas.
The campaigners say the project will fuel single use plastics and fails to meet EU climate targets. Ineos counters that the installation will be the greenest of its kind and will aid the production of long-lasting plastics used in technology and healthcare.
De Poortere’s sequence on plastics runs throughout May in the Dutch-language weekly Knack. The artist plans to include the pages in a 50-page book covering other environmental emergencies, including global heating, which will be published in 2023.
De Poortere, who was born in Ghent, knows Antwerp well, but chose not to locate his work in any particular place, to preserve a universal message.
“It is important to get that message through to the public – and not in an annoying way – but through art, through humour, through trying to convince people, just to make them think. I want to show a bit the absurdity of the reality.” Humans, he added, cannot stop doing “stupid things that will be harmful to us. There is tragedy in this shortsightedness, but it is also the basis of a lot of humour.”