An Ocean of Waste

I had two reactions when I encountered the work of Dr. Jennifer Lavers. The first was anger. The second was a determination to do my part to spread the findings of her research. As someone who keeps up with environmental science, I understood human activity was impacting oceans and waterways around the world. There are plenty of articles and a few documentaries that provide evidence for this unfolding disaster. But the 2017 report revealed the scale of the problem in a way that resonated with me.

The numbers are staggering. I will not rehash them here. Please read their report and listen to the podcast. The data associated with anthropogenic ocean pollution point to other issues in global societies. First, our relationship with the natural world - the flora and fauna that share this earth with us - is disgraceful.  Movies are not my usual source for relevant quotes. But when I think of ocean pollution, a quote from The Matrix comes to mind. In this scene, Agent Smith is interrogating Mr. Anderson and reveals to him what he thinks of the human species: 

 I'd like to share a revelation I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with their surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to another area, and you multiply, and you multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus...

Too harsh? Does it sound extreme to call the human species a virus? When it comes to what we are doing to the ocean and the environment, I think the analogy is apt. We stand guilty of emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gases despite repeated warnings from scientists. What do vast quantities mean? According to one recent estimate, the planet emits 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide per second. Source: Science X

Ice cores tell us that the atmosphere's carbon dioxide levels have stayed between 170 and 300 parts per million for the last 800,000 years, and any shifts took millennia to happen. But since about 1750, the start of the Industrial age, the level has ascended from 280 to more than 400 parts per million. The rise in carbon dioxide matches well with the curve of known human emissions. And these two curves match very well with the increase in temperature. The overwhelming evidence shows that carbon dioxide emissions are the dominant factor driving climate change. Source: Earth Institute- Columbia University. 

Of course, we have the capability to mitigate and even reverse the damage. In order to do so people must vote for only those candidates that accept climate science.  In the U.S that rules out voting for anyone in the Republican Party. Let me be clear - this is not an ideological issue. I am not giving the Democrats a free pass. The Democrats need to step up the efforts on all environmental issues. But the Republican party is accountable for the misinformation supplied to their constituents. And we know why this is so. 

Estimated % of registered Democrats who think global warming is happening, 2016

Estimated % of registered Republicans who think global warming is happening, 2016


Map Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

And this is not to say our elected officials are only to blame for inaction. The American people need to wake up on environmental issues. The numbers on these two maps speak for themselves. Someone that did not know better might assume the Democrats and Republican live on different planets. The maps demonstrate the impact of industry propaganda and misinformation. 

The second thing we learn from the data is how we are manipulated into consumer choices predicated on convenience. Plastic coffee pods might appear like a great idea. But where do they end up? This plastic ends up in landfills and in some parts of the world, waterways as well.  As of this writing, most coffee pods sold are not recyclable or biodegradable. Efforts are underway to manufacture eco-friendly pods. But the point is not to make plastic recyclable, the goal is to reduce plastic consumption across the board. And this brings us to the worst example of plastic pollution - plastic microbeads in consumer products. Microbeads are everywhere in the oceans. These tiny beads are being injested by marine life. Microbeads are found in shampoos, face gels, and toothpaste among other products. Laws are going into effect to stop microbead use. But we have a long way to go. When you are presented with a consumer choice - think about what is in the product. Make an informed choice and leave convenience out of the equation. 

When it comes to ocean pollution there is no debate. The evidence is scattered across the oceans, in waterways, and on Henderson Island. The answer for oceanic pollution is to reduce the demand for plastic. That means evaluating what you consume and making better choices. Here are some suggestions to reduce plastic consumption in your own life. Recycling is good. Keep it up. But it is not enough. The global community needs to reduce its demand for plastic - on a massive scale. Otherwise, we are, in the words of Agent Smith,  a virus on this planet. 

America's Perpetual War in the Greater Middle East

Before reading Andrew Bacevich's book, I had developed my own narrative for U.S. failures in the Middle East over the past three decades. My interpretation began with the First Gulf War undertaken by George H. W. Bush in 1990. In these events (and not for the first time), the U.S. decided to punish a dictator, in this instance, Saddam Hussein, who once enjoyed America's support. For those unaware of how the U.S. handles dictators, here is a quick lesson. In general, the U.S. allows dictators to do as they please. However, if the dictator finds himself in an untenable position − civil war, revolution, etc. − the U.S. hails democracy and abandons the leader. In Saddam Hussein's case, the U.S. decided to invade as a means to protect the oil fields. In this way, America was 'liberating Kuwait.'  

Bacevich designates the Iranian hostage crisis (1979) as the point of departure for American misadventures in the Middle East. In parallel with the hostage crisis, the U.S. began to support the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.  In Washington, the Afghanistan gambit was spearheaded by Zbigniew Brezinski. Brezinski sought to ensnare the Soviet Union into a quagmire akin to what the U.S. had found itself in during the Vietnam War. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 brings up another element of U.S. foreign policy not often discussed − the history of U.S. interference in other governments. Since the end of the World War II, the U.S. attempted to destabilize many governments. Some U.S. targets were democratically elected leaders. In 1953, the CIA and the British orchestrated a coup to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. For Americans upset about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, I suggest a quick refresher on U.S. meddling in democratic outcomes. 

From the 1970's to the present day, the Greater Middle East has occupied the attention of U.S foreign policy. Unfortunately, this attention did not inspire U.S. leadership to question motives or reflect on strategy for the region. The single variable that drove U.S. involvement in the region was access to cheap oil.  It was the view of political elites that only by guaranteeing the flow of black gold could the American way of life be sustained. As a result, the lives of U.S. soldiers and innocent civilians were sacrificed. Trillions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted in this effort. Worse, by acquiescing to a state of perpetual war in the region, Americans stand guilty of the same crimes we once fought against. 

Of course, wars require money. The industrial supply chain that supports the Defense Department benefits from continuous conflict. But defense firms profiting from war is an effect and not a cause of our wars. The cause…the reason we engaged in the Middle East for this period is access to cheap oil. 

Bacevich's book is a thorough and compelling account of America's drift into perpetual war in the Middle East. The evidence is clear and overwhelming. Despite repeated military engagements to manage the region, the U.S has achieved nothing. Indeed, the evidence indicates matters are worse in the region because of U.S. violence. But there is more. As indicated above, the reflexive use of force in the region represents a larger problem in the body politic. Perpetual war with a compliant public. When establishing culpability for these wars, one must also indict the American people. 

As Bacevich points out, President Carter asked the American people to make a choice in his much misunderstood "malaise speech."  Carter asked the American people to reconsider what they value most as a nation. He called for sacrifice. In the speech, Carter requested that America relinquish its dependence on foreign oil. He called for the funding of alternative energy sources. The American people responded by electing Ronald Reagan as President in 1980. In the moment, cheap foreign oil reigned supreme for businesses and consumers alike. Implied in this sentiment was the notion of American exceptionalism. The demand for cheap oil drew the U.S. into a moral black hole. We entered the abyss and have yet to find a way out. 


In my conversation with Hannah Marcus, a few key points are worth noting. First, Galileo's life and work are enduring reminders of the value in challenging systems of thought. Galileo pushed against the Aristotelian understanding of the cosmos. In doing so, he found conflict with another entrenched system of thought - the Catholic Church. Galileo's support for the Copernican universe moved early science forward. Revisiting the life of Galileo is also timely. Today, in the United States, we see science under attack. Although torture is not a threat, attempts to extinguish knowledge persist. Galileo's persistence against dogma makes him a germane historical figure in our present moment. 

The second point deals with the illusion of historical inevitability. Galileo's confrontation with the Catholic Church was not preordained. As Professor Marcus notes in our conversation, the events leading to Galileo's condemnation by the Church would not have been predictable in the 1620's.  In this period, Galileo was on good terms with Pope Urban VIII. But we tend to look for neat causal contexts when formulating narratives born of dramatic confrontation. These contexts generate an oversimplified version of events. In this way of doing history, a binary conflict emerges where two sides appear destined to clash. (Example: Galileo versus Catholic Church).

In historical research, the origins of the 'inevitability' problem emerge from a few areas. A bias toward a specific outcome is certainly one.  Another area is a failure to consider the contingency embedded in human affairs. Lastly, there is the habit of poorly framed questions. (Of course, the latter contributes to problems that go beyond the fallacy of historical inevitability.) Historical research questions that begin with "Why" tend to produce less than desirable results. Why did the Catholic Church condemn Galileo?  This question demands an answer. Implied but not stated, one hears: What happened and who is to blame? Well, the Church is to blame, of course. And so, it goes.  The narrative generates a sequence of events that 'inevitably' leads to Galileo's trial and punishment. "Why" questions seek something specific and narrow our field of vision.

A better approach is to frame a question around the adverbs: who, when, how, or what. These lines of inquiry encourage the researcher to confront the complexities inherent in human affairs. (David Hackett Fischer calls out "why" questions in his book. Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. Readers of this blog will see this reference again. ). 

The final point is simply the advantages of using digital technologies with primary sources. The Stanford Galileo Project and efforts like it produce valuable insights. These projects illuminate our understanding of the early modern era. 

Links associated with this post:

Galileo Correspondence Project