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.