This week, a ‘canary in the coal mine’ turned up dead, providing yet another ominous augur that something is seriously out of whack with Planet Earth. But judging by the reaction, or lack of it, most people shrugged off the news as a price they must pay for their hedonistic, materialistic lifestyles.
On the weekend, the world was treated to one of those dismal stories that most individuals, not wanting to spoil their morning cup of coffee, turned way from in disgust and pity.
“Stranded dolphin in Florida had plastic bags, balloons in stomach,” read the headline in the Tampa Bay Times.
This is one of those distressing topics – the ‘plasticization’ of the rivers, oceans and seas from excessive consumer waste and stupidity – that we’ve become familiar with to the point of ennui and even disdain. The great majority of people most likely skimmed that story with a shake of the head and quickly moved on, thinking there wasn’t much they could do to change the situation anyways. Unlike the world of politics or sports, for example, where we like to believe that human beings have some command of the situation, when it comes to dead dolphins and dying oceans, well, that’s just an altogether different ball game. Besides, what the hell did that stupid dolphin think would happen if he ate a bunch of plastic bags and balloons?
Michelle Kerr, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, was quoted as saying the rare rough-toothed dolphin was emaciated and in such a poor state that the decision was made to “humanely euthanize on-site.”
The natural response to such a depressing story falls somewhere between ‘well, what can I do about it?’ to ‘hopefully the problem is not too bad, but even if it is I am sure the world of science will find a cure. Gee, I wonder how the Yankees did last night…’
Meanwhile, the very clever Homo sapiens find themselves in a race against time to stave off ultimate disaster unless some wunderbar biologist develops some newfangled technology to help save Capitalism, not to mention the planet. The ecosystem has been brought to the brink of disaster whereupon trifling, tinkering ‘Men with High Degrees’ enter stage right to the sound of trumpet blasts and, assuming all the ethereal power of God himself, are expected to put everything right again in the universe. Basically, your average ten-buck Hollywood thriller with one minor difference: this time it’s for real.
Take for example the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). This floating junkyard, sloshing around between Hawaii and California, is estimated to cover some 1.6 million square kilometers (or 617,763 square miles). In other words, about twice the size of Texas.
According to The Ocean Cleanup non-profit, there are more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic floating around in the GPGP that weigh an estimated 80,000 tons, or, for those who prefer visuals, the weight of about 500 jumbo jets. Needless to say, unless something changes fast, the greatest testament to laissez-faire capitalism will not come from our glistening corporate skyscrapers blocking out the sunshine, but dead oceans overflowing with the refuse of a dead society that was too obsessed with moneymaking to preempt an impending disaster from happening.
And make no mistake this is a disaster waiting to happen. Even in the remote Galapagos Islands, which are situated 1,000 miles off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean, the once-pristine waters are being inundated on a daily basis with plastic debris from around the world. Locals spend mornings cleaning up the shoreline instead of collecting seashells. The exotic animals that the evolutionist Charles Darwin examined as the foundation for his famous work, ‘On the Origin of the Species’, are still there, but they are threatened by the increasing levels of plastic and other debris in the ecosystem.
And it is not just the ‘aesthetics’ of watching millions of discarded plastic items bobbing on the surface of the water that is so disturbing. The real problem is that over the years the plastic begins to break down (as opposed to decompose, as carbon-based material does in a natural cycle) and turns into small bits of microplastics. At this stage it will enter the food chain, first through the digestive system of fish, eventually to be consumed by humans. And due to a biological process known as ‘biomagnification,’ a chemical toxin exists in living organisms at greater concentrations the higher up the food chain you go. You needn’t be a rocket scientist to understand where this will lead once it reaches the human population. The fact that these toxins have already contaminated the breast milk in feeding mothers should sound the alarm.
What is to be done?
The reason the oceans are dying at an alarming rate (at current rates it is predicted there will be more pieces of plastic in the seas and oceans by 2050 than marine life) is that there are brainless slobs running amok on the planet and not just misguided youth who were never told the proper way to dispose of their rubbish.
There are also transnational corporations who behave no better, except they provide jobs so they are largely untouchable. The question is: why are we still using plastic bags and plastic bottles, as well as a million other products derived from polymers and petrochemicals? Considering all of the advances we as a species have made in the realm of artificial intelligence, we still lack the real intelligence to know how to clean up after ourselves. There is no good excuse for this. Anyone who was born before 1970 would probably agree that many things in their childhood made more sense when it came to waste. Grocery stores stocked paper bags for the customers, for example, while old ‘soda pop’ bottles could be returned to collect a 5-cent deposit. Imagine how fast the waste problem would disappear if every single mass-produced item – from plastic bottles to glass jars – was returnable for a deposit?
Presently, there are only 10 US states that have container deposit legislation, and the programs are wildly successful with consumers. In the state of Michigan, for example, bottles for beverages including beer, pop, carbonated and mineral water, wine coolers, etc., as well as containers made of metal, glass, paper, or plastic are refunded at .10 cents. The program enjoys a 97-percent redemption rate among consumers.
The problem, thus far, is getting state legislators, who are under immense pressure from their corporate paymasters not to advocate on behalf of such programs, to grow a spine and put the earth and its inhabitants first.
Such a nationwide program will not, of course, be enough on its own to save the rivers and oceans. After all, much of the pollution is coming from Asia and South America. Nevertheless, it would not only be a good start to getting the massive garbage problem under some kind of control, it would be one of those rare projects that coordinate government as well as private initiative.
The alternative – increasingly polluted water and contaminated marine life, eventually affecting humans – is not a viable and sustainable long-term option. It’s no longer even debatable, unlike the climate change debate. The teeming garbage is something everyone can witness in order to draw their own conclusions. My guess is that the majority of people – Liberals and Conservatives alike – desire to live on a clean and healthy planet. It’s time to get all 50 states on board this project and help save not only the oceans, but capitalism in the process.