“I hope that someday we will find evidence that there is intelligent life among humans on this planet.” (Sylvia Earle)
I want to open with a question, a fundamental question to which no one really has an answer. The question is, how far can we go in pushing the limits of our global ecosystem and still get away with it?
We need to ask that question because we are today pushing those limits in multiple ways, with collective behaviours that have tangible, and dangerous, repercussions on the global natural environment. We don’t seem to consider that there may well be a point, a tipping point, beyond which our actions may push the natural environment off-balance for good.
Our prevailing attitude of business as usual, on account of the fact that we can currently manage just fine, is simply foolish, short-sighted, and utterly disrespectful towards those who’ll be coming after us.
We certainly don’t seem to be in a hurry. Global recognition of the fundamental issues raised by the impact we have on the environment usually advances at a crawling pace, taking times that only seem to compare favourably with the age of the planet. A crawl that then switches to something akin to an obsession, when the tide finally turns.
We have seen this with the global issue of climate change, which, after decades of disgraceful neglect, has lived to see the proverbial turning of the tables, to the point that it now has finally come to the fore of many governments’ environmental agenda. Climate change looks set to become, in matter of facts, the top environmental obsession of our times.
But, in reality, this widely publicised issue is not the only reason for concern, nor arguably the most pressing one, as anyone will tell you, who has fully contemplated the unbound devastation that has been carried out by man in modern times on his own living habitat. Other issues exist that are still grossly neglected, and that even carry the potential to wipe us out in a not too distant future.
While everyone worries – legitimately to an extent – about our planet warming up a bit too much for comfort in a century or so from now, there are yet a number of important questions to be asked that are vital to our very existence on this planet, and that never quite get asked. Not many seem to really care about quite a few other significant environmental threats that loom not too far ahead in the future, and that, in my opinion, might well one day spell the untimely demise of mankind.
At the root of all trouble resides the fact that what seemed once unthinkable has now become real. The kind of leverage man can now exert on the biosphere is no longer negligible, or unimportant – it has grown enough in power and scope as to affect our environment on a global scale, with consequences for the most part unforeseeable.
This is spooky scenario to contemplate, when you consider how flimsy are the chances of striking the right balance with such power in our hands in a consistent manner. As our leverage on nature inevitably increases over time, we only need to get it seriously wrong once – and then we are done for. Which is why I’m not too optimistic about a significantly longer existence of mankind on this planet.
I am not (and no one is) in a position to single out the one particular issue among the many that might someday prove fatal to our species, but I could comfortably point to the best placed candidates for the job – a number of fundamental problems that are still vastly underrated, and about which nothing much is being done, taken as we are by the all-absorbing fad of our day (not that much, other than talk, is being done – or could be done, for that matter – about climate change either).
I want nonetheless to single out one of them, one that remains blissfully disregarded in spite of the fact that it carries the potential for a devastating impact on our lives in a not too distant future. I want to talk about marine plastic pollution, and why it is poised to become a threat to our very existence.
Losing the oceans to our garbage
In the minds of many people, it is to stuff like mercury and oil spills that we risk losing our pristine oceans. But really, troubling as those leakages are, there is an even more insidious ingredient in the cocktail of garbage and poisons that we are relentlessly pouring into the oceans, one whose long-term effects we are only now beginning to appreciate. That ingredient is plastic trash.
If you are one of those people who think that the plastic garbage that ends up in the seas doesn’t amount to much more than spoiled natural beauty and a bit of trouble to marine wildlife, then, like most, you really don’t have a clue. Plastic in the seas does a lot more damage than that. In fact it is at the core of one of the most pernicious and intractable environmental problems, one that we are bound to fully face in the decades to come. Let me explain.
Plastic, we are accustomed to think, is something that’s very hard to destroy or degrade – hence its polluting action on the environment at the point when it becomes waste. The real trouble only begins, though, when a substantial fraction of it ends up, through various, often obscure, routes, in the oceans. Hard evidence of the existence and size of this process comes from a number marine trash patches, the size of continents, that have been lately identified.
There are, to this day, five known such immense patches of trash, confined within an equal number of oceanic gyres naturally occurring in the three main oceans. Sailing through any of them can be a disturbing experience of its own accord, but the trouble doesn’t end there. There’s more – and worse – to it than meets the eye.
Plastic, as a matter of fact, isn’t indestructible. If its chemical decay may seem to take forever, its physical breakdown is a lot faster – taking years, rather than millennia.
As it turns out, plastic displays a nasty habit of breaking down into tinier and tinier fragments, all the way down to truly microscopic bits, given enough time. On top of that, plastic also acts as a powerful sponge for all the contaminants and hazardous substances it comes across in the ocean, absorbing and concentrating any toxic chemicals at far higher levels than they are found loose in the water.
What happens then is that those small fragments of plastic easily enter the food chain, like treacherous poisonous pills, and once there gradually make their way up the chain, often breaking further down, but never disappearing. Plastic – and its poisons within – therefore, is currently building up inside the bodies of fish and sea-foraging birds at increasing levels, with a near prospect of making them at some point unsuitable for human consumption – or for any other consumption, for that matter.
Current estimates set the fraction of fish containing some kind of plastic inside their digestive system to one third of the commercial catch. How about having fish for dinner now? It is still speculative whether tiny fragments of plastic, along with its cocktail of toxic chemicals, may also find their way into the edible parts of the fish. But that outcome looks plausible, even inevitable, as the problem gets worse. Because worse it is gonna get. A lot.
We are, in fact, currently only experiencing the first inkling of the problem – just dipping our toes into it, so to speak. The bulk of the problem is still in the making, and will fully manifest itself in the decades to come, arguably in an explosive fashion.
The larger part of the plastic in the oceans has only been recently dumped (with more on its way), and it will take years – maybe decades – before the process of progressive break-down allows it to effectively enter the food chain. But in due time it will. When that happens it is easy to see that, starting from the lower rungs of the food chain and upwards, we are going to face a real possibility of losing fish as food. At the same time it is hard to tell whether the problem will just stop there, or will rather be carried further up the chain, ultimately spreading to the whole biosphere, with consequences that we cannot even imagine today.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the above gloomy scenario compounds ominously with a variety of other issues, like the progressive acidification of the oceans, or even the possibility of losing fish to plain overfishing, given the current unstoppable trend and destructive fishing techniques – all the while as the mouths to feed in the world steadily grow in number.
Even more worryingly, there isn’t any known effective way of cleaning up the plastic mess – and there won’t be any in the foreseeable future, even assuming that we’ll wise up at some point, and decide to do something about it. We must also bear in mind that the problem is only going to get more intractable as the plastic debris age and keep breaking down. Which is why this issue of our throwaway plastic addiction, displays all the hallmarks of a doomsday scenario to anyone willing to read the signs.
Wising up? Not a sign
You’d think that, given the magnitude of the problem we now recognise has been building up in these last fifty years or so, we’ve started taking some corrective actions at the source of our self-destructive behaviour – you’d think, but you’d be wrong.
Let me start out with a simple figure. How many plastic bottles do you think are being sold globally every year? A huge number, no doubt – but how many? Millions? Many millions? No, more. Maybe a billion then? Again, nope. The actual figure stands at a staggering 500 billion. Yes, you read that well, no typo – half a trillion. Every year.
I personally witness daily the signs of this damning trend, living as I do in a country that’s second to none in its consumption per capita of bottled water (in spite of having one of the highest standards of tap water safety in the world). Scores of trucks pound endlessly the already congested roads of Italy for the sole purpose of carrying useless bottled water that, at a high price tag, will take care of people’s irrational expectation of getting slimmer and healthier with a glass of some well trumpeted brand of water, regardless of all that is wrong with their lifestyles. But that, I recognise, is an entirely different story.
Of course, plastic bottles are just one very common typology of plastic product. There are obviously many others, including retail packaging, consumer products, industrial and agricultural materials. No qualms whatever seem to come up about the ever more ubiquitous use of this material. Case in point, again, my country has in recent years seen the introduction of what I call ‘plastic agriculture,’ whereby – I kid you not – the cultivated field, as well as the soil itself, are entirely covered with endless sheets of plastic appropriately shaped and pierced to protect the crop. From what I see, this idea is now spreading and fast becoming the norm.
There clearly is no way to manage effectively the tremendous amount of plastic garbage currently being produced on a global scale. The fraction of it that’s actually recycled is simply ridiculous. And even recycling does no more than pushing the problem further down the line. The only sensible way to go would be cutting production drastically at the source. Which we are nowhere near doing.
All put together, we are now steadily letting some ten million tonnes of plastic garbage of various denominations, slip into the seas every year. It has been estimated that there may be more plastic in large swaths of the oceans than there is plankton.
Everyone globally contributes to the problem. But who are the worst offenders? While the prime suspect, the rich West, is among the worst contributors per capita, the bulk of the trouble actually comes from South-East Asia, with China by and large the main culprit. The developing world seems to have even less mores then we have about protecting the environment. Which fact stands as an ominous sign for things to come as its industrial capability inevitably grows going forward.
Given the above scenario unfolding unequivocally before our eyes, it is truly astonishing, that the global production of throwaway plastic garbage still goes on today blissfully unabated, and actually increasing, if anything. It is truly astonishing that hardly anyone is seriously willing to tackle the problem, or to fully acknowledge its inevitable dreary consequences for our future.
Like I have pointed out, all eyes are on the obsession of the day, which right now happens to be carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – in consequence of which hardly anything else seems to register. Another reason for this reckless inaction is that the problem hasn’t quite blown to its full size yet. Sadly, we are a species that essentially lives in the present moment, and thus has a hard time dealing with something so ephemeral that it hasn’t materialised yet.
Therefore we can’t realistically foresee a swift collective change of course on issues of this magnitude. All past historical experience shows that problems are only dealt with when they have become big enough as to pose an obvious, immediate threat – never when they are discovered. This usually means that the price to pay becomes exorbitant too, and the corrective actions little more than a patch-up.
The very conduct of the political class worldwide through decades of stern warning from the scientific community over the coming dangers of continued, unbridled combustion of fossil fuels, stands out as a reminder of what we can realistically expect on any other similar issues.
Thus, our response, when it finally comes, will only be recklessly belated, hugely controversial, and largely ineffective.
Humans aren’t really as smart as they think they are – only fairly vocal about their presumed smarts. And any time plain stupidity (or short-term thinking, whichever happens to be prevalent) pairs up with an ever-increasing technological leverage on the forces of nature, big trouble is the only natural consequence.
The scientific denomination of our species, Homo sapiens sapiens (yes, twice sapiens!), is grossly misleading. It conveys the idea that we know what we are doing, when we patently don’t. A more fitting name, in my opinion, would be Homo technologicus, which would be better suggestive of the power we have in our hands, while shrinking from any implicit evaluation of the use we’re making of it.
We often deride communist regimes for the abject poverty that they invariably seem to bring onto their subjects. But, while our cherished capitalism may deliver a degree of dubious prosperity in the present, it also wreaks such havoc on the planet as to undermine the very future of mankind. We might well say that while communism brings misery to the current generation, capitalism only brings it to the next – and I have an eerie feeling that those future generations won’t feel too warmly towards our current mindlessly destructive capitalistic system.
I’ve borrowed my title – no blue, no green – from a trademark motto of Sylvia Earle, the celebrated oceanographer and explorer. It perfectly signify that life in the oceans, the blue, comes first, while life on land, the green, only second. When life is compromised in the oceans it becomes hard to see how it could still be sustained on land.
Of course, no one can quite predict the future, and it is entirely possible that rescue might come at some point in the form of an ingenious solution, like say engineering and deploying bacteria that can digest plastic. That could happen, and it could mitigate the problem, albeit probably at the same time opening up a Pandora box of other thorny side issues, as is often the case with all human tinkering with nature.
In fact, I fairly expect that some geo-engineering of sorts will likely be called upon at the eleventh hour, and that, as the name aptly suggests, it’ll be a great leap in the dark of untested processes applied on a global scale – something like a huge gamble.
Thus we can hope for the best, and confide in that tiny subset of mankind who provide for human ingenuity to pull us out of trouble when we’re in the thick of it. But it is also perfectly possible that no feasible solution shall ever be found to any one of the fundamental problems that we have created with our very hands. In that case our kind will possibly be facing its day of doom.
So my final question is, does it make sense to keep gambling recklessly in a game of dice with our fate, as though we had never evolved a pre-frontal cortex capable of setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom?
I’ll leave the answer as an exercise for the reader.