Boyan Slat's The Ocean Cleanup might not be the saviour we were hoping for

Obstacles
A 24-year-old Dutch inventor named Boyan Slat drops out of college to conceive an unprecedented approach to eliminating plastic pollution in the oceans.

On paper, Boyan Slat's story sounds like an inspiring tale of a young do-gooder coming up with innovative solutions to make the world a better place. Yet sometimes, it’s precisely the glamour of such stories that supersedes objectivity and prevents us from asking: “What if…”

In 2014 Slat established The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organisation focusing on the removal of plastic debris from the Pacific Garbage Patch  — an oceanic region twice the size of Texas. The Pacific Garbage Patch is one of five huge ocean gyres — an area within which plastic waste collects due to sea and ocean currents. It accumulates a significant chunk of the over 320 million metric tons of plastic waste that gets dumped in our oceans every year.

An Ocean Cleanup reconnaissance team calculated that the region holds approximately 1.8 trillion plastic pieces (and counting) at present. This waste is what the organization aims to collect using giant cleanup arrays that, Slat claims, would clean up 50% of the area within five years once fully deployed.

In an op-ed piece for The Economist, Slat blasts our tendency towards “low-risk/low-reward” approaches which, he says, is due to our overestimation of the consequences of failure.

So, let’s take a minute to discuss these consequences if we take the Slat approach.

The hype generated by The Ocean Cleanup initiative has been met with strong opposition from the scientific community, including oceanographers, marine life experts, and plastic pollution activists.

According to them, the project is an inefficient, expensive approach that may add to the water garbage, not to mention destroying the marine life of the area. Plus, alternatives exist which are much more effective, at a correspondingly cheaper price tag.

Plastic in the ocean does not look like the ones we find in landfills. Due to the forces of nature, the plastic turns into microplastic, minuscule pieces that are found deep within the ocean. The arrays Slat has invented are only capable of collecting larger pieces which are found in the top three metres of the ocean. This means that a vast majority of the plastic will elude the arrays when they are deployed.

Several experts have also raised concerns over the structural integrity of the arrays themselves. Winds and ocean waves are likely to damage or destroy any machine with moving parts, and the arrays may end up joining the plastic debris in the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Most scientific experts are of the opinion that Slat’s arrays will end up causing harm to the marine life in the ocean.

Whether it's due to natural biofouling of the structures, which Slat’s team doesn’t have an answer for, or the high likelihood of marine life getting swept into the arrays along with plastic debris, Slat's ocean cleaning arrays pose a high risk to marine life.

Plastic pollution experts say that cleaning efforts should be focused on the beaches which is where the plastic from gyres tend to wash up. A community initiative to clean up all the plastic on the shores, along with the use of technology such as the Water Wheel in Baltimore’s coast would be a much cheaper way with higher rewards.

There’s no fault with the vision of Boyan Slat and the Ocean Cleanup. Cleaning up our oceans in one fell stroke is the Holy Grail of environmental activism. But if you’re reaching for the stars, you better make sure you got the best spaceship out there.  

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  • Climate crisis has arrived, stop feeling guilty and start imagining your future

    Obstacles

    Evidence of the devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change are stacking up, and it is becoming horrifyingly real. There can be no doubt that the climate crisis has arrived. Yet another “shocking new study” led The Guardian and various other news media this week. One-third of Himalayan ice cap, they report, is doomed.

    Meanwhile in Australia, record summer temperatures have wrought unprecedented devastation of biblical proportions – mass deaths of horses, bats and fish are reported across the country, while the island state of Tasmania burns. In some places this version of summer is a terrifying new normal.

    The climate disaster future is increasingly becoming the present – and, as the evidence piles up, it is tempting to ask questions about its likely public reception. Numerous psychological perspectives suggest that if we have already invested energy in denying the reality of a situation we experience as profoundly troubling, the closer it gets, the more effort we put into denying it.

    While originally considered as a psychological response, denial and other defence mechanisms we engage in to keep this reality at bay and maintain some sense of “normality” can also be thought of as interpersonal, social and cultural. Because our relationships, groups and wider cultures are where we find support in not thinking, talking and feeling about that crisis. There are countless strategies for maintaining this state of knowing and not-knowing – we are very inventive.

    The key point is that it prevents us from responding meaningfully. We “succeed” in holding the problem of what to do about the climate crisis at a “safe” distance. As the crisis becomes harder to ignore – just consider the current batch of shocking reports – individually and culturally we will dig deeper to find ways to strategically direct our inattention.

    How do you feel?

    The standard narrative for a piece like the one I’m writing here, as a social scientist, is to now say something about how the crisis could be better communicated. The billion-dollar question, of course, is whether this most recent disaster can be used to motivate real change. No doubt it is important to keep this kind of commentary up. It is key that we consider how to give the climate crisis traction in a culture so accomplished at distancing us from uncomfortable realities.

    But let’s be honest. No one really knows what works. We have never been here before. And I’m starting to think that more of this kind of analysis is, perversely, another example of distancing us from that crisis. Intellectualising terrifying climate crisis stories as an issue for “communicators” and “the public” is another way of detaching ourselves from their reality, from the relevance to me and you.

    So let’s cut through all that and stop invoking an imaginary audience. Many terrible things are happening as a result of climate change – their happening is being reported. How are you receiving it? How does it feel? Are you shocked, horrified, scared, bored, tired? What do you do with the terror? Do you compartmentalise it somewhere “safe”? Perhaps like me, you know you care. You attach importance to climate change, you want to act correctly, avoid risking other lives, damaging homes and habitats. Perhaps you know you are scared too – scared of contemplating what we have already lost or of what will happen as the crisis gets closer still. Scared of what you are being asked to give up.

    Add in some residual guilt and you might then engage in a defence of some kind, consciously or otherwise – telling yourself that others are more responsible, there is nothing we can do, everybody else seems to be carrying on as normal. As the crisis deepens, the walls close in, you might double down on those defences.

    Imagining a future

    So where do we go from here? How might this knowledge help us – you and me? We must make a commitment, but not of the kind you might imagine. The shocking reality of the climate crisis is making its way into the webs of everyday life, emotions, thought processes, relationships, hopes, dreams and fears. Perhaps we should commit to letting it, as an alternative to doubling down on our denial.

    We can do this individually, but more important is collectively acknowledging our fears about actual and anticipated losses. Fears about the loss of species and habitats, but also our established ways of life. This leads to more constructive questions, about what we want to hang on to, what are our obligations? I don’t have ready answers to these questions, but I am still confident we can find ways to keep doing the things we really care about – for ourselves, each other, the places we live in. But we need to talk about these choices.

    Such a process is still miles apart from many “sustainability” agendas. Halting the climate crisis is still predominately framed as a matter for individual choice and change – use less plastic, cycle to work, fly less. But the behavioural response required is way more complicated than that.

    When it comes to the climate crisis, the personal is political. I am talking about a politics that grows from opposition and critique of our current systems. This is evident in young people organising school strikes and protesters willing to get arrested for their direct action. But we also need to pay more attention to what is lost, to who and what we care for, to other possible ways of being.

    Some conservation scientists, at least, see recent cultural change as a hopeful sign of a growing sense of care and responsibility. So stop feeling guilty, it’s not your fault. Be attentive to what’s going on, so that you might notice what you care about and why. What are you capable of, and what might we be capable of together, when we aren’t caught between knowing and not knowing, denial and distress?

    See what obligations emerge. There are no guarantees. But what else do we do?

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Olu Jenzen, Principal Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Brighton. Read the original article here.

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  • Grassroots not grass-fed: the US might be getting its first vegan president

    Solutions

    The newest addition to a generous list of 520 (!) candidates for the upcoming 2020 US presidential election, was senator Cory Booker. On February 1st, Booker announced he is running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.

    Booker, a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School graduate started his career in politics in 1998 as a Member of the Municipal Council of Newark with an upset victory. Between 2006 and 2012 he served as the 36th Mayor of Newark and assumed office as a US Senator in 2013, making him the first Black senator from New Jersey.

    As Senator Booker joins the most diverse Democratic presidential candidate pool in history with five women, one LGBTQ+, one Latino and two Black candidates (as of February 4th 2019) he’s also making history as the party’s first vegan candidate.

    A vegetarian since 1998 and vegan since 2014, Senator Booker often speaks about how switching to a plant-based diet has improved his life both mentally and physically. Alongside advocating for a plant-based diet for personal health reasons he is also very outspoken about the negative effects of the animal farming industry on the planet and on the lives of fellow humans.

    In an interview with plant-based magazine VegNews Booker said:

    “You see the planet earth moving towards what is the Standard American Diet. We’ve seen this massive increase in consumption of meat produced by the industrial animal agriculture industry. The tragic reality is this planet simply can’t sustain billions of people consuming industrially produced animal agriculture because of environmental impact… We will destroy our planet unless we start figuring out a better way forward when it comes to our climate change and our environment. ”

    Booker’s dietary preferences stand as a stark contrast with the current president ’s notorious diet of steak with ketchup and twelve diet cokes a day, as does his central message of unity and grassroots action.

    Cory Booker is not the only vegan US politician who’s running for future elections. Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, a vegan advocate who has several initiatives such as promoting vegan lunches in local school districts, will be running for mayor of New York City during the 2021 elections. A fellow New Yorker and vegan, Council Member Helen Rosenthal will also be running in the 2021 elections but for New York City comptroller.

    Many people have declared 2019 the year of the vegan and the plant-based diet the future of nutrition. A new way of eating with the premise of a flourishing planet and better lives for its inhabitants is making its way through our society from music to technology, and now outspoken vegan politicians with a real shot at the office in the country that is the world’s largest meat consumer.

    All signs point to a plant-based future.

    Speaking of a plant-based future, our first Kinder Conversation on the Future of Meat is fast approaching. We'll talk about the 'new meat' and how as a society we can (and should) reduce our dependency on animal farming. Get your tickets before we sell out: http://bit.ly/KinderMeat

    Header image is by Sean Davis via Flickr.

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  • Capitalism is killing the world’s wildlife populations, not humanity

    Obstacles

    The latest Living Planet report from the WWF makes for grim reading: a 60% decline in wild animal populations since 1970, collapsing ecosystems, and a distinct possibility that the human species will not be far behind. The report repeatedly stresses that humanity’s consumption is to blame for this mass extinction, and journalists have been quick to amplify the message. The Guardian headline reads “Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations”, while the BBC runs with “Mass wildlife loss caused by human consumption”. No wonder: in the 148-page report, the word “humanity” appears 14 times, and “consumption” an impressive 54 times.

    There is one word, however, that fails to make a single appearance: capitalism. It might seem, when 83% of the world’s freshwater ecosystems are collapsing (another horrifying statistic from the report), that this is no time to quibble over semantics. And yet, as the ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has written, “finding the words is another step in learning to see”.

    Although the WWF report comes close to finding the words by identifying culture, economics, and unsustainable production models as the key problems, it fails to name capitalism as the crucial (and often causal) link between these things. It therefore prevents us from seeing the true nature of the problem. If we don’t name it, we can’t tackle it: it’s like aiming at an invisible target.

    Why capitalism?

    The WWF report is right to highlight “exploding human consumption”, not population growth, as the main cause of mass extinction, and it goes to great lengths to illustrate the link between levels of consumption and biodiversity loss. But it stops short of pointing out that capitalism is what compels such reckless consumption. Capitalism – particularly in its neoliberal form – is an ideology founded on a principle of endless economic growth driven by consumption, a proposition that is simply impossible.

    Industrial agriculture, an activity that the report identifies as the biggest single contributor to species loss, is profoundly shaped by capitalism, not least because only a handful of “commodity” species are deemed to have any value, and because, in the sole pursuit of profit and growth, “externalities” such as pollution and biodiversity loss are ignored. And yet instead of calling the irrationality of capitalism out for the ways in which it renders most of life worthless, the WWF report actually extends a capitalist logic by using terms such as “natural assets” and “ecosystem services” to refer to the living world.

    By obscuring capitalism with a term that is merely one of its symptoms – “consumption” – there is also a risk that blame and responsibility for species loss is disproportionately shifted onto individual lifestyle choices, while the larger and more powerful systems and institutions that are compelling individuals to consume are, worryingly, let off the hook.

    Who is ‘humanity’, anyway?

    The WWF report chooses “humanity” as its unit of analysis, and this totalising language is eagerly picked up by the press. The Guardian, for example, reports that “the global population is destroying the web of life”. This is grossly misleading. The WWF report itself illustrates that it is far from all of humanity doing the consuming, but it does not go as far as revealing that only a small minority of the human population are causing the vast majority of the damage.

    From carbon emissions to ecological footprints, the richest 10% of people are having the greatest impact. Furthermore, there is no recognition that the effects of climate and biodiversity collapse are overwhelming felt by the poorest people first – the very people who are contributing least to the problem. Identifying these inequalities matters because it is this – not “humanity” per se – that is the problem, and because inequality is endemic to, you guessed it, capitalist systems (and particularly their racist and colonial legacies).

    The catch-all word “humanity” papers over all of these cracks, preventing us from seeing the situation as it is. It also perpetuates a sense that humans are inherently “bad”, and that it is somehow “in our nature” to consume until there is nothing left. One tweet, posted in response to the WWF publication, retorted that “we are a virus with shoes”, an attitude that hints at growing public apathy.

    But what would it mean to redirect such self-loathing towards capitalism? Not only would this be a more accurate target, but it might also empower us to see our humanity as a force for good.

    Breaking the story

    Words do so much more than simply assign blame to different causes. Words are makers and breakers of the deep stories that we construct about the world, and these stories are especially important for helping us to navigate environmental crises. Using generalised references to “humanity” and “consumption” as drivers of ecological loss is not only inaccurate, it also perpetuates a distorted view of who we are and what we are capable of becoming.

    By naming capitalism as a root cause, on the other hand, we identify a particular set of practices and ideas that are by no means permanent nor inherent to the condition of being human. In doing so, we learn to see that things could be otherwise. There is a power to naming something in order to expose it. As the writer and environmentalist Rebecca Solnit puts it:

    "Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step."

    The WWF report urges that a “collective voice is crucial if we are to reverse the trend of biodiversity loss”, but a collective voice is useless if it cannot find the right words. As long as we – and influential organisations such as the WWF, in particular – fail to name capitalism as a key cause of mass extinction, we will remain powerless to break its tragic story.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Anna Pigott, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Environmental Humanities at Swansea University. Read the original article here.

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