The Pacific Garbage Patches: Pollution and Environmental Publics

This is an idea for a paper. Comments are welcome, but keep in mind that these ideas are at a very provisional stage.

The "Great Pacific Garbage Patches" are two massive collections of plastic flotsam that have accumulated in the North Pacific Gyre, one in the Sea of Japan and the other off the coast of Hawaii. They are the product of central vortexes in the Ocean where opposing currents meet, drawing foreign material into zones of relative calm.

In the late 80s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association predicted that waste from ships and shorelines would likely settle and steadily accumulate within these gyres, which was confirmed years later when a yachtsman and marine researcher named Charles Moore stumbled upon a sea of plastic approximately the size of Texas. Moore has helped popularize the problem and his efforts documenting it have been instrumental in bringing it to international attention.

As a waste enthusiast, I've been fascinated by it for some time. Largely because it was there for so long without anyone realizing it. Plastic was accumulating, degrading in the sun, forming a dense soup and entering the marine food chain, and the only reality it had for people the world over was as a theory in a seldom read academic paper from 1988, until a guy with a boat accidentally went off the beaten path of established shipping lanes, where vessels don't typically wander.

As with climate change, there is something new about this kind of environmental problem. Ulrich Beck predicted the rise of a risk society around the shared concerns of an endangered public. But where is the public for such an event? The problem is not only, as both Beck and Anthony Giddens have argued, that conventional interpretations of responsibility and culpability are problematized, it is also conventional understandings of environmental degradation and contamination that have to be rethought, I would argue, in order to come to terms with a problem like the Garbage Patches. As with climate change, half the battle is proving there is a problem and documenting the as yet unrealized or unrecognized danger it poses. At the moment, there is no victim save an abstract Nature, represented perfectly by a strange and alien Ocean (in the words of Stefan Helmreich).

Consider the difficulty with narratives of contamination. Most efforts to characterize the problem, at present, focus on the way marine life has been unnaturally spoiled through long term entanglement with our plastic debris. While there are obvious stories backing such an interpretation, rather than a straightforward story of contamination, there is far more likely a more complicated process of accommodation happening. With respect to the Garbage Patches, the most obvious point to make is that through bioaccumulation, fish ingest bits of plastic, which moves its way through the food chain. The consequences can be very dire, particularly as bits of undegraded plastic mist coat beaches. Yet given that life continues in the Pacific vortexes, and did long before they were discovered by Moore, it is clearly not entirely destructive. I am reminded of an artificial lake near Butte, Montana, where an old mine was decommissioned and accidentally flooded, creating a toxic mix of chemicals where, theoretically, nothing could live. Recent research has found microbiological life thriving in these waters and, in an even stranger twist, these organisms have been found to attack cancer cells in a laboratory setting, blurring even further the line separating life from death! I suspect that the more the strange, hybrid environments of the Pacific gyres are understood, the more we will see evidence of evolved naturecultures (to use Donna Haraway's terms), which however fragile they may be, are perhaps even more disturbing in their own way then straightforward environmental destruction.

Even if a simple story of contamination is possible, however, unlike climate change there is no apocalyptic doom to make it easier to stir the public into action. What public should one focus on? Is this Hawaii's problem? Or Japan's? Technically these are international waters. With all the traffic that travels the Ocean and all the detritus that enters it, carried by river from interiors of the continents, who is responsible for this? Perhaps it's fitting that when Moore was asked what should be done about the Patches, on which at the time he was the world's leading expert, he admitted that he didn't have an answer. There is something about this phenomenon that is deeply troubling. And I think the fault lies with exiting forms of environmental imagination and engagement, with an environmental politics that relies on predictable social dramas of blame and redress, typically organized by state and legal actors.

One example of a possible way forward is the Environmental Cleanup Coalition, which has proposed a non-profit Gyre cleanup project and marine research center. Since this problem belongs to marine researchers more than anyone else, it makes a good deal of sense that they would lead such an effort. Although, as with climate change, it makes one wonder about the politics of knowledge involved.

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Comment by Josh Reno on June 3, 2009 at 5:14pm
Do you know what I absolutely never tire of? Your awesome rants, sister!
Comment by Steven Devijver on June 1, 2009 at 5:09pm
Hey Josh,

Great points. And as you've said, there's too much good stuff here to do everything justice.

My conclusion from your points is this: emergence needs metaphors too. Whatever is brewing out there it will emerge rather than come into being by decree. We need metaphors for what is emerging.

This fits in nicely with my own work on disruption, emergence and conduction.

I define disruption as suddenly giving many people access to new options and opportunities.

Emergence is a state that comes in to being out of a particular state of disruption in which events have been set in motion whose outcomes cannot be reliably predicted.

Disruption and emergence are closely related to learning. Both are very closely related to uncertainty as well (the unpredictable future.)

Conduction is a state of emergence which constantly spawns new states of emergence (e.g. the Internet). When people call twitter as the new paradigm they're referring to twitter as the most recent new state of conduction.

What environmentalism hasn't managed to do yet is create a new state of conduction. Maybe we need to wait for smart electricity grids, or hyperlocal clean electricity production.

So what are the metaphors for this maybe one day new state of conduction?

Comment by Josh Reno on June 1, 2009 at 3:13am
Such wonderful points, I am going to be brief because I can hardly do them all justice. Thanks, to everyone, for helping me think through all of this.

1. The "us" was meant to be taken as generally as possible, to all those who've been touched by "the environment" as an idea in global circulation. My main point was to suggest that the biggest problem with the notion of an external environment might be that it fosters ressentiment - in an exisentialist sense. That is, the impossibility of a perfect environment that humankind's unfortunate existence implies, makes us feel always already guilty/at fault before we've even done anything. I would include in this Steven's description of inaction in the face of hysteria and propaganda. What we need, on the contrary, is for people to feel empowered and inspired. Sometimes I wonder if capitalism is so successful as an ideology because of its metaphors - profit, gain, investment, opportunity...

2. You make a great point, whatever its possible failings (and I hardly think I've demonstrated them definitively), the concept of nature with a big 'N' has mobilized people into action and has made an environmentalist movement possible. A movement which has definitely accomplished good and continues to do so. My interest is in its limitations and I think new problems demonstrate such limitations.

3. Hence I would totally agree that a new crisis every so often does "us" some good. There is currently A LOT of creative experimentation going on, across so many scales of bio-social engagement, vis-a-vis global warming that it is possible we are witnessing the creation of a new kind of what I don't know what to call but 'environmentism' - 'environmentality' might work too. This includes radical proposals to transform whole national economies around renewable energy, which my current work scrutinizes with wonder and doubt. Crisis still has some purchase, I would argue, even if we are growing weary of it, as Eliza rightly suggests.
Comment by Steven Devijver on May 31, 2009 at 10:13am
Hey Eliza,

Great point. Crisis also means that societies need to be coerced into making choices that they otherwise would not make voluntarily. The people that can create a situation of crisis in the minds of others then have power over society, including power over those that do not agree.

Hence, the goal of environmental efforts is not so much to solve particular cases of pollution or deforestation but to prolong the state of crisis, to contribute to it. Because inherently, when pollution actually gets tackled the state of crisis logically has to subdue but what we see is that it doesn't. For each step forward hundreds of new issues pop up out of nowhere that scream for our attention.

It is this eternal state of crisis that I wanted to refer to in my comments above. Many people will not act because they - correctly - feel that regardless of what they do to help the environment the fires of hysteria will keep burning and constantly fuel the perceived need of coercing people into action. This is not a rational weighing of options (it never is) but an irrational attempt to escape from the seemingly all powerful propaganda. It is this propaganda that for many people stands in the way of finding one's place in society.

I'm sure I have much more to say about this but for now I have to run.

Comment by Josh Reno on May 30, 2009 at 6:44pm
Thanks for the contribution, Stacie. To answer your question, let me pose another. What does "the environment" typically mean? If we are talking about a particular environment, we usually mean something analogous to "place" or "setting," as in "my work environment." But when the definite article is used in front of it, "the environment" usually becomes something detached from particular settings of human activity to denote an external, all-encompassing Nature that either is non-human or ideally should be. Now, there has been a lot of scholarship pointing out that such an understanding of nature is an ideological construction, not simply because human beings have transformed the world's nature unalterably for millennia (i.e., there is no nature anymore that is not already cultured), but because there are lots of ways of understanding the bio-physical world that do not neatly conform to the so-called modern divide of nature from society and culture.

I would say that where "environmentalism" takes this meaning of environment as its object of focus, concern, and care, it creates an artificial divide between your day to day to day life and surroundings and the thing that should be protected or is being threatened. If it has "failed," it is only because such mobilization has its limits. It is also quite powerful. Imagining the Earth as a natural whole somehow detached from us is very important for most movements to stop global warming, for example.

I should be clear, I don't think this is a verdict on the motivations or ethics of individuals - like yourself or me - who struggle to help the Earth while living their own normal lives in their own small portions of the Earth. If the environment concept has failed, it has failed us, but it is usually cast in the opposite way - that we fail the environment through our laziness or inaction. What we need to do, consequently, is have an understand of the world that reconciles our day to day lives and the moral choices we do make with a more encompassing - but far from alien - bio-cultural landscape. There are lots of people now experimenting with this, in different ways, but they are often limited, I think, by the ways we are forced to imagine what we are up to. In conclusion, we need a different politics of the environment that begins with new ways of rethinking it and I think certain kinds of new forms of pollution might show us the way by challenging us to think differently.

What a fun discussion this is turning into,

Comment by Steven Devijver on May 29, 2009 at 3:38pm
Hey Josh,

I really like this discussion, I've never been able to think about the environment in such a rich way before this discussion started.

I'm not part of academia - never have been - so I don't take conventions very serious. I do take them serious on the low levels - in the context of people I meet in order to understand these people and connect with them. On the higher planes of consciousness I take conventions into consideration as I see fit.

I don't think the environment as a concept has failed or is failing. Neither do I think the motives and actions of people cannot ever seriously be out of scope. Truth is, what is the environment?

There's a gigantic conflict of scales going on with regards to our relation with the environment as I see it. Typically we look at the environment through empirical evidence, especially about its past. This was what the earth looked like 300 million years ago, 600 million years ago, 2 billion years ago. These were the animals and plants we know to have existed at such and such time in such and such area. This is the very long term scale of the environment and critically it is this information and understanding that is being used to predict the future of the environment. We humans have no place in this scale yet its predicted future is meant to influence our behaviors.

Then there is the near-term scale which is the history of our species which goes back about 5 million years and of which very little is known but more is being discovered every day. Obviously this scale is about us as a species and critically it fits into the larger social scale which is the history of social species.

Then there is the short-term scale. When I look at my own family history I do not have any critical information about my relatives that predates the 20th century. I have a little bit of information on some my grand-grand parents but that's it. Honestly, I don't know where I come from, who my ancestors were, where they were living, what they were doing and this is true for all of us. So the only scale we fit in as individuals is very very short term compared to the environment and when we go back even a few hundred years we find nothing, void.

It is in this short term scale which includes our political history that we are trying to regulate processes that are inherently part of the very long term scale. Obviously, the processes that are happening in the very long term scale must be so vast that we cannot reasonably expect to have any intentional impact on them even in the longest time frames we can imagine to be manageable. Although we did cause some kind of warming effect by burning certain percentage points of all available fossil fuels the processes that got interrupted or affected cannot reasonably be under our control, where impact is not the same as have control over outcomes. Obviously by continuing to burn more fuel we're making things worse yet we burn this fuel because we want to keep control over things we hold dear with the effect of affecting processes we have no chance of controlling.

The big split is between the meaningfulnes of the actions that make things worse and the meaningfulness of the actions that make things better for the environment and ultimately for our species. But tipping the balance towards better actions being more meaningful than averse action has to happen on the very very short term scale. In other words, we have to achieve this through our perceptions of that very very short term scale. We have to imagine the environment as an integral part of this scale which must mean that we also have to integrate the social aspects into our very very short term scales.

I believe we have started to do this, this network being one example. Yet we don't agree on the subject (is it saving the environment, humanity, society, our way of life, our own lives and properties, ... ?), the theory (what are we doing wrong and how do we know what is right?) or the method (do we need more socialism, less state control, no states, more activism, more community, ... ?).

Hence, without a clear definition of what the environment actually constitutes of, how our species fit into this environment, and how our civilizations and we as living or passed away individuals fit into this view of environment I think it's very hard to define any kind of public. As you've said, it's not in anybody's backyard so whose backyard is it? Why would it be mine when it obviously isn't?

How can we merge conflicting theories of property and responsibility that we're trying to enact on society all at once? I believe any story of environmental public has to integrate us in a meaningful way and meaning can only come from social contexts. Is that social context society or is it something else? Isn't the problem that society (national society?) can no longer fulfill this role of meaning creating social context?

I'm probably just ranting, but I just feel that defining a public in a scope of which we hardly understand how we're relating to that scope doesn't make sense to me.

Thanks for creating the opportunity for me venting this.

Comment by Josh Reno on May 29, 2009 at 11:25am
Steven, you make some really interesting points. The failure of "environmentalism" to move people to action is a topic of discussion, as I understand it, within political theory. And one of the reasons that some people propose - I heard a version of this argument from Noortje Marres of Oxford recently - is precisely for the reasons you mention: that their everyday surroundings/concerns are not really understood as related to "the environment." "The environment" - as it is usually deployed today - means some kind of external, alien nature - which is why I think it is perfectly, paradoxically represented by the distant, polluted Ocean. In a way it is the failure of the environment concept which interests me here.
Comment by Steven Devijver on May 29, 2009 at 11:19am
Hey Josh,

Thanks for bringing this up.

I've been thinking about why environmental awareness efforts have so ineffective in changing people's behaviors. We still drive our cars as much as we used to, we still heat our houses as we used to, and so on. In fact, the current economic crisis is apparently much more effective in actually letting people reduce their footprints by saving energy left and right than any campaign has been.

The main problem I've identified - tentatively - is not so much the message but the theory and the method. The method by which environmental problems are addressed - and were meant to be addressed from the start - is socialism: the state making choices the people wouldn't voluntarily make.

The theory is that people are self-centered beings that will never give up anything of themselves to save the planet. The apparent lack of action is a backwash against this theory and this method. I believe people are feeling that the environmental concerns are being used by the state to increase their power and control and by left-wing activists to intrude in people's lives and impose impersonal measures.

In a time where the national governance level is becoming quickly irrelevant these national governments are trying to compensate their loss of relevance through new issues that require drastic measures which allow them to restore the levels of coercion they enjoyed in the past.

No matter how important an issue is, for many people it is impossible to indulge this kind of unwarranted power grab. There are many alternative ways in which environmental issues could have been tackled by a global community yet national bureaucracies have foregone them and put their own self-interests first.

Hence, not acting is the only way in which the powerless individual - now rendered even more powerless, in fact, rendered criminal - can respond. The core issue here is that national bureaucracies have made it impossible for many people to let their actions become meaningful, that is to select actions that improve the relationship between self & the world and that help the environmental cause at the same time. For sure, there's always been a part of the population that would always have cared about environmental issues, but there's a much larger part of the population for which their own relevance in the world is a far bigger issue than any environmental concerns.

To put it as bluntly as I can: if one cannot find one's place in the world - despite many attempts - what's the point of saving the world?

Thanks for bringing this up.



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