GIGO: Turning And Turning In The Widening Gyre

There is good news and bad news with respect the the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (short video of “The Patch“). If you are not familiar with it, “the Patch” is a huge floating mass of garbage twice the size of Texas. The North Pacific gyre (currents) collects a portion of the waste we dump into the ocean and concentrates it.

Photographer Chris Jordan traveled to Midway Atoll, thousands of miles from “civilization”, to document some of the impacts of our consumption on one of the remoter places on Earth: Midway Atoll: Message From the Gyre . For those who do not know Jordan’s work, his photo collection Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption is well worth your time.

Also in the bad news department is that the Pacific Garbage Patch is not unique, even though it is the largest. There are 5 major oceanic gyres, and since we dump garbage into every ocean it is no surprise that each has it’s own garbage patch, such as the Atlantic Garbage Patch.

The very good news is that the solution to the garbage patch(es) is technologically feasible, straightforward, and cheap. Even better, it not only deals with the garbage patches, it also goes a long way to solving a plethora of environmental problems from climate change to deforestation. The very bad news is that we don’t want to do it. I refer of course to reducing consumption, radically.

Whenever I talk about this the reaction is generally fairly predictable, it is said that we can’t reduce consumption. Let’s be clear here – we are going to, voluntarily or involuntarily.

Our consumption is going to go down because we wisely planned and managed a sound ecological economy, or because we slid into ecological collapse. The former means dispensing with all of the dross and trivia to protect those things essential to lives of health, happiness, and dignity. The latter is about losing those essentials and all of the consequences of that.

Take a walk through the nearest mall and really look at the “stuff.” How much of that is actually necessary to a good life? A self-indulgent life, yes – but a good life? No.

This belief in the necessity of our consumption is usually associated with an unquestioning faith in Deus ex machina, ie that technology will save us. All of our schemes to maintain our lifestyles of profligate consumption through the application of more technology are ineffective because they treat one or two symptoms without addressing the problem.

A case in point is the notion of using some form of reflector to “stop global warming.” While this may have some impact of temperature rise, it does nothing about ocean acidification. If we go into worldwide famine as a consequence of marine fisheries collapsing, it’s a fair bet the game is over anyway as we slide into a period of war and chaos where we are unable to maintain the reflector infrastructure.

Another property of techno-solutions is that they do not solve problems, they merely change the nature of them. For example, bio-degradable plastics may prevent the accumulation of plastics in the ocean, but they are made from crops, which require land, which leads to deforestation, soil loss, pesticide use, energy inputs (ie more climate change) and so on.

The next stage of denial is the statement that “People won’t do whatever is required.” I can’t help but notice that there is an interesting dichotomy in the community at large. One group talks about what other people won’t do, while the other group talks about what they personally will do. The former never talk about themselves and their personal consumption, merely what others won’t do.

Of course there is a complex interplay of sense of empowerment, self-interest, and willingness to act. It is true that those who feel overwhelmed and helpless are not inclined to take action, but it is equally true that failing to act leads to feeling overwhelmed and helpless. The two feed into one another.  The only way to break the cycle is to act; do something to make a difference and discover that you do make a difference.

If that seems naïve, remember that almost any enterprise can be seen as hopeless if that is the mind set one wishes to adopt, from the epic such as fighting WWII, to the everyday such as the prospect of raising a child. Realistically raising a child is an insurmountable task and no one of sound mind would ever undertake it if they adopt the helpless mindset. Fortunately we contemplate parenthood considering both the challenges and benefits, and if we are mature we plan for the challenges accordingly.

Another common attempt to evade responsibility is to claim that the industrialised life style is necessary for the Developing World. This is a Red Herring in many respects. First, given that our lifestyle is undermining our ability to live at all, more of the same is not going to help regardless of any misplaced sense (or claim) of social justice.

It is the moral equivalent of saying someone else should start smoking because you do. Obviously another way to make things equitable is if we stop smoking, or in this case reduce our own consumption such that there is equity and justice.

Second, while the increasing levels of consumption in the Developing World are a concern, the fact is that the richest 20% of the population  consume 80% of the resources (globally that would be us). The problem is right now, and right now we are the problem. To blame the poor, or to use the them to justify our lifestyles is a moral obscenity.

And on it goes … the font of excuses is inexhaustible it seems. We are like an alcoholic who is willing to do anything, absolutely anything to save his job/marriage/life … except quit drinking, anything but that. Of course the only thing that is actually going to work is to stop drinking.

We still have choices, although our range of options are considerably narrower than they were when these problems first became obvious. In the time since then our pursuit of business as usual with an occasional sop to environmental concerns has had the predictable consequence of making no meaningful difference. To continue to pursue this course will have equally predictable results.

Where we go collectively is determined by our individual choices. We can deal with all of these problems, from the garbage patches to climate change, but it requires that we act, both radially and immediately.

The stampede ends not because the lead animal stops, but because individual members of the herd start breaking away from the group and choose a new course. In both human history and animal behaviour the lead animal is usually the last to stop, not the first. The decision you have to make is not whether to try and influence the lead or not, but what are you going to actually do yourself.

Photo Credits:

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone from Wikipedia

North Pacific Gyre World Map from Wikipedia

Pigs in Zen by AdamCohn


2 Responses to GIGO: Turning And Turning In The Widening Gyre

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  2. +1 Vote -1 Vote +1Mark
    April 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    The most maddening thing is that people are so degraded and suicidal they stand around and say there’s nothing we can do about it. Yes there is, they created the situation they can do something about it and the damn well better come up with the technology and funding to get started. Where are the ships picking up this trash? Humans do not deserve to live on this planet.