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.