The issue of ocean plastics hit our TV screens with the BBC’s Blue Planet II, a national debate was sparked, and now public pressure is accelerating policy change. On the surface, this issue appears to be a product of our ultra-modern obsession with plastics, but in reality, the issue has a deeper, darker history. Ultimately, I believe this historical legacy proves that despite all the gloom, that the future of our oceans really is in our hands and change is genuinely possible.
To take a step back, the way we think about oceans is quite specific. We see them as a kind of wilderness and because of Western history and culture, we don’t encounter oceans simply as part of the environment, but through a particular cultural lens which we associate with particular ideas and expectations. To some, wildernesses are “The Last Frontier” to be conquered, to others, wilderness are primeval and untouched and act as places to encounter the immensity of nature and be overwhelmed by its vast Otherness and uncontrollability. To still others, wildernesses are an escape from the artificiality of modern life, a chance to re-connect with simplicity and timelessness. Whatever interpretation you favour, all of these have 2 things in common; nature is uncontrolled or uncontrollable and there is a desire to firmly separate ideas of nature and urban society when in reality, little distinction exists.
These ideas have major consequences around the globe. The deeply complex and highly political case of the Sami indigenous people within Laponia World Heritage site in northern Sweden is a case in point. By conceptualising Laponia as a ‘untouched’ wilderness, the fact that Sami people have lived there for generations is ignored. By imagining these spaces as timeless, there is resistance to allowing the Sami to adapt their lifestyles to match the modern realities of reindeer herding, such as the economic necessities of scale and mechanised transport and modern housing. Therefore, the supposedly pristine wilderness of Laponia has become a fraught battleground of environmentalism, indigenous rights, tourism and ethnic and national identity.
Similarly, if we continue to treat our oceans as pristine, untouched spaces, we ignore the reality of how much damage we have done and are still doing. We need to find ways of restoring this ‘sea blindness’, become more engaged with our oceans. We need to see them as something more than an empty patch of blue on a map; it is our responsibility to protect as much as the rest of our planet. Given the majority of oceans are not ‘owned’ by nations (its complicated, see here), the issue of ocean protection brings with it new questions of global governance and global responsibility.
So what can be done?
Today’s issues are not the first instance of ‘sea blindness’ to fundamentally change European politics. It seems that an age-old misunderstanding of our oceans is rearing its ugly head again, and challenging us in the new context of climate change, pollution and the interconnectivity of our planet.
In my mind, there are very clear parallels with piracy and plundering in the 16th century. Back then, challenges to reduce piracy and its impact on European states was fraught with difficulty. Careful political negotiations had to enter new conceptual territory to thrash out the concepts of sovereignty and global interactions, of ‘globalisation’, for the first time. The fragile political alliances born through these negotiations were uncertain; they could be broken in an instant of unsanctioned pirate attack. Today in the context of climate change, despite a strong concept of global governance and the responsibilities of the international community, the question remains how to collectively work together to tackle a global issue, without clear national borders in oceans. So, this is a problem that is already centuries old.
Moreover, the suppression of piracy was piracy went against the interests of many European states who used the profits of state-sanctioned piracy (privateers) to boost national incomes. 2 classic examples are the 16th century Englishman Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. In today’s context, we see a similar stalemate of who should take responsibility for impact of plastic in our oceans. How is it possible to regulate and control the impact of plastic production, far from any nation’s shores? How can we tackle this issue when the production and consumption of plastic is the backbone of the vast majority of the world’s economies and increasingly consumer orientated, urbanising cultures?
However, all is not lost. Recognition is that first step to solving this. Just as the issues of piracy led to new legislation and policy, today there are already incredible innovators and activists working to combat ocean plastics and our cultural blindness of the sea. Despite the vast geographical separation of the majority of us from ocean plastics, tackling the issue starts at home in our cities and every purchasing decision we make. For example, lobbying clothing manufacturers to reduce microfibre pollution and championing new products such as Guppy Friend and the Cora Ball, both of which catch microfibres before they even leave the washing machine. New businesses are meeting consumer demand for recycled plastic products such as Bureo’s stakeboards made from recycled fishing nets to are great examples to consciously changing our purchasing habits to more eco-friendly choices. Technological innovation is increasing the types of plastics that can be recycled in the first place and reduce the need to ‘downcycle’- when plastic is re-made into a less useful plastic. Plaxx is one great example, which is a way of re-forming plastic back to its original form of hydrogen and carbon so that it can be remade into something valuable. Similar technological innovation is rapidly progressing to increase the types of plastics that can be recycled- from Styrofoam to plastic food bags. As consumers and citizens, we can lobby for those responsible for waste to be more transparent, and demonstrate that their recycling trail is auditable and transparent. As the issues around exporting waste begin to hit the headlines, pressure to reduce waste export to countries that lack good recycling practices and assurances will help keep as much plastic in the circular economy as possible.
As well as direct action, cultural mindsets are also starting to shift. A global educational movement for change is underway. Daisy Kendrick of Ocean Generation is tackling the issue of ocean plastics head on by promoting values of ocean preservation and recycling, with the youth of Caribbean islands such as Grenada, who previously didn’t realised that the ocean was something that needed protection. They present their message through interactive sessions and online games. They are fantastic examples of how education can make a difference on both a global and local level.
So, despite a feeling of being an ultra-modern issue, the issues of ocean plastic and its implications for global governance go way back. With a combination of cutting edge innovation and education and awareness, together, we can solve the issue of ocean plastics.