April 24, 2011

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Well, it's finally time to write what I have been putting off for no good reason. I think of myself as someone pretty environmentally aware and conscious, and like most people, I had heard that, "There is a garbage patch the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean." 

I wasn't sure exactly what that meant, but a picture came to mind of a landfill with water around it. Pepsi bottles sitting on top of Coke cans spread out as far as the eye could see...smell that fresh ocean breeze. Yet, that isn't an accurate description of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at all, despite what searching for pictures of the patch will show you.

The patch is actually more of a plastic soup than a true landfill style garbage site. It was discovered in 1997 when Charles Moore decided to take the route less traveled back across the ocean after a Yacht race and ran into a plastic minefield that he would only later understand. In fact, he would become the leader in studying and publicizing the problem, for instance here is a video from TED in which he explains what is going on.  He has such a tireless presence that it is hard to find an article about the GPGP where he isn't quoted as a reference, and you can probably thank him solely for someone telling you about the "Garbage Patch the size of Texas in the ocean."

He has done more than just sail through and talk about the plastic though, and took the next step to perform actual studies. In which he found that, "A total of 27,698 small pieces of plastic weighing 424 g were collected from the surface water in the gyre, yielding a mean abundance of 334,271 pieces/km2 and a mean mass of 5,114 g/km2." 

The questions then come up, how did all that Garbage get there? Why is it grouped together in one big patch? and What effect is it having?

Well the plastic is collected by the ocean currents which all circle one area. Discover does a great job in explaining how all this trash is collected, "When a plastic cup gets blown off the beach in, say, San Francisco, it gets caught in the California Current, which makes its way down the coast toward Central America. Somewhere off the coast of Mexico it most likely meets the North Equatorial Current, which flows toward Asia. Off the coast of Japan, the Kuroshio Current might swoop it up and yank it eastward again, until the North Pacific Current takes over and carries it past Hawaii to the garbage patch. These are the currents that make up the North Pacific Gyre." 

It has been concluded by Moore and the United Nations Environmental Program that 80% of the garbage comes from land-based activities, like the traveling cup described above. The plastic is literally gathered up and moved into the patch where it stays and breaks down. Yet, plastic doesn't really break down, and microbes haven't evolved to feed on it, but what it does do is photodegrade. Light causes the cup to be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. That's why the garbage patch is often described, more accurately, as a garbage soup. 

These little bits of plastic are really good for two things, looking like food and concentrating toxins; a great combination. PCB's, DDT, and PAH's are all absorbed from the water held in the plastic, only to then look like food pellets for fish/birds/mammals to eat. Which then get in the food chain to accumulate in the predators that feed on the animals eating the pellets.

Yet, researchers at Oregon State have shown some skepticism to what seems like a dire problem. While admitting that, "There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling." It is also argued that a lot of what is being said is blown out of proportion. 

Instead of looking at the area where high concentrations of plastic found and counting that as the size of the garbage patch, you could look at the amount of total plastic, and “If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded,” Angle White said, “the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line.”

It is also stated that the size of the plastic patches doesn't seem to be growing, but the reason for that isn't known. The plastic might be breaking down at a rate that the new plastic showing up just replaces what has been broken down, or less likely, that people have stopped littering as much plastic, so less plastic is making it out there.

The plastic patch isn't a huge blockade of bottles, but an area of ocean where the level of plastics is much higher than normal, and while there is a large area where there is much higher concentration, it wouldn't really be fair to describe it as a garbage patch the size of Texas. It's more like a bitter soup that no one wants to eat and is often claimed to be responsible for, "Killing a million seabirds a year, and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles."

So no matter how it is described, it is still a pretty large problem, but it's true effects are still being measured, after all it was only discovered a few years ago and still needs a lot of further studies. Yet interestingly, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that 70 percent of marine litter sinks.

So who wants to be the Charles Moore of the Ocean floor?

Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic

April 5, 2011

Wouldn't A More Appropriate Response be to Burn the Bible?

In the spirit of the Canadian Election and politics in general I will once again put off writing about the Great Pacific Garbage patch and instead concentrate on a hot button political topic, making the environment, as usual, wait its turn behind sensationalism.

Now the issue that I really want to talk about is the burning of the Koran by an obscure Florida church, but this incident has so many parallels to the Mohammad Cartoon Controversy that I think that discussing it would give the appropriate background  to further understand what is going on now.

In 2005 in Denmark, there was a battle between what should be covered and what should be self censored, and at the culmination of this struggle the Jutland Post showed an article consisting of 12 political cartoons (shown above) some of which depicted Mohammad. Those cartoon images sparked over 100 deaths in riots that took place agianst them in many Muslim countries.

The deaths were a direct result of the hypersensitivity numerous Muslim people to what would be seen as rather routine political cartoons and what is comparable to many cartoons published about other religions.

In a question and answer on the BBC the answer to why the cartoons were received with such vitriol and venom was given. "Of course, there is the prohibition on images of Muhammad. But one cartoon, showing the Prophet wearing a turban shaped as a bomb with a burning fuse, extends the caricature of Muslims as terrorists to Muhammad. In this image, Muslims see a depiction of Islam, its prophet and Muslims in general as terrorists. This will certainly play into a widespread perception among Muslims across the world that many in the West harbor a hostility towards - or fear of - Islam and Muslims."

Hrmmm, the deeply puzzling thing is not the hypocrisy that it is alright to have political cartoons of other political figures, and religions, but not of Muslims or the Muslim religion. That hypersensitivity is pretty well understood by there being such a barrier to religious criticism, as Dawkins puts it in The God Delusion, ""A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts - the non-religious included - is [held] that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offense and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.(p.20)"

There is so great a barrier to criticizing anything Muslim that it isn't puzzling at all why there was a visceral response to the cartoons, but how that response played out is puzzling.  How is it that someone offended by being characterized as a terrorist could, in any way, think that the answer was in taking part in terrorism?

This is what happened again last week. A church in Gainesville, Florida put the Koren on trail, and burned it after a deliberation of  8, hard thinking I'm sure, minutes. A video of the 'trail' and burning was then placed on the internet and took a couple of months to resurface in Afghanistan last week, but it resurfaced in a big way. The video was shown and there was a call for justice during April 1st sermons and thousands took to the streets causing riots that have reportedly settled on Monday and a death toll around 20.

A United Nations building was surrounded, two people were be-headed and Nine people foreign to Afghanistan died including, "Five Nepalese guards, a Norwegian, a Russian, a Romanian and a Swede." No one from Florida was found injured.

Barack Obama in response released a statement saying, "The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry...However, to attack and kill innocent people in response is outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity."

Now the act of burning the Koran has been rightly criticized as causing harm, and showing the intolerance of some people in the west, yet I do believe in a strong enough freedom of speech that it would allow someone to be extremely  intolerant and make political statements like burning the flag out of protest or holding a mock trail to burn the Koran (I'll post about this at a later time). 

So while the burning of the Koran showed intolerance, Barack and any sane commenter rightly condemns the mob actions as an atrocity that lies on a completely different scale than burning any book.

The appropriate response would have been to hold a trail, burn the Bible and declare Terry Jones and his followers hypocrites. It would have been a political act on the same scale and would point out the inconsistencies in the logic that Terry Jones was using, but I guess it might not been as immediately satisfying as beheading someone from the United Nations there trying to make your nation a better place, making Terry Jones's criticism justified. 

"What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?" p.27 The God Delusion. All this respect does is build up a barrier that makes people think that when that barrier is broken that they can respond with mob justice or purely unjustifiable actions.

There is a systematic self limiting of criticism of religion because of reactions like this and the answer isn't to demonize and alienate Muslims, it's to treat them like equals and let people have the freedom to make political cartoons and allow people to burn Koran as a political statement even if only to condemn the action afterwords as bigoted and intolerant.

The answer isn't to not talk about peoples religions at all, it's to be much more open about them.

Thanks for Reading,
-the moral skeptic