Solving Ocean Problems with Point Source Solutions
Some estimates suggest that if we recycled all the plastic on earth today, we would never have to make another piece of plastic again…
I have a good friend who sends me links to technical ideas directed at fixing major ocean problems such as acidification, plastic trash, and pollutants in our air and sea that represent clear and present danger to global health and security. These ideas are mostly big geo-engineering proposals: iron filings to adjust ocean pH, harvest of the enormous islands of plastic bottles and other debris found in the Pacific (and most recently in the Caribbean,) or technology that sucks in and filters large volumes of air to cleanse it of detrimental emissions. Recent news reports indicate that the use of such fossil fuels continue to reach record levels, indifferent to the rapid shift to less polluting alternatives.
These friendly exchanges ask that I think again about my own ideas about such things, and to articulate the arguments that counter their practicality — mostly the extraordinary demands of scale and capital costs invested in strategies that have no certain outcome and may exacerbate the problems as much as solve them. It is a good exercise, but it brings me back again and again to our propensity to fix things by actions that do not address the root cause of the problem at hand and may indeed have even worse consequences than the original situation presents.
It is also good to ask, who benefits from these ideas? Simply the enthusiastic engineers and inventors and investors who will bet on the next big thing? Or perhaps those with vested interest in the existing system who see any distraction or simplistic hypothetical as a means to prolong the effect, and profits, of the status quo?
What bothers me most about this is the resolve not to address the problem itself at its source.
Over the past two decades we have been well aware of the destructive public health consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. The debate has been serious and intense: we’ve engaged in military adventures to protect or possess oil and gas reserves abroad, have advanced technologies such as fracking to poisonous effect as a means to extend the value of the resources we already have, we bend our geopolitical agenda and behavior in support of policies and actions directly against our long-term benefit, and we attempt to undermine alternative technologies even when they are proven economical and transformative.
So let’s look at what might be simpler, more direct, point source solutions to some of these issues. With regard to ocean acidification and toxins in the air and water, the best possible action would be to regulate — or better yet stop — such emissions and pursue new, proven technologies such as solar or geothermal energy production. These are already providing clean, economical power for many individual homes and factories, some prescient cities, and indeed, some nations. If the United States wanted true energy independence, it would emphasize and incentivize aggressive change over to such technology at every level. As have been suggested, what if we built large-scale solar farms on public lands, using public funds for construction and connection to a new “smart” grid distribution system? Some estimates suggest that such a strategy would provide every erg of energy required for an expanding US economy with a return on investment that would far exceed the profits of the recalcitrant energy companies fearful of change. What if we just accept that our existing system is strategically bankrupt and financially counter-productive, holding our economy and employment back, and make a revolutionary shift to the future using knowledge and capital readily available if we decide to invest it?
And what about plastics? Well, there may be a short-term benefit in harvesting and recycling plastic waste where it is available in large concentration — at sea or at the local dump. What holds us back from that action now? Presumably price. But who benefits from the need to make more and more plastics? Right: the fossil fuel industry. Some estimates suggest that if we recycled all the plastic on earth today, we would never have to make another piece of plastic again. Or, what if we simply stopped buying plastic containers for our products and water, and used recycled paper containers instead? What’s the difference other than a re-allocation of investment to support a better alternative? Indeed, such products exist but are circumscribed in the market because there is no public groundswell for a fresh, less polluting, new employment, practical idea.
Finally, there is the role of the individual as the most common denominator in the market. If we boycott plastic, shift our investments in regressive product and production, legislate against it use as is being done in many locales, and demand alternatives in all instances against the continuing ill-effect of associated toxic waste and pollutants, we can take back our air and water and health and governance from those who do not have our best interest at heart.
We are the ultimate geo-engineers; we are the point men and women; we are the ultimate solution.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.