This is a follow up video I made highlighting the results of undergraduate research conducted on the Potomac River in the summer of 2017. I premiered this video at the VA Sea Grant Graduate Symposium on February 9, 2018.
When discussing environmental problems, I often hear this refrain:
Well at least s/he’s doing something about it!
That is, in my opinion, one of the most destructive notions that we as a society promote. Sometimes, doing “something” is way worse then doing nothing at all.
Case in point: This stupid thing. You’ve probably seen The Ocean Cleanup Project praised on the news as some genius invention from a teenager (who knows nothing about the ocean). Meanwhile, stuffy scientists have been criticizing it from the get go, offering way less sexy alternatives. Unsurprisingly, the test runs have not been successful, for some of the very reasons listed by its critics.
It’s important to pay close attention to the criticism being leveled against the project. No one is saying the project won’t do enough to remove plastic. Instead, they’re saying that there’s been inadequate research and preparation, especially regarding environmental impacts (which is bizarre, since the whole point of the Ocean Cleanup is to “save” the environment).
Take this little gem:
None of the species mentioned in the Zooplankton Diversity section (p. 320) actually inhabit the NPSG [North Pacific Subtropical Gyre].
Plankton make up the base of the food chain and are notoriously fragile. But the researchers couldn’t even be bothered to get the species rights?
That’s kind of a big deal. In fact, I would argue that the oversimplification of the massively complicated issue that is plastic waste, followed by the oversimplification of the massively complicated marine ecosystem, is precisely why the project has continued to fail.
It’s not like this information was unknown or unavailable at the time. The individuals who worked on the project just didn’t both to look any of this up. And the public rewarded that poor research with $10 million dollars in funds. $10 million that could’ve gone to actual conservation work, and is instead going to what could actually be very detrimental to the environment (Seriously, just read what smarter people then me have to say).
Then, there’s incidents like this, that often occur after man-made disasters:
According to conservationists, some well-meaning cleanup crews who unknowingly walk into nesting habitat may be doing more harm than the oil itself, experts say.
The above quote is from an article about the Deep Water Horizon Spill in 2010, but that’s not the first time that there’s been a conflict between clean-up crews and birds’ nests. I’m certainly not against oil spill clean up initiatives, but I also think that we as a society need to be more thoughtful about how we go about “helping” in any scenario.
There are several advantages to cash donations, he said. Cash can directly benefit survivors because it can meet specific needs, boost a local economy, and reach overseas locations more quickly. “Voluntary agencies need to crack the resistance people have to collecting cash. They feel it’s easier to collect the goods. But people could get just as enthusiastic about, say, a benefit event rather than getting involved in collecting and sorting.”
That’s a quote from 1999.
Take a look at this, from 2016:
“Money sometimes doesn’t feel personal enough for people. They don’t feel enough of their heart and soul is in that donation, that check that they would send.
“The reality is, it’s one of the most compassionate things that people can do.”
Aid workers have been saying for 17 years what they need- and don’t- from the public.
This very clear request has been ignored because it doesn’t feel good. You know what else doesn’t feel good? Cutting back on your personal plastic use. But that’s a much more cost effective and efficient way to curb ocean plastics.
It also feels pretty terrible to “do nothing” in the face of an oil spill, even if sometimes, it’s the best solution for long-term ecosystem recovery. But it doesn’t feel good to refuse to clean off oiled birds, even though “saving” them may be less humane. And you definitely vote for individuals who support environmental and safety regulations (something BP flouted).
When it comes to human beings, we especially want to be personal. That’s why we donate clothes, which we have plenty of because of our unsustainable shopping habits. I suspect that we would feel much less insistent that our clothes go to someone who “needs it” if we bought less, and actually wore our clothes out, rather then just out of fashion.
I’m not trying to say that fashion is evil, and we should never help out from an oil spill (I do think we should absolutely cut out most, if not all, plastic use). However, I think that we need to reevaluate the standards we set for our “good” acts, especially environmental ones. We need to be thoughtful, and yes, we should definitely listen to expert advice! Environmental scientists love the environment- That’s why we do what we do! If there was an easy solution to the environmental issues, we would have already implemented them.
When it comes to many issues, but especially environmental (and often social/environmental justice) the solutions cannot be simple, because the problems are not. But often the best solution is for each of us to make long term behavioral changes. That’s much harder to sustain then a weekend of volunteering or a donation. But that is what will bring about effective results.
So yes, sometimes it is better to do nothing. But usually, it’s best to do a bunch of little things, over the long-term.
My favorite activity in the whole world is beach napping.
Towel laid down, a cold beer, and the sound of sand grains grinding together as people crunch past. Just kidding, that part actually drives me insane.
This irritating pet peeve of mine is something I’ve never really contemplated before, until I wrote a paper about tourism’s impact on sandy beaches. Like most people, I knew sand dunes are in trouble and construction is an issue. But I had never thought about the itty bitty critters that reside in the sand.
This is embarrassing to admit, but until recently, I thought the area of sand between the high tide line and the sand dunes was fairly devoid of life.
However, it turns out that all that algae that washes on shore (and the food that we drop) provides a whole host of nutrients for small and large organisms alike.
While researching for my paper, I found myself looking up photos of organisms like sandpaper (pictured left). I realized I rarely see organisms like that when I visit the beach. I rarely see anything, to be frank.
I tend to visit the beach fairly late in the season. That means hundreds or thousand of Godzillas-I uh, mean, tourists- have already trampled the beach before me. That irritating sound that wakes me up from my nap is sand particles grinding together, crushing burrows and organisms under the pressure of giant feet (relatively speaking). To the beach critters, it probably feels a lot like that Godzilla image.
Disregarding my irritation, this can have real effects on the organisms that rely on these tiny invertebrates for food, including birds and fish. Not to mention it sort of dulls the whole experience of visiting the beach, as half the fun is the diversity of organisms that inhabit coastal ecosystems.
Entire economies are built around the beach industry, and as I stated, I’ve dedicated my life to beach napping. But the plight of our tiny victims should be recognized, and we should support efforts to reduce human impacts. Sadly, this often involves blocking off areas of the beach. I will support such measures, yes, even if it means I can’t nap on the most quiet section of the beach.
* Photo By Arnold Paul / edit by Waugsberg – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1174121
Feature image: By Bandai Namco Entertainment America, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48775179