Monday, July 7, 2014

Pathfinders: Plastic Waste – Is There a Solution? (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the August 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Protecting the environment is in our hands’ –  a bold statement printed on a large supermarket chain’s plastic bags. The implication is that these bags are special, better than before or better than other ones. But are they really? The implication is also that it is consumers who are responsible for the state of the environment depending on the choices they make. Much money is spent on advertising and public relations to convince us of that responsibility; buy our product and know you’re supporting a worthwhile cause; use this product and do less damage to wildlife; for every one of these you consume 10p is donated to protecting dolphins/saving coral reefs/planting trees/rescuing donkeys etc, etc, ad infinitum. The poorly informed consumer, kept in the dark and fed mostly green bullshit is neatly handed the responsibility for consequences of decision making processes in which they played no part.

Plastics are polymers which do not, cannot, biodegrade. They cannot be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms. What they do do is photodegrade, break down in light to smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming minute particles of polymer dust which stay around forever. Some of the latest technology claims that plastics with certain additives will degrade safely and more quickly given the correct conditions, i.e. carefully controlled landfills or industrial composters. The biggest challenge for composters is that they can only deal with discrete types of plastic and must not be contaminated with mixed lots – and they are few and far between because of the monetary cost. 

Landfill conditions vary widely and are recognised by environmentalists as being far from the ideal method of dealing with plastics. Current estimates for worldwide recycling of plastics is in the region of less than 5 percent, one reason being that there are so many different kinds of plastic. Recycling codes on packaging and containers trick consumers into believing such waste will be recycled after collection but there are at least seven different codes, all requiring different, separate methods of treatment, the outcome being that most of it is just dumped. 

As to how much is dumped it is probably impossible to say, however one recent estimate gives a figure of 65lbs of plastic waste per capita per annum in the USA. If we were to take a per capita figure for the whole of worldwide population of just 1lb per annum, 95 percent of which would be dumped, it works out at somewhere around 2.5 million tons. (At 10lbs 25 million tons, at 65lbs 160+million tons) – just plastic. 

For many decades a number of countries around the world had a policy of dumping household and industrial waste directly into the seas and although this policy has changed in certain areas the accumulated waste of plastic and its toxic chemical components are still there and are being added to daily. One estimate is that currently 80 percent of ocean rubbish is from the land and 20 percent from shipping. A single 3,000 passenger cruise ship accumulates about eight tons of waste weekly.

It was first predicted in 1988 that rubbish would be accumulating in the North Pacific gyre, a whirlpool created and moved around by the currents. Its existence was discovered to be true in 1997 when it was happened upon by Charles Moore returning from an ocean race when he sailed through a vast expanse of floating rubbish. The extent of the rubbish is difficult to measure as the particles are mostly broken down into tiny fragments and cannot be seen from the air, but they extend both outwards and downwards over an area variously claimed to be between the size of twice that of Texas to the overall size of the USA. 

Subsequent ongoing research has determined that the plastic concentration in this gyre is 6-7 times that of zooplankton, the basic foodstuff of oceans, and is continuously ingested by wildlife along with the absorbed organic pollutants which it attracts. Decomposition leaches toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A, PCBs etc., causing hormonal disruption right through the food chain from the tiniest organisms to birds, fish, reptiles and mammals, including humans. Moore’s team’s research recently estimated this particular ocean gyre to contain in the region of 100 million tons of rubbish. In the past decade it has been confirmed that this huge ocean rubbish tip in the North Pacific is not alone; there are now known to be another four – one each in the South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. An informative website including a ten minute video can be accessed at

A trawl of the internet shows that there is little interest from big business in using less oil-based resources in general manufacturing and packaging; that landfill sites are full to overflowing with no solution in sight and scant reference from governments; that profit-based schemes win out over environmentally sound ones; that there are limited moves towards more recycling in only a minority of countries. China now both exports plastic goods and imports waste plastics for recycling and remanufacturing in order to export more plastic goods – at what cost to the environment? And the rest of the world is complicit because it’s cheaper that way.

As consumers we can separate and recycle our rubbish diligently and have a (baseless) expectation that ‘the authorities’ will take care of the next stage but protecting the environment will only really be in our hands when the system is in our hands. 
Janet Surman

Bruce and Bannockburn (2014)

From the July 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
The second part of our series exposing the myths of Scottish nationalism.
June 24th marked the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn which was just one of many battles between competing Anglo-Norman dynasties for the Scottish crown.
Separating myth from historical truth is no easy matter. Scottish nationalism starts from the assumption that Scotland was a nation from medieval times, if not earlier. Nationalists assert that Scotland achieved nationhood from the ‘War of Independence’ against the Edward the First, and William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge (1297), the battle of Bannockburn (1314), and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) are presented as expressions of Scotland’s national resistance against English colonialism.
The nationalist story of Scotland's past is that it has been a history of fighting to defend itself from England in a tale of freedom won, and freedom lost. Now with the Independence Referendum there is a chance of a separate state once more. It is, however, a fanciful notion that Scotland achieved national consciousness and nationhood in medieval times in the 'War of Independence' against proud Edward’s army.
Edward certainly sought to incorporate the territory of the kingdom of Scotland into his feudal empire. At first the means were peaceful. The Treaty of Birgham in 1290 set out terms of a future dynastic union through the marriage of Margaret, the 'Maid of Norway' to Edward's son. It recognised Scottish independence and the interests of the ruling nobility in Scotland would have been left unaffected. The merger was to be of crowns with no significant change for the commoners. However, Margaret died and this triggered a constitutional crisis in Scotland so with thirteen rival claims to the throne of Scotland, the barons turned to Edward to settle the dispute. He proclaimed himself lord paramount of Scotland, and decided that John Balliol had a better claim than Robert de Brus (Bruce the elder). John Balliol was accordingly crowned king and duly paid homage to Edward in 1292.
Conflicts within the feudal elite in Scotland, and harsh demands made by Edward on his vassals, drove John Balliol into revolt after Edward haughtily ordered Balliol into military service in France. The Scots instead ratified a treaty with Edward's enemy, Philip IV, and war was inevitable. Edward was free to roam through Scotland taking control of castles and humiliating Balliol until the forced abdication of Balliol in 1296, stripping him of the royal emblems that earned Balliol the insulting name ’Toom Tabard’ (Empty Tabard). He was sent to the Tower of London and thereafter spent the rest of his life in relatively comfortable exile. Edward's dominance over Scotland was total. He made over 2,000 freeholders swear allegiance to him, in a document which became known as the Ragman's Roll. Following several shifts of alliances, the feudal elite in Scotland began to turn the tables on Edward, beginning with William Wallace who never fought for an abstract ’people’ or even ’nation’, but always in the name of a legitimate power of which he was but the temporary protector or ’Guardian’ – King John Balliol.
The kings and the nobility of Scotland  were feudal lords, who did not even understand, let alone entertain, modern-day ideas of nationhood, nor could they. They were possessed of a culture drawn from the Norman French, who married across the whole of the north-western part of Europe and were, in this sense, completely cosmopolitan. Their domains of exploitation, their rivalries and their commonalities invariably coincided. They were lords in Scotland who also held large tracts in England. For example, the Bruce family had ties both north and south of the border, the abbey of Guisborough in Northumberland was a Bruce foundation and they held 90,000 acres of land in Yorkshire, while John Balliol, held land in Normandy and England, as well as Scotland. Members of the nobility from the kingdom of Scotland, for example Bruce’s rival, John Comyn, fought on the side of Edward in the conquest of Wales. The armies of Edward were recruited from his feudal realms in France, Wales and Ireland. The internecine struggles between competing feudal dynasties were based on the belief systems of the then-prevailing notions of fief and vassalage, not on the present-day concepts of nationhood. The lords in Scotland were engaged in a desperate struggle to defend and safeguard their traditional monopoly to exploit their estate serfs against the centralising power of Edward.
Robert the Bruce’s conduct previous to Bannockburn was in no sense supporting the ‘patriotic cause’. The young Robert Bruce brought up at Edward's court had been a favourite of Edward. He probably shared a mixture of the Anglo-French culture of northern England and south-eastern Scotland, and the Gaelic culture of Ulster, French being his paternal-tongue and Gaelic his maternal-tongue, and Latin his written language. The facts speak for themselves. Both Bruce and his father supported Edward’s invasion of Scotland in 1296, hoping to gain the crown after Balliol's fall. They were understandably disappointed when Edward proceeded to install himself as king. In 1297, Bruce raised the standard of revolt. However, his rising failed whereupon Bruce declined to join Wallace at Stirling Bridge and was also absent at the Battle of Falkirk, in which Wallace's army was devastated.
He, along with most Scottish nobles, changed sides on more than one occasion, depending upon how the wind blew. In 1302, he resigned as a Guardian of Scotland to make peace with Edward in order to marry the daughter of the de Burgh family of the Earldom of Ulster. Bruce, like all his family, had a complete belief in his right to the throne. However his actions of supporting alternately the English and Scottish armies had led to a great deal of distrust towards Bruce. His struggle for the Scottish crown wasn't an enterprise born of patriotism. Bruce's motives were more self-serving than that. The ascension of his family to royalty seemed more central to his long-term plans than Scottish liberation from English rule. His ambition was further thwarted by his chief political rival, John Comyn, known simply as the Red Comyn, and another lord of Norman origin who Bruce murdered in 1306. This set off a chain of events which led to both his excommunication and his coronation as king. He was most certainly a usurper so long as there was a legitimate heir of the Balliol family.
To attribute to the Declaration of Arbroath modern connotations of nationhood is as false as to impart similar meanings to the Magna Carta. Both these documents should be seen for what they really were – an expression of the interests of barons from the respective kingdoms and their determination to hang on to their privileges against the monarch. The rhetoric of the Declaration of Arbroath – ’For as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English’ – was never Bruce's rhetoric, for he had appealed to English lordship on more than one occasion.
A key passage in the Declaration runs thus:
‘Yet if he [Robert the Bruce] shall give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or to the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and we would make some other man who was able to defend us our king; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. For we fight not [for] glory, nor riches, nor honours, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up without his life’.
The above passage has been represented by some as the prototype for modern nationalism. In truth, this passage suggests the function of the noble estate ‘as the defender of the kingdom against the claims of the individual monarch in a way that was entirely typical of absolutist Europe’ according to the historian Neil Davidson.
Its message was two-fold. First, it was directed at Edward II, informing him that it was pointless for him to attempt to depose Robert with a more subservient king, since the remainder of the Scottish aristocracy would not cease its resistance. Second, it was addressed to Robert the Bruce, making it clear that, in consideration of his past record, they would not brook his jeopardising their interests – which lay in their god-given right to unhindered exploitation of the peasants – through making concessions to Edward.
Bruce at Bannockburn never fought for the people of Scotland – he fought to place a crown upon his head.
Next month: concluding article, on the Covenanters.