The Proper Gander Column from the January 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
Programmes like Blue Planet II (BBC1) make us feel a bit less begrudging if and when we cough up for our TV Licence. A follow-up to 2001’s Blue Planet, the epic documentary series is a fascinating look at life in the world’s oceans. Its production involved 125 expeditions across four years, using the latest camera technology to record more than 6,000 hours of underwater dive footage alone. The lengths which the researchers and camera crews took to get the right shots shows an impressive amount of determination, such as staking out places over months waiting for rare events, like the Marbled Grouper Fish’s annual spawning in French Polynesia. The end result is both a jaw-dropping spectacle and a valuable piece of research, which has netted over 13 million viewers for Auntie Beeb.
David Attenborough is our guide as each episode takes us somewhere different, from coastlines to the deepest depths, with their own colourful, interconnected, varied ecosystems. The more we learn about the creatures which live in and around the oceans, the more complex they turn out to be. Who knew, for example, that Clown Fish make noises and apparently communicate with each other, almost like they do in Finding Nemo? Or that Orca Whales perform backflips into shoals of herring to stun them before eating them? Both of these species are impacted upon by the ways we use and abuse the seas: noise from boats confuses Clown Fish by drowning out their own sounds, and Orca Whales have been killed by the fishing fleets they’re competing with for herring. Blue Planet II’s last instalment concentrates on these and other threats to the oceans caused by society. The programme’s tone remains optimistic, though, by highlighting people who have dedicated their lives to protecting the seas and what dwells within them.
One major threat to the oceans is plastic waste: around eight million tons of plastic a year end up in the sea, whether through shoddy disposal practices or cargo falling overboard, which happens more often than you might think; on average, four shipping containers a day fall into the drink. In 1992, a container ship 1,000 miles off Alaska lost a consignment of rubber ducks, and their journeys across the seas have usefully been tracked, with some reaching as far as Australia and Scotland. The durability which makes plastic so useful isn’t a good thing when it’s thrown away. A rubber duck–or a drinks bottle used for a few minutes one lunchtime–will take many centuries to biodegrade naturally. If it ends up floating around an ocean it will eventually break down into smaller pieces which get mistaken for food by marine life. Even plankton ingest tiny fragments of plastic, and when other creatures eat plankton and they in turn get eaten, plastic travels up the food chain. Deposits of plastic build up inside larger creatures, and these toxins contaminate their offspring. The programme includes sad footage of a Pilot Whale carrying its dead child, probably poisoned by pollution, and a collection of debris regurgitated by a declining Albatross colony. Discarded fishing nets, six pack rings and carrier bags entangle birds, fish and whales. It’s estimated that tens of millions of sharks are killed by nets every year.
Not mentioned in the programme are the ‘garbage patches’, where ocean currents have swept up plastic rubbish to form islands. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be at least the size of Texas, and may even be over twenty times larger. Cleaning this up is just one of those problems which we’re leaving for our grandchildren to deal with, along with radioactive waste and landfill sites. It’s difficult to turn a profit out of dealing with detritus, so there’s little incentive to address this now. And it seems that the garbage patches aren’t threatening the smooth running of capitalism enough for legislation to be put in place to deal with the problem. Less than 1 percent of international waters are protected by law, because laws to safeguard the oceans require agreement across states with their own commercial interests. Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the Paris Agreement about climate change was presumably made because he recognises that the treaty could limit profitable-but-polluting industries.
The effects of climate change are most apparent at the poles. In the Arctic, the amount of ice during its Summer months has reduced by 40 percent over the past 30 years. Oceanographer John Copley gathers data for international research into changing global temperatures and flies over Antarctica to see the massive splits in ice shelves caused by their melting. As ice thaws and breaks up, stored water is released, leading to a gradual rise in sea levels. It’s estimated that by the end of the century the sea could have risen one or two metres, displacing millions of people.
As well as the rise in sea levels, climate change is also leading to an increase in sea temperatures. One result of this is to damage the algae which lives in coral, leading to the coral being weakened until it dies, a process known as bleaching. In recent years, half the world’s reefs have been affected. Underwater cameraman Dr Alex Vail, who regularly films around the Great Barrier Reef saw a bank of coral ‘turn to rubble’over a period of just a few weeks. This also had a disastrous effect on the countless other creatures which lived on the reef.
Climate change and garbage patches have both come about because capitalism encourages us to produce and consume in ways which make money for the few rather than make sense for the environment. Fossil fuels remain more profitable to produce than renewable energy, and it’s doubtful if the tide will turn quickly enough to reduce climate change. And it’s in commodity manufacturers’ interests for us to use more plastic, such as with the cycle of throwing out a Coke bottle so we can then buy another one. The consequences of our wasteful, short-sighted society are being played out in the world’s oceans. How much sea ice and coral will be left by the time they start filming Blue Planet III?