It’s like that movie “Snakes on a Plane,” and here’s how I’d write the script.
The 5 Gyres team boards the S/V Mir for a two-week expedition to explore the newly discovered island in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. They discover there’s no island, it’s not a vacation destination at all, but a massive garbage patch of swirling synthetic chemistry. There’s a secret plot by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) to hide the mutant marine life dwelling within. In the middle of the night, the researchers haul their net on deck, only to find a tiny snake, which escapes into the bilge. Over the span of a few weeks, the snake swallows crew one-by-one, leaving the lead scientist to battle the giant ACC-SEA SNAKE on her own. In a final Battle Royale, she beheads the snake, saving her remaining crew, from eminent doom.
It’s 7:30 am, and the AVANI trawl has been out all night. There’s plenty of bamboo in the net, which I reach in to pull out piece by piece. I pull out a large seed, fragment of wood and I touch what feels like a piece of a black rubber tubing. I pull out a few more sticks of bamboo and then I see the head. It was as if I touched fire. I jerked my hand and stared at the creature for some time. It’s the most poisonous sea snake in the world. Raja, from Sri Lanka, calls it “Bomba” from his native Singhalese. He recounts a fellow fisherman that was scratched by the teeth of one that dropped from a net. “He almost died,” he says. It’s about 15 inches long, with beautiful black and yellow patterns on the belly and across the paddle-like tail. We take a dozen photos, talk about our regret having found it dead, and put it back in the sea.
“Wild Space” is now “Waste Space”
I’ve had a full day to think about the new normality of the background panorama of trash when I look in the sea. I notice it still, maybe a little less, but I want nature to be returned to the wilderness I remember from my youth. And that idea is what Randy Olsen calls “Shifting Baselines”, that we want nature to return to the normalcy of our memory, our primary reference. Conservationists of the 1950’s wished for 19th century nature. And John Muir and his colleagues wished for pre-Industrial Revolution nature. To think outside this box (as John Muir actually did) is to think ecologically, about unfathomed biodiversity, and psychologically to remove ourselves from some places. This does not mean we abandon wild space and leave it alone. Quite the opposite, we defend it with ferocity, because there is no more Wild Space.
We have plasticized our planet, and by 2050 we’ll reach 9-10 billion people, resource scarcity, widespread ecological collapse, and free-floating waste worldwide. ALL WILD SPACE IS BECOMING WASTE SPACE. Understanding and accepting these realities position us to do the work necessary to conserve and defend as much as possible. We must focus on protected space: MPA’s and marine reserves, and accept that all other space will be exploited for the sustenance of rising populations and a dumping ground for waste.
The norm today is to have few protected marine habitats among a wide unprotected ocean ripe for overfishing and waste disposal. The objective for ocean conservationists today is to flip this, so that Japan can’t find international waters for whaling, shark-finning operations shut down when boats are confiscated in protected waters, and companies are fined when their plastic products are found floating in the middle of the ocean.
This is the baseline we want to shift forward too.