Climate change is the wrong ecological disaster to focus on

Climate change is a big deal. Left unchecked, the warming of the planet will result in rising sea levels, the extinction of many species, the death and displacement of lots of people. So yeah, pretty big deal. But, not by a long way, is it the most catastrophic problem facing the ecosystem. Plastic pollution poses a far greater threat, we just don’t realise it.

When we think of plastic pollution we perhaps picture a bird caught in plastic can holders or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating islands of rubbish, but these images hide the real problem. We’ve been told that the problem with this plastic pollution is that it doesn’t bio-degrade, that plastic lasts pretty much forever. And that’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. If every plastic bag remained a plastic bag then it could be dealt with as a plastic bag. Although plastic might last for ever, plastic bags don’t. Through the affects of UV radiation and the movement of the waves plastic objects are broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the sea every year, and it is all breaking down into microscopic plastic beads.

Fine, we might think. Plastic so small we can’t even see it. Problem sorted.

Microplastics with the size of 2 millionths of a metre or less are small enough to pass through the ‘blood-brain barrier’ that prevents hazardous substances from being absorbed into the brain. Let’s let that sink in. Plastic in our brains. And in the brains of any, and eventually every, animal on the planet.

Absorbed by ocean-living organisms such as plankton, which are eaten by fish, the microplastics work their way up the food chain to pose a threat to humans. Once consumed and excreted by us, they pass into other animals and eventually into every part of the ecosystem.

Microplastics are toxic to living things. They can cause cells to stop dividing, alter immune responses, increase vulnerability to neuronal disorders, damage vital organs and cause behavioural disorders. Knowledge of how microplastics affect individual organisms continues to increase but we have no way of predicting what effect they might have on an entire ecosystem. Or, as one scientist put it, “our understanding of their effects on ecosystem function, behaviour and metabolism of organisms remains elusive”. Whilst we don’t know what effect microplastics might have on life on earth in the future, we do have experience of humanity tackling these kinds of problems to look at. And for perspective, back in the real world, plastic pollution continues to mount up. In 1950, 2 million metric tons of plastic was produced globally. By 2015, it was 381 million metric tons. Over the last 80 years more than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been produced, and most of it is never recycled. So what might we do about this problem?

Erica Cirino, science writer, author and artist, writes about the how the key to solving the problem of plastic waste lies in holding accountable those industries that make and sell plastic products. These industries, she says, must be made to stop using their exploitative and dangerous systems. “Hopefully, plastic will one day be replaced with reusable solutions that help us outsmart corporate interests and change our wasteful, damaging habits altogether.”

This is one approach to solving a problem; remove the cause. It seems simple and obvious enough, but we can never tell what consequences may result. Complex problems almost never have simple solutions. And every solution invariably has unintended consequences.

Tech-optimism might take a different approach to the problem. It might say that given enough innovation a solution can be developed for any problem, no matter how complex. In applying plastic production technology in an attempt to solve a post-war economic problem, we created an ecological one, but no reason not to believe that applying technology to an ecological problem couldn’t be effective.

Except that technology solutions often follow the same pattern. They take the resources of the past, to fuel progress in the present, and push the costs and consequences into the future. Technology is time travel. Technology took the oil created by the decomposing bodies of prehistoric life, turned it into plastic products to make life more convenient for us, and created an ecosystem-wide catastrophe for generations to come. But this realisation doesn’t mean we’ll change our ways. We will give ourselves no choice but to deploy more technology to solve the problems of the present and in turn create greater consequence for the future.

Perhaps Max More and the other transhumanists wouldn’t want us to change. They “seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology.” Transhumanists see a future where human beings become increasingly augmented by technology. Although they consider a “perfectionist ethical imperative for humans to strive for progress and improvement of the human condition” they have always lacked a rationale. Why would we want to become cyborgs? The effects of microplastics might give us no choice. We may have no choice but to transform ourselves into battery-powered cybernetic devices no longer dependent on the ecosystem for survival because we destroyed our own food chain.

The planet earth of the future might be one unable to sustain animal life, not because of climate change but because toxic microplastics poisoned every species.

One day, our future will catch up with us.