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Warring on Plastic: David Attenborough, Britain and Environmental Missions

Few documentaries have had quite this impact, so much so that it has ushered in the unfortunate combination of war and plastic, two terms that sit uneasily together, if at all. Tears were recorded; anxiety levels were propelled as Sir David Attenborough tore and tugged at heart strings in his production Blue Planet II. The oceans, warned the documentary maker, is becoming a toxic repository, and humans are to blame.

More than eight million tons of plastic eventually finds an oceanic destination. Decomposition will take centuries. For Attenborough, one scene from the series stood out. “In it, as snowflakes settle on the ground, a baby albatross lies dead, its stomach pierced by a plastic toothpick fed to it by its own mother, having mistaken it for healthy food. Nearby lies plastic litter that other hungry chicks have regurgitated.”

For Attenborough, plastic supplies a certain demonology for the environmental movement, a vast and urgent target that requires mass mobilisation and action. “There are fragments of nets so big they entangle the heads of fish, birds, turtles, and slowly strangle them. Other pieces of plastic are so small that they are mistaken for food and eaten, accumulating in fishes’ stomachs, leaving them undernourished.”

To firstly declare war against something deemed valuable, even indispensable, to preservation, distribution and storage over a multitude of products, to name but a few purposes, is lofty. To also identify the casus belli against the inanimate again finds haunting resonance with other failed conflicts: the war against drugs, for instance, or that against terrorism. Will this war go the same way?

Guilty consciences are powerful motivators, and fewer guiltier than the affluent, or mildly affluent. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May is one, a figure who has decided to embrace the environmental cause with vote grabbing enthusiasm. “In the UK alone,” she intoned, “the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls.”

May’s direction is far from surprising. There is Attenborough propelling a movement, and there are the votes that went begging in 2017. A Tory think-tank, Bright Blue, found that many who refused to vote for her party in the last general election considered environmental initiatives key. Its polling “shows that climate change is the second highest issue younger people want senior politicians to discuss more, second only to health, and actually the top issue for 18- to 28-year-olds.”

In getting on the cart against plastic, May has attempted, unconvincingly, to reassure critics that moving Britain out of the EU would not result in a lowering of environmental standards. Britannia will remain responsible. Her government, she spoke with confidence at London Wetland Centre, would “leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it”.

What Sir David says, goes, though May has suggested a slow approach that would eradicate all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042. (What, then, is unavoidable? The question remains unanswered.) “Plastic-free” aisles are to be encouraged; taxes and charges on takeaway containers are being proposed. None of these, it should be noted, entails Parliamentary regulation, retaining the old British approach of gradualism in action. No revolutions, please.

Supermarket chains smell climbing profits, luring the ecologically minded to shelves and fridges like willing prey. One such outlet is Iceland, a chain that wasted little time getting on the radio and airwaves to ride the green belt. Targets have been advertised, and it promises to remove plastic packaging from all its own labelled products over the next five years. Even better, goes the fine print, it will enable those with less heavily laden wallets to shop and stay green.

Companies such as Proctor & Gamble, makers of Head & Shoulders Shampoo, have collaborated to produce a recycled shampoo bottle using plastic found in beaches. This, in turn, pads out it advertising campaigns. Use our shampoo, and feel good about yourself.

The guilty consciences were whirling and emoting on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday as callers spoke of efforts to spend a week free of plastic, but ignobly failing before their friends, neighbours and fellow citizens, all of whom had managed to go one day further. There were accounts about how French and German supermarkets ensure that fruits and vegetables are free, emancipated from the confines of plastic, and, it would seem, ready to salve the conscience of the green consumer.

In Britain, Attenborough’s environmental influence has become priestly for such individuals as Oswestry schoolteacher Mandy Price. She has roped her daughter in as well in what has become a social media campaign featuring #doitfordavid, shared 125,000 times within a matter of hours. “It has been shared on every continent apart from Antarctica,” praises Emily Davies of the Border Counties Advertiser.

This arms race of satisfying a bruised conscience has an undeniable merit in so far as it acknowledges some of the disastrous consequences of humanity’s addiction to the accessible and the easy. Ambitious Mandy, for instance, speaks of her Facebook page “receiving photographs from lots of different people who are collecting plastic, even from holidaymakers in Cuba who have seen the posts and have recorded their own two-minute beach clean on the beautiful oceans there.”

But within such wars lie the seeds of, if not failure, then the coming of another problem. In the British case, enduring snobbery is pointed to. In Australia’s Northern Territory, environmental groups conceded in dismay that a ban single-use plastic bags less than 35 microns in thickness introduced in 2011 had not reduced plastic bag litter at all. On the contrary, the amount had increased.

This is a battle against human behaviour, against patterns of consumption and use in the human estate. It is, if nothing else, an attempt at behavioural adjustment and revolution. Such a tall order, such a mission, but one that provides Mandy with rosy affirmation rather than dimming scepticism.

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  1. Leah or the Cow Who Jumped Over the Moon

    Unfortunately we humans and the non-humans too are doomed or fated to be overwhelmed and poisoned by our plastic “waste”.
    World-wide over a million plastic bottles are manufactured every minute 24/7. Most of them end up in landfill or the oceans.
    That situation is only going to get worse as the demand for relatively safe drinking water rises in countries like China, India and many other countries too.
    And what about the plastic containers used to package so many other consumer items including foods and personal care products.

    Then there is the hugely growing problem of micro-plastics balls/particles which are being increasingly used in all sorts of products, including cosmetics and fillers for processed “foods”. They are also used as the ink for the printout dockets of our supermarket purchases. How many of these seemingly harmless dockets are printed every minute. There probably already are countless trillions of them in circulation, with a countless zillion times a zillion in the future.
    These micro balls are now being increasingly found in our municipal tap water.

  2. Andrew J Smith

    Difficult to know whether David Attenborough is a useful idiot or a willing dupe by representing not a serious environmental movement, but a conservation movement based on population, immigration and nativism; not unrelated to post yesterday , all to support oilgarchs and related.

    Quite a complex matrix of architecture or engineering cooked up in the US post WWII for ‘oilgarchs’ (plastics are a product of fossil fuels) and related to re-brand and astro turf as ‘liberal and environmental’ while maintaining or increasing income streams and their privileged position in global society. This is behind the slogans and/or constructs of ‘sustainability’, ‘limits to growth’, ‘steady state economy’, anti-globalisation or zero economic growth (good excuses to bar and/or blame brown immigrants or citizens for everything) with the Club of Rome being central to co-opt the ‘top thinkers’ from unrelated disciplines; hosted on the Rockefeller (Standard Oil/Exxon Mobil) estate (Club of Rome ‘theories’, constructs and loaded equations were quickly debunked by the University of Sussex, once details were made available, in ‘The Club of Doom’ ‘junk science’)

    Attenborough is joint patron of Population Matters in London with, amongst others, Paul ‘Population Bomb’ Ehrlich who formerly teamed up generation or two ago on Zero Population Growth with John Tanton (and Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson) supported by Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie Foundations; in addition to Ehrlich’s documented antipathy towards other types, its Tanton (admirer of the white Australia policy) who has been the most influential, including with Trump supporters, surprise surprise.

    Tanton has been described by former Reagan staffer Linda Chavez in NYT article ‘The anti-immigration crusader’ as the ‘most influential unknown man in America’, according to Tanton:

    “Will Latin-American migrants bring with them the tradition of the mordida (bribe)?” he asked. “As whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?”’

    Further, Population Matters and related are not transparent but have had links to Tanton’s US based network to inform media, ‘influencers’, public servants and MPs on population growth, immigratioln via the NOM net overseas migration data (inflated in 2006 by the Rockefeller founded, and informed by the American Eugenics Society, UN Population Council, and understood by nobody but produces scary headlines, apportions blame to ‘immigrants’ so high level consumption in west does not create cognitive dissonance).

    In the US the Southern Poverty Legal Center SPLC describes Tanton as:

    ‘John Tanton is the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement. He created a network of organizations – the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and NumbersUSA – that have profoundly shaped the immigration debate in the United States.’

    This follows exactly the architecture described by New Yorker investigative journalist Jane Mayer in Dark Money and related interviews about how (now the Kochs taking over the mantle from old oligarchs) to create a ‘media assembly line’ starting with sponsoring research in top universities while attempting to nobble education too.

    Of course it’s coincidental that many of these old ‘oilgarchs’ and related did business with and in Nazi Germany during WWII leading Eleanor Roosevelt to question their business behaviour, patriotism and ethics; not to forget their predilection for ‘eugenics’ exemplified by support for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Munchen from pre WWI which produced Mengele).

    Meanwhile, various Rockefeller Foundations made much publicity and PR about withdrawing their investments from Exxon Mobil due to climate change, suppose better late than never, though viewed with some scepticism by many outside the PR machine e.g. declining future income streams. However, keeping in mind JD Rockefeller’s business strategy dealing with regulation, competition etc. and his father who was actually, no joke, a snake oil salesman, some perverse revenge?

    If one is interested in education, marketing, communications, media, science and critical thinking it’s quite fascinating.

    PS I have just invested in a 2nd hand soda syphon to stop using plastic bottles 🙂

  3. paul walter

    Some one was saying on teev the other night on a doco that the amount of plastics in the system will double over the next decade, continuing the trend for this century.

  4. johno

    Thanks Binoy, this disaster needs highlighting. This is something I read recently from Avaaz.

    ( Dear Avaazers,

    We’ve all seen the horrifying images — whale bellies filled with bottles and bags. Islands of trash stretching for miles. Turtles tangled and drowned.

    It’s a planetary crisis and, unless we act now, there’ll be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050!

    But an amazing new study just found 90% of plastic streaming into our oceans comes from just 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. If we clean up these rivers, we could literally save our oceans! )

    This does not surprise me as I have seen footage of rivers so choked with plastic and rubbish that you can barely see water, and all straight into the ocean. Tsunamis, storms, hurricanes causing flooding, would also result in massive backwash of rubbish into the ocean. If these rivers could be cleaned up it would be a huge step forward for the health of the oceans.

    Where I live we have the luxury of a truck taking away our rubbish once a week. Many or most in poorer parts of the world would not have this luxury. So what do you do… chuck it anywhere and as many of us live on or near rivers the rubbish is soon on a direct course to the ocean. It was not that long ago in Bali when everything was wrapped in natural products (eg banana leaves) now plastic rules.
    Our world environment leaders need to come together on this asap and stop this madness killing wildlife and choking habitat.

  5. Jack Russell

    For a start, put a global bounty on plastic.

    Then, for our oceans, replace the fishing licences of the super trawlers and other very large destructive fishing outfits for plastic/garbage licences instead. The world’s plastic manufacturers must pay for all of this, and also solve the recycling issue, at their OWN expense, or shut them down.

    Extend that to all businesses who’s primary products ultimately become lethal garbage. The producers must become the pollution solution, or shut them down.

    Fight it at the $ource. We all know it’s the right thing to do . . .

  6. johno

    Jack Russell, entirely agree.

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