An unruly, ubiquitous tribe


    There are seven billion of us – an evolutionary tribe on the planet that author Reg Morrison – and, probably more famously, David Attenborough – have described as a ‘plague species’.

    Morrison’s book of that name has been skulling round upstairs at home for some months, snagging my consciousness without calling me to further action.

    Actually, its mix of ecology, economics and natural history portrays human history for what it is, a Greek tragedy in which our greatest strengths are no less our most dangerous flaws.

    And, as Google tells me, Morrrison’s account can be expected to address the crucial question of why, despite the fact that we humans are aware of our self-destructive style, we seem unable to take countermeasures to prevent disaster.

    Recent history (like this week) would indicate that gun-toting, electorally challenged Americans are in a virulent phase of this human predicament but we, too, have electoral challenges and urgent, compelling evidence that we have reached a point where we evolve into something more grown up – or die.

    To judge by the Guardian’s coverage of our election over recent weeks, the world is watching us, hoping that Jacinda Ardern’s ‘youthquake’ might build the wave needed to push back against vicious, unbridled individualism in the western hegemonies, the rise of kleptomaniac, vainglorious governments everywhere and appalling swathes of population displacement.

    As we wait out the uneasy fortnight before the Electoral Commission releases its recount and special vote numbers, two things had me eyeing Morrison’s book again.

    Can we really tolerate it if the world’s largest oilfield survey company, Schlumberger, is granted – by a supposedly democratic government – permission to search for oil across almost 19,000 square-kilometres of the Taranaki Basin, including in and around the critically endangered Māui dolphin and blue whale habitat.

    Schlumberger would sell the information it gathers to oil companies, including Austrian oil giant OMV, which has recently been searching for controversial Arctic oil.

    We don’t need to do this sort of thing. Living in one of the world’s most beautiful places, is it really acceptable to inflict such harm on whales and dolphins, let alone the stuff we don’t know we don’t know about less anthropomorphic species?

    A recent study published by science journal Nature, shows seismic blasting for oil has devastating effects on the most critical ocean lifeform, zooplankton, with “enormous implications for ocean ecosystem structure and health”.

    Nor, while reactionary western governments remain servile to international lobby groups including the shadowy but inflexibly tough US plastics lobby, will we make headway on an even more alarming tale.

    Sailing across the Pacific in the 1970s, we stopped in the Galapagos Islands where we and a couple of other yacht crews got grudging permission to trek across the Rangitoto-like terrain to spend a night on a stony beach frequented by seals. Everything was Darwinian and magical. Lizards on blades of grass blinked back solemnly and giant iguanas coming out to bask next morning assembled themselves into affectionate poses with their tiny arms draped across each other in sleepy, pre-historic peace.

    When we put to sea, riding the trades winds for French Polynesia, a humpback whale surfaced a few feet from our cockpit, its knobbly, crustacean-covered back far longer than our 42-foot ketch. It slid by with perfect precision, then resurfaced on the other bow for a further look.

    However, even then, and even thousands of miles from the land mass of South America where it originated, there was an astonishing amount of plastic rubbish, mostly janitorial detritus, on the exquisite, sandy beaches of the fabled islands.

    Now, a new study has shown that it is apparently nearly impossible to find a community or even a human being whose body is not contaminated by microplastic particles.

    Every washing machine spin cycle is releasing microfibres, carpets and clothes shed them continuously and, according to the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, the atmosphere is the most likely source of an almost ubiquitous, smothering presence that infiltrates even artesian wells and empty landscapes.

    According to Johnny Gasperi at the University Paris-Est Créteil, lakes and other water bodies are contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs.

    Even the water in the taps of Trump Tower and the US Congressional Buildings are contaminated. (Unsurprisingly, since the US has the highest national rates of plastic contamination at 94 percent, with Europe marginally less on 72 percent).

    All of this puts a perspective on the urgency of a new style of decision-making from our politicians.

    When we all went out to vote last month, it was pretty obvious that we were not out to allow giant oil yet another bite of an already bitter cherry, or global corporates to continue to lay waste to national economies to which they contribute little. Liz Waters

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