Sunday, October 14, 2012

reflexive domination and plastic soup

Photo: Mandy Barker
Truth is timeful; history is its core and index. So taught the first generation of Frankfurt Institute thinkers - Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse. In keeping with this temporal truth notion, critical theorists today continuously rethink and revise their concepts in light of a dynamically unfolding social process. The master logic of that process may persist as a static essence of domination, but its specific appearance-forms emerge within a lived spectacle of kaleidoscopic flux. In a stimulating essay included in Critical Ecologies (Toronto UP, 2012), Christoph Görg discusses some recent efforts to rethink the dialectic of enlightenment.

Görg thinks the human relation to the biosphere is changing in some subtle ways, and he calls for a nuanced analysis of the domination of nature. As the ecological crises become increasingly undeniable, he argues, elites are responding in ways that cannot be characterized as simple denial or disavowal. In the post-Fordist phase of capitalist accumulation, the historical attempt to achieve utter or complete mastery of nature is finally understood to be impossible, according to Görg. Instead, technocrats and CEOs now try to master the unintended negative consequences of the failing forms of the attempted mastery of nature. But this ‘mastery of secondary effects’ or ‘reflexive domination of nature’ is a strategy of risk management that does not give up the goal of capital accumulation. The master logic remains the same, but the degrading biosphere is now addressed as an assessable risk or ‘security problem’ that must be coped in order to sustain the expectation of high returns on investment.

Photo: Mandy Barker
This reflexive domination of nature increasingly takes the form of so-called ‘ecological modernization’ and ‘greening of capitalism’. Techno-fixes are sought for the new problems that emerge continuously from the violent interface with the biosphere, which still is not acknowledged as a non-identical end-in-itself. In critiquing these pseudo-solutions, then, we need to acknowledge that capitalist technocracy does not have a single, unified position or strategy with regard to biospheric meltdown. A vast range of responses are being put into play, which must be analyzed within the specifics of local contexts and social force-fields. The emerging tendency, a reading of Görg suggests, is risk management through the ad hoc remediation of negative consequences, as these come into view.

These are helpful reflections that can illuminate some emerging responses to specific aspects of the meltdown. They certainly help to understand the oscillations of the ‘green revolution’ of GMO monoculture, as well as those of its marine twin, the ‘blue revolution’ of aquaculture. The possibility of profitably feeding the hungry billions opened the flows the venture capital, and each industry rushed to develop and deploy science- and technology-fed innovation ahead of its rivals, only to have to cope with devastating unforeseen consequences, from disappearing pollinators and mutant superweeds to the new viral outbreaks that rage through the fish and shrimp farms and escape to threaten what's left of wild populations. (On the latter, see Paul Molyneaux’s eye-opening Swimming in Circles, 2007.) Fix-it-as-we-go optimism, combining venture capital and techno-hubris, conveniently avoids the more troubling critiques of method and market.

Görg’s caveats also help us to throw more light on the social dynamics of plastic accumulation – that dismal shadow of the contemporary commodity. How did we ever live without it? Between seven and eight percent of world oil production is used to produce plastics. According to Plastic Oceans Foundation, more plastic was produced in the last ten years than was made in the whole twentieth century. And nearly half is used once and then thrown away. Much of that finds its way to the world's oceans. We are all, in effect, involuntary participants in an experiment that will eventually determine the long-term health effects of exposure to plastics and the ecological effects of its accumulation in the biosphere. Chemicals added to plastics are known to be absorbed by human and non-human bodies. Some of these are toxic and carcinogenic; others, including bisphenol A (BPAs) and phlhalates, are endocrine disruptors known to interfere with reproductive, developmental and immune systems in humans and wildlife.

When immersed in salt water or fresh water, most plastics leach hormone disrupting chemicals, and these estrogenic effects are increased by exposure to sunlight. We are learning to avoid water bottled in plastic that has been in the sun, but meanwhile on the high seas drifting continents of plastic have formed simmering soups of toxins. These marine gyres have initiated a lamentable ecocide, images of which unhappily haunt the biosphere thread of scurvy tunes.

How are we responding to the plague of plastic? What responses are available to us, as unwilling consumers? What responses are proposed by the profit-driven producers of it? What say the technocrats? How are the discourses constructed? Who shapes their forms and appearances? Is there anything yet that might credibly be called ‘debate' about it?

Recycling and ‘responsible consumerism’ are of course recommended to us. While such measures are important, any durable solution would have to address the problem where it begins: on the production side, in the plastics industry, the conventions of commodity marketing and, indeed, the manufactured fantasies and enjoyments of hyper-consumption. The producers have understood that ‘secondary consequences’ are emerging problems for them, too, and that these, as they become more visible and generally understood, are going to translate into public relations migraines.

The newspaper article reproduced below appeared last week in the Cyprus Mail. It reports on a campaign co-organized by Waste Free Oceans, ‘an initiative of the European plastics industry’, and Green Dot Cyprus, a non-profit company initiated by the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry to promote and establish the first collective compliance (recycling) system in Cyprus. With much fanfare, the campaign has ‘demonstrated’ a trawl system for collecting marine litter, loaned to Cyprus for a year. The municipalities are all called on to purchase a trawl and work with local fishermen, who know best where the plastic is drifting. 

Without doubt, this would be a good and laudable thing. There is much floating garbage in the ports and near-shore areas that could be captured and collected in this way. When we visited the sand beaches around Lara, near Akamas, where green and loggerhead turtles come ashore to nest, there was a shocking accumulation of plastic flotsam. The language of this campaign, relayed by the report below, gives us insight into the spectacular logic of ‘reflexive domination’. Detrimental ecological effects of plastic are now acknowledged. But the accents of the discourse are on the seen, the visible, the aesthetics of garbage and the implicit threats these pose to the tourism-dependent economy of Cyprus. Above all those terrible images of wildlife fatally entangled in plastic bags or strangled in packaging are to be avoided.

As can be seen, the trawl system is geared to trap relatively large pieces of floating garbage. But the ecocidal accumulation of plastic is more invisible and insidious. The large bottles, bags and whatnot eventually break down into crumb-sized fragments. Mandy Barker has collected and re-photographed plastic flotsam in images that vividly capture the artificial 'life-cycle' and dissemination of plastic. The bits and pieces are mistaken for food by fish, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals, which slowly starve as the plastic accumulates in their stomachs. In addition to these direct mechanical effects, there are the invisible and still uncertain chemical processes associated with long-term exposure. Gathering up the larger pieces floating around the coasts will, it is true, prevent those pieces from breaking down and adding to the gyres of soup. But this is literally a drop in the bucket meant to protect the aesthetic integrity of the tourist beaches, assuage consumer consciences and plant the impression that a problem is being effectively addressed. Such is the greenwashing of plastic.

Photo: Mandy Barker
What is not being said or proposed? Everything aiming at reducing the amount of plastic produced in the first place. The measures available range from taxes to outright bans. Industry has long resisted the principle of 'the polluter pays' with the usual threats to move production to more favorable business climates. Plastics producers will moreover claim that they should not be held responsible for litter dumped by consumers. Once health risks and ecological damage are factored in, however, it becomes clear that there are whole categories of plastic products, from bags to bottles, that do more harm than good, even if their 'convenience' has been addictive. Those who have benefited from supplying this dubious demand can certainly be expected and required to direct some profits to mitigating the damage their products do. The plastics industry, the ‘sponsors’ of Waste Free Oceans, should be taxed for producing the problem, and the revenues dedicated to remediation. The municipalities shouldn’t have to worry about where they will find funds to buy and operate these trawls, especially in conditions of enforced austerity. But the ‘voluntary’ corporate initiative on view here is meant to fend off any such approach. 

With regard to ecological sanity in legislation, plastic bags are emerging as a prominent litmus test. The United States uses some 380 billion plastic bags a year. Some nations, including China, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Taiwan and Bangladesh, have either banned plastic bags outright or levied taxes on their use. Ireland's consumption tax of 37 cents per bag cut usage by 90% in the first year. But the more promising trend is that many municipalities, responding to grassroots pressure, have decided to act in advance of any national initiative. In 2007, San Francisco became the first US city to ban plastic bags in all retail stores, including restaurants. Some 50 more cities in California are now following SF's lead. The unnecessary use of plastic bags became established through their being pressed on us freely at every point of purchase. We consumers, too, should be required to take responsibility for habits we acquired too unthinkingly. 

Cyprus, an island in an already troubled Mediterranean, should plan for the long-term and become a leader in adopting ecological accounting. Garbage trawls are nice, but comprehensive obligatory recycling, a ban on especially noxious plastic products and the establishment of a few no-take marine reserves would be far more effective in protecting the integrity of coastal waters and would be a wise investment in the future. If Nicosia is slow to reach these conclusions, municipalities can and should take the initiative. A full assessment of the island's prospects for sustainability would have to take into account all the ecological benefits now taken for granted and all the ecological damage and losses now shifted without calculation onto the backs and bodies of others; these 'externalities' will certainly shape the quality of life in forceful ways. Up for rethinking, in this light, is the long-term wisdom Cyprus' elective dependency on mass tourism.

That said, even to attempt to clean up the five continents of plastic soup revolving in the world’s oceans would require a serious and cooperative international effort involving governmental agencies and a substantial redistribution of public resources. Given what is spent routinely on national war machines, such a reorienting commitment would be a possible vector of demilitarization: re-function the navies for a peaceful biospheric mission. But even this kind of utopian reaching would still be ‘reflexive domination’ aimed at managing ‘secondary consequences’, rather than the reorganization of desires and production that is urgently needed. If we don’t change the way we live and produce, we will continue to add to the soup faster than we could ever vacuum and filter it. But seeing the problem and its scale more clearly allows the real discussions and debates to begin. How do we want to live, really, and what other life forms do we want to have with us in the biosphere? The social process can be changed, when enough of us are ready to accept nothing less. Ultimately, the global majority, thinking and acting where they live, is the only agency capable of this transformation.


For more, see: Mandy Barker, Chris Jordan, Plastic Oceans. A closer review of Critical Ecologies, ed. Andrew Biro, is forthcoming soon.

‘Trawling for Marine Litter off Limassol’
By Stefanos Evripidou
The Cyprus Mail, October 10, 2012

THE FIRST demonstration of a trawl system for collecting floating marine litter yesterday took place off the coast of Limassol, an initiative of the European plastics industry to help free the seas from debris. Agriculture Minister Sophocles Aletraris welcomed the official launch of the Waste Free Oceans initiative at the Limassol Port, noting that: “Marine litter is an environmental, economic, health and aesthetic problem... (that) can be found everywhere. It has consequences on the marine and coastal environment and also on human activities.” The launch was organised by the Waste Free Oceans Foundation and Green Dot Cyprus. 

Officials and journalists were yesterday given a demonstration of how coastal waters can be cleaned up, with plastic bottles and tins collected using a special trawl which can be fitted on a normal fishing boat. Green Dot director Kyriacos Parpounas said the special trawl has been granted to Cyprus for a year. He called on each coastal town to acquire one over time to ensure Cyprus’ waters are free of floating debris.  “The initiative makes use of EU fishermen- who know where the floating debris is and move through the currents of the sea- and the days when they can’t find fish in the sea, they can use this special equipment to clean the sea from floating debris,” he said.

The aim is to use EU funding through the Fisheries Fund to permanently support the cleaning of the seas by professional fishermen in the same way that they are subsidised for every ton of fish caught, he said. This in turn will help keep the seas clean while supporting the existence of the fishing profession, said Parpounas.  Aletraris highlighted a 2011 UN study, which found that most of the Mediterranean marine litter, about 80 per cent, comes from land sources and consists mainly of cigarettes, plastics, aluminium and glass, while floating marine litter is mainly plastic.

“Therefore, it is crucial to restrict the problem at its source,” he said noting that millions of tourists and locals spend a lot of time at the beach in Cyprus. “It is thus, increasingly important to keep both the bathing waters and the sea coast clean,” he said.

According to the EU’s Bathing Water Classification, Cyprus has excellent bathing water quality, while the main source of pollution identified is the illegal dumping of waste by ships, said the minister, adding, “More effective measures to control the illegal discharges from ships are necessary”. Limassol mayor Andreas Christou said yesterday the initiative comes at a time when the local authority is considering purchasing a €60,000 boat to clean up the waters around Limassol. However, the local authority will also take this latest project into consideration before making a decision, he said.

The Waste Free Oceans Foundation is an industry-led European-wide initiative to clean up European coastal waters, set up by European plastics converters. The aim is to provide solutions to the problem of floating marine debris. Fishing boats outfitted with a special trawl are able to collect between two to eight tonnes of waste for cleaning and recycling. According to the foundation’s website, the project can help reduce the floating marine debris on Europe’s coastlines by 2020 using fishermen and homegrown technology.

The foundation notes that many factors have contributed to a rise in marine litter: poor waste management practices in ports and marinas, dumping by ships and vessels, and the general public attitudes towards littering. “The implications of an increase in marine litter are far reaching- affecting both human health and the ecosystem,” said the foundation.

Photo: Mandy Barker
Photo: Mandy Barker


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