The sequel to pollution


From oceans filled with plastic garbage, to stars that we struggle to see in the sky, pollution is seeping into and corrupting every aspect of our lives. Human beings are responsible for this unmitigated disaster and now urgent measures are being taken to meet this crisis head on. But is this a case of too little too late? asks Akul Tripathi. .

Pollution is today where climate change will be tomorrow. It is at the place where no one can deny it. For the simple reason that it is everywhere. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the roads we walk. True to the ancient aphorism of out of sight is out of mind, just like we hide away things inside cupboards and attics in a hurry to clear the house for guests, we try hard to get rid of all the waste that we can from front of us, in our daily lives, so that we don’t have to see it around us, on a daily basis.

It would be wishful to think that all the garbage we generate, all the pollution we create, would just stay hidden there. Someday the cupboards will refuse to shut, someday the attic will overflow. Out of sight may make it out of mind and we can temporarily ignore it. How long though, is temporary? The consequences of this ostrich like hiding-the face-in-sand behaviour are mounting fast – exponentially at that. Just beyond the line of sight.

Seas of plastic and oceans of ordure
“One must be a sea”, said German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, “to receive a polluted stream without becoming impure”. Who could have thought that we could kill an ocean? But we are making good progress on it. The day is not far that we succeed in this impossible seeming task! For long we have believed the sea to be that ultimate cleanser. Dump everything in the ocean and forget about it. For decades going on centuries, we have continued this practice of inserting cancer cells (our garbage) into the belly of the ocean and finally the symptoms have begun to show.

In 1999, racing boat enthusiast Capt. Charles J. Moore was returning home through the North Pacific Ocean and decided to go through a gyre (large system of rotating ocean currents) which fishermen avoided as there is poor catch, and he chanced upon a sight, the thought of which chills my bones – an endless floating waste of plastic trash.

“ I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments…”

– Charles J. Moore in Natural History Magazine, 2003

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The patch actually comprises the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California.

The name conjures images of a floating island, something like the islands in the movie Life of Pi; only, horrific instead of beautiful. In reality, however, it is made up of tiny bits of plastic, called micro plastics which are invisible to the naked eye and also to satellite imagery, as it is suspended just below the surface of water. Plastic, by its very nature is not biodegradable and instead of wearing down, they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces. The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap as it is estimated that 70% of marine debris sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Similar garbage patches have subsequently been discovered in all the major oceans, including the Indian Ocean. People who have seen these patches call them a kind of plastic soup with larger chunks of plastic items swimming in it. What is even more terrifying than the visuals these tales tell, is the fact that no one knows how much debris make the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or any other patches and nor do we have any estimates of the size of this disaster, as a lot of plastic floats centimetres and even metres beneath the surface.

It would be silly to even begin explaining the impact of all of this. The huge impact it has had and continues to have on all forms of marine life. To cut a long story short, let’s just say that everything is within a circle of life – birds and fish feed on smaller fish and eventually the indigestible plastic will continue its march to eventually find its way back to us – in our tummies to be precise.

Startlingly, this sort of patch was already predicted in the mid 1980’s and still matters were allowed to get so out of hand that the hypothesis today stands proved. Of course, now a plethora of laws have been thrown around and measures are being devised to arrest this problem. Yet it all reeks of too little, too late.

There has always been a chasm between laws and their implementation. However, this time, the fate of not individuals or races, but that of species hangs in the balance. So the next time you take comfort from the sight of the big deep blue, I hope the shadow of the evil lurking just beyond unnerves you, if only for a moment…

The end of night
To know of such slights to the home we live in, it is but natural to do what humans have always done – turn their heads skywards and take comfort from the forces that be. Smile at the twinkles in the sky and fill the heart with hope. But wait a minute. Where are the stars? All around, right up to the horizon is a haze of light fighting the little that is left of what was once the great inky black blanket with animated silver drops gliding through it.

Perhaps the least known types of pollution, but one with consequences as far reaching as any, is light pollution, also known as photo pollution or luminous pollution, which is largely the result of inappropriate and excessive use of artificial light that we fill in the areas we inhabit to allow us diurnal creatures to function for extended periods of time.

Light pollution is a side effect of our industrial civilisation. Its sources include building exterior and interior lighting, advertising, commercial properties, offices, factories, streetlights, and illuminated sporting venues. The fact is that much outdoor lighting used at night is inefficient, overly bright, poorly targeted, improperly shielded, and, in many cases, a completely unnecessary wastage of the light and electricity too.

For billions of years, the blue marble in the black void went merrily along lit only by the sun, moon and the stars. Its only in the last 100 years and incrementally within those to the last two to three decades, that light has become as much of a problem as a blessing. This engineering genius of lighting the planet that we have created, has its own share of consequences that affect the environment, wildlife and even humans.

A large number of species on the planet are nocturnal and to all species, light is a powerful biological force that acts as a magnet. Reports and studies are inundated with thousands of birds circling search lights and gas flares till they fall dead. Insects, as we all know, now cluster around streetlights and this has changed many feeding cycles. Birds are known to sing at unnatural hours and since longer days mean more time to feed, it has affected migration schedules. An increasingly persistent body of work is drawing parallels to various ailments in humans, like one that has found a higher rate of breast cancer among women who live in brightly lit neighbourhoods. Our own response to light and the way it affects our circadian rhythms, how it affects our sleep cycles are topics being studied in ‘light’ of the trappings of our modern world.

Solve and absolve
The mammoth scope and scale that these issues have assumed before we became aware of it is often intimidating. There is an immediate feeling of helplessness and of smallness against a gargantuan problem. As individuals, these are close to the most improbable situations that one can resolve. But there is no need to. The only absolution from this sin against nature is for every individual to abstain from it. Perhaps it is beyond each and every one of us on a personal basis to remedy this situation, but we can definitely take measures within our circles of influence to not be complicit in their furthering.

Not for some holier than thou ego trip or to step onto higher moral ground, but in hope of securing what were always the simple and most easily found pleasures of life – drinking clean water, breathing fresh air, eating wholesome food and enjoying the magnificence of that divine celestial movie in the glory of unlit skies…


Akul Tripathi

The writer is a media professional and freelance writer.