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                                 Nobody's Problem


By Terri Chu

If it’s nobody’s problem, does it really need to be solved?

Scientists are once again sounding the alarm about the untenable amount of plastic in the world’s oceans. It is estimated that there will soon be more plastic in the ocean than fish.  This is a problem. But whose problem is it?

Part of the reason nothing has been done about it is because, like climate change, the problem doesn’t belong to any one country.

 Small things are done when problems are recognized. India banned plastic bags in Delhi when they realized their sewers were being clogged and costing them money in dealing with it.  Certainly it wasn’t done out of the goodness of their hearts. Governments tend to take action only when quality of life for the majority of their citizens is affected.

In Ontario, we did nothing despite knowing about toxic mercury contamination in Grassy Narrows since it merely affected a small population of Indigenous people, a minority group that has been treated shamefully throughout our history. 

Even when our citizens are killed, we are loath to care, let alone when it’s nobody’s problem.

In addition, unless money is on the line, governments tend not to act. Delhi did a great thing by banning all single use plastics but their air pollution is choking their own citizens to death. Rather than tackle the source of the problem, something that could cost their economy real money, they decided they would drop water from airplanes and hope for the best. If there’s one thing I’m comforted by, it is knowing that invertebrate politicians aren’t limited to the first world.

Back to plastic that’s killing Nemo. Whose problem is it anyways? Apparently nobody’s.

A lobster was recently caught with a Pepsi logo essentially tattooed on its claw. It raises some concern over trash in our own waters, but don’t expect governments on any level to actually act on it.  Not until lobster fisheries are severely affected will any government make a move to deal with the problem.

During the post war era, we were a little better as a species when it came to dealing with collective problems. We created organizations like the International Whaling Commission as we watched whale numbers drastically decline. In 1982, the IWC successfully placed a moratorium on commercial whaling that has mostly been respected, save for a few countries - notably Japan’s delicious whales caught for “scientific” purposes where the meat then can’t go to waste.  Arguably, the IWC has had at least some positive impact on whale recovery despite continued whaling operations from a small number of nations.

In the Brexit and Trump era, creating such a body to deal with the ocean’s trash would be too hard to imagine. What were once two of the most powerful nations on Earth now pander to constituents that barely believe the Earth is round.  Getting them to believe that our plastic trash is pooling in international waters is a stretch of the imagination when it’s supposed to fall off over the edge into the ether. And of course, it once again becomes nobody’s problem.

The truth is, we have an economy that’s addicted to plastic. With seven billion of us on the planet, we are slowly writing our own death sentence.  At some point, we have to realize that our current modus operandi is not working. Alanis Obomsawin from the Odanak reserve in Quebec is credited with saying “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.”  It’ll be a little late then. 

Action has to be taken, and we can no longer rely on superpowers of old. The United States and Britain are stuck in a bygone era and we must move on without them. Canada has an opportunity to take a leadership position on this issue. Our motto is "From sea to sea to sea”. We have are bordered by three coasts. We have a heavy interest in keeping the oceans clean. 

There will certainly be a cost to taking action. Goodness knows the 1% can’t afford not to own over 50% of the world’s wealth. But the cost of inaction is rapid population decline and the lords will find they have nobody to rule over. 


Terri Chu is an expert in energy systems, with a Masters in Engineering specializing in urban energy systems. Terri founded the grassroots organization "Why Should I Care", a not for profit dedicated to engaging people on issues of public policy.




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