Environmentalism

We may have mentioned before that we are passionate about the environment. However, we find ourselves increasingly frustrated by elements of the Environmental Movement. Here is an example.

Rogue Scientists

Environmentalists can struggle to achieve cut-through in this information-soaked modern world. Sometimes, in order to grab attention, they massage statistics and fudge facts. But when they put on a lab coat and do this as a scientist, they are taking an incredibly dangerous risk. If we lose our trust in the scientific community, all hope is gone. Scientists will become as trustworthy as politicians, and politicians will be able to claim that climate change is fake news.

Below is a small and seemingly innocuous example of how a scientist, however well-intentioned, has allowed his data to be massaged to fit a specific agenda. This article appeared recently in the Dominion Post. (we don't want to pick on anyone in particular, so we have redacted the scientist's name).

'Horrific' deaths from soft plastic

A third of turtles found dead on New Zealand beaches have swallowed plastic, an expert says, and single-use shopping bags are the most common culprit.

D** G****, of Massey University's Coastal-Marine Research Group, said the turtles' intestinal tract became blocked when they mistook soft plastics for jellyfish, resulting in “horrific” deaths.
In the turtles that I've looked at, and [from] other studies around the world, it's the soft, white, and translucent plastics items – so plastic bags particularly – that are consumed in a higher proportion that other items,” G**** said.

The Government has been facing mounting pressure from local bodies, environmental groups, and school children to take action over the more than a billion plastic bags Kiwis discard annually.
So far, there has been no real movement on the problem.
G**** had studied the bodies of roughly 80 stranded turtles over the past six years, and said of those with plastic in their stomaches, about half had died as a direct result.
On one occasion, he was able to tell by the label that the plastic wrapping had come from Lower Hutt.
G**** said the argument he had heard from Environment Minister Nick Smith in the past – that action was not needed as plastic bags made up only a small percentage of the waste stream – failed to look as the facts, or the environmental impact of plastic bags.

It has a huge impact because it looks like natural prey; it goes out in the oceans, it doesn't break down, and they float in the water continuously until they are either ingested or entangle an animal” he said.

Now, before you read on, close your eyes for a second and try to form a mental picture as to how many dead sea turtles are found washed up on New Zealand shores annually.

Did you guess 40, 80, 200, 1,200 ? The answer can be easily deduced from the information above. One third of 80 is 27 sea turtles with plastic in their stomache. Half of those, 13 turtles, had died as a direct result. Over 6 years. So 2 deaths per year. And these deaths were attributed to “plastic”. Curiously, the author did not narrow the category of plastic down in this particular sentence to “soft plastic”. There is research data available on this subject. It varies by species, but sea turtles tend to ingest more hard plastic, especially in the open ocean, simply because hard plastics survive in the open ocean much longer than soft plastics. Hard plastic, by its nature, lodges in the gut more easily than soft plastic, and is thus more likely to kill the animal. 

In one of the cases Mr G**** mentions that he was able to tell that the plastic wrapping had come from Lower Hutt. If the clue that he used the word “plastic wrapping” didn't give it away, then the fact that it had a label on it means it was obviously not a supermarket bag. It was almost certainly a piece of cling film, sea turtles' second favourite soft plastic, with a sticker attached. A fact that Mr G**** would have been well aware of, but failed to clarify. He also would have been well aware, but failed to mention, that their favourite man-made soft material is rubber balloons (Helium balloons freeze at high altitude and when they burst, form stringy “legs” which are visually attractive to turtles). Which makes a nonsense of Mr G****'s opening statement. He ends with a stunning quote (and not just his assertion that HDPE bags don't break down). For a person involved in marine research, Mr G**** doesn't appear to have spent much time in the water. As children, you may well have tried once to catch a fish in a plastic bag. You would have soon realised that it is practically impossible, even when you are moving the plastic bag as fast as you can. While drifting on the tide, the idea that a plastic bag could entangle a marine animal is simply ludicrous. Ask almost any marine biologist.

What we don't understand is that Mr G**** must be well aware that that his article dramatically misrepresented the facts, and that other factors, like fishing by-catch and degradation of nesting habitats, are threats several orders of magnitude larger to turtles' survival than single-use shopping bags. Why, we ask ourselves, would he risk his reputation, and the reputation of the scientific community in general, over HDPE bags? Mr G****, if you ever come across this page, we would love to hear from you.

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Here is an interesting TED talk that sums up how we feel about  how certain sections of the Environmental movement have hijacked truth and reason (for MSG, think single-use plastic bags).

Environmental Exaggeration