Published 12 February 2017
Exploring the ocean’s plastic problem
While we have known for some time that plastic debris is a visible nuisance in oceans, increasing evidence suggests it is, bluntly, everywhere – from the Antarctic Ocean to the St. Lawrence Seaway – and that the problem is getting worse. We have moved from casual observations and stern warnings to sophisticated, verifiable scientific evidence and an emergent global policy imperative. This plastic plague is not only relevant for ecological reasons but is also presents a “governance of the commons” puzzle for practitioner and theorist alike, as well as a further challenge for the climate justice movement. The global threat from aquatic (micro)plastic debris is of the first order and plastic abundance in the natural environment will have a deleterious impact on the survival of future generations. This evokes obligations ergo omnes related to the common heritage of humankind. The problem can be linked to climate change. Emerging science suggests that ocean acidification, the potential breakdown of the ocean ecosystem food chain, rises in sea levels, invasive species, and plastic marine debris are interlinked variables. Thus there is a global imperative based on the four most widely accepted tenets of international environmental law (the precautionary principle, common but differentiated responsibilities, intergenerational equity, and the common heritage of mankind) to prevent further macroplastic, microplastic, and nanoplastic waste from entering rivers, lakes, and oceans. Despite the enormity of the problem, and for a variety of reasons, sporadic efforts at international policy development have yet to produce a new multilateral environmental agreement on microplastics. Has its time come? And what shape and form would a constructive and widely applicable convention take?
Dr. Peter J. Stoett (PhD Queen’s, 1994) is Director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre and Professor in the Department of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal. His main areas of expertise include international relations and law, global environmental politics, and human rights. In March 2017 he will sit as Provost Visiting Scholar at the University of Tasmania. In 2012 he was a Fulbright Research Chair at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.; in 2013 he was an Erasmus Scholar at the International Institute for Social Studies in The Hague; in 2016 he was the Leverhulme Scholar in Climate Justice at the University of Reading, UK. Dr. Stoett is currently working with UNEP on the GEO 6, as well as the design and construction of two Massive Open Online Courses, one on ecosystems and the other on wastewater and nutrient runoff management. He is also a Senior Research Fellow with the Earth Systems Governance Project of Future Earth, a member of the Canadian Association of the Club of Rome, and an Expert Member of the Commission on Education and Communication of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Recent publications include Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice (University of Toronto Press, 2012) and a forthcoming edited volume on North American environmental policy with SUNY Press.
Associate Professor Ruth Barcan (respondent) works in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research explores the body in contemporary culture, with particular interests in nudity, nudism and complementary and alternative medicine. She is also a keen teacher, and is the winner of a Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award (2011) and a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Teaching (2014). She is the author of Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy (2004); Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Bodies, Therapies, Senses (2011); and Academic Life and Labour in the New University: Hope and Other Choices (2013). Her current teaching and research focus on sustainability and everyday life, and she has been examining the resurgence of chicken-keeping in the suburbs of Sydney.
Fiona Allon (respondent) is Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Home Economics: Speculating on Everyday Life (Duke University Press, forthcoming) and Renovation Nation: Our Obsession with Home (UNSW Press, 2008). Her research focuses on the broad areas of cities, space and urban cultures, social studies of finance, cultural and political theory, and environmental humanities.
David Schlosberg (chair) is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental justice. He is the author, most recently, of Defining Environmental Justice (Oxford, 2007); co-author of Climate-Challenged Society (Oxford, 2013); and co-editor of both The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford 2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (Oxford 2016). Professor Schlosberg’s current research includes work on climate justice – in particular justice in climate adaptation strategies and policies, and the question of human obligations of justice to the nonhuman realm. He is also examining the sustainable practices of new environmental movement groups – in particular their attention to flows of power and goods in relation to food, energy, and sustainable fashion. And he continues with theoretical work at the interface of justice, democracy, and human/nonhuman relations in the Anthropocene.