Sir Richard Branson is entitled to spend his money as he sees fit, but his claim that his latest endeavour is aimed at "democratising space" would be laughable if it wasn't a symptom of the sickness that afflicts so many of the obscenely rich.
Branson's trail blazing of space tourism, to be followed by Jeff Bezos next week, is very much a commercial venture. According to TV news, carting tourists to space for three minutes of weightlessness, and a total experience lasting about an hour, is expected to generate revenue somewhere between $14 and $21 billion a year.
Fair enough. If people want to spend what to most of us are vast sums of money on that sort of thing it's entirely up to them. But Branson describing what he is doing as democratising space, putting it within reach of (relatively) ordinary folk, is utter bollocks.
If he really wants to spend his money democratising things he could make much better choices. How about democratising the provision of food for the millions, if not billions, who go hungry every day? How about democratising housing, in his own country if not others? How about democratising Covid vaccines for the billions of people who aren't getting them and perhaps never will?
How about democratising the sort of health and education facilities that every human being on this planet deserves and most cannot dream of? How about democratising efforts to make Earth a cleaner, healthier, happier place to live?
There is something rotten in a world where the obscenely rich set out to become even richer by taking people above their planet so they can look down on it while, according to some, it is in the process of dying as a result of climate change, a process that some would say could be ameliorated by some of their money, and where billions of people eke out a miserable existence because they can't feed themselves or their children, have no hope of being educated or treated when they are sick? Where millions of people have no hope of finding paid employment so they can support themselves, and their dependents?
Given the vast profits that that space flights are reportedly expected to earn, Branson and Bezos might not be guilty of sinking extraordinary sums of money into what might be called vanity projects, but let's hear no more of doing mankind a service. Let's call it greed, and a stunning ability to look past all the things that could be done, and should be done, to improve the lives of billions of people whose only connection with these billionaires is that they too are human beings.
If mankind is in the process of making Earth uninhabitable, as some say we are, the problem of micro-plastics entering the food chain will resolve itself soon enough. Looking on the bright side, in the hope that we are not going to fry ourselves, however, we really do need to do something about the rate at which we seem to be polluting the food we take from the sea. And research suggests that that is going to demand a major shift in our way of life.
The government is intent on doing its bit, having already banned single-use plastic bags, or at least some of them, and has now announced that from late next year PVC meat trays, polystyrene takeaway packaging and degradable plastic products that clearly harm the environment will be banned, followed in 2025 by all other PVC and polystyrene food and drink packaging, along with single-use plastic items such as drink stirrers, cotton buds, single-use produce bags, cutlery, plates and bowls, straws and fruit labels.
Anyone who has any concern regarding plastic pollution doesn't have to wait until legislation kicks in though. We could all stop using these products, and others, today if we wanted to.
Master of Science student Anita Lewis, who presented her research findings at the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society Conference last week, said she had found "alarming" levels of micro-plastics in Bay of Plenty shellfish. She had found tiny plastic particles in every sediment sample she took from Tauranga Harbour to Maketū and Ōpōtiki, with particularly high levels in shellfish. The greatest densities, up to more than 11,000 particles per square metre, were observed at sites close to municipal outfalls and populated areas.
According to Lewis, many micro-plastics were finding their way into the marine environment via treated wastewater. Treatment filtered out large pieces of plastic, but membranes in the treatment plants acted as abrasives on small micro-plastics, making them even smaller and turning them into nano-plastics, she said, adding that as well as banning single-use plastics, more work could be done, including investigating the use of different filters in household washing machines and different types of membranes for use in wastewater treatment plants.
Lewis' research hasn't come as much of a surprise to some, and even those who have no expertise in the field would struggle to profess total ignorance of the damage tiny pieces of plastic have been doing to the marine environment for a long time. Nor has it been much of a secret that plastic has been turning up in the food chain for a long time, although it is the pollution that is visible to the human eye that has captured most of the attention.
An emaciated juvenile southern royal albatross that was found on Whirinaki Beach, north of Napier, early last year was widely reported as an especially egregious example of the damage people were not so unwittingly doing to their environment. The bird died a few days after it was found, a necropsy finding stomach contents including a 500ml plastic bottle and the remains of a balloon, and very little if anything that would have nurtured it. The bird was believed to have died of starvation, and probably in significant pain.
The Department of Conservation stated at the time that 90 per cent of all seabirds had eaten plastic, often leading to death by starvation or dehydration. DOC research showed that albatross were eating plastic and feeding it to their chicks.
The latest scientific claims include that the world's oceans currently contain 5.25 trillion pieces of macro- and micro-plastic, 46,000 per square mile, weighing up to 269,000 tonnes. The total estimated weight of all plastic in the oceans is 100 million tonnes. British environmentalist Elle MacArthur believes plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish by 2050.
Banning cotton buds, plastic forks and fruit labels in New Zealand probably won't make any difference to that, but becoming tidy Kiwis isn't going to do a lot of good either. Science is obviously the key, in terms of reducing our reliance on plastics in their myriad forms and preventing them from getting into the environment, whether that be in pieces big enough to kill an albatross or small enough to get into a tuatua.
Of course the problem might be resolved for us as a byproduct of the world weaning itself off fossil fuels, given that without oil there will be no plastic. And that won't be such a bad thing. Plastic might be convenient, but we can do without it, and do ourselves a massive favour in the process.