The Revenge of the Small
There are many social and environmental challenges we face that are realtively easy to visualise. Things like crowding, poverty and drought. We can see their effects. Sometimes we can even see, or at least visualise, the causes. Strangely, it’s the small things that are often the biggest problem. Especially when they work in aggregate. When there is a lot of them.
Individually, we find small things easy to disregard. Because they are physically small or otherwise unobtrusive, we are tricked psychologically into thinking that their impact is correspondingly small. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I think the biggest environmental challenges of our future are going to come from the aggregate of very tiny things, not the very large. Let me explain.
Our story starts with a class of life that stands just under a milimeter, known as Zooplankton, a name which comes from the Greek root ‘planktos,’ which means to ’wander.’ Zooplankton are the animal version of plankton. Plankton are crucial because they are at the bottom of a foodchain. Whatever they consume has the potential to pass its way up the foodchain. This is known as bioaccumulation. Alarmingly, recent research has indicated that zooplankton, as small as they are, are consuming microparticulate plastic.
Let’s pause on this. The tiniest creatures in the ocean are eating plastic. These are not large pieces of plastic for sure, but rather microparticles which are small enough to require a microscope to detect. This microparticulate plastic includes microbeads (like those you find in cosmetics and healthcare products) and fibres (like those that come from synthetic clothing). Once consumed, these pieces of plastic remain inside the zooplankton.
The bigger problem starts when the zooplankton is consumed by something higher up the food chain, which in turn may be consumed by something else. A team of researchers bought fish fit for human consumption from a markets in Asia. Can you guess what they found in the fish? Microfilliments of plastic. Whether consumed directly by the fish, or consumed when they ate smaller lifeforms, these tiny fragments of long-lasting man-made material are making their way up the food chain.
When plastic was invented during the Industrial Revolution, it was considered a benefit to society. Once a wide variety of plastics could be manufactured, its use spread rapidly. It is cheap to manufacture. It holds its form well. It can be used in a wide range of demands; different temperatures, mechanical demands and environmental conditions. Wonderful stuff.
However, it lasts. And as it lasts in the environment, it breaks down slowly, splitting into smaller pieces as it goes. Eventually, the pieces are so small that we can’t easily see them with the naked eye. The famed oceanic gyres of plastic that stretch for kilometers are only what we can see. It is the microplastic that we can’t easily see that poses an even more serious challenge; both in agitating for change and in working out ways to fix it. Especially given that there is a lot of it.
We make this same mistake elsewhere. Consider bacteria. Bacteria are invisible to the naked eye, despite being far more numerous and adaptive then any other type of life on earth. We over-medicate both ourselves and our livestock with antibiotics, until our existing antibiotics no longer have an effect. Same mistake. Failing to be afraid enough of small, persistent things that are impactful in aggregate. The bacteria and fungi have adapted, sharing genes for resistence with each other. This may eventually take us back to the equivalent of the Middle Ages, where a small wound could kill you.
We should have a rule. We could call it ‘Multiply the Miniscule.’ Here’s how it would work: Any single decision we make, where we think there might be a side effect on a miniscule scale, we should multiply the effect by a trillion or even bigger ratio. We should avoid doing anything that, once we’ve scaled the problem up, would frighten us.
Worried that a few pieces of microplastics will escape into the environment and last for years? Multiply it by trillions upon trillions. It becomes a lot easier to imagine it filling every nook and cranny of our ecosystems. At some inevtiable point, with the added density, it becomes easier to see it as a bad idea. Worried that one strain of bacteria will develop antibiotic resistence? Multiply it. Easier to see as a threat when there are strains of drug resistent bacteria in every healthcare facility on Earth.
This type of future forecasting may stop us making decisions that don’t respect the power of the miniscule.
Rochman, Chelsea M. Tahir, Akbar. Williams, Susan L. Baxa, Dolores V. Lam, Rosalyn. Miller, Jeffrey T. Teh, Foo-Ching. Werorilangi, Shinta. Teh, Swee J. (2015) Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Scientific Reports Vol 5, Article number: 14340.
Microscope Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash.