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Laura Faye Tenenbaum

Laura Faye Tenenbaum is a science communicator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and teaches oceanography at Glendale Community College.

Getting in deep with denialism
March 13, 2014
11:02 PDT
Getting in deep with denialism

Illustration of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Credit: NOAA Marine Debris Program)

"Do you believe in the Pacific Garbage Patch?"

That was what a woman asked me over the phone, and it left me speechless. I was getting ready to give a talk at a nearby plastics manufacturing and recycling company. I give a lot of public presentations on the subject of climate change; to prepare, I have a conversation with the event organizers to discuss laptop plugs, parking arrangements, bookmarks to hand out, etc. I was expecting to have one of these conversations last week when I spoke with the event organizer, so you can imagine my surprise when she asked that question.

"Wait a minute!" I thought. A snarky retort popped into my head along the lines of “Believing? Believing is what people think about the tooth fairy or Santa Claus; scientists base their understanding of the world on evidence.” I managed to mumble "um, um" instead.

Climate change deniers are a frequent and persistent part of my reality, so I’m used to receiving rebukes, arguments and all sorts of unusual questions during my public speeches and on this website. But there are Garbage Patch deniers, too? Really?

I shook my head a couple of times to stop the mental tailspin and I went with the following response: “For the last thirteen years I’ve taught college level oceanography courses. During that time, my lectures about the Garbage Patch have gone from half an hour to almost three hours based on student interest and demand to know more.” I continued by telling her that I was “unprepared for an impromptu debate on ocean pollution, as I was expecting the usual bookmark/parking/computer plug chat.”

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised that a plastics company, even one that was interested in recycling, would dispute the existence of plastic pollution. I listened wearily as she tried to convince me that there weren’t any photos of the garbage, even though I know there are, and went on about jobs taking priority over environmental issues.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t visible in satellite photos, because much of the plastic floats underneath the sea surface and has been broken down into bits like the ones in this jar. (Although some ocean trash is as large as a refrigerator!) I took this photo when I met with a boat captain who collected the plastic bits with a net. There are pieces of plastic that form a swath across the Pacific and all the other oceans, causing problems for both plants and animals (including humans). All living things depend on healthy oceans for survival.

Plastic bits

To learn more about plastic pollution, you can check out the links below. It's good to understand the world around you.

NOAA: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Smithsonian page on the Pacific Garbage Patch

As always, I appreciate your comments.

Laura



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