Sensing Oceans and Geo-Speculating with a Garbage Patch
LOCATED ACROSS THE WORLD’S OCEANS are several sizeable concentrations of plastic debris that have variously earned the title of “garbage patches.” The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in particular has become an object of popular and scientific interest. It is an environmental anecdote to confirm our worst fears about overconsumption; and it is an imagined indicator of what may even outlive us, given the lengths of time that plastics require to degrade. The garbage patch is in many ways an amorphous object, drifting through oceanic and media spaces as an ominous form that focuses attention toward the ways in which oceans have become planetary-sized landfills.
Figure 5.1. Microplastics. The majority of plastics in oceans, particularly in the “garbage patches,” consist of small-scale plastics that are pellets from plastics manufacturing or have abraded to smaller sizes from microplastics. Photograph courtesy of U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Discovery” of the garbage patches is often attributed to Charles Moore, a captain-turned-scientist who deployed and publicized the term to describe his observations of a high concentration of suspended plastics in the clockwise currents of the North Pacific Gyre. In so doing, he brought the phenomenon of plastics in the Pacific to greater public attention.1 However, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer originally coined “garbage patch” as a term to describe the tendency for flotsam to collect in sub-orbiting gyres.2 Although scientific observations of the circulation patterns of gyres and the accumulation of debris had taken place previously,3 Ebbesmeyer and Moore both suggest that it was the naming of the ocean debris as “patches” that eventually galvanized attention for this issue.4 Anecdotally, the garbage patches have become one of the most potent figures for environmental concern, where the imagining of vast stretches of oceans choked by plastics is at once a media device for expressing the worst of the destructive impacts of humans on the planet and also an attractor for stimulating scientific study into ocean plastics, since it is a topic about which citizens frequently make inquiries to environmental agencies.
Popular imaginings of the Pacific Garbage Patch have included comparisons of its size to the state of Texas, or suggestions that it is an island that might be named an eighth continent, formed of anthropogenic debris. Upon hearing of the concentration of plastic wastes in the Pacific, many people search for visual evidence of this environmental contamination on Google Earth. Surely a human-induced geological formation of this magnitude must be visible even from a satellite or aerial view? However, because the plastic wastes are largely present as microplastics in the form of photo-degraded and weathered particles, the debris exists more as a suspended soup of microscopic particles that is mostly undetectable at the surface of the ocean.
While Google Earth may be a platform for visualizing and locating ocean data,5 this visualization technique presents a much different approach to “sensing” than seeing the patch as a photographic object. The inability to locate the garbage patches on Google Earth, a tool for scanning the seas through a conjunction of remote sensing, aerial photography, and online interfaces, even gives rise to popular controversy about how to locate the patch and whether the plastic conglomerations are actually present in the oceans, and if so, how to address the issue. The relative invisibility and inaccessibility of the patches render them as looming imaginative figures of environmental decline and yet relatively amorphous and unlocatable and so seemingly resistant to environmental action. All of which raises the question: To what extent do environmental problems need to be visible in order to be actionable?
The difficulty of visually locating the patch as an identifiable object reveals how the garbage patch is on one level a “myth” about how plastics accumulate in the oceanic gyres. While plastic exists in considerable quantities in these areas where currents converge into still expanses of oceans, the form that the plastic takes is often in varying stages of decomposition, suspended within water columns, sedimented on sea beds, and even filtered through various organisms that ingest these particles. Several scientific entities such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have gone to lengths to dispel the “myth” of the garbage patch by clarifying that the patch is not literally a surface coating of plastics, but more of a zone with higher concentrations of suspended plastics and especially microplastics.6
Yet the term “patch” persists in use, not least because it brings increased public attention to an environmental issue somewhat removed from everyday experience. Scientific agencies such as NOAA explain that the patches do not assemble as islands of plastics, but they continue to use the term as shorthand to describe plastics concentrations; while the media use images of accumulated concentrations of plastics in urban harbors, for instance, to stand in for the more distant and difficult-to-visualize garbage patches; and artists focus on sites such as the Midway Atoll to capture the effects of macroplastics that wash up on islands proximate to oceanic gyres, and which are often taken to be representative of the general constitution of the garbage patches.7 The patch is a concept that accumulates uses, images, and imaginaries, where the more complex and amorphous garbage patches resist easy identification.
What sort of “myth” might the garbage patch embody? What sort of object or occasion of pollution is this? And how might it be monitored? Rather than seek to “dispel the myth,” how might the garbage patch constitute a sort of geo-mythology, or a tale of uncertain earth events and forces? Geo-mythology is a term coined to describe the ways in which distinct earth formations are often explained by myths that capture how they came to be.8 From this perspective, the ways in which environments and earth features form is not just a matter of geologic process but is also a social, cultural, and narrative process that conveys imagined or actual accounts of how earth formations come to be recognizable objects. From volcanoes to floods, these formations and events are generative of geo-mythological narratives. Google Earth has even been used as a tool to identify these formations and to provide legitimacy for these stories as attached to actual earth objects.
Based on accounts of monitoring plastics in the oceans and locating debris concentration zones, I adopt and adapt the term geo-mythology, which might typically exist as a narrative form explaining earth events and formations of indeterminate origins, and move toward what I develop as a more geo-speculative approach to consider how the uncertain and indeterminate aspects of the garbage patches give rise to environmental monitoring practices for bringing these newer and more fluid geological objects into “view.” This geo-speculative inquiry is then less focused on explaining the origins of the garbage patch. Instead, the geo-speculation developed here considers how much of the uncertainty around the gyres involves exploring what kind of earth or ocean object the garbage patch is, and even more, what potential events and effects may unfold through this shifting formation.
Plastics have inevitably been present in the oceans for many decades, but at some undefined moment the concentration of plastics in oceans accumulated to a concentration that constituted an at-times indeterminate and speculative object of study. I am interested to take up the ways in which the indeterminate and changeable qualities of the garbage patch focus practices for exploring what this concentration of plastics in the ocean consists of, including how to monitor these plastics and how to reduce the problem of plastics by involving citizens in sensing oceans and tracking marine debris. In this chapter, I consider two primary aspects of the garbage patch that pertain to its materiality and ongoing circulation. In the first instance, I look at how garbage patches are identified and studied and situate these longer-standing practices within current monitoring practices where oceans have become sensor spaces. Oceans are not only increasingly full of plastic debris, they are also highly instrumented spaces where a vast range of monitoring activity is underway. I then consider how attempts to track or locate trash, whether through Google Earth or citizen-sensing apps such as the Marine Debris Tracker app, work in and around the fact that microplastics—small-scale and invisible plastic particles—are the common material components of the garbage patch. I also look at techniques for mapping the circulation of ocean debris and focus on the Global Drifter Program as one ocean observation project among many that has deployed buoys equipped with sensors that communicate with satellites, and which are used to study the drift of plastics and other debris in the oceans.
This chapter considers how environmental monitoring techniques that are often developed for purposes other than sensing plastics are subsequently tuned in to the drift of oceanic debris. How do the shifting and concretizing materialities of the garbage patch in-form the technologies that come to be used to monitor them? How are littered oceanic spaces entangled in the becoming environmental of these computational monitoring technologies? With these questions in mind, I explore how environmental monitoring techniques “sense” an object such as the garbage patch that is relatively invisible and continually in process. Imperceptible and removed from immediate experience, this pollution event and object raises questions about what citizen-sensing approaches to environmental monitoring are able to evidence, and act upon, when environmental pollution unfolds through registers of non-sensuous perception.9
This chapter finally attempts to craft a geo-speculative account of garbage patches in order to consider how the potential effects of this amorphous and changeable object in-form practices for monitoring and remediating this environmental phenomenon. Such an approach works with a generative understanding of the garbage patch as a processual technoscientific object. The garbage patch is not a singular object but is constituted through multiple objects—or “societies of objects”—that concresce within these ocean ecologies and which are of indeterminate and ongoing duration, since plastics persist and transform in environments for indefinite periods of time. Drawing on Whitehead’s discussion of societies of objects, I suggest that the forms of relation across the actual entities of the garbage patches become self-sustaining within the particular environment they form and inhabit.10 The sensors and sensing practices that would track and monitor these processual objects then become environmental along with marine debris in very particular ways, as drifting and circulating objects within enfolding gyres.
Locating a Garbage Patch
In more current scientific literature, the Pacific Garbage Patch is often referred to as the Eastern Garbage Patch. This patch area is located between Hawaii and California within the North Pacific Subtropical High, a shifting zone of high pressure and relatively calm water. The Eastern or Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only location where marine debris collects in the Pacific, however. A Western Garbage Patch has since been identified near Japan; and the Subtropical Convergence Zone at the transition zone between the Subpolar Gyre and the Subtropical Gyre is also noted for its tendency to collect large amounts of marine debris.11
These debris collection zones are also connected to five identified oceanic gyres, including two in the Pacific, two in the Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean.12 As Howell et al. write, the Pacific subtropical gyre is the “largest circulation feature on our planet, and the earth’s largest continuous biome.”13 Gyres tend to spiral or converge inward, and the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre—the larger system of which the Eastern Garbage Patch is but a small part, or a “gyre within a gyre”14—has been estimated to be roughly between seven to nine million square miles.15 Of the many forms of marine debris floating through oceans and seas, plastics are the primary form of waste moving through and collecting in oceans. Sixty to eighty percent of all marine debris in oceans is composed of plastics.16 Plastic fragments sifting through ocean waters most often travel from land-based sources, typically migrating from urbanized areas, wastewater, landfills, and plastics manufacturing sites into oceans. A smaller proportion of plastics derive from marine-based sources, including offshore shipping and fishing activities.17 Yet with all of these forms of primarily plastics-based marine debris, plastics circulate from manufacturing, use, and disposal to become wayward and often unidentifiable objects congealing in the shifting spaces of oceanic gyres. And marine debris caught in gyres may circle around in cycles that last from six to twenty years or more.
The accumulation of plastics in oceans and seas is increasingly remaking oceanic materialities and environmental processes.18 However, plastic in gyres assembles less as an identifiable mass of plastic and more as a suspended soup of finer plastic fragments and microplastics. The 2001 Marine Pollution Bulletin article in which Moore and his collaborators describe their findings of plastic to plankton comparisons in the North Pacific Gyre indicates that up to 98 percent of the plastic material gathered through trawls of the Pacific gyre were composed of finer plastic particles. Of these finer particles, “thin films and polypropylene/monofilament line” were present as identifiable plastic, while “unidentified plastic” in the form of plastic fragments were the main types of plastic sampled.19
If Google Earth or a satellite view of the garbage patch proves to be an impossible undertaking, it is because the plastics suspended in oceans are not a thick choking layer of identifiable objects but more of a confetti-type array of suspended plastic bits. Practices of sampling plastics in areas of high concentration of marine debris involve working with fine-mesh trawls. These trawls are able to collect microplastics across a range of visible and relatively invisible sizes. Establishing a universal standard for microplastics as smaller than 5 mm has been an important step in regularizing the study of microplastics in seas, since plastics break up into such a wide range of forms and sizes.20 Microplastics were settled at a certain size in order to study the effects of this distinctive and pervasive category of plastics. Some plastic fragments and objects are large enough to pose ingestion hazards to marine organisms—these are often termed macroplastics.21 Other plastic fragments are so small as to be invisible and undetectable, or to be readily ingested by many marine organisms without immediately obvious effect. Size is an important indicator in assessing ocean plastics since, on the one hand, there is the risk of entanglement and ingestion hazards and, on the other hand, there are more unknown issues as to how smaller particles of microplastics may transform ocean ecosystems. The garbage patch in this way generates additional objects that concresce through the complex processes of plastics drifting through oceans.
The impacts of microplastics are in many ways still somewhat uncertain, and may have a web of effects that may range from adsorption, chemical transfer of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (among other substances), endocrine disruption, alterations in plankton feeding habits, decreasing biodiversity, and shifts in climate change.22 Numerous “data gaps” exist in relation to microplastics.23 Plastics are known to adsorb and concentrate chemicals such as POPs from seawater and transport these substances to other locations.24 But how do chemical substances migrate into and across organisms, and what effects do these substances have on organisms over time? How might they cause endocrine disruption within marine organisms and humans?25 What effect do microplastics have on plankton and insect populations, and how might this also affect food webs, biodiversity, and climate change by altering the composition and source-sink dynamics of oceans?26
Attempting to establish the “matters of fact” related to garbage patches in the oceans is an experimental process that is less about how to demystify the garbage patches and more about how the ongoing attempts to make sense of the garbage patch and the effects of plastic are bound up with these complex constellations of objects that also pose pressing “matters of concern.”27 Here, attempting to establish verifiable circulations of plastics in oceans is not about dispelling fictions but about experimental modes of narrating, testing, and sensing that bring the garbage patch as an object of concern toward a space of workable interpretations and engagement. Such an approach to experimenting is rather different than the experimentation that might take place within environmental sciences, for instance, which is typically understood as a process of testing interventions in order to form new hypotheses.28 Such experimentation with matters of fact and concern constitutes an intervention of a different sort, which questions how technoscientific objects and environmental pollution are made evident and how they may generate other objects as part of the processes of identifying, locating, and monitoring their presence.
“Data gaps” about garbage patches are also an important part of how matters of fact in relation to plastics are experimented through matters of concern. These gaps serve to mobilize experiments on how plastics transform and rematerialize in oceanic spaces. Gyres with higher concentrations of marine debris, and in particular the North Pacific convergence zone, are primary sites where questions related to the effects of plastics unfold. Yet from this perspective, the garbage patch is one of several objects that concresce in the oceans. Locating the garbage patch as an object is not a simple delineation in space but a processual unfolding of ongoing potential effects. The garbage patch is thus not one object, but, following Whitehead, a “society” of objects that in their interaction give rise to new and ongoing relations, formations, and actual occasions.29 Locating the Pacific Garbage Patch is not a matter of demarcating a stable continent of plastics on a satellite map. Instead, the garbage patch requires locating objects within objects—objects that are “intra-acting”30—and giving rise to new potential effects and environmental conditions. A geo-speculative approach to a garbage patch grapples with the very ways in which the object-ness—and the potential object-ness—of a garbage patch is never stable or given but in process and giving rise to new engagements. So too do monitoring practices and technologies become entangled within these processual societies of objects.
Plastics in oceans indicate how the materiality and interaction of these multiple intersecting objects are continually generating new conditions, objects, and societies of objects. Adsorption of chemicals may alter the habits of some marine organisms; degradation of plastics may shift the composition of source-sink dynamics; new microbes may emerge in the new plastic niches that form.31 The garbage patch is a site where objects proliferate. As plastics fall apart, they generate new effects, occasions of becoming, and processes of materialization.32 Plastics as they persist in environments are characterized less as a condition of inert objects taking up space and more as a condition of material persistence and transformation across environments and organisms. With these changeable conditions and objects, sensing practices also are established in relation to shifting pollution events to be monitored. In the next section, I discuss how some of these practices have emerged in relation to marine debris and further discuss how oceans have become instrumented spaces that have given rise to a vast range of sensing practices across computational and other monitoring modalities.
Monitoring a Garbage Patch
Locating the garbage patch is on one level bound up with determining what types of plastic objects collect within it and what effects they have. Yet on another level, locating the garbage patch involves monitoring its shifting distribution and extent in the ocean. As has been discussed so far, the garbage patch is not a fixed or singular object, but a society of objects in process. The composition of the garbage patch consists of plastics interacting across organisms and environments. But it also moves and collects in distinct and changing ways due to ocean currents, which are influenced by weather and climate change, as well as the turning of the earth (in the form of the Coriolos effect) and the wind-influenced direction of waves (in the form of Ekman transport). As an oceanic gyre, the garbage patch moves as a sort of weather system, shifting during El Niño events, and changing with storms and other disturbances.33
How does the garbage patch become detectable while it is also in process? Techniques for studying marine debris typically coincide with techniques for studying ocean circulation. In some cases, flotsam is directly observed and modeled as a way of gauging likely movements of debris across ocean currents. A well-known study by Ebbesmeyer focused on the movement of bath toys (ranging from ducks, frogs, beavers, and turtles), which spilled from a container ship that was washed overboard during a storm in 1992.34 Based on beachcomber efforts, as well as by identifying the bath toys by serial number and mapping and inputting coordinates into the Ocean Surface Current Simulator (OSCURS) computer program, Ebbesmeyer developed a circulation model that gave the locations of gyres (which corresponded with related gyre studies) and the likely time that objects spent in gyres.
His “flotsametrics” technique drew on decades of studies that have attempted to discern patterns in ocean circulation by mapping the pathways of flotsam. Here, the drifting message in a bottle, or MIB, is a classic reference point for studying and experimenting with objects as they travel in oceans. One MIB was recently found in Scotland, which had a release date of 1914.35 But numerous other experiments have been developed alongside these circulation studies, including a 1976–1980 experiment by NOAA that set loose “tens of thousands of plastic cards in response to significant oil spills along the East Coast from Florida to Massachusetts.”36 Working on behalf of NOAA, Ebbesmeyer collected these plastic spill cards over time, some of which drifted in oceans for over twenty-five years. Given the length of these drifts, Ebbesmeyer estimates the plastic spill cards may have circled between seven to nine times around the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre—the Atlantic version of the Pacific Garbage Patch.37
“Traceable Drifter Unit,” or TDU, is the term that Ebbesmeyer uses to describe flotsam that is released en masse (with releases exceeding one hundred thousand drifters) in the ocean and that yields data relevant to ocean surface currents. These TDUs have ranged from Guinness beer bottles to MIBs with biblical or governmental messages, as well as material from known container spills. As Ebbesmeyer writes of flotsam drift studies, “By their endurance for as long as a century, flotsam provides a tool for tracing long planetary drifts. Drifters riding the global conveyor belts, for example, require twenty years to circle the earth.”38 The ways in which flotsam travels, drifts, and collects in oceans may be studied over long periods of time, and the different exit points for flotsam to head toward coasts, or extended times in which it takes to reach coasts, may indicate just how long marine debris remains within oceans and in particular how many times debris circulates around ocean gyres. The convergence zones are not just collections of primarily plastic stuff but also metamorphosing oceanic repositories that include items from the early boom years of plastics, sporadic spills from container ships, and passing fashions in consumer goods. The packaging, films, fragments, and assorted objects that cycle around gyres may remain there for many decades to come, eventually forming new oceanic environments and influencing organisms and food webs.
Figure 5.2. Thingful. A beta-phase Internet of Things platform for mapping and viewing sensors worldwide, which includes multiple examples of sensors in marine environments such as the cargo vessel shown here. Screen capture.
Oceans as Sensor Spaces
Beyond following the movement of objects and TDUs set loose in oceans, many more monitoring practices have developed to observe ocean circulation and the likely movement of marine debris, including airborne sensors, coastal webcams, drifter buoys and tracers that communicate to satellites, remote sensing via satellites, and even apps that citizens can use to document marine debris sightings.39 Oceans have become sensor spaces with an extensive array of sensing nodes and drifting sensor points that can be found on buoys and hulls of boats, underwater gliders, and Argo floats (or instrument platforms for observing oceanic temperature, salinity, and currents). While many sensors are in place to take tempera-ture observations, as well as feed into climate change monitoring and modeling, other sensors are used to survey noise underwater in order to prevent damage to marine organisms’ ability to navigate these spaces. Marine traffic tracking sites also document the movement of container ships and other large vessels; and some new platforms and maps such as Thingful focus on capturing objects within the Internet of Things and reveal just how densely populated oceans and seas are with sensing devices.40
Ocean-observing platforms span across ships, buoys, Argo floats and subsurface drifters, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), satellites for ocean research, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, HF radar, and drilling platforms.41 All of these are sites and instruments where ocean monitoring takes place. The importance of monitoring oceans has increased considerably, since oceans are the primary sink that absorbs both CO2 and heat, and the dynamics of these sink-based processes are less well understood in relation to climate change.42 On the one hand, there has been a lack of monitoring in the oceans, which current practices are attempting to mitigate. On the other hand, the current spread of instrumentation is leading some researchers to propose remote access to the ocean from any number of sensor networks. As Helmreich writes in one instance about the proposed establishment of a “distributed ocean observatory,” this project would involve “a network of remote sensing buoys that can provide continual Web access to data from the sea” and “would allow scientists to sit in their living rooms gathering oceanographic data.”43
The becoming environmental of computational sensors in oceanic spaces involves the instrumentation of oceans with extensive sensing networks as well as the reworking of the environments in which sensing takes place (from underwater to living rooms). Yet computational sensors become environmental in yet another way, where sensors themselves might be adapted to ocean environments and processes, with drifting buoys, Argo floats, and sensors on vessels circulating through oceans across surfaces, subsurfaces, and at depths now down to six thousand meters.44 And as sensors fill these spaces and provide monitoring data, they also generate other sensor tales, including observations about the likely drift of marine debris through ocean currents. Oceans might then be seen as an environmental medium with medial effects. I now turn to consider two projects that express much different types of sensing practices in relation to marine debris to consider how apps and oceans, drifting buoys and marine debris, unfold through distinct monitoring practices that attempt to prehend oceanic plastics.
Citizens Tracking Marine Debris
Numerous citizen-science and citizen-sensing initiatives now exist that study ocean environments. While beachcombers of all sorts have been involved in collecting debris, identifying organisms through ocean sampling days, and even mailing in plastic-pellet samples to scientists to aid in research projects,45 newer citizen-sensing projects are adding to the numbers of data points collected from oceanic spaces by providing sampling data on marine microbes, plankton densities, and seabed temperatures.46 There are citizen-sensing initiatives focused on the use of ocean robots, and citizen-science initiatives engaged with monitoring and identifying marine debris.47 And to return to the introduction of this chapter, there are Google Earth applications for monitoring the distribution and drift of Argo floats, including projects where schools can “adopt an Argo float” to observe monitoring data gathered in the Southern Oceans or in European seas.48
One more well-known project situated within these citizen-sensing initiatives is the Marine Debris Tracker, which allows users to identify, document, and map sightings of marine debris.49 Developed by Jenna Jambeck along with Kyle Johnsen in the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative within the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia in collaboration with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the app was featured as an “App We Can’t Live without” in the 2014 Apple Worldwide Developer Conference video, alongside apps such as Tumblr and Pinterest.50 The app was first released in 2011 and has since been downloaded 10,000 times. Despite these numerous downloads, there are “700 registered users,” and of these users 15 to 20 participants “report debris on a near-daily basis.” While the number of participants for such a lauded app might seem rather low, the intensive gathering efforts of these participants has nevertheless resulted in “32,899 data points—entries which total about 345,000 individual pieces of trash,” including “15,500 cigarette butts found by users on St. Simons Island to plastic jugs floating in the ocean off the coast of Costa Rica and plastic bags near the coast of Brunei.”51
I trawl around through my local gutter, since in fact the Thames River is nearby and this in turn flushes out to the sea. Here, I find numerous bits of cigarette butts and food wrappers. I log the food wrappers, noting a quantity of two and a description of “hamburger wrapper.” I need to turn my location services on in order to allow the app to automatically log my location. Once logged, the item shows up on a map, and becomes one more of the many data points of tracked trash. While the app does not necessarily seek to create a “global picture of debris since data entry relies on volunteers,” it does hope to provide detailed views of specific locations where users regularly log debris items.52 If I look over the map and data for where marine debris has been logged, I can see entries that span from Iran to Omaha, Nebraska.
Ocean environments are currently under stress, with increased acidity due to rising CO2 levels, depletion of fishing stocks, and even the collapse of organisms not well understood. Here, an app that focuses on marine debris orients attention toward logging and mapping the extensive array of litter that flows seaward. Observations made on land and at littoral zones are facilitated and shared through an app that allows citizens to sense and track trash that will largely consist of macroplastics—and have yet to disintegrate into microplastics. If we were to plumb the depths of media theory, we might find this is a rather different engagement with media content and technology than many, even computational, forms to date, since the app functions as an almost understated naturalist’s notebook that can be shared and pooled across participants. While the focus in this app is on identifiable debris, it begins with an initial tracing of the journeys that debris might make to oceans and seas. Once in the water, debris can take on yet another journey of indeterminate material transformations, splintering into microplastics and moving in and through organisms that ingest this debris. And yet these app-based citizen-sensed “sightings” of plastics open into a geo-speculative set of encounters: How will these debris and debris mappings generate new modes of environmental engagement? What effect, if any, will they have on the orbiting garbage patches?
Another ocean-sensing project working in a more scientific register across techniques of drifter tracing and sensor communications, the Global Drifter Program, has deployed tracking buoys that communicate with satellites to establish circulation patterns in ocean currents. Along the way, the drifters have also become devices for establishing the likely movements of marine debris, since where the drifters collect is likely to indicate the same locations in which other flotsam collects.53 The Global Drifter Program consists of a platform of more than 1250 drifting buoys that have been deployed over several decades spanning from initial development in 1979 to current annual mass deployments to monitor the oceans.54 The buoys monitor the upper water column and provide information on ocean surface and atmospheric conditions, as well as fluxes between air and sea. Run through the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) in Miami, Florida, the drifters are deployed at study sites and then circulate across oceans. Detecting and sensing sea surface temperature, barometric pressure, wind velocity, ocean color, salinity, and subsurface temperatures, the buoys monitor ocean conditions primarily to determine weather and climate patterns. As they circulate, the buoys send 140-character messages on location and ocean conditions—what physical oceanographer Erik van Sabille has referred to as “Twitter from the ocean.”55 Part of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) of monitoring technologies, the Global Drifter buoys also link up with earth models to provide forecasting data.
In addition to functioning as weather, climate, and circulation observation devices, the drifters have provided detailed and longer-term data on the likely movement of debris in oceans. A high proportion of drifters has gravitated toward the five gyres, and in this sense the drifters have provided further data for establishing where gyres are located and how long drifters or debris may converge in these areas.56 Through studies that use Global Drifter data, the formation of a sixth Arctic gyre has been identified, as well as observations about the ways in which patches are “leaky” and circulate debris across regions, potentially over a timespan of centuries.57 The drifters are in many ways proxies for demonstrating how debris travels over time in oceans, how debris converges in gyres, and the length of time it may take debris to exit convergence zones (if at all) and wash up in coastal regions. The drifters were not originally developed as monitoring devices to study the accumulation of debris directly, since they focused on ocean circulation patterns. But the drifters became an imported technique for studying how debris circulates and settles in ocean spaces in relation to the study of ocean circulation. The drifters also eventually become debris, as they have a limited (five-year) battery life, and cease to function due to mechanical error, environmental stress, and more.58
The Global Drifter Program potentially not only corroborates or qualifies prior and differing studies on ocean circulation but also provides a more real-time observation platform for understanding how gyres may shift—and debris concentrations along with them. In many ways, the ongoing deployments, shifting oceanic trajectories, and real-time communication of the drifters are practices that emerge in relation to and through a fidelity to the shifting technoscientific objects under study. The sensing and satellite-linked drifters enable sensing practices that are able to more continually monitor these shifting object conditions and processes. Debris concentrations—whether differently termed and identified as the garbage patch or gyre or convection zone—exist as objects within objects, and these objects change the other objects with which they are intra-acting. New object conditions are continually unfolding here, from changes in chemical and biological conditions to alterations in habitats, shifting locations of the garbage patch due to ocean and atmospheric circulation, and even changes in climate and environments.59 Within these societies of objects, sensing buoys also concresce along with the circulation patterns and debris under study, thereby materializing a distinctly environmental and oceanic form of computational sensors.
Societies of Objects
With the oceanic sensor spaces and two monitoring projects discussed above, plastic marine debris concresces as a society of objects with and through which sensing practices and technologies emerge. “The character of an organism,” Whitehead suggests, “depends on that of its environment.”60 The organisms and medial forms drifting through ocean spaces are in-formed by this oceanic environment that is the “datum” and that provides conditions for concrescence. Yet at the same time, “The character of an environment is the sum of the characters of the various societies of actual entities.”61 This is not to say that environments entirely consist of societies of entities, but rather that no society of objects exists without its environment (or datum), and no environment is without its entities or societies of objects.
Environments infuse the characters of societies and entities, but societies are not all there is. At the same time, environments are conditions in which facts and entities take hold, have relevance, and endure. Societies in-form milieus; but milieus also in-form societies, forming conditions for their endurance as well as creative advance. Societies might be seen to be different than “the social,” in this sense, since neither are societies a simple assemblage nor are they a relation articulated in advance of the individuating and coming together of entities into collectives. If the last chapter considered the ways in which monitoring climate change might provoke reworkings of how we approach the “citizen” in citizen sensing, this chapter suggests that monitoring plastic pollution in oceans might give rise to reworkings of societies and collectives that are variously understood to be the object of monitoring, as well as the environment in and through which facts and concerns take hold as establishing the relevance of this datum.
As Whitehead, and later Stengers, have suggested, the ways in which organisms take hold and take account of their environments are the key to understanding how relevance is established. “As far as the way in which the living organism ‘holds’ qua enduring is concerned,” Stengers writes, “it certainly exhibits a selective character, as is indicated by the relevance of such technical terms as ‘detect,’ ‘react specifically to,’ ‘activate,’ and so on. Yet it is a selection that endures.”62 Endurance is not an individual condition but a process that unfolds through a “dynamics of infection”—where infection is indicative of a “value . . . on what is prehended” so that “when a being endures, what has succeeded is a co-production between this being and ‘its’ environment.”63 We might refer these notions of infection, endurance, and value also to Whitehead and James’s conception of “solidarity,” where “the one and the many” are involved in processes of detecting, reacting to, and activating.64
For Whitehead, societies are not entirely composed of the “living,” since such a nexus does not account for the complex prehensions of environments that occur across organic and inorganic entities. As Whitehead writes, “All societies require interplay with their environment; and in the case of living societies this interplay takes the form of robbery.”65 Here is a condition where a living nexus makes use of material bodies that together can form various types of “structured societies” that span from “crystals, rocks, planets, and suns,” and, if Whitehead were writing now, might be a list to which “plastics” could be added. As an inorganic foodstuff of sorts, a scaffolding, infrastructure, collection zone, and supporting environment, plastics concresce as particularly contemporary societies of objects along with the living entities that would inhabit and ingest these materials.
Why bother with this account of societies of objects? What work does it do? I would suggest that plastics and garbage patches as societies of objects point us not just toward the environments and entities—as well as sensing practices—that form with and through these materials, but also to the speculative aspects of garbage patches as a form of oceanic pollution that might be monitored. My point, then, is to bring this discussion closer to the geo-speculative beginning of this chapter, where I suggested that what matters is less the origin of the garbage patch as a geo-mythological figure but more the geo-speculative unfoldings of the multiple and indeterminate garbage patches as they generate new environmental effects and societies of objects, and thereby become sites for establishing ongoing matters of fact and matters of concern.
From Geo-Mythologizing to Geo-Speculating with a Garbage Patch
Such a shifting society of objects, which is in process and so oriented toward further potentialities,66 gives rise to distinct sensing practices for engaging with these generative—and often non-sensuous—material and technical milieus. The garbage patch is an entity where plastics are in process and circulating across oceanic systems. As discussed here, the plastics that drift through oceans and debris patches are indeterminate objects of study that are often approached obliquely through their nearly imperceptible materialities and unknown potentialities. Given its material constitution, the garbage patch is also not external to that which inhabits it, but occupies the many different organisms that live amid it, where many organisms filter plastics through their bodies. As an ocean-in-the-making,67 the geo-speculative force of these object-events unfolds as a space of potential objects to come and of indeterminate environmental events to make sense of. In this oceanic zone, there is a distinct becoming environmental of computational media that emerges through the wayward drift of plastic and organismal societies of objects.
Oceans and objects are sites for sensing practices in the making. Drifters and sensors, together with studies of particle movement and ocean currents, are both abstract approaches to understanding the garbage patch, as well as concrete things in the world that mobilize matters of concern.68 This is a way of understanding concern less as a cognitive habit of mind and more as an “affective tone.”69 In other words, it engenders a condition or environment of relevance, endurance, and infection. In this way, concern is closely aligned to propositions and speculation, because concern constitutes a proposition about what matters. Shaviro suggests that, in many ways, “concern for the world, and for entities in the world” is also an aesthetic engagement, a provocation (or infection) that involves resonant registers of experience.70 The garbage patch on one level could be seen as a particular “lure for feeling” that as a proposition even suggests what counts as matters of fact.71 Such abstraction, as a lure, is not separate from concrete events but instead is an attractor for identifying that which matters and how to make sense of that experience.72
In this geo-mythology transformed into a geo-speculation oriented toward garbage patches and environmental monitoring technologies, these societies of objects turn out to be always in the middle of things. Experimental practices and compound objects converge in these oceanic gyres. Being alert to the garbage patch and debris concentrations in the oceans might then require developing an attention to the generative and potential materialities that may continue to unfold through these objects—and not simply making sightings of fixed macroplastics in singular or amassed form. In many ways, this geo-mythology finally shares a sideways correspondence with that earlier plastic mythology rendered by Roland Barthes. In his concise postwar account of plastics, he describes plastics as “the stuff of alchemy,” through which the “transmutation of matter” takes place.73 His description charts the “transit” of plastics from raw material to any number of objects. This study of the garbage patches has, in a related but different way, dealt with the transit of plastics from discarded object to environmental and oceanic entity. As plastics break down in oceans, they concresce in oceanic gyres, filter through marine organisms, alter environmental conditions, and turn up as objects of concern for monitoring techniques and citizen-based engagements. The same plastic changeability—or plasticity—that Barthes expounded upon as giving rise to an infinite array of consumer goods redirects toward a material changeability that influences and transforms environments on a planetary scale. The “transmutation” that takes place here is equally subject to speculation: What potential events and objects will concresce through these plasticized oceans, marine organisms, and technical objects?
The garbage patch emerges not as a single fixed object but as a processual and speculative society of objects. On at least one level, it is present as the product of technoscientific advances in materials, where plastics give rise to new environmental and technoscientific problems as a result of the solutions they initially presented. On another level, monitoring the plastic waste requires new technologies of observation, from remote sensing to distributed sensor buoys, to bring plastic as marine debris to attention. Such technoscientific observation techniques focused on marine debris in the gyres inevitably also mobilize responses for remediating and managing the issue of plastics in the seas. In this sense, the garbage patch in its intractable plasticity gives rise to technoscientific practices not just to monitor but also to repair, control, or otherwise manage this object of study and concern.74
How does the relationship between monitoring and intervening in the garbage patch influence this society of objects and the practices employed to study and respond to it? Intervening within and developing strategies for addressing the garbage patches may, on one level, appear to require a beach-cleaning effort or antilitter campaign. Yet on another level, designing practices for engaging with the indeterminate and ongoing interactions and societies of objects may be one way to encounter the garbage patch as a space in which to experiment with the matter-of-factness and concernedness of plastic objects as they transform in oceans. Within this space, new understandings of “response-ability” may also proliferate75 in terms of how the relations between objects are articulated abstractly and unfold concretely, how societies of objects attract and mobilize distinct types of technoscientific and environmental practices, and how the material occasions of oceans are not a remote object of study, but rather are an actual occasion in which we are now participating and through which we will continue to be affected.
A key question arises from this study of the garbage patch as a generative technoscientific and computational object, which is what other forms of technoscientific engagement and sensing practices might be necessary not just to articulate a project of environmental awareness (which is what the project to identify the patch as an explicit and visual aberration perhaps demonstrates) but also to generate an object that provokes new forms of environmental participation and attention to the eventual effects of our material lives. What experimental forms of politics and environmental practices might we develop that are able to attend to these indeterminate and emergent matters of concern? A repurposed geo-speculative account of the garbage patches might then attend to the indeterminate edges of technoscientific objects and sensing practices and to the modes of engagement yet to be experimented and generated at these sites. Perhaps this geo-speculative account gives rise to the need for a cosmopolitical approach to technoscientific objects such as the garbage patches,76 which do not concretize as much through their performative or instrumental capacities as they do through the debris of once-useful applications such as plastic that have acquired other capacities and material effects beyond what was anticipated. Here, new societies of objects emerge from the remains of technoscientific pursuits and in turn give rise to new monitoring practices for studying these residual and yet generative objects with unknown and indeterminate effects.