Cantering through the gloom

The Economist‘s 1843 magazine asks “Why must kids’ films be so unremittingly bleak?”

“My Little Pony: The Movie” clings to the idea that you can’t entertain a pre-teen without emotionally scarring them. … No film in the last couple of years has had a more cavernous gap between its cutesy title and its depressing content than this one. So what exactly was going through its director and writers’ heads? Are they anti-capitalist saboteurs, intent on toppling the Hasbro empire from the inside? Or do they just despise small children? I still can’t work it out. But I’ve checked with my four-year-old and I know one thing for sure. I won’t be ponying up to see the sequel.

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Fact-checked: “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish”

A popular media claim is… “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish”, a claim most often based on the publicity for the advocacy documentary film A Plastic Ocean (2016).

Cleaning up the world’s oceans is a very worthy aim, one I support and have blogged about here. But I’m always suspicious when leftists glom onto such concerns, often in a bid to make crude political points by blaming the oil companies / capitalism / fat guzzlers of beefburgers and sodas, and as a means of boosting the general level of alarmism around their other issues.

Therefore I looked to see if the movie had been publicly fact-checked. I couldn’t find anything in that line, so I fact-checked just this one main ‘headline’ claim about 2050. It traces back to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, “The New Plastics Economy” written 2015 for the World Economic Forum and published in mid January 2016. The report comes in two public variants, The New Plastics Economy : Rethinking the future of plastics (36 pages), and a 120-page “extended version of this report, with additional chapters and appendices”.

I search both reports for “2050” claims, and then tracked these through to their endnotes and references. The reports assumes an… “annual growth in leakage flows of plastics into the ocean of 5% up to 2025” and 3.5% per year thereafter through to 2050. Given likely economic and population growth levels to 2050, that seems a fairly sensible broad estimate, even when one factors in things like public pressure, new technologies, and better management at all levels of production and recycling.

In the first version of the report, the endnotes on page 29 give the sources for the 2050 plastics/fish claim. The footnotes are the same in both versions. Note the disclaimer at the end of endnote 25…

“The stock of fish is assumed to stay constant between 2015 and 2050” at “an estimated 812 million tonnes (S. Jennings et al., Global-scale predictions of community and ecosystem properties from simple ecological theory (Proceedings of the Royal Society, 2008).”

This is broadly line with the latest scientific consensus, as summarised in this recent paper in Food Security journal

“A consensus has emerged in the literature that the doom-and-gloom rhetoric that had driven the discussion surrounding the state of marine fisheries in the late 2000s (Garcia and Grainger 2005; Caddy and Seijo 2005) was exaggerated (Grafton et al. 2010; Hilborn 2010) and that although the situation remains concerning in respect to many stocks, we are not likely to face the global collapse that had been announced by some biologists (e.g., Myers and Worm 2003; Worm et al. 2006; Pauly 2009). Instead, the downward trend of overfished stocks may have been reined in (Fig. 4). Reflecting this, most of the projections proposed in the recent literature estimate that the global fisheries’ landings are likely to be stable in the short to medium term. The OECD-FAO model for instance estimates that capture [i.e. wild] fisheries will be 5% higher by 2024 than it is was in 2013, that is, around 96 Mt (OECD-FAO 2013) while the World Bank-FAO-IFPRI model estimates that this will be around 93 Mt in 2030. These figures are at a global scale”.

Which indicates that, broadly, the headline claim that “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish” is correct in terms of its two inputs.

However, the claim omits a third factor. The report appears to assume constant ever-increasing accumulation of plastics,1 without degredation by plastic-eating and oil-munching ocean microbes. My search of the full report for “biodegradation” found only discussion of the man-made production of deliberately biodegradable items (i.e.: possible eco-friendly replacements for the plastic packaging used for potato chips, kebab meals, soda bottles and suchlike). The report appears to have no mention at all of natural ocean biodegradation (decomposition) of marine microplastics in the open ocean. To be more certain I hadn’t missed such a mention, I then further searched the report for “microbial”, “microbes”, “microorganisms” and “bacterial”. Nothing relevant was found. This omission seems a curious one for such an in-depth report to such a high-level group.

Thus it appears that the widely-heard claim that “By 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish” rests on two broadly valid estimates — that leakage of plastics into the oceans grows marginally each year to 2050, and that global wild fish stocks will remain broadly stable to 2050. However, it seems to me that those who wish to sustain this 2050 claim in future must also address the rate at which ocean microplastics are being “cleaned up” [backup PDF] by naturally occurring microscopic ocean life.


1. The specific volumes for the claim are that the ocean currently has an estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic debris and microplastics in it, with 8 million tonnes newly added each year. And that by 2025 there will be 1 tonne of ocean plastics for every 3 tonne of fish (meaning: 270 Mt), and that by 2050 fish and plastics will be equal (meaning: 812 Mt each). ‘Accumulation without biodegradation’ thus appears to be implicit in the forecast.

New documentary: The New Fire

The New Fire is a cinema documentary on the promise of nuclear fission via new reactor types. The 84-minute documentary has just been given its premiere at the Heartland Film Festival 2017…

“The New Fire is as optimistic as its title suggests. There is a new fire ready to light the way forward in the United States, and that fire is engineered by bright millennials and fuelled by nuclear fission. The film does a fantastic job explaining complex topics to the audience without ever condescending. The complexities of engineering challenges faced by nuclear physicists is laid bare in simplistic explanations and beautifully rendered animated segments that illustrate how the various designs for different reactors work.”

Equally optimistically, the movie is set to screen on the campus of U.C. ‘no free speech here’ Berkeley on 16th November 2017. Expect howling mobs of eco-worriers outside the venue, although the film does hype up the climate alarmism to ridiculous levels so perhaps they’ll be pacified by that.

The film’s website — which needs a “high-res press stills / press pack” section added, for magazine editors.

For those who want to delve deeper into the topic, I see there’s a new primer book from Cambridge University Press, Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century. Although with a poor choice of cover picture, showing an antiquated lightbulb which undercuts the book’s future-facing theme.

With all of this, my first question is not “can it work”, but “can it work in a world of terrorists” who will seek to turn such technologies to deadly ends? Small sites packed full of nuclear waste, strung all across the planet and at remote locations with low staffing levels, does not seem like a good scenario to me, re: acceptance by both the public and security services.

Still, I guess we now have to think about off-world uses as well. Such as bases on the Moon, colonies on Mars, spaceships inside hollowed-out asteroids. Possibly also large undersea / sunken offshore aquaculture bases. Presumably such reactors would be far safer there, re: the terrorist threat.

Why are nearly all sci-fi movies anti-science and/or dystopia?

“When science had no shame. Part 1: Why are nearly all sci-fi movies anti-science dystopia?” (mild plot-spoilers).

The article is welcome but starts off ranty, with pictures that look rather kooky at first glance. In combination, that’ll be enough to cause 80% of casual readers to click away, before they even scroll down. But if you do scroll down, you find there’s a moderately good tabulated list of sci-fi movies ranked for their optimism and pro-science stances. The author struggles to find any really optimistic pro-science movie, of course.

BBC’s Civilization II series – yes, it’s as leftist as you’d expect

More confirmation, if any were needed, of the BBC’s innate tendency to swing easily toward nihilistic leftist stances

“The BBC plans to ‘question the very concept of civilisation’ in a new and lavish TV series.” … “inspired by Kenneth Clark’s seminal [Civilization] documentary series, but in many ways the opposite of the original.”

And they wonder why Douglas Carswell’s idea of a mass boycott of the BBC’s noxious licence fee is getting traction. Personally I have no TV, and haven’t had one for decades now, and so I don’t pay the licence fee. But I’d certainly help with the boycott.

Adam Smith: the documentary

For some reason it’s always been impossible to find a good radio or TV documentary on Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his famous work The Wealth of Nations. But now Johan Norberg has completed a fine one, first broadcast in spring 2016. Part one is The Real Adam Smith: Morality and Markets in which Norberg outlines Smith’s life, historical context and the wider role his ideas played in his own era. Part two is The Real Adam Smith: Ideas That Changed The World – 250 years of progress and this explores how Smith’s ideas have influenced “the very things we see going on today”.

adam-smith-glasgowPicture: My Photoshop composite of two Wikipedia pictures, since I couldn’t find any I liked. A bust of Smith in the theatre at Kirkaldy, and an engraving of the Glasgow skyline and cathedral of the 1690s. Feel free to use it freely for your pro-Smith content.

Together the two programmes make a quality and up-to-date 100-minute documentary, both on YouTube. If you like what you see, you can buy a HD copy from The Real Adam Smith website. The film’s website also has background content such as a timeline and more.

Sadly a search of Google News and its archive suggests a complete indifference to The Real Adam Smith on the part of the mainstream media. A search there for “Real Adam Smith” yields only a single press release, from March 2016. Although the CATO website suggests that the documentary did quietly have a screening on PBS in America (the U.S. equivalent to the BBC) in early August.

What of our BBC? Predictably a search on the BBC for “Adam Smith” economics in programmes yields socialist Labour M.P. Tristram Hunt on “The Free Market” (45 minutes, “unavailable”); some link-bait titled “Adam Smith – Secret Socialist?”; and a discussion from the (historically very far-left) sociologist Laurie Taylor as part of his “Thinking Allowed” (“content cannot be played”). Such is the BBC left-think that we have to put up with here in the UK. There is one exception, though it doesn’t appear on the search results. It’s the BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” on The Wealth of Nations an excellent 45-minute round-table format that is usually mostly free of leftist slantings.

Thanks goodness for the Internet.