Search for Missing Plane Distracts From Bigger Environmental Concerns

In this April 18, 2011 photo, a plastic container litters the beach in Sandy Hook, N.J. Clean Ocean Action, the environmental
In this April 18, 2011 photo, a plastic container litters the beach in Sandy Hook, N.J. Clean Ocean Action, the environmental group that has been doing beach sweeps for 25 years, says in a report to be released Tuesday, April 19, 2011 that an all-time high of 475,321 pieces of litter were removed from the state's 127-mile shoreline last year. The 8,372 people who participated in spring and fall cleanups also set a record. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Lost in the despair of the endless search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 lies another tragedy. One that is far less painful yet, conspiracy theories aside, far more disturbing. For the past three weeks our hopes for finding the missing airliner have ridden waves of emotion as turbulent as the ocean swells on the news that satellites have spotted floating objects or traces of jet fuel in the sea below. With each potential discovery our hopes were raised only for the authorities and the media to casually inform us the debris or oil slicks were not from a plane but sea trash and oil slicks. Such news has been met with indifference and is quickly forgotten as our attention turns to the next unidentified bobbing object or possible ping. A CNN commenter described one such quarter mile slick as, "oil from some other random spill," before turning the focus back to the search mission.

The media's nonchalance and our societal indifference is hardly surprising but astoundingly scary. The ocean is our most precious resource. It accounts for 71 percent of our earth surface, 97 percent of the earth's water supply, and produces around 120 million tons of food each year. Entire countries and hundreds of thousands of eco-systems depend on it for survival. And yet, in the more than three weeks of around the clock dedicated media coverage, hardly anyone has raised even the slightest concern at the amount of trash and oil in our oceans. The way the media has approached the coverage one would assume that ocean trash was common and of little significance.

The truth is they'd only be half wrong. Currently an island the size of Texas made entirely of plastic bottles and other landfill waste floats off our Pacific Coast. As a planet, we dump more than 14 billion pounds of plastics and trash into our oceans each year. Each day the world's fleet of merchant ships and cruises discard 5.5 million containers worth of plastics and garbage into the sea. Yet ships and merchant vessels are not the only ones to blame. Around the world, coastal sewage systems account for at least 1 percent of ocean pollution. Sadly, ocean trash is all too common.

This pollution is killing the oceans as we know it. Pollution from both the air and what we've dumped into the seas is increasing the acidity of the ocean which is in turn killing off our coral reefs at alarming rates. Combined with manic overfishing we could lose 90 percent of our fish populations within the next 50 years.

So where is the outrage?

Fish is the number one source of protein on the planet. Nearly 3 billion people worldwide rely on fish for food and that number is only expected to increase. Beyond food, we rely on our ocean for our oxygen (Phytoplankton account for approximately 90 percent of the world's oxygen production), to absorb the sun's rays and cool our planet, for oil and minerals, for transport, tourism and trade.

Would we show the same apathy if our local water supplies were tainted by "some random" oil spill or if mercury -- a toxic heavy metal commonly found in our fish -- was sprinkled on produce at our grocery stores? Of course not. Why isn't it registering then that the debris and pollutants searchers have found isn't some an anomaly limited to a small confined area but rather heaps of trash that have floated hundreds miles off the coast of Perth in waters considered some of the most remote stretches of ocean on earth. If trash has reached that far out, it's everywhere. What must it take for us to acknowledge a disgusting and disturbing reality?

As Bill Maher said on Twitter: "The lesson from 370 is all the false leads are because there's so much garbage in the ocean! This will wind up killing way more than one plane."