Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

Sea Turtles and Plastics – The Bigger Picture

Plastics saved sea turtles, when tortoiseshell luxury goods became mass market items.

If you type sea turtles + plastic into an Internet search engine, the result is a long list of hideously bad news. SeeTurtles.org declares:

Sea turtles are affected by plastic during every stage of their life. They crawl through plastic on the way to the ocean as hatchlings, swim through it while migrating, confuse it for jellyfish (one of their favorite foods), and then crawl back through it as adults. 

The Australian wing of the WWF tells us:

Human activities have tipped the scales against the survival of these ancient mariners. Nearly all species of sea turtle are classified as Endangered, and plastic is doing more than its share of damage.

The BBC reports that ‘A single piece of plastic’ can kill sea turtles, says study. Newsweek declares: We Are Destroying Sea Turtles With All Our Plastic Waste. And CNN reports: A baby turtle was found with 104 pieces of plastic in its belly.

Meanwhile, a United Nations web page bears a large headline: Fatal attraction: Turtles and plastic. There we read about “a ban on single-use plastic straws, bottles and bags,” and are invited to watch a gruesome viral video in which a straw is extracted from a turtle’s nostril.

That video, which appears at the top of this blog post, has been viewed 39 million times. Please note its full title: Sea Turtle with Straw up its Nostril – “NO” TO PLASTIC STRAWS. This video doesn’t simply document a freak event. It demands a particular response. Chris Figgener, the biologist who posted it, plays judge, jury, and executioner. In the text that accompanies it, she repudiates single-use plastics – rather than calling for adequate trash disposal systems in countries that currently lack such infrastructure. She says the “turtle suffers from an item that is human-made.”

None of the sources that appear in that long list of Internet search results – whether they be outright activists, activist organizations, or mainstream news outlets – provide any historical context. For that, you need to read Michael Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. There he explains that plastic, made from petroleum products, almost certainly saved sea turtles from being harvested to extinction:

For thousands of years, humans around the world made exquisite jewelry and other luxury items from the shells of hawksbill sea turtles, like the kind [in the viral video]…Craftsmen heated the turtles over a fire, sometimes alive, so they could peal the misnamed ‘tortoiseshell’ away from their skeletons…artisans used heat to flatten and mold tortoiseshell into various luxury items…What was special about the shell of sea turtles wasn’t just that it was smooth and beautiful but also that it was so plastic, which originally referred to things that were easily molded or shaped. [original italics]

Here’s a tortoiseshell hair comb from the 1920s:

click for source

The person asking $3,500 for these genuine tortoiseshell eyeglasses notes that they’re handmade and were “worn by the elite and famous” during the 1950s and ’60s.

click for source

To this day, faux tortoiseshell remains wildly popular with consumers of eyeglasses, hair accessories, and guitar picks.

As the world’s population increased, as many people’s standard of living improved, a burgeoning middle class aspired to luxuries once available only to the rich. At a time when there simply weren’t enough sea turtles to satisfy the demand for tortoiseshell, plastics (aka fossil fuels) rode to the rescue.

In other words, the world is a complicated place. There’s more to the relationship between sea turtles and humans than most of us imagine.

Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All
Michael Shellenberger

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