a place for plastic

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Let’s imagine for a moment that we are part of this planet, in a real and very if you’ll excuse the term, wholesome way. We are part of the global ecosystem, we are part of its working, turning, exquisite balance.

Not just some of us – not just the people who have remained indigenous, in touch, connected and in a deep and nameless relationship to the land that nourishes and protects them, not just those who can see this reality in this world of constructs, not just really young children. But ALL of us. And not just in the sense of each and every one of us, but every aspect of every one of us.

So lets go a step further – there is no ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ there are no distinct realms – one of the natural and one of the unnatural.

It seems an obvious and simplistic statement to make, that we are part of nature. But as I sit in an air conditioned, sterile airport lounge, where everything around me is coated in plastic. Our disassociation from the world is very clear.

And plastic. Let’s talk about that.

Burning Man brought something into clear, slightly terrifying sight. A big part of the festival is Leave No Trace, Pack in, Pack Out, and the much mentioned MOOP, Matter Out Of Place. This is not a new concept and one studied by many undergraduate social scientists. As far as I know the term was coined by brilliant anthropologist Mary Douglas in her 1966 tome ‘Purity and Danger’ an extraordinary piece of work that my tutors used to illustrate ideas around ‘taboo’, the famous example she used is that dirty shoes are acceptable on the floor, but the same pair are unacceptable / taboo when on the table.

In Black Rock City – the Burning Man settlement, MOOP is defined thus

‘….anything that is not originally OF the land on which our event takes place. So everything that wasn’t originally ON or OF the Black Rock Desert, no matter how small… MOOP also includes greywater, and the particulates contained therein.’ http://tinyurl.com/lbrj9md

It’s pretty incredible spending a period of time with 65 thousand people the majority of who really adhere to the idea that you don’t leave ANYTHING behind. Now the tricky thing is that despite the best effort of everyone, the festival generates vast amounts of waste that get packed in, packed out and distributed around the world. And sadly still some waste gets left.

Maybe what is most striking is the raising of awareness. Collecting any scrap of litter you find, the site of four people racing after a tiny red feather that had floated from a costume. Picking up sequins in the sand.

I started to think, while watching a wild life documentary where chimpanzees carelessly discarded fruit peel, in earlier eras, dropping things on the ground was not problematic. The stone of a fruit you were eating, throwing out a broken pot made from local clay, even metal eventually rusted back into the land. Taking a pee up against a tree really did no harm. (These days the estrogen levels in our waterways from birth control drugs are having crazy effects on the fish. Literally we are giving fish sex changes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against human sex changes, or taking the Pill – and apparently we go around changing fish sexuality in aquaculture on a regular basis. But honestly this unconscious disruption makes me feel slightly insane, particularly as I start to think how it might play out in years to come.)

How different from today. I rocked up to BM in a car stuffed full of things which would take centuries to break down (plastic bags take 500 years apparently, there is some arguments about this, but mainly because they were only invented 50 years ago so we haven’t had the time scale to test it – maybe we can agree they stick around longer than they should.) In fact most of what we had was plastic. Stuff to shield our poor, pale bodies from the craziness of desert. I got thinking about ‘a place for plastic’. And then, exhausted, dehydrated and a bit strange, I started to think about how there wasn’t one.

We have created the ultimate tool of separation. A near permanent boundary between ‘us’ and the ‘natural’ world. A worthless, endlessly used substance we hardly notice. Plastic seems an ally of rationality. It divides – it creates an apparently infinite delineation between things. And one which wreaks untold destruction, as anyone who has watched one of the heartbreaking films about what the vast gyre of plastics in the ocean are doing to the ecosystems will know.

Maybe if we can start to break down this separation in our minds between ‘ourselves and the universe’ we can see plastic in a very different way. Maybe plastic can become precious.

I had a small glimpse of this listening to Dame Ellen Macarthur speak about her travels solo across the ocean. She explained how her boat was a closed system. Everything was essential. Even tiny scraps of plastic were kept in case they became useful. She explained how she suddenly realised the whole universe was a closed system. WE CANNOT ACTUALLY THROW ANYTHING AWAY.

Think about that for a moment.

Everything we create is always with us. Either it breaks down, become part of something else. Or it stays in its state. In a landfill site, in the river, in the ocean, orbiting this planet in an ever-deepening layer of so called ‘space junk’. Maybe if we started to realise this we would look at substances like plastic in a different way.

Maybe plastic could become precious?

I can barely imagine a world where plastic is viewed as being precious. I struggle to imagine one where everything is saved, recycled and upcycled. The scale is nearly unthinkable. Even more of a mental stretch is a much simpler idea. That we just stop making plastic. It’s quite clear we have enough already.

Why can’t we just stop?

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