Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Pacific Gyre and the Reality of Human Waste

Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash, which has typically been trumpeted along side William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's work as part of the cyberpunk definitive, explores a world of hyperbolic extremes. Corporate-Tribal-Suburbia. Hyperinflation. Impossibly bureaucratic and irrelevant federal governance, taking the Big Brother-feel of 1984 and then placing it on the scale of your local DMV office. Pirate-esque youth skateboard culture and prolific religious cultism, spread virally. Nuclear-powered handguns.

Stephenson's take on cyberpunk is sometimes criticized as going a little too far, taking the serious technological and dystopian implications of traditional cyberpunk and warping them beyond believability. But, as is all too often the case, what cyberpunk presents in tones of absurdist irony (and Stephenson is rightly noted as having a somewhat comedic take on cyberpunk) sometimes turns to harsh reality.

One of the central concepts of Stephenson's work is the ominous Raft, a community strung together out of garbage floating in the Pacific, all tethered to an abandoned aircraft carrier. In the book, the Raft spins on the Pacific's circular currents, growing into a religious hub and periodically ransacking the localities it drifts by in gouts of violence and thievery. Think vikings meet South China Seas pirates meets the Pentecostals for a relatively correct approximation.

As impossible as the Raft may sound, there is a very similar phenomenon occurring today--in fact, it's been occurring for about the past fifty years. But it's not so much a Raft as a very fine soup. And I'll give you one guess as to what it's made out of...

But hey, that's not so bad right? I mean, how big can it be?

Gigantic, as it turns out.

Yes there are not one but two continent-sized collections of waste, rotating endlessly on those very same currents that Stephenson named as the propulsion of his own idea. Rotating and growing.

The oceans have literally become the world's largest landfill.

And while some may scoff at the tragedy this creates for our lesser aquatic neighbors, there are very real and very serious implications for human beings as well.

By the very nature of the food chain (one might think of it as nature's own karma) human beings are destined to ingest the very same plastic debris winding up in our oceans. Because plastic is photo-degradable, though not bio-degradable, the floating waste, exposed to day after day of uninterrupted sunlight, slowly breaks down, eventually becoming so incredibly small as to be indistinguishable from the seas' plankton--the plains grass of the ocean, and most basic staple of diet for all the smallest organisms in the sea.

In cases of mistaken identity, which is not too difficult given that a water sample from the soup can have a six times greater concentration of plastic than plankton, the plastic is consumed instead of plankton, and there it remains, sitting in the creature's digestive system and poisoning it until it is excreted or the animal dies.

For a great in-depth explanation of just how bad the soup has become, check out this video courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

The plastic ocean is not a myth; it is the terrible byproduct of human ingenuity and wastefulness. People may consider the size and scope of this ecological disaster beyond belief, but human polluting is no new phenomenon. It should not seem so strange now that seafood has become increasingly dangerous and unhealthy to eat to the point that even the Food and Drug Administration may take action. These poisons are not skipping into the food chain by some great mystery... the chemicals appear in our food because we place them in environment and in the animals we eat.

The mistake is that people have come to assume that human-fostered disaster will naturally come in swift, dramatic incidents. Names like, the Exxon-Valdez are what we've naturally assumed to equate with human folly in the environment. This pervasive attitude is what makes the slow creep of phenomena like Global Warming so easy to misconstrue or discount.

Stephenson's Raft, full of vagabonds and robbers, raping and pillaging their way around the Pacific Rim seems like an appropriate metaphor for the insidious growth of our plastic soup. After all, it is our inability to deal responsibly with this element of our society that has lead to the situation we are in today.

Who knows, perhaps one day we can gather it all together and make a zoo for the remaining polar bears once the poles have disappeared. Or is that me being a cyberpunk absurdist?

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