Up until lunchtime, I was most likely going to write about freshwater mussels, and how amazing they are on account of their ability to filter and clean water, and how a combination of cleaning up water/preventing pollution, and reintroducing native mussels into watersheds could do wonderful things for restoration.
During lunchtime, I read three fascinating, well-written articles by someone who went on a tour of places that are a part of the global network of manufacturing and distribution.
There is this piece, focused on one factory/city that produces rare earth minerals (which are actually not particularly “rare”), and the intense pollution of the process.
In 1950, before rare earth mining started in earnest, the city had a population of 97,000. Today, the population is more than two-and-a-half million.
Even before getting to the toxic lake, the environmental impact the rare earth industry has had on the city is painfully clear. At times it’s impossible to tell where the vast structure of the Baogang refineries complex ends and the city begins. Massive pipes erupt from the ground and run along roadways and sidewalks, arching into the air to cross roads like bridges. The streets here are wide, built to accommodate the constant stream of huge diesel-belching coal trucks that dwarf all other traffic.
. . . It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.
Then there was this piece, about one part of the incomprehensibly vast plastic-junk manufacturing.
Everywhere the fruits of their labour surround them; thousands of Christmas ornaments and novelties constantly being piled into cardboard boxes and plastic crates faster than they can be moved out, spilling on to the floor and towering above the workers.
In the next room the fabric products are made; again about two dozen women sit at rows of sewing machines. It’s hot and all you can hear is the constant hum of the machines as they stitch together hats, Christmas stockings, and festive bunting (see video, below). The red and white Santa hat – the kind you wear at office parties – that you buy for a few pounds and then throw away by New Year’s Eve.
And there was this, about the shipping network.
Over the course of seven days there wasn’t a single time when I stood on the bridge of the Seletar, even when deep at sea, that I couldn’t look out and see other container ships, and a brief scan of the horizon with binoculars would usually reveal four or five more. The implications are even more startling when nearing a port, and seeing dozens of vast ships held at anchorage, lined up like trucks in a parking lot.
Excerpts can’t do them justice; the only way the scale can be grasped at is by reading the entire article as it builds up a bigger picture.
As the third article says, it really is amazing, these vast, complex systems and factories we (as a species) have invented and constructed and keep running. I can’t not admire them.
But I also couldn’t help feeling an almost overwhelming feeling of existential horror about halfway through the 2nd article. I went on to finish it AND read the third piece, and again, sensing the sheer scale and dehumanized, de-lifed nature of the ports and the entire process was absolutely horrifying – if I had less control over my emotional response, I would have been screaming – especially in the greater context of what the implications are for the living systems of the planet, including the human beings whose lives are pulled in as little more than particularly clever cogs in the machines. Living cogs that are cheaper than machines. That’s why they are used. (What is the value of a human life of the system? Not very much, and yet it is dependent on us.)
And the sheer wastefulness of it all – converting a substance that is literally the remains of the ancient dead, irreplaceable, which we should treat as more precious than gold (or rare earth minerals) for the massive stored energy they hold, into cheap plastic trinkets that are bought for temporary amusement or discarded when they (all too often) break. To say nothing of the unique properties plastics have as physical substances. The waste of all the human lives going into that system; the other, non-human, lives that barely get counted at all.
This is a system that is not life-supporting, except in the way that a parasite may offer some benefits to its host, up until the day it kills it off.
My table sits in front of a window; I can see the yard with no effort. After reading the articles, feeling, like I feel too often reading non-fiction these days, as if I’d just gotten through some particularly bleak and pessimistic dystopian SF novel, I had to go outside. Had to. Be with something alive and real, fragile and perfect and beautiful.
I thought “real” was a funny way to think about it – the factories and container ships and hand-made plastic trinkets are certainly real, are they not? But maybe only real the way a stage setting is real: an elaborate construction assembled to keep up a kind of group fiction. You buy into it, you accept it as real, but they are all just props to make it believable; it exists as real only as long as you let go skepticism and let yourself be pulled into it.
With a play or film, however, participating is consensual, and you go into it knowing it’s a fiction – and after 90 minutes or two hours the lights come up and you walk out the door back into – what you consider to be really “real.”
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
(from The Graduate)
Gods. I don’t want to think about it any more.
It’s 2 in the afternoon and I want to get completely drunk.
Go read about mussels. That shows some promise.
I think I’m going to the nearest available nature preserve.