What do we “want”? December 16, 2010

Duquesne Fils-Aimé regularly wades into a river of waste in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to clean out the city’s canals. Despite the filth, he is thankful for the job, he said.

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order in the continuous thread of revelation.”

“Write about what you don’t know about what you know. ”
Eudora Welty

Convenience might kill us in the long run.  I grew up hearing the frantic warning–“Don’t ever put that plastic dry cleaning bag over your head, you can smother yourself.”  Looking at the picture above, which was on the front page of the New York Times about a month ago, I think about what all this single-use plastic is doing to our world.

For the past few days I have been listening and re-listening to a Radio Lab podcast of a conversation Robert Krulwich had with Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly.  The show was entitled What Does Technology Want? Johnson and Kelly are authors of the books Where Good Ideas Come From and What Technology Wants, in that order. Think about it this way–stuff gets invented because we need it and we want it.  Because our world is “ready and waiting for it.”  For example, Elisha Gray registered his discovery of the telephone 3 hours after Alexander Graham Bell.  The telephone’s time had come.  It was waiting to be invented.  The same sort of thing happened with the electric light bulb.  The scientific world had made all the discoveries necessary to support these inventions.  According to Johnson and Kelly,  there are really no “Eureka” moments.  Stuff happens because of all that has come before.  They also say that ideas, like plants to the sun, lean in the direction that the world “wants.”

Are we ready to address our over-use of plastic?  Do we “want” to pay attention to the fact that we are using oil, a finite resource in a non-renewable way?  For that matter, are we ever going to make small affordable cars that use this resource wisely?  What must happen scientifically and culturally to make this a priority for us?

If you listen to NPR you hear stories about electric cars and wind-generated energy, which makes me think we are leaning towards some sort of environmental stewardship.  I do not hear much these days about plastic, how it is used everywhere all of the time in almost all packaging of anything, from food markets in the developing world to our fancy gourmet cheese counters here in the States.  So much of our food is sealed in plastic for freshness and shelf-life, yet no one is talking about the toxic off-gassing of this non-biodegradeble material we are using to hold our food.  Plastic sheeting, plastic wrapping, plastic clam shells, plastic lids with plastic straws covering mostly plastic drinking cups.

A woman dries plastic bags for recycling on the banks of the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where authorities have clamped down on bag use. Photo: ReutersI

I am finding that I have more questions than answers as I approach the end of my year without single-use plastic.  Mostly–with a  bit of vigilance and a sense of humor, saying over and over, “This is my job, this year”–I feel I have been successful in my quest.  I have found most of the food I have needed in glass or at farmers markets.  Everywhere, however, on almost everything, are tiny plastic seals, tabs, labels and caps– EVERY everywhere.  I also see, all the time, and everywhere as well, people filling their trunks full of groceries in plastic bags, folks strolling down the streets or sitting in internet cafes or waiting for buses with their giant “big-gulp” drinks of something, usually with a plastic cup and almost always with a plastic straw and lid.  Plastic water bottles are everywhere–along our roads, in offices and homes and cars and in people’s hands.  EVERYWHERE.  Always always always.  I ALSO see kids and adults with their own use-again water bottles and lots of people with their use-again bags at the grocery store.  It’s all there.  My questions are– “Are we leaning towards paying attention? Do enough of us feel that the time has come to do so?”  Steven Johnson says if an idea comes before it is supported by the ethos of the community, then it will flounder.  I hope we are ready to deal with this plastics issue.  I have been wondering a lot about what it would take for us–our society, our culture, our world–to begin to take this over-use of plastic seriously.  What would make us shift our awareness and our actions?  It is becoming clear to me that looking for the answers to these questions will be the next stage in my journey.

Amy Kellum December 18th, 2010

Very good questioning, Bryant. You have certainly brought awareness to many folks this year. Thank you for your persistent questioning of the status quo.

Bianca Bradford December 20th, 2010

I have enjoyed reading your posts this year. Whatever choices you make in 2011, please know that you have helped make me, and so many others, more conscious of the abundance of plastic in our world. I’ll never look at a bag of chocolate morsels the same way!

Bryant December 20th, 2010

Thanks Bianca–Along this line, I have been pondering about what I will buy or not after the first. I will write of this, but I really appreciate your time and thoughtfulness here. If you are ever close to a Whole Foods, Weaver Street Market of a co-op with bins, It turns out that they all have Chocolate chips in bulk. I loaded up a while back and have been rich in Chocolate chips ever since. Bulk buying from is one of the things that has made this year possible.
happy new year!

Kate E. January 3rd, 2011

Bryant, I just discovered your blog and it really touches my heart – FABULOUS!!! You are a true artist with a real passion for doing the right thing and I applaud you! Keep up the great work!

Bryant January 3rd, 2011

Thanks Kate–I appreciate your taking the time to read and then write

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