8.05.2011

moby duck sails into the sunset

I've finished reading Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn, one of the very best books I've read in some time. In earlier posts about this book (here and here), I said it is about the permanence of plastic and the poisoning of the ocean, along with
the "marginalization of animals" in modern society, beachcomber subculture, climate change, factory work, and on and on, as Hohn weaves threads of mini-histories into his unusual travelogue.
And now that I've finished, I'll add to that list: the toy industry, the squalid factories of China, container ships (completely amazing!), and Arctic expeditions through history. It's also about quests - some real, some literary, some imaginary. The author ends this great sprawling book with a bit of literary analysis, tracing the theme of paternity in Melville's Moby-Dick, which links the author's own life to that novel.

Because Hohn travels on an Arctic icebreaker, Canada makes a brief appearance. It was interesting to see a bit of Canada through the eyes of someone who previously may not have given Canadian culture much thought - the way Canadians refer to "the North", for example. And true to form, when the author visits Cambridge Bay, there's a scholar there, writing her thesis on the local Inuit. Hohn is surprised, but I was not. Canada's aboriginals are the most studied people on earth. Little good it has done them.

I want to share two more excerpts from Moby Duck, and a tiny third.
In 1878, nine years after its invention, a sales brochure promoted celluloid as the salvation of the world. "As petroleum came to the relief of the whale," the copy ran, so "has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer." Ninety years later, in the public mind, plastic had gone from miracle substance to toxic blight. In 1968, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement, the editor of Modern Plastics argued that his industry had been unfairly vilified. Plastics was not the primary cause of environmental destruction, he wrote, only its most visible symptom. The real problem was "our civilization, our exploding population, our life-style, our technology." That 1878 sales brochure and that 1968 editorial were both partly, paradoxically right. Petroleum did save the whale, or at least some whales; plastics did save the elephant, not to mention the forest. Modern medicine would not exist without them. Personal computing would not exist without them. Safe, fuel-efficient cars would not exist without them. Besides, they consume fewer resources to manufacture and transport than most alternative materials do. Even environmentalists have more important things to worry about now. In the information age, plastics have won. With the wave of a magical iPod and a purified swig from a Nalgene jar, we have banished all thoughts of drift nets and six-pack rings, and what lingering anxieties remain, we leave at the curbside with the recycling.

Never mind that only 5 percent of plastics actually end up getting recycled. Never mind that the plastics industry stamps those little triangles of chasing arrows into plastics for which no viable recycling method exists. Never mind that plastics consume about 400 million tons of oil and gas every year and that oil and gas will in the not too distant future run out. Never mind that so-called green plastics made of biochemicals release greenhouse gases when they break down. What's most nefarious about plastic, however, is the way it invites fantasy, the way it pretends to deny the laws of matter, as if something - anything - could be made from nothing; the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last. By offering the false promise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting.
I find Hohn's writing illuminating and stirring, but lest you think this is the only way he writes, the book is also full of bits like this.
We've all been given a list titled "Crew on Board" and beside my name appear the words "Scientific Staff," words that I would like to photocopy and send - triumphantly or perhaps vindictively or perhaps, come to think of it, pathetically - to my eleventh-grade chemistry teacher, Ms. H---, who snuffed out, as if they were the blue flames of so many Bunsen burners, the fanciful, marine biologist dreams I'd once entertained.
And this:
...a buff surfer dude who liked to go around topless, showing off his pneumatic pectorals between which lay, suspended from a hemp lanyard, a pendant fish hook. Carved from bone, the fish hook is an artisanal symbol of Polynesian culture when worn by a native Hawaiian. When worn by a haole like Hungate, it is perhaps a symbol of either dudeliness or douchiness.
While I'm in school, I'm not buying books, I'm strictly using the library. But I'm keeping a list of books I've read that I want to eventually buy in some future book-buying spree. Triangle was one; Contested Will was another. Of course I will eventually buy Roddy Doyle's The Dead Republic and Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, because they are two of my favourite authors and I loved both books. Now I'm adding Moby Duck to the must-own list.

2 comments:

James said...

I've added it to my Kobo queue!

deang said...

I have it on my to-read list, too. Thanks for the great summary.