what i'm reading: "moby duck" and the permanence of plastic

I've just started reading a remarkable book, one that can't wait until I finish to share it with you: Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn.

I can think of no better way to represent this book than by sharing a portion of the prologue.
At the outset, I felt no need to acquaint myself with the six degrees of freedom. I'd never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool's paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.

At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft. I certainly never expected to join the crew of a fifty-one-foot catamaran captained by a charismatic environmentalist, the Ahab of plastic hunters, who had the charming habit of exterminating the fruit flies clouding around his stash of organic fruit by hoovering them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner.

Certainly I never expected to transit the Northwest Passage aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the company of scientists investigating the Arctic's changing climate and polar bears lunching on seals. Or to cross the Graveyard of the Pacific on a container ship at the height of the winter storm season. Or to ride a high-speed ferry through the smoggy, industrial backwaters of China's Pearl River Delta, where, inside the Po Sing plastic factory, I would witness yellow pellets of polyethylene resin transmogrify into icons of childhood.

I'd never given the plight of the Laysan albatross a moment's thought. Having never taken organic chemistry, I didn't know and therefore didn't care that pelagic plastic has the peculiar propensity to adsorb hydrophobic, lipophilic, polysyllabic toxins such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (a.k.a. DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (a.k.a. PCBs). Nor did I know or care that such toxins are surprisingly abundant at the ocean's surface, or that they bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain. Honestly, I didn't know what "pelagic" or "adsorb" meant, and if asked to use "lipophilic" and "hydrophobic" in a sentence I'd have applied them to someone with a weight problem and a debilitating fear of drowning.

If asked to define the "six degrees of freedom," I would have assumed they had something to do with existential philosophy or constitutional law. Now, years later, I know: the six degrees of freedom — delicious phrase! — are what naval architects call the six different motions floating vessels make. Now, not only can I name and define them, I've experienced them firsthand. One night, sleep-deprived and nearly broken, in thirty-five-knot winds and twelve-foot seas, I would overindulge all six — rolling, pitching, yawing, heaving, swaying, and surging like a drunken libertine — and, after buckling myself into an emergency harness and helping to lower the mainsail, I would sway and surge and pitch as if drunkenly into the head, where, heaving, I would liberate my dinner into a bucket.

At the outset, I figured I'd interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography, and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared in news stories. And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be sure to be present at the birth of my first child.

But questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spit a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you're way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep. You're wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it's like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You're marveling at the scale of humanity's impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You're giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought. . . .
What this book is really about, of course, is how our disposable, consumerist world has poisoned the planet. Moby Duck is perhaps the best argument for buying and using less that I've ever read. But it also shows us that the problem is systemic, and can't be solved at the individual level. I try not to buy more than I need, and never to buy unnecessarily - but whatever I do buy, falls apart in weeks or months or a year. My parents used one patio umbrella for 20 years. Allan and I have gone through three patio umbrellas in five years. Everything I buy is just future landfill, and purposely so. (In case you haven't seen it: The Story of Stuff.) Why should a company manufacture a product to last 20 years, when it could make the same product last for one year and you'll buy it 20 times? (This also speaks to a hidden, skyrocketing change in the cost of living, one reason working people are unable to live well and save money, compared with their grandparents' generation.)

This book is really about many things - 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. I absolutely love his writing, and his wide-ranging sources - a rainbow of science, literature and popular culture.

Framing the story, Hohn and his wife are expecting their first child. He has promised to be present at the delivery, and as the story progresses, this seems less and less likely (although I haven't gotten very far, I don't know what happens). Some readers may be offended by Hohn leaving his very pregnant wife behind as he travels the globe in pursuit of his research and writing obsession. I am not - I'm far more interested in those kinds of obsessions than in births and babies - but I can imagine some readers finding this underlying theme selfish and irritating. Of course, there are profound, complex connections between the birth of a child and the degradation of our planet, as told through the story of an iconic childhood toy on a mythical global adventure.

Several portions of Moby Duck first appeared in Harper's. You can read one here.

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