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.


James Redekop said...

I'll definitely have to check out this book. The story of these ducks crops up frequently -- they've been a tremendous boon to oceanic research. And while the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch isn't the massive solid mat of plastic that some news reports have suggested, it certainly is a serious pollution problem, and it's only going to get worse until we smarten up.

(BTW, I thoroughly enjoyed Contested Will, though I was surprised to see good ol' Ignatius Donnelly show up! I know of him through his seminal work of Atlantean psychoceramics. If it weren't for him, the general public wouldn't know any more about Atlantis than they do any other aspect of Plato.)

laura k said...

And while the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch isn't the massive solid mat of plastic that some news reports have suggested

It's actually much worse than generally reported, and only one of several massive plastic dumps in the ocean.

So glad you enjoyed Contested Will! I can't for the life of me think of who I Donnelly is in the context of that book.

James Redekop said...

The original reports about the Garbage Patch, when it first showed up in the news, tended to give the impression of a solid mass of plastic the size of Africa; but people who study the patch whom I've heard interviewed describe it as pretty much invisible from on board a ship unless you're actually looking carefully. Which isn't to say it's not a huge problem, of course!

Ignatius Donnelly was the author of The Great Cryptogram, promoting the idea that Bacon hid codes in the plays that prove he wrote them. He was one of the main influences on Twain.

laura k said...

Oh, that guy! :) Thanks.

One big thread of "Moby Duck" is the discrepancies between media reports and reality. For example, virtually everyone calls the toy ducks "rubber duckies" - but they are not rubber, they are plastic - a significant difference that the author explores. You'll definitely enjoy this.

James Redekop said...

Incompetent media reporting is a common theme in the science advocacy stuff I follow. It's amazing how bad it can be -- it's not uncommon to see a news report about a scientific paper describe the results as the exact opposite of what the paper actually says. And then papers run stories about the appalling state of scientific literacy in the general public...

Ben Goldacre's BadScience blog/column for the Guardian in the UK is a great resource for this sort of thing.

deang said...

The fact that almost all of this has happened since the rise of disposable plastic products following World War II boggles my mind. That's only 70 years really, a blip in geological time, and already the oceans are so damaged.

I also think of the millions of landfills bloated with this stuff. Will those ever break down? Will anything ever be able to grow on them?

There's a movie that I keep meaning to rent called "Plastic Planet" about all this. Now I'm even more determined to see it, and to read this book.

James Redekop said...

Pile enough earth on top of a landfill and stuff will grow; however, there's no guarantee that the water table will be healthy underneath...

laura k said...

The fact that almost all of this has happened since the rise of disposable plastic products following World War II boggles my mind. That's only 70 years really, a blip in geological time, and already the oceans are so damaged.

It is mind-boggling how much pollution there's been in such a short time. Thanks for the movie tip, I hadn't heard of that one. I'll put it on my list to look for as well.

I can't wait to finish my project so I can read this book!