LIKE NO OTHER MATERIAL, plastic has been made entirely for the use and benefit of humans. For the last half-century we have loved it: steadily incorporating plastic into every aspect of our modern lives. However, of no use to other creatures, plastic has come to clog ecological cycles on land, in river and at sea. The polluting consequences of our human-centered creation is now the focus of great hate and humiliation. Though our various other ecological crises— ocean acidification, climate change, species extinction— may be far more dire; nonetheless, as we survey sullied beaches, choked rivers and beached whales, it is plastic pollution that causes us the most shame.
However, through it, an awakening has begun.
Around the globe we’re realizing where our plastic, oh-so carefully segregated, is actually ending up.⁵ Investigative journalism and scientific study has made the fate of all our plastics clear.⁶ No matter how well we landfill it— microscopic plastic particles are ending up loose in the biosphere.⁷ No matter how thoroughly we incinerate it— plastic’s chemicals are leaching out into ecosystems and us. No matter how much we recycle it— plastic’s usage, production and associated emissions⁸ rise unabated.⁹
Our realization of the relentless ensuing pollution has evoked a generational despair.¹⁰ It has led to a harsh judgment of both ourselves and of plastic as innately flawed and ecological damaging. Many lament that both plastic and humanity seem destined to pollute, contaminate and deplete.¹¹
However, such judgments are entirely misplaced.¹²
While we’re now seeing clearly where our plastic ends up, this is only half the story. Our century-long account of plastic as human-made and managed has been woefully short-sighted. Until now, we haven’t truly grasped where our plastic began– both physically and philosophically.
Oft-unknown: plastic’s matter is a by-product of the extraction and refinement of the fossil carbon that powers our modern age. And the fossil carbon itself? It is in fact the by-product of Earth’s epic unfolding of a greener and greener biosphere— an ecological act from which we have much to learn.
So, while our slumber has been stirred by observing plastic’s destiny, our full awakening shall come with an understanding of its origins. For therein plastic’s primordial story lies the key to the reversal of plastic's polluting— and, incidentally, to the reversal of all our other ecological crises. For while plastic pollution, ocean acidification, climate change and species extinction may seem disparate and unconnected, they share a common cause in the dissonance of Earth and modern humanity’s patterns of process.
In this way, we shall see in the chapters that follow, how plastic holds an ecological value that our modern society has completely overlooked.
For as plastic passes through our hands each day, through it we can quite literally touch the pattern that powers our age of depletion. Through this touch, we have a unique opportunity to shift plastic’s fate— and so too shift the paradigm that looms unseen behind both it and our modern world.
But to grasp this momentous opportunity, we must first transcend our judgments and condemnations of plastic— and of ourselves.
To do so we must go back and look at how plastic arrived into our hands in the first place.
To do so we must go back to the interstellar origins of planet Earth and retell plastic’s story in a whole new way.
As we shall see, only with a view of the stars can we gain the requisite perspective to the glimpse the green way forward here on planet Earth.