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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Which Poison? (p. 114)

From chapter "Plastic"

Just to drive the point home, here is another extremely incomplete list of some of the health effects of exposure to various forms of plastic: physical deformities, cancer (brain, breast, cervix, colon, testicular, prostate, and on and on), early puberty, immune deficiencies, endometriosis, behavioral problems, lowered intelligence, impaired memory, impaired sexuality, low sperm count, motor skill deficits, reduced eye-hand coordination, reduced physical stamina, and much more.

Industry liars and their pet politicians will of course point to an inability to tell which poison (from which factory) caused which particular cancer. I don’t disagree that it may sometimes be difficult to pin down the precise murder weapon. As Paul Goettlich wrote, “Since we do live in a sea of manmade toxicity, there is great difficulty in pinpointing exactly which chemical or combination of chemicals was the cause of a cancer or deformity.” But industry liars and their pet politicians will then say this uncertainty is reason enough for them to continue business as usual: It would cause undue economic damage to remove this chemical—which makes all of your lives so much better and easier—from the free market without clear proof of the harm it is alleged to cause. That’s absurd, and it’s murderous. Not knowing which specific carcinogen gave my grandfather cancer or my friend breast cancer or my other friend uterine cancer or my other friend’s mother breast cancer and her father prostate cancer or my other friend leukemia (She has a t-shirt that reads, “My father dropped Agent Orange on Vietnam, and all I got was this lousy leukemia.”), and so on, is like standing on a battlefield watching your friends die, yet not knowing precisely which gun fired which bullet that killed your grandfather, your lover, your friend, your child. The situation is not one that calls for bemused academic interest: it calls for action: we need to stop the bullets, and if those on the other side won’t stop shooting at us, then we need to stop them, using any means necessary. Likewise, if those on the other side won’t stop poisoning us—and I guarantee they’re not going to stop because we ask nicely, or because our grandparents die, or because our children die, or because we sign petitions, or because they’re killing the world, or because they agree to closely cooperate with the EPA—then we need to stop them. Using any means necessary.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s all too big and too scary, and after all, we don’t know precisely which poison killed your grandfather, made you sick, killed your dog, made it so you can’t fish anymore at your favorite fishing spot because the fish all have tumors, killed your cousin, killed your mother, killed your niece, made your nephew fat, made your granddaughter develop pubic hair and breasts before she entered pre-school, gave your sister asthma, gave frogs eight legs, fucked up the genitals of alligators and fish and seagulls, messed with your ability to remember, messed with your ability to think clearly, killed your best friend from childhood, and so on. And of course if we don’t know precisely which poison did each of these— if we can’t nail it down with one hundred percent certainty—then fuck it, we should just keep studying—or rather let industry and government keep studying—until there is nothing left of the world. After all, it’s only our lives that are at stake, and the lives of those we love, and the life of the planet.

Good luck.

* * *

Things are actually far worse than I’ve described. To get the barest hint of how bad they are, just think for a moment about nurdles.

Nurdles are rabbit-poop-sized resin pellets not yet made into full-fledged plastic products. They make up about ten percent of all plastic ocean trash. For obvious reasons, they’re essentially impossible to clean up.

Part of the problem—apart from the fact that there are so damn many, and apart from the fact that the nurdles themselves are poisonous, as are all plastics—is that nurdles bond with other poisons such as DDT and dioxins. In fact they attract these other poisons, so that concentrations of these toxins can be a million times higher than in the surrounding water.You read that correctly. A million times.

It gets worse. Nurdles are the size of fish eggs, and often when they’re not ingested incidentally they’re ingested by mistake. But the reasons don’t matter, because in either case ingested along with the nurdles are other toxins, at rates up to a million times higher than in the already polluted oceans.

But who cares about a bunch of fish and whales and albatrosses, right? Clearly not many of us in this unremittingly narcissistic culture, or we wouldn’t allow this culture to perpetrate these atrocities in the first place. But don’t forget that these toxins are stored in fat, and ultimately they end up in you. Yes, you.

* * *

The United States produces about 300 billion pounds of plastic per year. Billion. Not million. Billion.

* * *

As Captain Charles Moore, the discoverer of the “Garbage Patch” in the Pacific puts it, “If ‘more is better’ and that’s the only mantra we have, we’re doomed.”

* * *

Here’s another way to put it. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, Ph.D., an expert on marine debris, has said, “If you could fast-forward 10,000 years and do an archaeological dig . . . you’d find a little line of plastic. What happened to those people? Well, they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren’t able to reproduce. They didn’t last very long because they killed themselves. . . . The ocean is warning us, and if we don’t listen, it’s very easy for her to get rid of us.”

* * *

If we were only disrupting our own genetic structure and hindering our own ability to reproduce, there are many who would say good riddance to the members of this culture who are killing the planet.

But this culture is taking everyone else down with it.

Once again, there are those in the wild who I am sure would not be sad to see this culture go. The fulmars and albatrosses starving with bellies full of plastic. The alligators and fish whose genitals have been made ambiguous by this culture’s poisons. The infant orcas dying because their mothers’ breast milk has been rendered toxic by this culture’s poisons. The turtles deformed by plastic rings, the fish and whales and birds caught in ghost nets. The ocean herself. The earth herself.

I would be hard pressed to blame a single one of them for their sorrow, their rage, their hatred.

I feel that sorrow, rage, and hatred myself.

Do you?

* * *

What are you going to do about it? What are you going to do to stop these atrocities? How far will you go? What will you do to make yourself worthy of the life that this planet has given you? Where is your allegiance? What will you do?

And why aren’t you doing it?

* * *

Most especially given the near infinite depth of this culture’s narcissism, abusiveness, and its perceived entitlement to exploit, I need to be clear. I do not hate human beings. I love humans, and I love humanity. But I love a living planet far more.

And that is how it should be.

* * *

I need to emend what I just wrote. I love humans, but I do not love what so many humans have become. I hate what this culture has done to us, and I hate that so many value profits and power over life. I hate the narcissists who are killing those I love. I hate those who are poisoning the planet, who are poisoning my landbase, who are poisoning members of my family, who are poisoning me. I hate them, and I will stop them from killing the planet.

Who will join me?

* * *

I need to be clear about something else. Humans are not killing the planet. Industrial humans are killing the planet. Humans who identify more with this culture—this culture of plastic—than they do with life are killing the planet. Humans lived on this planet for tens or hundreds of thousands of years without destroying it. It is only in the last 6000 years or so that a culture toxic enough to kill the planet has emerged.

The choice we face is not between killing ourselves and killing the planet. The choice we face is continuing this way of life that is killing the planet (and us) or not. We can allow this culture to kill the planet, or we can destroy this culture. It really is that simple.