Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Accidental Seafarer

This week I've been reading Donovan Hohn's Moby-Duck: The true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea. From the shores of Alaska to Hong Kong and Korea; from debris trawling with Captain Moore off the coast of Hawaii to Greenland and a scientific excursion through the Arctic ice-floes, it's the story of Hohn’s search for the lost cargo of the Ever Laurel: a crate of plastic bath toys that went overboard in stormy seas, spilling out across the Pacific Ocean and hitching a ride on its currents around the world.

Marine debris and the plastic wasteland
The subjects that Hohn covers during his adventure are as diverse as his travels: flotsametrics and ocean currents, Chinese factories churning out the everyday items lining our high streets, disasters that befall cargo ships as they transport these goods across the globe from their birthplace, and of our attachment to the iconic image of a yellow rubber duckie. But also, of course, the overriding subject cannot fail to be that of marine debris and, inevitably, plastic.

"The tide of plastic isn't rising only on Alaska's uninhabited shores," Hohn writes (pg. 90). "In 2004, oceanographers from the British Antarctic Survey completed a study of plastic dispersal in the Atlantic Ocean, north and south. "Remote oceanic islands," their survey showed, "may have similar levels of debris to those adjacent to heavily industrialised coasts." Even on Spitzbergen Island, in the Arctic, the survey found on average one plastic item every five metres. Farther south, in the mid-Atlantic and the Caribbean, at the edge of the Sargasso Sea, they found five times as much - one plastic object every metre."

The Guerrilla Seafarer
It's a great book - thoughtful, informative and entertaining. The especial beauty of it, I think, is that it is in no way preachy. It is not an exhortation for the world to mend it's ways, because that is not what Hohn, ostensibly, set out to achieve - he set out to find one of the plastic ducks set adrift by a shipping accident years before, and the facts about plastic, climate change, ocean currents and our commercial mores are just the things that he learned along the way. The beauty is that he slips this information into the reader's mind in-between other tales. It is thoughtful, clever writing. Guerrilla writing.

It is not, perhaps, a perfect story. What about the debris campaigner who, while refusing to buy bottled water, instead stacks his boat with bottled pepsi and cola? Hohn himself points out some hypocritical aspects of the people he meets and the ways they choose to champion their causes, but somehow manages to remain fairly non-judgemental. It does leave me wondering, though, what his own opinions truly are? Did he really just want to find a plastic duck? And what did he, personally, take away from his experiences? An incentive to change his lifestyle and to question the capitalist focuses of modern western society?

Perhaps he has: "Never mind that only five per cent of plastics actually end up getting recycled," he writes (pg. 189). "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."

As for me, it reminds me that I can do whatever I set my mind to. If a thirty-something teacher from Manhattan can talk himself into Captain Moore's orchard, or onto an ice-breaker travelling the Northwest Passage, then why can't I? At first I thought perhaps Moby-Duck was going to be one man’s attempt to escape impending fatherhood, but it turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Ultimately, I hope it gets a few more people thinking about how lifestyle impacts the planet.

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