Essayist • Teacher • Attorney

Avert Your Eyes

Aug 9th, 2010

Even before the Gulf Oil Spill, Ms. Jacobs worried about the state of our oceans. In the following essay, she considers the consequences of our addiction to plastic:

If you have not yet read “Moby-Duck: Or, The Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood,” Donovan Hohn’s essay about a mishap at sea that sent thousands of rubber duckies sailing around the globe, then I suggest you steer clear of it. Not because the piece isn’t entertaining or well-researched. And not because the subject matter isn’t timely. But because, if you are even remotely like me, you will never be able to put it from your mind.

The story begins innocently enough: a Hong Kong cargo ship caught in forty-foot waves, the containers on deck snapping loose and hitting the water with a splash; the bright yellow ducks emerging from their sealed packages and then bobbing across miles of open sea; the high school teacher who, ten months later, discovers a few beached plastic animals on a remote Alaskan island; and then, of course, the fifteen-year campaign to map the wandering bathtub toys’ progress—hundreds of reported sightings from Seattle to Kennebunkport (if one beachcomber is to be believed). The kind of images that tickle the imagination and, had Hohn stopped there, might have left me humming a happy tune, secure in the notion that mankind is inherently good, that when push comes to shove (or at least when it comes to retrieving rubber ducks) we can work together.

But like most fairy tales, this story has its dark side. And Hohn describes it in devastating detail: seafaring birds choking on the toys, their baby chicks starving to death on the plastic that “their parents regurgitate into their mouths”; the gigantic “garbage patch” floating in the middle of the Pacific, a “purgatorial eddy” the size of Texas that is chock-full of human trash, a swirling gyre fed by melting icecaps that catches abandoned fishing nets, TV tubes, and all manner of plastic flotsam—stuff that will never sink, but will only splinter into ever smaller pieces until it becomes a toxic “plastic-plankton soup” that enters the food chain. The ultimate fate, says Hohn, of those delightful rubber ducks.

A terrifying thought, to be sure. And yet, why did this particular story affect me so profoundly? It wasn’t as if I hadn’t read about global warming or polluted oceans before.

Perhaps it was Hohn’s storytelling skills. After all, who could forget the sound of those metal containers going over the side with a splash like a train driving “off a seaside cliff,” or the sight of those baby birds slowly starving on indigestible plastic?

Or maybe it was Hohn’s ability to infuse his characters with personality: the oceanographer with the white beard and Hawaiian shirt (“Santa Claus on vacation”) who collects shipwrecked sneakers in his basement. A man who can identify a maritime accident by decoding the serial number on the tongue of a barnacle-covered shoe. The same man who, in his quest to identify the source of a spill, is perfectly willing to spend four hours chatting up a Chinese captain to get a peek at his ship’s log.

And then too, there was Hohn’s talent for weaving the most astonishing statistics into his narrative. Like the fact that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of “ghost nets,” the miles-long fishing nets that the UN banned in 1992, are still drifting aimlessly around the world—killing just about everything in their path. Or that two hundred million tons of plastic gets produced every year—and only five percent of it gets recycled. “Never mind that the plastics industry stamps those little triangles,” Hohn tells us, his ironic tone barely able to conceal his anger over the fact that “no viable recycling method exists.”

Who wouldn’t find that kind of information troubling?

But my fixation with this subject matter suggests something deeper, something more personal. An emotion closer to remorse—or guilt. And that, I suspect, may be at the heart of my preoccupation with this essay.

Because twenty years ago, I bought those same toys for my baby son and daughter. The memories of them splashing in the tub with their rubber ducks—their cheeks rosy, their dimpled flesh as smooth and perfect as only an infant’s can be—are as precious to me as anything I have ever known. I can still recall with perfect clarity (if not perfect pitch) the sound of their little voices crooning the Sesame Street rubber duckie song. But now, superimposed on that charming video in my head are Hohn’s indelible images and a new soundtrack. A scary voiceover that announces the impending death of our oceans—and civilization.

But they were only toys, you might be tempted to say. How could you have known?

And I might be persuaded to accept absolution, mumble a few Hail Mary’s and move on, had that been my only sin. But my culpability neither begins nor ends with the ducks. For most of my life, I have been a willing participant in this culture of waste: happy to use disposable cups, plastic bottles, throwaway dishes—anything to save a few minutes of labor. Perfectly content to ignore the experts, not to mention the mounds of garbage collecting at my curb, secure in the delusion that recycling would take care of it.

Even now, with Hohn’s story looping in my head, I am having trouble weaning myself from the addiction—my hand still reaching for a plastic utensil or Ziploc bag before I remember my new vow. A woman torn between convenience and conscience.

So unless you are willing to chance a similar fate, I suggest you avoid the essay. I mean it—avert your eyes should your Internet browser somehow open to The risk is simply too great. After all, once your consciousness is raised, there may be no turning back. And where will we be if the whole world suddenly starts worrying about this kind of thing?

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