Reprinted from Ode | Spring 2011 issue
Almost two years ago at a natural products conference, I ran into an old friend. I’d known him for some years as a passionate advocate for the natural and organic industries. He’d founded various companies in that space. He was an environmental activist. So it was a big surprise when Anthony Zolezzi told me that after traveling around the globe for a few months studying how the world deals with waste and recycling, he had become “a fan of plastic.” I said, “What? How can anyone who loves nature think anything positive about plastic?”
Well, read our story on page 36, which started with my conversation with Zolezzi that day. In brief: Plastic is one of humankind’s best and most useful inventions. We need it in almost everything. That isn’t the problem. The problem is we’ve done an extremely bad job recycling and re-using plastic, and we’re still doing a bad job. Not even 10 percent of the plastic we use is captured. Because of that, plastic has ended up everywhere—polluting the planet, endangering our health and getting a bad name in the process. The simple answer is: We should love plastic and we should take care of it like we take care of everything we love.
There’s a deeper issue here. Somehow, inventions like plastic are seen as human-made and artificial, as unnatural things. The environmental ideal is “natural” production using no ingredients not found in nature. I find that a little strange. When a beaver builds a dam in a creek to catch fish, we consider that a “natural” creation. But when human beings build a dike to protect a coastline, we consider it “artificial.” In the puritanical vision of “green,” all technological, human-made development is excluded from evolution, which is only about natural biological development.
However, millions of years of evolution have led to the human beings we are today. And we continue to use our hands and our brains, just like the beaver, to create and innovate. From that viewpoint, a lamppost is as much a product of evolution as a tree. There is, of course, a difference. A tree sprouts automatically from a seed, whereas a lamppost is made from steel and can’t grow itself. However, seen from the perspective of creation, both are experiments in design using whatever material is available. Beavers play with twigs and leaves; we play with molecules and atoms. That’s the only difference.
The problem with “artificial human creations” isn’t that they’re wrong or second class compared to “real” nature. The problem is that human beings are more often careless with their inventions, and they create harmful impacts at levels that a beaver’s dam doesn’t. Human creation, because of its potential impact, increasingly requires another dimension of evolution that isn’t yet fully understood: consciousness.
When we create with an awareness of and a commitment to universal values, our creations will benefit humanity and the planet. That’s where our plastic manufacturers can learn something from beavers.
Read full Ode story, Plastic Fantastic, here