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We’re so adept at inventing ways to improve the human condition, we’re unwittingly traveling in the opposite direction — where to admire our industrialized accomplishments is to stand on shaky oil-spattered ground.

Because our worst mess comes from the heyday we’re having with hydro-carbons – oil – in all its various incarnations.

One of the most useful things we make from oil is plastic – nearly 300 million tons a year! But plastic doesn’t EVER go away. Now it’s everywhere.

How did such an advanced species trash the planet in such a short amount of time?

Evolutionary Biologist and Harvard Emeritus, E.O. Wilson, sums it up in a word – narcissism. We’re so intensely interested in individual relationships our social intelligence is off the charts. But this communicating/cooperating genius comes at a price – our environmental management skills are rubbish.

Wilson claims adaptive narcissism makes it easy for humans to think the world was made for us, and we don’t need to know about the eight million odd other species sharing planet earth.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent this is not the case. The fish that eat our plastic are the fish that become our dinner. A report last month found a quarter of fish for sale in Indonesia and California markets have plastic or manmade debris in their guts.

According to Wilson, things such as out-of-control plastic pollution happen because it’s not our rational conscious brains making the big decisions, but rather our impulsive emotional unconscious that’s in charge.

Any therapist worth her hourly fee will tell you the overriding characteristic of the unconscious is – it wants what it wants when it wants it – regardless of collateral consequences.

Recent news makes the plastics industry a perfect case in point.

Plastic industry heavyweights — the DOW Chemical Company, the Coca-Cola Company, and plastic manufactures lobby group the American Chemistry Council – among others — sponsored a report aiming to reduce ocean plastic. But “Stemming the Tide” became quite the lightning rod.

Because the report makes abundantly clear that while the plastics industry can see the burgeoning marine pollution problem, it has no intention to stop or modify what it’s doing, even insisting plastic production will increase.

The report singles out five countries with so-called plastic leakage – more plastic refuse than their waste management infrastructure can accommodate. It recommends these countries – China, Indonesia, The Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – increase incineration of plastics that can’t be recycled.

This could reduce ocean plastic, but does so by changing the form the pollution takes – from floating waste to very nasty airborne pollution.

Exacerbating air quality problems in rapidly industrializing countries that already suffer – air pollution kills four-thousand people a day in China – doesn’t make sense. No one in their rational mind wants more dioxins – highly toxic substances released when plastic burns – not to mention increased carbon emissions and particulate pollution.

Mother and Daughter protesting particulate pollution (PM2.5) in China. (Photo Credit: Greenpeace)

Mother and Daughter protesting particulate pollution (PM2.5) in China. (Photo Credit: Greenpeace)

But even in the face of harsh criticism by environmental NGOs, the plastics industry keeps touting incineration as a win-win – with energy created, plastic refuse reduced – all clearing the way for more single-use plastic to be manufactured with supposed impunity.

The plastics industry it would seem is operating unconsciously on several levels. But that’s to be expected – Noam Chomsky has been telling us for years corporations are designed to behave like psycho/socio-paths.

Wilson says it’s imperative we recognize the unconscious aspect of the human brain – unique to our species. That only when we connect our deepest darkest decision-making unconscious to our logic and technological abilities, will there be hope of regaining balance with the natural earth systems – on which our survival depends.

First order of conscious business is a worldwide reduction in single use plastic – period! Secondly we need smarter design that encourages recovery over disposal, and produces plastic that can be recycled into something useful, rather than down cycled into plastic items of poorer quality.

Meanwhile I’ll keep doing what I’m evolutionarily best at – communicating. Telling you all about problematic hydro-carbons – plastic is unfortunately just one of them.

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