Plastic’s Primordial Story
This is the third installment of a series laying out a new ethical theory of green. This week we go far back to the primordial Earth origins of plastic — and lay out the groundwork for the theory.
In a swirl of interstellar dust our solar system and star came together. As cosmic matter collided and coalesced four to five billion years ago, planets began to form around the sun. In a flow of startling unique cosmic confluence, our common home came to be — and to unfold.
Up until two billion years, the Earth was a barren, desolate place. The atmosphere was full of CO2 and the climate was harsh and unstable. Even when life did emerge, only single organisms scurried about.
But slow and steady, over the next billion years, life figured out how to use the light of the sun for energy and carbon from the air to build.
And things began to change.
Plankton and plants emerged and took over the planet’s oceans and surface by sucking CO2 out of the air. They broke CO2 into it’s oxygen and carbon atoms and used the latter as blocks to build. Plants began to compose leaves, flowers and towering trunks. Soon forests and fields covered the planet. Animals, algae and dinosaurs — all made from carbon blocks — thrived. As these amazing creatures lived and died, their carbon was cycled one into the other.
As time passed, one generation of fallen life was covered up by the next. Be it at the bottom of the ocean or the floor of a forest, surely and steadily, layers of life were buried under silt and sediment. Over hundreds of millions of years, the Earth compressed and compacted the biomass of these ancient organisms in a process of sequestration — indefinitely concentrating their carbon deep underground in secure deposits.
Although these organisms all breathed out CO2, their lives tended to subtract a little more carbon into the ground than they added back into the air. With more and more organisms subtracting, soon great quantities of carbon were stored out of the atmosphere. With more carbon being sequestered all the time, the Earth’s climate stabilized — and life flourished! Unprecedented biodiversity over the last 65 million years enabled the calmest period in the Earth’s history. Never before had the biosphere been so livable and green. Cradled by the abundance, sapiens shuffled onto the scene. With the planet’s climate stable within 1–2 degrees, human society emerged.
And we figured out fire.
First, we started by burning wood to warm our caves. Then we discovered the Earth’s carbon stores. We realized that they were far richer in energy and potential. We began to unearth this ancient carbon — what we came to know as coal, petroleum and natural gas. As we got better and better at extracting and burning, they came to heat our stoves, fuel our factories and power our machines. As this carbon came to drive our entire economies, we gave it a new name: fossil fuels.
However, despite the catchy name, compacted carbon deposits were never really meant to be fuel. In the process of refining petroleum, there was a left over residue (4–13% depending on the crude oil being used 2) that just couldn’t be used or burned. With nowhere to go, these chemicals began to pile up.3
Humans soon realized, that the leftovers could be used to make stuff. With a little chemistry polymers could be produced — and with a little more, polymers could be turned into all sorts of new materials with an endless array of properties.
Plastics had arrived!
Soon, humans were solving all sorts of problems by making all sorts of amazing things. No longer did elephants need to be killed for their ivory to make billiard balls. No longer did you need expensive silver plates to take a photograph. No longer did food need to be shipped fresh. Plastics enabled more products, more value, and more capital to flow.
Powered by abundant ancient carbon energy, human industry grew and grew. As industry extracted and refined more and more petroleum for power, there was always that little bit that couldn’t be processed. This led to industry producing more and more plastic at lesser and lesser cost. As industry expanded, so did petroleum refinement, capital surplus and the economies based on it all — what I call the petro-capital economy.
The more these petro-capital economies grew, the faster industry spun and the more petroleum was extracted and refined. This made plastic so cheap and so abundant that it began to spill out into the biosphere. Humans tried their best to manage their plastic by putting it back into industry. However, the economy already had so much cheap new plastic, that there was no-profit in recycling the old. It was easier to burn it, dump it or send it somewhere else.
Soon humans came to see that industrial recycling wasn’t working. It became clear that dumping, burning and exporting created more problems than were solved. In order for the petro-capital economy to continue growing, industry tried hard to hide its ecological impacts and to convince itself and everyone else that there was a solution just around the corner.
Yet, after turning many corners, the grey flow into the biosphere continued to increase. There was now so much burning and dumping, so much CO2 and so much plastic getting loose, that the ecological impacts were in dire dissonance with our longings for harmony. Shamed and determined, humans worked passionately to improve their technologies — to make them less polluting and less damaging.
But still the grey flow of plastic and emissions continued to grow.
And then humans figured it out.
We realized the way forward couldn’t be bought with capital, solved with technogy, nor manufactured with industry.
Instead, the wisdom to move forward lay hidden in the very origins of the planet, its plastic and its people. The cosmic confluence that had lead to the very telling of this tale, held a pattern of energy and matter that had waited the eons to at last be known.
Next: Learning from the Earth
This is was the third installment in a series laying out a new theory of Green — what I am calling Earthen Ethics. In this segment we laid out the foundation for the theory — in the next we’ll start laying the bricks. Installments so far:
3. The Story of a Planet & its Plastic
Russell Maier is based in Indonesia, where he and his partner Ani Himawati tend a food forest garden that provides their fruit and greens. Together they track their household plastic and CO2 impacts. Their monthly household plastic consumption of 0.8kg/month is 14% of the Indonesian average. In 2020 their household CO2 emissions of 2046 Kg were 46.5% of the Indonesian per capita average. Meanwhile, their trees, bamboo, ecobricking and offsetting enabled them to secure 286% more CO2 (5851 kg of CO2 ) and keep 2200% more plastic out of the biosphere than they consumed (5.5Kg). See Russell’s full household plastic disclosure. See also the full green impact accounting of the enterprise of developing An Earthen Ethics. Russell and Ani are leaders in the global regenerative ecobrick movement.
1 Atmospheric CO2 levels are estimated to have been 100 times what they are today. See: Rye, R., Kuo, P.HO., and Holland, H.D. (1995) Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations before 2.2 billion years ago. Nature, 379, 6013–75, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11536713/
1“The events of the first 3.5 billion years of evolution are coming to light at last and they include far more drama and intrigue than we ever imagined” NewScientist 9 January 2019, Michael Marshall, In the beginning: The full story of life on Earth can finally be told. https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24132120-300-in-the-beginning-the-full-story-of-life-on-earth-can-finally-be-told/
3 For a great account of this phenomenon see: Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Susan Freinkel, Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, 2011, p. 7 “Oil refineries run 24–7 and are continuously generating by-products that must be disposed of, such as ethylene gas… British chemists discovered in the early 1930’s [that it] can be made into the polymer polyethylene… another by-product propylene, can be redeployed as a feed-stock for polypropylene, a plastic used in yogurt cups, microwaveable dishes, disposal diapers and cars. Sill another is acrylonitrile, which can be made into acrylic fiber… for AstroTurf and more… Plastics are a small piece of the petroleum industry, representing a minor fraction of the fossil fuels we consume. But the economic imperatives of the petroleum industry have powered the rise of Plasticville.”