Much has been said about the exponential manner in which technology has been advancing in recent years. I was born in 1970 and I have always been a huge music lover. During my life, I’ve moved from the 8-track and vinyl records to cassette tapes, cds and now iTunes. Cell phones have become an integral part of our lives, but anybody older than 30, remembers a time when telephones where stationary and featured a rotary dialing system. Yes, things have really changed in the last decades, and 2009 marks the centennial of an invention that, in many ways, made all these changes possible. Today, we can’t turn around without encountering something made of plastic. This relentless ubiquity makes it hard to believe that plastic has not always been a part of our world.
The Age of Plastics began in 1909 when Leo Baekeland created Bakelite, a synthetic polymer composed of phenol and formaldehyde. Since then, the world has never looked the same. Toothbrushes, chairs, shopping bags, Nylon shirts, Teflon frying pans, car bumpers, Tupperware containers, sunglasses, GPS navigation devices, Gore-Tex jackets, bobble-head dolls and the very keyboard that I use to type these words, are all entirely or partially made of plastic.
It is ironic and paradoxical that the material responsible for drastically changing the world is also the same one that refuses to change. Before plastics, all natural elements coexisted in a constant and cyclical mutation. The transformation cycles were, in most cases, relatively short. If you threw a banana peel on a field and came back to the same spot a week later, it would have disappeared. Worms, birds and erosion would have quickly reintegrated it into the system. Due to its insolubility in water and chemical inertness, plastic waste can take a thousand years to completely degrade. The ecological consequences of plastic’s durability are just beginning to be understood, but one thing is certain, resistance to the natural process of degradation can be extremely destructive. Still, this is not an article on the ecological consequences of plastic pollution. It is a short meditation on the beauty and necessity of change as it applies to nature and our consciousness.
Compared to plastic, water is one of the most harmonious substances, and it quickly and easily integrates into its environment. The water molecule’s structural simplicity grants it the graceful fluidity that has allowed for life to exist on our planet. Wherever there is water, there is life. The opposite can be said about plastic, its complex molecular structure that refuses to change, destroys life around it. Similarly, in our lives; simplicity, generosity and a willingness to transform ourselves allow us to gracefully interact with our environment; convolution, concealment and rigidity threatens to destroy everything inside and around us.
Water has no fear, it runs, it drips, it waves, it crystalizes and evaporates. Water changes over and over again without ever losing its essence, and its flow brings life and beauty to our world. The Niagara Falls, the River Nile, Arctic icebergs, rainbows and tropical storms are all incarnations of the same flow. We are no exception, water enters and leaves our bodies during our entire lifetime, constantly replenishing 75% of our physical mass. The Niagara Falls have been in me, and a part of me will eventually become a rainbow. So, if change produces so much beauty, why would we want to be plastic? if transformation is life, why would we want to be lifeless?
For centuries, children were allowed to be innocent and the elder were considered wise and respectable. Today, thanks to a phenomenon that advertising and marketing agencies call “age compression”, children strive to look older and the old obsess on looking younger. Age compression is based on making you feel inadequate with your own age and then selling you something that promises to resolve the “deficiency”. The idea is that, there is a perfect age where you are perceived as young, strong, healthy and independent, and you should strive to achieve and maintain it. Whether you are dressing up to pretend you’re not a child or buying a sports car to pretend you are not older, age compression wants a vast majority of the population to spend money in a vain attempt to remain unchanged.
Praising inertness over change may be profitable for advertisers and corporations, but certainly has not been beneficial for society at large. We live in a culture where beings who, for millions of years have been composed of 75% water, are now compelled to replace live tissue and fluids in their bodies with dead and obstructive plastic inserts. Ironically, this ugly practice is done in the name of beauty. But the worst damage is not physical but psychological, living in a constant state of perceived inadequacy has taken a heavy cultural toll.
Once, looking at an ad for Viagra, a wise old man told me: “Why the hell would I want to go there again?”. When I asked him what he meant, he explained that the reason why our sex drive and potency decreases as we age is because it allows us to become more contemplative and thus more able to focus on the approaching miracle of death. He mentioned that most ancient cultures understood this well, and incorporated this knowledge into their traditions. Their elders were wiser and more courageous because of these contemplations, while, in his view, today’s older generation is just old and afraid.
Of course modern western cultures don’t like to talk about death, let alone regard it as a miracle. Contemplating death would assume aging and in the west we are engaged in the futile practice of denying the passage of time. In order to live a full life, we must prepare to welcome death, let ourselves be water and flow. Plastic, like an expressionless Botox-filled face, is lifeless. Isn’t an instant of transformation worth more than an eternity of lifelessness?