The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
July 8, 2009

Plastics Debate Continues with Artist Chris Jordan Weighing In

Yesterday, I mentioned a conversation I had with plastics proponent Greg from Plastics.com and posed several questions for Fake Plastic Fish readers to answer.

Greg has responded to my post with an article on his own blog: “Plastic: What is it good for? Absolutely lots!” Greg invites your comments on his blog — comments which members of the plastics industry will read!

Visual artist Chris Jordan, whom you might recognize for his brilliant social & environmental series called “Running The Numbers,” attempted to respond on Greg’s blog, but his comment was too long. So here it is. Feel free to respond, forward, and discuss with friends. Chris raises important issues about all corporations and whether or not they actually respond to consumer demand or are actually in the business of manufacturing the demand they want.

Hello Greg, greetings from Seattle. I’m an artist and cultural activist who appreciates your posting here.

I think of myself as an anti-plastics activist (among other things) and I have personally met hundreds of anti-plastics activists all over the world. But I have never met anyone who is rabidly anti-all-plastics as you characterize most activists to be.

The few activists who are totally anti-plastics would have to live in denial of the fact that we all benefit enormously from living with plastics. For example, I write this message typing on a well-designed and durable plastic keyboard; I’m looking at a computer monitor that is loaded with plastic components (including the screen I’m reading); I’m sitting in a comfy Aeron chair that’s about 90% plastic.

Most Americans live with plastics like this, and we all recognize the many benefits of plastic. The whole set of arguments that the plastic companies like to make about how great plastic is, misses our point entirely, because the vast majority of plastic activism has very little to do with plastic computer keyboards or Aeron chairs.

The kinds of plastic we rage against are the same kinds that you disparage in your posting above: wasteful disposable plastics that have no real value in our culture, and that are causing harm to the environment and people in numerous ways that we are still discovering. To be specific: plastic soda bottles, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, disposable plastic toys, plastic packaging of all kinds, plastic cups, plastic juice bottles, plastic eating utensils, plastic take-out containers, and all the other cheap plastic junk that didn’t exist just a few years ago and that could be eliminated without any significant sacrifice to humanity.

That is the kind of plastic consumption that the vast majority of activists are trying to put a stop to. I think it’s great that you don’t like that kind of plastic either– and you even believe that using wasteful plastic packaging should be a crime. That’s the kind of thing we activists like to say!

One reason there is so much emotion involved in the activism community is that the few chemical company executives who are personally making billions from manufacturing and selling this kind of stuff do not hold the beliefs that you set out above. I wish you were speaking for the plastic industry in your posting, but you are not. Not by a long shot. As far as I can tell, the small community of billionaires who run the big chemical companies are lost in a fog of ego-driven personal greed. Their actions suggest that they care more about the game of power and big business than they care about the well-being of our world. Their skewed priorities drive them to make decisions that more awake people around the globe consider to be atrocious.

For example, they invest millions in marketing campaigns designed to make problems like the Pacific Garbage Patch look innocuous, so they can continue profiting a little longer from the harmful junk they produce. This was the same attitude the oil company executives displayed when they invested millions hiring quack scientists to make global warming look innocuous so that oil consumption would not decline. The only kind of person who would do this is someone who is driven by fear and greed; someone who lacks emotional depth and complexity, compassion for others, and any meaningful spiritual connection with the earth. I know this because I was like that for many years myself, as a corporate attorney who represented insurance companies and big oil interests.

With the help of a good therapist, I made the journey over from the dark side. But not everyone does. Plenty of people unknowingly stay stuck and lost in the machinations of fear, ego, power and greed for their whole lives, and unfortunately many of them are politicians or executives at giant corporations. These people hold tremendous power over enormous resources, and collectively they are fostering the continued ruination of the world that we activists hold sacred. This is an incredibly frightening and destructive situation that brings out a deep rage in those of us who care about our world and can see what is happening to it.

These guys hold onto shallow justifications for their actions, refusing to take responsibility (and the opportunity) for making our world a better place from an authentically altruistic position. One example is a common position they take: “we just produce what the public demands, and someday when the public demands environmentally responsible products, we will produce them.” It’s a lame argument that is transparently motivated by the desire to delay changing. Apple Computer didn’t wait for the public to “demand” an iPhone; Toyota didn’t wait for the public to “demand” the Prius; the Lego company didn’t wait for children to “demand” the best toy ever invented. Those companies put millions of dollars behind their most creative engineering resources to proactively develop something new and exciting that the public couldn’t even imagine. That’s how innovation has always happened. The plastics companies should not delay until they think the public “demands” environmentally responsible plastics; the companies should be investing billions in inventing them because it is simply the right thing to do.

And by the way, the public is already demanding environmentally responsible actions with respect to plastic. On the global stage, the United Nations chief environmental officer has called for the ban of thin film plastic bags globally. What more public demand could be made than that? And on a more local level, here in Seattle our City Council recently passed a new law attempting to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags. The chemical companies’ response was to invest $200,000 in a campaign to get the law changed back, so they can keep selling and profiting from plastic bag production in our area. That’s what happens when the public demands something from the big companies that doesn’t involve increased profits: stonewalling, pushback, lawsuits, and sleazy marketing campaigns.

If the guys who run the big chemical companies could honestly come around to the views that you set out in your posting, and put their millions into authentic and responsible engineering and marketing programs to help the public end its addiction to disposable and single-use plastics, then most of us plastic activists would celebrate with joy. The executives themselves would experience a revelation too: coming out of the bubble of fear that drives their lust for power and money is liberating, exciting, connective, fulfilling, and nourishing for the soul. I know personally that it can leads to happiness and fulfillment, two things that are sadly lacking in the hearts of too many powerful corporate leaders (and their lawyers). These companies could lawfully and successfully turn their resources toward ethically responsible tasks such as eliminating single-use plastics worldwide, and the people who did it would reap the personal rewards far greater value than they ever imagined.

But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Do you?

With best regards from Seattle,

~chris jordan

www.chrisjordan.com

8 comments
Oldnovice
Oldnovice

When I walk down the street I pick up litter - my hands are usually free, I am capable of bending over and the job needs doing. I've never seen anyone else do this.When I go to the grocery store I routinely grab a cart left carelessly in a parking spot or that's been left stranded at some remote point. My hands are empty and the cart needs to go where I am going. I haven't seen anyone else do this either." Clif, my husband and I do this all the time, so you're NOT alone.I thought the letter was great, but there are some things that have gotten out of our control. For instance, motor oil is now being sold in plastic bottles instead of recyclable cans. The bottles MAY be recyclable [I haven't checked], but what was wrong with the cans?

John Costigane
John Costigane

Chris,I agree with your views on plastic packaging, a modern day scourge. It is up to individuals to avoid the plastic to the max, and therefore have a financial impact on the sellers eg supermarkets in the UK. The alternative is local shopping with reusable bags and promoting this to others.They will never change so we must force the issue by personal choices. In truth, plastic packaging is unnecessary.

Clif
Clif

A well written statement by Chris, but I second Brian in pointing the finger at the consumer.I've had quite a time getting to the point where I can always remember to have my own bag with me when I go grocery shopping. It involves being aware of what I am doing and why. In a convenience-mad society this is no small achievement.Our economic system rewards the entrepreneur for selling on one hand, but on the other it rewards indolence and mindlessness by the consumer. If something can make things easier, if it will call for less effort and thinking, it has a very good chance of selling.For all that has been said about plastic bags, I have noticed that on Saturday, when the local grocery store has the most customers, it is rare to see anyone with their own bag(s). At my grocery there is the option of paper bags, yet even as some communities ban plastic bags, most folks when given the object take plastic.When I walk down the street I pick up litter - my hands are usually free, I am capable of bending over and the job needs doing. I've never seen anyone else do this.When I go to the grocery store I routinely grab a cart left carelessly in a parking spot or that's been left stranded at some remote point. My hands are empty and the cart needs to go where I am going. I haven't seen anyone else do this either.My point is that we are mostly in robotic in daily life; not thinking either of what we are doing or why. Focused on getting the immediate errand over with ASAP, we run on automatic pilot leaving our thinking about what we do for work, because there we are paid for it.We should never forget that each of us is a being in the world and there is no separating the two. The world is what I make it and my slightest movement, my most insignificant act has a result, a consequence.I'll let others condemn the captains of industry for what they do. I look to myself first for responsibility. For me, the greatest offense against the world is to live and act unconsciously.Mother Nature forgive us, we know not what we do.

Beany
Beany

Wow! Well said...and I agree with what Elizabeth B said.The letter itself was brilliantly written. I will use that as a template for my letter writing campaigns

Brian Sather
Brian Sather

Hi Chris,While I personally agree with a great deal of what you say, I disagree a bit about the section on public demand.Demand isn't about what the public "says"...it's about what they buy. And every time I walk into the grocery store I see people walking about with handfuls of plastic bags, even when reusable bags are placed at every register for them to buy. They're not that expensive...maybe 5-10% of a single week's grocery budget, but they still don't buy them!The iPhone is a very cool invention...and millions of people have purchased them...but more people do not have for one really big reason - they are expensive. And until it becomes a better economical option for companies to stop providing plastic bags, packaging, etc. they simply will continue to manufacture these items. Obviously the government can step in by placing a tax or ban on these items but innovation alone isn't going to make plastics use decline. Capitalism at work.But I applaud you...you are what we need to spread the word about consumption reduction and I'll forward your response to as many people as will listen. Thank you so much for posting your opinions here, very thought provoking.

Greg Koski
Greg Koski

Greg from plastics.com replies...Hey Chris and all,First, please let me appreciate your art out loud, it is awesome and so thought provoking, great stuff!I appreciate all of your comments, read it all carefully.To your first point on the rabidly anti-plasts. They're out there, anyone who thinks we'd be better off with no plastics in the world falls into that category. They're the ones who worry me (as you noted, we agree on much) mainly because they're not informed. When I speak one on one with most and describe a world without plastics they almost all agree with me that it has become an essential material for many things.When a plastics professional comes across a true hater of all plastics, they'll tend to dismiss that person and their viewpoint. When they come across reasonable viewpoints about health and waste they are un-dismissible and tend to be taken seriously. I believe in our capitalist system, but it isn't without it's blemishes. Your comments about greedy execs really applies to virtually all publically held stock companies. Those execs have one concern over all others... stock prices. It's the nature of the system. Replace all the execs and all the new execs will find they have the same motivation.So even I (the libertarian leaner) see we need government to ride herd on these guys. Government is really the only entity that can provide alternative motivations to these guys. through taxes, credits and regulations that make/force the stock companies to comply.Large corps will only do what they are forced to do and whats good for themselves. Even when they do good, its for the goodwill they'll collect. I'm generalizing, there are exceptions, but I believe its mostly quite accurate.I think pretty much, appealing to public companies is idealistic and not likely to result in much change. The effective course, to me, is to grow your numbers and appeal to politicians.And I think addressing the public to not participate is wasteful consumption will be more effective than convincing companies to not make plastic disposables.Anyway, just my opinion on tactics to help us achieve less waste, better health.Chris, thanks again for your art.ps; Beth may be worried I don't want my full name published, but I don't mind :-) It's Greg Koski, plastics.com, come visit us, ALL polite viewpoints are welcome.

Elizabeth B
Elizabeth B

OMG, there is not enough THIS in the world. Chris, you are made of 100 percent, pure Grade-A, solid gold Awesome.