The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 20, 2008

Focus on Fake

The title of this blog is Fake Plastic Fish, ostensibly because if we don’t solve our plastic pollution problem, fake plastic ones could be the only kind of fish we have left. And also because of Radiohead, for those who know what that means.

But there’s another reason for the word “fake” in the title of this blog, and after the small uproar caused by yesterday’s post about PETA’s fake plastic wishbones, I’d like to try and address that reason.

But first, what is real?

Besides being kind to others and taking care of the earth, the primary motivating question of my life is “What is real?” That question is the reason I go on meditation retreats, sit and notice the silence around me, and listen to the words of spiritual teachers. It’s why I practice noticing my own thoughts and the explanations my brain creates about life that, when I step aside, turn out to be just stories.

And what story does plastic tell? It’s a substance often made to fool us. We can have plastic decks that look like wood; plastic bottles that resemble glass; Mylar that looks like metal; nylon that seems like silk; synthetic fibers that mimic cotton or fur or wool; even plastic dolls that look and feel like real human babies.

But have you ever seen any “natural” materials made to resemble plastic? Granted, I’ve been fooled by live flowers that seemed too perfect to be real. But would anyone advertise that their product is so great, you’d think it was plastic? In fact, my Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (c. 1996) lists among its many definitions for plastic,

13. artificial or insincere; synthetic; phony

Which is also what Zen Chef Edward Espe Brown says in the movie How to Cook Your Life when he holds up what looks like a yogurt container and says, “Plastic is insincere.”

So the idea of a plastic wishbone, besides the fact that it’s made from a substance that we know may be harmful to our planet, rattles me because of its very in-authenticity. It’s not a bone. It’s only the idea of a bone because a marketing company gave it that name and shape and planted the idea in our heads. But really, it’s just a piece of plastic. And once it’s snapped, it will go the route of all the other non-biodegradable plastics.

Is it recyclable as PETA claims? Perhaps in theory. In the wishful thinking of our minds. As an idea. In reality? Tiny pieces of plastic like that don’t get recycled. I’ve visited recycling centers. It’ll go the way of the rest of the junk, and hopefully end up in the lesser evil of the landfill rather than the ocean.

Plastic wishbones remind me of imitation food. I love tofu. I like to eat big chunks of it. But please don’t texturize it and fill it full of food coloring and liquid smoke and other “natural” flavors to give the illusion that it’s meat. It’s not meat. It’s tofu, beautiful tofu. And it’s fine the way it is. I also eat real meat sometimes. And therein lies another question of authenticity. Do I believe the stories sold to me by the organic, humane meat producers? Or do I, like Michael Pollan, need to go and see for myself what is real and what is fake?

During the last meditation retreat, as I’d find my mind wandering and conjuring up one image or story after another, I had moment after moment of waking up to the startling realization, “Oh! That’s not really happening!” What was real was me sitting in my chair with my eyes closed, breathing. The rest were thoughts in my brain. And what a wonderful brain it is that can imagine and play, plan and remember, and create stories for us.

I am not dissing the powers of our amazing brains!

But isn’t it also true that these are the very capabilities that advertisers take advantage of every day? Selling us beautiful stories. A McDonald’s hamburger is a happy family smiling together. A hunk of California cheese is the gift of happy talking cows. And a piece of plastic molded into the shape of a V is a Lucky Break Wishbone to make all a vegan’s wildest dreams come true.

What’s real? What’s fake? It’s a question for many lifetimes. But it’s also a question for right now. What do you all think?

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15 years ago

I totally like the poem you have written it made me cry and same time think about what we never think, it is really never assumed what we think , actually I always assumed that the plastic is so beautiful and can make several things, I really appreciate your poem

Rejin/Urban Botany
15 years ago

Clif: “WE are the giant asteroid crashing into the planet, altering it profoundly.” I loved that.

And I think it is partly because so many thing we encounter are fake, that I am so attracted to things that are authentic.

15 years ago

Well I used “Veranda” composite decking on my Deck- while Home Depot calls it composite, it is made from plastic milk jugs and such- I know it is “fake” wood- but I like it better- No splinters, doesn’t rot, Never needs refinishing, But sorry,I just don’t see the sense to plastic wishbones. I think it is absurd!

A Slice of the Pie
15 years ago

I understand what you are getting at. When I first became a vegetarian I tried to make foods that were trying to be “meat-like” to ease the transition, especially for the kids. But it just didn’t make sense and for that, we are now eating healthier. We eat the food and appreciate it for what it is, and we aren’t eating food pretending to be something else.

And though we do have amazing capabilities to imagine and create, we too often let others do that for us. We need to be reminded that we can imagine and create our own positive images around authentic experiences and real things.

Beth Terry
15 years ago

Wow. FPF readers are some of the most intelligent and creative around. Tracey, your poem made me cry and find a new appreciation for this material and Clif, your scientific explanation is spot-on and also made me cry.

Bernadette, you are absolutely right. I guess what I meant about the wishbone was about the first level of insincerity — that it is the idea of a bone rather than an actual bone, and that so many times we live with the idea of what things are rather than what they actually are.

And you are right too that there is a deeper level of reality in which an actual bone isn’t even that. It’s only a bone because we have called it that and defined it as such and really it’s a collection of atoms just like everything else in the Universe, including plastic.

And yes, plastic is as real as anything else. It’s just that when we convince ourselves it’s something other than what it is we get into trouble.

And now my head is spinning from being sick and also because the mind cannot grasp absolute levels of reality and so I’m going to thank you guys for your awesome insights and take my sick body back to bed.

15 years ago

I have an old friend who used to say to me, “It’s all real, B.” I agree with the passion for using and enjoying and protecting natural substances that grow from the earth and can return to the earth through a short period of decay.

But what we create is no less real. I find myself asking the question “should we?” more than “could we?” We have to act responsibly with all of it in mind.

I don’t think a tree is more real than a plastic wishbone–and we might say that it is all illusion. Plastic perhaps gives us a weird ability to control decay. No less real…just more polluting because it doesn’t follow the natural process of disappearing within a lifetime we humans can understand.

Very intriguing post, Beth. Many thanks, as always. And blessings.

15 years ago

A defense of plastic – sort of.

What is nature? All that we know – the entire physical world is composed of material built from atoms that are linked together in different ways.

What is plastic? Plastic is a material made from atoms linked together in different ways.

What’s the difference?

The natural world has come about over billions of years of trial and error. If something works, that is, if it can survive in the surroundings it finds itself in, it stays. If something doesn’t work, that is, if it cannot survive its surroundings, it goes.

In the natural world, things happen very slowly by our standards. There is a change here and a change there, small changes, a single bond in a chemical is altered for example. Then lots of time goes by as this change is tested.

The trouble with plastic is that it is not only novel in nature (though based on and derived from natural polymers), it involves lots of chemical changes being presented to the natural world in many places at the same time.

Plastic is not a little chemical experiment with a wait of tens of thousands of years to see if it works out. It’s a deluge of chemical changes with no wait at all to see if it works out. It is a forcing of novel material into the natural world with regard to only one measure of success – can people find a use for it, even if only for a matter of minutes as is the case for plastic grocery bags.

THAT is the problem of plastic. Nature itself has come up with plastic materials, long chains of flexible polymers, but they have developed in the natural world and as such have proven themselves benign not only by not destroying what is around them but also by being present in small quantities so that their surroundings can adapt to them as well.

Nature is a case of many chemical members, animal or mineral, gas or liquid or solid, that more-or-less get along together because they have adapted in concert over millenia. There are breakouts from time to time, alien chemicals that may destroy or promote neighbors but it is all going on at a pace that humanity cannot detect – over lifetimes – that passes beneath our notice.

Humans are hypercreatures – a frantic life-form that creates prolifically and at a pace that nature has never seen. The very embodiment of our frenzy is plastic – the material of a billion forms. The miracle material that is the color and texture and density and size and form of any dream a creator might have. And we are flooding the world with it, a world unable to adapt with the same speed as the flood spreading over it. The plastic world is truly our world, one entirely of our own making.

There is nothing inherently evil about plastic, it’s just another bunch of chemicals in a world that is purely chemical anyway. The problem dimension is the one that human beings cannot understand – time. We are a product of eons of evolution but our minds want things NOW! and our intellect can conceive of things in a flash and our production processes spit out tremendous quantities of anything in an instant. THAT’S the problem – we are overwhelming a world that does not operate on our idea of time. What we don’t realize is that WE are the giant asteroid crashing into the planet, altering it profoundly.

But in the end, we, too, are part of nature and plastic, our legacy, is natural as well.

15 years ago

It is getting harder and harder to find real in a regular store and maybe anywhere — I was buying unsalted butter on sale the other day in the store and just happened to look at the label, cream AND natural flavor. Okay, unsalted butter should be cream and nothing else. Around the same time, my partner came up to me with a quart of heavy cream which you would think would be cream (and maybe some vitamin additions since this was regular industrial dairy) — nope, heavy cream (supposedly not fake) included thickeners! I’m not even talking about what the cows ate, how they lived, just the basic product, it is no longer what I was taught it should be.
Oh yeah, did any one notice that HFCS can be organic under US labeling now?

15 years ago

oh my. you may not like lunch then. but i promise you, there ARE some fake meat products that are amazing. and they’re put there for those of us (meeee) who have a hard time transitioning from a life filled with meat to no meat at all. i admit it, i miss it. i used to dream about hamburgers almost every night for a year. im not sure im okay with tofu pretending to be like meat…cuz it’s really nothing like meat, taste or texture wise. but seitan…that’s another story! you will go to lunch with me and you will be amazed with the the power of seitan! :)

ps…omigod if you went and investigated where your meat came from and how it was killed…you would be my hero because i could never do that. did you see the video of sarah palin giving an interview at a turkey farm and you could see the guy KILLING the turkey in the background. omigod i think i almost fainted. we had it on in the background last night and i just happened to start watching it at that point and im like…what…is that guy…doing…with…is that a turkey OMIGOD TURN IT OFF. heh. literally that’s how it went.

pps…are you feeling better?

15 years ago

The majority of things in our world are fake. GM corn and soy make up most of the products we eat (95% of all soy is GM. voer 70% of corn and 85% of cotton). Most meats are fed hormones and all kinds of things so they grow faster filling grocery stores with cheap fake meat. Even when we try to buy “real” products many of them are fake as well. People are also fake so many with with botox and plastic surgery. You just never know what’s real anymore.

This is why Mr Chiot’s and I have been only eating products that we make ourselves from real ingredients. We get milk from a local farm, their cows graze the fields and live happy lives, our milk is raw unpasturized and very “real” (no more lactose intolerance here). We also buy our meat, chicken, and pork locally from farms we can visit and see the conditions the animals live in. We know our food is real because we can see it. We have found local sources for grains and fruits and veggies and we know what we’re eating is all very real.

15 years ago

I don’t think I have ever thought about plastic as really anything but what it was – plastic. I will echo another poster’s thought about imitation items. If I want wood floors, it is unlikely that I will install Pergo. In my mind, the imitation things are simply ways of getting the more expensive items cheaply. But if I went the cheap route, I would always know in my mind that it was fake and not the real thing that I was admiring.

Rejin/Urban Botany
15 years ago

I’ve always felt the same way about imitation things – they are just not honest. And usually are higher impact than what they try to replace.
Years ago a contractor took it upon himself to install a wood-look vinyl door in my house. When I saw it my head nearly exploded. But he’d already cut it to size, it couldn’t be returned. It was either live with it or landfill it. Now it is a daily reminder to seek authenticity, and speak up about it before others choose for me.

Anarres Natural Health
15 years ago

In a documentary about Bjork that has her showing all of her favourite spots in Iceland, she compares some extraordinary geological features to plastic. She is seated beside a crevice with a pool of bubbling goo below her.

It’s the only nice thing I can think of about plastic. The irony is that plastic can be beautiful, made into all shapes and all colours, but it represents the monstrous disposable culture we literally bought into since WWII. So here is my contribution to the irony.

“Dear Plastic”
Made of atoms
By tender fingers
And determined heads
Of inventors

I was born aeons ago
Before anything human was known
My friends the alchemists
Told me everything was natural
And will always be that way
And possible to make gold from dirt

Dear plastic
Be proud
Don’t imitate anything
You’re pure, pure, pure

I believed I was their dustbin for knowledge
Took everything and digested
Of course I became big and strong
Today I’m old and withering away
My friends the alchemists
Long disappeared into dust
I no longer get anything fruity
No longer gold made from dirt
Now I only get spacefood on a tray