Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sia: Hearts of plastic

Riding the Tiger

SO MUCH has already been said in this paper about the plastics problem in this city that I feel a bit guilty for not doing likewise. With a good number of news articles and op-eds having already been written by my colleagues, what approach should I take when it comes to giving my opinion on this matter?

Perhaps I should begin by sharing that not too long ago, I took a class on materials science and engineering. On the first day of class, our instructor mentioned that one way to divide human history into periods is by the kind of material people used to get by. So in the Stone Age, early man used tools like flint-tipped spears and stone axes; in the Bronze Age, people fashioned better tools and weapons from bronze once they learned to alloy copper; and the Iron Age was when men carved out empires with the new spears, swords, and chariots they created from smelted iron. And so on.

What to call our age, then? Our instructor suggests that we should call ours the “Plastic Age,” simply because it’s the material we can see all around us these days. There’s just no escaping it. As I type this out on my laptop, I’m aware of the fact that except for the few bits of metal it needs to conduct electricity, it’s mostly made of plastic or some similar material. There’s a good chance that you’re using a cellphone to read this column, and – that’s right – it’s mostly plastic, too.

I like to think that the authorities had their hearts in the right place when they mandated that establishments should use paper instead of plastic packaging while suggesting that people should bring their own reusable bags when they go out shopping. But eliminating plastic bags can only do so much – a lot of other disposable necessities are made of plastic, and they have to be that way because they simply are the best material for those particular purposes. Things like food containers and shampoo bottles, for instance.

Plastics must have seemed like a boon to mankind at first because they were durable and could be cheaply produced and easily fashioned into just about anything. Little did the early proponents of plastics realize that this boon would in decades’ time prove to be more of a bane, because it is this very durability of plastic that would cause lots of it to accumulate in the environment.

I’m not sure whether accumulation could be regarded as the “least” of our problems when it comes to plastics, but I’m sure you’ll agree that we could regard it as the ground from which all the other plastic problems stem. For instance, you can’t adversely affect the environment by burning just one plastic bag, but incinerating a metric ton of plastic bags or maybe even more would be an entirely different story, and definitely not one with a happy ending.

This is to say nothing of all the plastics that harm wildlife by getting animals entangled and even poisoned by the chemicals in them.

Some philosophers say that the world we observe with the senses are ultimately a reflection of man’s inner state. If this is the case – and I for one am inclined to believe that it is – the reason we see a plastic world without is because we humans have hearts of plastic within. By this, I mean that people in the modern age are not authentic in their everyday lives – not to others, and definitely not to themselves. Not unlike plastic: shiny and modern, but also cheap, synthetic, breakable, and replaceable.

In the pursuit of modern goals, such as a steady source of income, social approval, sexual gratification, titillating and varied experiences and others, people have discovered that a good way to attain such goals is to “be somebody else” even if it drives you mad, as Pink once sang.

Just keep putting your best foot forward, even if it’s not how said foot actually looks like (or even really your foot at all), and you’re sure to land that prestigious job that would open many doors and make the rest of your life a piece of cake. In truth, by landing that job, you’ve just become an interchangeable economic entity that might look impressive to others to be sure, but also easily replaceable once you or your services are no longer deemed necessary. Just like a shiny, happy-colored plastic thingamabob.

Nevertheless, this is still believed by many to be modern-day wisdom, no less than the secret to life. Well if that’s so, then why are so many people still unhappy? Why do so many otherwise smart and high-achieving young men and women end up depressed and unsatisfied in spite of their capabilities and achievements? I’m sure Sigmund Freud meant to only describe psychological disorders in his writings, but it appears that nowadays these are no longer to be regarded as disorders, but instead as “the new normal.”

It is only in modern times that we hear of problems such as these. This to me is a different sort of plastic pollution. Not of the physical world, but of the human spirit – one that hurts the heart by making it ungenuine and insincere, one that compels people to become things that they are not, and were never meant to be, all in the pursuit of “happiness.”


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