Plastic's Stellar Story

Our century story of plastic as human-made and managed has been woefully short-sighted-- in fact plastic begins in the stellar story of our primordial planet.

Plastic's Stellar Story
Radiolarians, a type of plankton found in the oceans of the Precambrian and the precusor of our planet’s plastic today. Art by Ernst Haekel (Kunstformen der Natur, 1904). 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.


OVER 5 BILLION YEARS AGO, IN A CLOUD OF INTERSTELLAR DUST our solar system swirled together. As cosmic matter collided and coalesced, growing ever denser, our sun ignited.  Within the remaining spiraling debris, further matter and momentum began to merge, falling into orbit as dense clumps around our young star.  As each gained a particular pattern, the planets and the Earth came to be.1

Like all its planetary siblings, the Earth had its own particular combination of mass and chemistry, moon and magnetosphere.  And like its fellows, for its first two billion years, the Earth was a barren, desolate place.  The atmosphere was full of carbon dioxide and the climate was harsh and unstable.  The surface was governed solely by raw geological cycles: the ebb and tide of tectonic plates, of ocean currents and atmospheric flows —  planetary cycles with no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end2.

As these early Earthen cycles inexorably spun, the unique character of our planet began to unfold. For as the sun shone down, entropy demanded dissipation.   Like the run of rain down a hillside, the Earth’s cycles absorbed and adapted to the sun’s energy in their unique Earthen way.  New molecular configurations unfolded and new chemical combinations occurred, ever arranging themselves towards the improved dissipation of the sun’s blaze.  Steadily, large cycles fractured into a thousand smaller ones, and then those into a million more.

And life emerged.

As life-cycles tended their spin towards ever better dissipations of energy, their matter spiraled into ever more complex and concentrated configurations. Steadily, cells cascaded into organisms and organisms into ecosystems.

And things began to change.

Plants emerged and took over the planet’s surface by sucking CO2 out of the air.3  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 while other organisms discerned how to decompose them. Soon forests, fields and fungi covered the planet.  Animals, algae and dinosaurs, all made from patterns of carbon, emerged.  As these amazing creatures lived and died, their carbon was cycled, spiraling 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 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 atmosphere4. With more carbon being sequestered all the time, the Earth's climate stabilizedand life flourished!5Unprecedented biodiversity over the last 65 million years enabled the calmest period in the planet’s history.

Never before had the biosphere been so livable and green. Cradled by the abundance, a variety of bipedal primates emerged from the forests. Then, with the Earth’sclimate stable within 1-2 degrees, sapiens shuffled onto the scene .

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.  Some of us (but certainly not all)began to un-earth this ancient carbon— what we came to call coal, natural gas and petroleum.  As many of us got better and better at extracting and burning, carbon came to heat our stoves, fuel our factories and power our machines. As it came to drive entire economies, we gave it a new name: fossil fuels.

However, despite the neat name, compacted carbon deposits were never meant to be fuel.  In the process of refining petroleum, there was a left over residue (4-13% depending on the crude oil being used6) that just couldn’t be used or burned.  With nowhere to go, these chemicals began to pile up.7

Humans soon realized, that the leftovers could be used to make stuff.  With a little chemistry, polymers could be producedand with a little more; an endless array of marvelous materials.

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 to make ivory 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 the abundance of 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.

The more this petro-capital economy 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 into the biosphere.  Humans tried their best to return their plastic back into industry to be used again.  However, there was already 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 there was so much plastic, that it became clear that dumping, burning, recycling and exporting created more problems than were solved.  As the economy continued to churn, industry tried hard to hide its ecological impacts and to convince itself and everyone else that there was a solution just around the corner.

Illustrated are the changes in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over three time periods. The left plate shows long-term decreases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the last 550 million years and the role of the biota in significantly decreasing carbon dioxide levels when plants invaded land. The middle plate shows the variations in carbon dioxide levels over the last 400,000 years. The right plate shows the imprint of humans over the last half century, increasing carbon dioxide levels significantly well above interglacial levels. — From A History of Atmospheric CO 2 and Its Effects on Plants, Animals, and Ecosystems, by James R. Ehleringer, M. Denise Dearing, Thure E. Cerling, University of Utah, 2005

Yet, after turning many corners, the grey flow into the biosphere continued to increase.  There was now so much CO2 and plastic loose, that the ecological impacts were in dire dissonance with our longings of ecological harmony.  Shamed and determined, humans worked valiantly to improve their technologies, to make them less polluting and less damaging.

But still the grey flow continuedand grew.

And so did our despair.


That was the fourth installment a series laying a theory of Green — what I am calling An Earthen Ethics.  Want to keep going? You can subscribe and get access to all the published chapters and receive the new ones.  Or, keep going and read the next chapter here:

Learning from the Earth
Our once-in-a-million-years phenomenon of atmospheric carbon addition is a tremendous opportunity. For the first time, with it as a foil, we can see clearly the ways of Earth.


Footnotes

1The earth is more like an eddy in a river through which flows of matter continuously stream. It is replenished and depleted in a vortical cosmic dance. ‘The world is a vampire’ as The Smashing Pumpkins sang: a vampire living from the death of the sun. The universe must die to keep living.” Thomas Nail (2021), Theory of the Earth, Standford University Press.

2Thomas Hutton, (1788) A Theory of the Earth, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 1

3Atmospheric CO2 levels are estimated to have been 100 times what they are today 2.2 billion years ago.  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;

4Bekker, A., Holland, h.D. Wang, P. et al. (2004) Dating the rise of atmospheric oxygen. Nature, 427, 117-20.

5The 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.

6British Plastics Federation, (2008), Oil consumption, (Ref PD/LFH/19/8/08)

7Oil refineries run 24-7 and are continuously generating by-products that must be disposed of, such as ethylene gas… Ethylene gas, as British chemists discovered in the early 1930’s can be made into the polymer polyethylene… another by-product propylene, can be redeployed as a feedstock 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 astro-turf 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.” Susan Freinkel (2011), Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, p. 7

Ernst Haekel (Kunstformen der Natur, 1904)

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