Plastic's Stellar Story

From its primordial origins to its modern petro-capital fate, plastic connects us to our planet's epic unfolding.

Plastic's Stellar Story
This is the 5th Installment of the Tractatus Ayyew series. Image: Radiolarians plankton were found in the oceans of the Precambrian. Their intricate carbon is a primordial precursor of our modern plastic. By Ernst Haekel (Kunstformen der Natur, 1904).

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 arrived at its own characteristic combination of mass and chemistry, moon, magnetosphere and more.  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 flow of tectonic plates, of ocean currents and atmospheric flows.

However, 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 cascading into the twist and turns of a stream, the Earth’s cycles absorbed and adapted to the sun’s energy in their unique Earthen way.  Just as the unique contours of a hillside lead to particular streams and rivers, the character of the Earth saw its flow of matter and energy unfold in manner unique among its fellow planets.  

Steadily, the Earth expressed itself.  

To ever improve the dissipation of the sun’s blaze, new uniquely earthen configurations of matter unfolded and new chemical combinations occurred.  Steadily, large cycles fractured into a thousand smaller ones, and then those into a million more.

And life began to emerge.

As cycles tended their spin towards ever better dissipations of energy, their matter adapted into ever more complex and concentrated configurations.   Steadily, the tiniest cycles whirled together into systems that began to drive themselves on.2 Steadily, with the sun’s energy ever arriving, these cyclical systems spiraled into cells, organisms and eventually, into ecosystems.

As ever more effective patterns of energy dissipation emerged, plants rapidly dispersed across the planet's surface. By sucking CO2 out of the air, they were able to use its carbon to build biomass.3  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 intricate 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 on the floor of the ocean or that of a forest, slowly 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 sequestrationindefinitely 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 stabilized5and life flourished!6  Unprecedented biodiversity over the last 65 million years enabled the calmest period in the planet’s history.

Never before had the biosphere been so hospitable for life and its diversification. Cradled by the abundance, a variety of bipedal apes emerged from the forests. Then, with the Earth’s climate 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 of us)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, processing compacted carbon deposits did more than just create fuel.  In the process of refining petroleum, there was a left over residue (4-13% depending on the crude oil being used7) that just couldn’t be used or burned.  With nowhere to go, these chemicals began to pile up.8

We 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, we 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 was the shelf life of fresh food limited to a few days.  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 out of our systems and disperse into the biosphere.  We tried our best to return it 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 send-it-somewhere-else created more problems than were solved. In despair and rising grief we watched as the petro-capital economy continued to churn and the waste continued to spill into the environment, polluting, contaminating and greying once once green ecosystems.

Meanwhile, petro-powered enterprises, industries and nations gathered unto themselves more and more capital. As they enriched themselves they expanded their carbon de-compaction abilities. Growing ever larger, they tried their best to protect their profits by hiding their inevitable grey and polluting overflows — and to convince themselves and everyone else that there was a solution just around the corner.

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

But still the grey flow continuedand grew.

And so did our despair.

NEXT:  The Earth's Pattern of Process

The Earth’s Pattern of Process
Rather than be mired in self-judgment at our play with carbon, we can be dazzled by the Earth’s.

PREVIOUS:  Plastic 1.0

WHAT IS THE TRACTATUS AYYEW? The Story

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.

2 Based on observations of cycles in traditional ecological knowledge traditions (like that of the Igorots) and research into the the second law of thermodynamics application to biological development (See: Jeremy L. England et al. (2015), Dissipative adaptation in driven self-assembly, Nature Nanotechnology).  We’ll go much deeper into this into chapter 7: Towards Cycles that Spiral

3 Atmospheric 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;

4 Atmospheric 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;

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

6  “The 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.

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

8Oil 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

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