Cultural Plasticity and the Plastic City

This isn’t a feel good piece. Turn back now.

There is a simple solution to the problem of plastic pollution, and that is, that every piece of plastic you bring into your house, you have to keep forever. The implications are pretty immediately repulsive. It’s a non-starter, and yet we all behave (me included) like we won’t have to live with that plastic forever anyway.

This is how we operate, humans. We develop a new technology and rush forward with it full tilt until the consequences begin to accrue. By then we reason, the horse is out of the barn. No reason to shut the barn door now. We poison our environments, or worse, someone else’s, in the name of convenience.

This is what sociologists call “cultural lag,” the time between the development of an idea and human culture catching up to its broadest implications.

When we developed plastics, we didn’t envision them leaching chemicals into our ground water. We didn’t foresee them choking the oceans. Hell, we didn’t anticipate them strewn along thousand mile stretches of highway. But they’re cheap.

I have no real clue where the contents of my “recycling” bin go.

When we developed television we did not envision the internet. We did not grok the eventual inevitable fashioning of video entertainment to create digital addiction, the fracturing of the human attention span, the further dissolution of our capacity to game out our decisions.

Our best and brightest minds devised nuclear weapons with no regard for their real use on civilian populations, their toxic byproducts, or the political chaos they would unleash on all of us.

All of this is cultural lag, and all of it leaves trace.

You begin to realize the Luddites got a lot right, despite having become shorthand for a sort of willful and ignorant opposition to technology. The Luddites’ cause was really the first tremor of anti-globalization, a reaction against the devaluing of craft and work by factory owners who chased profit by any means necessary with little regard for the lives of workers. Were they wrong?

The answer is ambiguous and embedded in a cheap iPhone. I have one.

This is not a manifesto against progress or a call to go back to the land, not that either of those things are inherently and entirely wrong.

What I want to do is think. Think about ways to make better choices for myself. Think about better ways to spend my time and money. Think about how not to run headlong into the morass that all this technology and cultural backwash leaves me floundering in. The answer is not maybe to chuck it all and live in a cave, but equally, it’s not to become the cannon fodder that early adopters willingly make themselves.

Technology is cocaine, and cocaine is a hell of a drug.

The answers to these challenges aren’t simple. As I said, we can’t all shelter in caves and eat only food we grow. That horse really has left the barn. And I participate in making the problems worse, so this isn’t some hypocritical rant. I get it. It’s hard and possibly intractable.

Sometimes though, I think naming the problem helps.