The Plastisphere

The following excerpt is taken from Hyperecology: Defining Nature in the Anthropoceneby Liberty Lawson, 2015.

Chapter II: Enter The Anthropocene

 

The Plastisphere

 

If the zeitgeist of the Anthropocene could manifest as single physical object, then no doubt, that object would be made of plastic. Long after humans leave this planet, the plastic left in the surface will be our legacy. Its cool simplicity represents anthropogenic advances in technology, our desire for control, and, through its waste, our naïve and uncontrollable consumerism. Robust, manipulable, globally omnipresent and profoundly artificial, the properties for which we applaud plastic enable it, through its longevity, to demonstrate how Earth responds to our activities. Plastic debris in the environment is proving just how metaphysically fuzzy the boundary of nature and non-nature can be. The curious ecological implications are most clearly demonstrated in the marine environment, where pelagic plastics are attracting increased attention from field researchers.

8 million tons of plastic litter is dumped into the ocean annually (Jambeck et al. 2015), accounting for approximately 60% to 80% of the total marine debris (Gregory and Ryan, 1997; Derraik 2002). Larger plastic pieces obviously pose a threat to marine life, through suffocation or entanglement, but the majority of plastic debris breaks down in the presence of heat and sunlight into microplastics, tiny fragments of less than 5 millimetres. This process occurs relatively rapidly compared to the breakdown of the plastic polymers themselves, which slowly degrade over thousands of years (Kulshreshtha 1992; Shah et al. 2008; Cooper & Corcoran, 2010). Microplastics are widespread throughout all of the oceans. It is estimated that over 13,000 pieces of microplastic debris can be found in every square kilometre of sea, no matter how remote (United Nations Environment Programme, 2012), but they are especially prevalent in the large oceanic areas known as ‘garbage patches’, where whirlpool like gyres collect and trap debris carried on powerful surface currents from shores. The North Pacific Gyre is estimated to cover an area twice the size of Texas, (Moore 2001), and contains over 300,000 pieces per square kilometre, the highest plastic concentration anywhere in the Pacific. 

The idea of plastic as a relatively benign, stable and sterile material, too ‘human’ to interact with nature in a significant way, was shattered in 1972, when researchers discovered that microplastics “have bacteria on their surfaces and contain polychlorinated biphenyls apparently absorbed from ambient seawater” (Carpenter et al 1972). Each piece is a tiny, diverse ecosystem, a “plastisphere”, inhabited by thousands of types of bacteria, diatoms, hydroids, eukaryotes and invertebrates (Zettler, Mincer & Amaral-Zettler 2013). 

As the plastic slowly degrades, the range of surface textures provide ideal habitats, and a ‘biofilm’ forms, changing the physicochemical properties of the plastic surface. Submerged plastic becomes less hydrophobic and more neutrally buoyant (Lobelle & Cunliffe 2011), especially as diatoms collect (Reisser et al. 2014). Microplastics have a long half-life compared to other natural floating marine substrates, and the ecological implications of these “artificial microbial reefs” (Mincer) hundreds of years down the track remains to be elucidated (Reisser et al. 2014).

Many toxins are oily in nature, and readily absorb on to plastic surfaces. When microbes interact with the surface, they can release those toxins off the plastics (Zettler, Mincer & Amaral-Zettler 2013). Carpenter recognised the potential for bio-toxicity; “plastics could be a source of some of the polychlorinated biphenyls recently observed in oceanic organisms” (Carpenter and Smith 1972). Filter feeding baleen whales are vulnerable to phthalates absorbed from inadvertent microplastic intake (Fossi et al. 2012), while viruses or pathogenic bacteria that inhabit debris may infect animals further up the food chain (Dickey Zaikab 2011). Absorption of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) onto plastics enhances potential for bioaccumulation in fish from ingesting microplastics. POPs such as polychlorinated biphenyls have been shown to be endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic (Bergman et al. 2013, 260.), and along with phthalates, their effects on apex predators, such as sharks and humans, are unknown.

Microbes actively interact with the plastic, and some are more efficient at attaching and hydrolysing the hydrocarbon polymers (Zettler, Mincer and Amaral-Zettler 2013). As the plastic surface degrades, polymers interact with the extracellular polysaccharide matrix of the biofilm. The implications of this intimacy has profound repercussions in the discussion of what constitutes natural life, as the boundary between the organism natural and the synthetic anthropogenic product becomes harder to draw. 

Paradoxes

The plastic system cannot be described in natural ecological terms without reference to human systems, nor vice versa, without strange paradoxes arising. Other global-scale phenomena indicative of the Anthropocene such as global warming or ocean acidification - interdependent systems of both anthropogenic and natural influence - face the same paradoxes. Philosopher and ecology critic Timothy Morton, in 2012, ascertained that the stability of nature as a concept has been constantly undermined by modern science. Boundaries “between sentience and non-sentience”, “between life and non-life… are not thin or rigid enough to produce distinctions that count beings as Natural or non-Natural” (2012, 63). Even Darwin erased any rational notion of a “rigid species boundary”. We can observe monkeys and elephants and while they are unique and distinct, they are related in the evolutionary sense. On a large scale, arbitrarily ‘chopping up’ this evolutionary stream results in paradoxes (ibid.).

The first of the two paradoxes which are provoked by trying to define species, or trying to define the microplastic ecosystem, is Zeno’s paradox, which concerns temporal succession. Zeno proposed that any movement between two points can be subdivided infinitesimally, and as such, if we assume time and space are a series of static points, then movement between them should be impossible. This prompts us to try and abandon the notion that temporal and spatial frames of reference are stable and constant. Secondly, the Sorities Paradox, concerning what constitutes a defined group of things, is also demonstrated in abundance in ecology. Concepts like forests, species or habitats are ‘vague’ notions. If a single tree is removed from a forest, it is still a forest, however, after a certain point if you continue removing trees you will be left with just one tree, certainly no longer constituting a forest. The same problem arises in the Anthropocene, in defining the boundary between natural and anthropogenic. Where exactly that boundary lies is vague and fuzzy, and often must be arbitrarily decided upon for the sake of consistency. If one is subscribed to the dichotomy of nature and human systems, then the microplastic system is an excellent example of this vagueness. Where does the anthropogenic product end and the product of nature begin? When does the origin of a material become irrelevant; when is it truly claimed as part of a natural system? Since the concept of ‘nature’ is what is provoking these paradoxes in the fist place, is it even worth using any more?

At least we can see plastic, as a comparatively localisable physical entity, and we can even bury it in landfills to keep it out of our minds. But, as anthropogenic phenomena become bigger and more complex, we are confronted with even more problems of vagueness. Žižek noted that only scientists can “see” the ozone hole (2010b). We can’t point to climate change, we can only indirectly observe its effects as local manifestations of the deeper system. Global warming exists as a real entity, but on a vastly different scale to us. Morton claims that in this sense, modern science is Humean, as it isn’t always possible to prove causal links (2012, 64), (the enthusiastic battle cry of climate change deniers and tobacco lobbyists). Hume reduces causality to mere statistical correlation, so when we try and reduce a hugely complex system that exists on a different scale, like global warming, to the scale of our own lifetimes and attempt to find local manifestations to directly observe, the epistemological gap that results is ‘disturbing’; just big enough for those climate change deniers to squeeze in. What they forget, however, is that Kant upgraded on Hume in arguing that we can access time and space intuitively, and create judgements on causality a priori. (Kant 1781) This provides a conceptual framework which isn’t directly accessible by empirical and sensual experience but is correlated to reality just by the fact that it is thinkable. ‘Unknown’ objects for Kant, on the other side of the epistemological ‘gap’ could include vast ecological phenomena such as climate change, or the microplastisphere on its biggest scale, phenomena that can be thought, predicted or even computed, but not localised. 

The most significant phenomena indicative of the Anthropocene evade our direct perception. They cannot be picked up or pointed to, and this makes them particularly slippery subjects when attempting to include them in ecological descriptions of the Anthropocene. In order for these objects to make sense, they need to be conceptualised on an appropriately large scale. Climate change simply cannot be reduced or ‘localised’ to a single result, a single city or even a single decade. Similarly, microplastics need to be described on a scale at least equivalent to the level of the ‘Earth System’ to which Crutzen and Steffen refer. Their full impact pervades all marine ecosystems, and precipitates evolutionary change, thousands of years more than we could ever hope to directly observe. Morton provides us with the framework for a solution. He suggests that these objects require a totally new ontology (2010a). 

Hyperobjects

The term hyperobject was originally coined in relation to computer science, and was reappropriated by Morton (2010a). He uses it to refer to objects that are massively distributed in time and space, ‘hyper’ in relation to some other entity, such as humans (2013, 1). Hyperobjects in nature could include the collection of the universe’s oxygen atoms, it could be the toxic clouds of Venus or the sum of all the nuclear materials on earth. Hyperobjects can be a phenomenon like global warming, or anthropogenic products such as just the CO2 in the atmosphere, or the plastic in the oceans. Humans can directly observe only their local manifestations, but on the planetary scale, we can conceptualise these hyperobjects interacting with the Earth System as a whole. 

The pervasiveness of hyperobjects is what Morton calls their viscosity (2013, 27). They cannot be discretely categorised. Global warming is not a purely scientific problem, nor is it a simple atmospheric condition (2010a). Other strange properties of hyperobjects include their non-locality; they can act simultaneously in more than one place. Hyperobjects also undergo ‘phasing’, appearing to ripple in and out of existence at the level of local manifestations, due to the limits of our perception. Hyperobjects are multidementional and exist across a vast spatiotemporal plane (ibid.).

Anthropogenic hyperobjects

It is through creation of anthropogenic hyperobjects that we have integrated with nature post-industrially. All the indications of the Anthropocene discussed previously in this section are necessarily ‘hyper’ in their manifestation; they are huge - global in scale, complex and long lasting. The industrial revolution couldn’t have happened without our disenchanting of and capitalising on nature, and once we had the industrial power to act on a global scale, we had the means to create hyperobjects. 

To truly appreciate the impact of anthropogenic hyperobjects, we need a hyperecology, one which no longer juxtaposes human activity against nature and everything else. Microplastics are too complex to be simply ‘cleaned up’, ‘reversed’ or ‘fixed’. These concepts fit neatly into an idealistic ecology which holds nature at arms length. Hyperobjects cannot be localised, so they cannot be categorised into the realm of the natural or the artificial. The concept of nature therefore dissolves at the scale of the hyperobject.

Why today?

Before we delve into prising nature out of our ecological philosophies, it is pertinent to address why we need to do so now, all of a sudden. Natural hyperobjects have existed since the dawn of man, the dawn of the earth and even long before that. So why are hyperobjects suddenly indicative of the ‘turning point’ in humanity’s relationship with nature today? Recent centuries have tended to imagine pre-agricultural humans as being at peace with nature, living in harmony with their environments. Realistically, pre-industrial societies and even pre-agricultural societies still had profound influences on the world around them. Charcoal remnants indicate that fire was first used by our ancestors, Homo erectus up to a couple of million years ago (Pyne 1997, 379). Wildfires were not ‘new’ phenomena exactly, as seasonal bushfires were fairly common with varying rates of occurrence due to climactic changes (Bowman et al. 2009), but fire has been used ever since to clear forests, cook and periodically regenerate bushlands. According to Steffen, Crutzen & McNeill, “preindustrial societies could and did modify coastal and terrestrial ecosystems but they did not have the numbers, social and economic organisation, or technologies needed to equal or dominate the great forces of Nature in magnitude or rate. Their impacts remained largely local and transitory, well within the bounds of the natural variability of the environment.” (2007, 615). Pre-industrial activities like clearing forests with fire could only influence a local or regional scale, they weren’t pervasive enough to make a long-lasting impact on the robust Earth System. 

So is the significance of post-industrial anthropogenic activity just a matter of scale? Is today the ‘turning point’ simply because we have finally passed some threshold of the smaller activities we have partaken in for centuries, and seen their effects add up? In a sense, yes. It’s not exactly that we have suddenly surpassed some specific ‘critical’ level of CO2 in the atmosphere or pollution in the environment, per se, nor is it that humanity is finally in ‘control’ of the earth. Today is significant in the Earth’s history because we have just reached a point where humanity is inerasable from the Earth System. We have modified it to such an extent that our legacy will be felt for the rest of the Earth’s history. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, for example, have risen so sharply that even if all fossil fuel burning was to cease from this point onwards, the deviation isn’t projected to stabilise for over 50, 000 years (Steffen, Crutzen & McNeill 2007, 615).

The products we create today are not recyclable like wood or water, they are persistent synthetic materials such as plastic, produced in amounts that the Earth System hasn’t had time to learn how to recycle or adapt around. Even the few global-scale shifts in the Earth’s entire history typically took millions of years to take effect, such as the oxygenation of the atmosphere 2.3 billion years ago, triggered by photosynthesizing cyanobacteria (Holland 2006). The industrial revolution was the significant tipping point because it was then that many of these novel biospheric processes were introduced at a profound scale, and furthermore, we didn’t spend millions of years introducing them, like oxygen, giving the atmosphere time to recalibrate and stabilise, and organisms to adapt and evolve - anthropogenic products appeared almost overnight on the hyper-scale. 

An ecological revolution

Despite the massive scale of the changes happening worldwide, our philosophical concept of nature missed out on a revolution. We are still entrenched in the nature/human dichotomy, a theory which is becoming more and more obviously inadequate. Ecology hasn’t caught up with the state of affairs in the world. It cannot describe the interactions between human and natural systems, because such a dualism is arbitrary, and the more and more tightly interwoven these systems become, the more and more vague that line is, a problem which is only going to continue getting worse. 

Even from an environmentalist standpoint, any ‘valuing’ of nature in a traditional environmental sense relies upon maintaining an aesthetic distance. Conceptualising these hyperobject products, such as CO2, plastic, nuclear waste, CH4, antibiotics and so on, on this massive ecological scale (physically as well as temporally) means we need to develop a new framework, outside of the dualist dichotomy of ecology and with a far bigger scope, to accommodate their properties. We need a theory of the Earth System that recognises human action as part of its processes, rather than placing it in discontinuity as some ‘other’ force.

Using the concept of hyperobjects to describe these entities places them on the same scale as their overall effects that we are at least able to compute, rather than conceptualising the localised manifestations we can directly observe. Hyperobjects act on the same level as the Earth’s forces, so this is provides a good foundation. Anthropogenic hyperobjects are not compatible with smaller scale systems though, their very nature means they cannot be localised, and they cannot be categorised as natural or unnatural. They are necessarily a combination of both, so to include them in a new ecology means finally, we have to give up on nature. 

 

- LL

Holographia's first issue, Arcadia, explores the provocative paradoxes of the Anthropocene and how humanity is conceptualising these aesthetic and experiential shifts via science and art . If you would like to contribute, hit the submissions link below.