O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
– “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, Wallace Stevens
I would like to move beyond mythbusting.
I give a lot of public talks about my research on plastic trash in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, and after every talk, someone comes up to me and says “Wow! I really thought there was an island!” (Well, in one memorable instance, a woman came up to me and said, “YOU MEAN IT WAS ALL LIES???”) I smile and say, yes, it’s a common misconception, and no, I really don’t know where it came from originally, but it probably has to do with the art chosen to illustrate news stories about open ocean plastic pollution, like my nemesis Canoe Guy.
So when I heard there was not one, but two upcoming graphic novels about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and that both depicted the patch as a giant floating island, I confess that I was a bit overcome with despair. I’ve spent so much time and communication energy trying to combat the misconception of the floating trash island. Why did these artists choose to portray it like that? So I asked them.
I’m Not a Plastic Bag, by Rachel Hope Allison, wordlessly tells the story of a lonely garbage-island-creature through lush art. It’s a gorgeous book. I was struck by how poignantly the illustrations communicated the beauty and desolation of the open sea – the endless horizons, the changing clouds, the single squid outlined against infinite blue. And the poor garbage island! I felt so bad for it!
Allison became interested in the garbage patch when an oceanographer ex-boyfriend sent her an article. In a phone interview a few weeks ago, she told me she was shocked that something this large could exist “in this modern age where you assume that everything is tracked and we’re aware of it.” She wanted to tell the story of the Garbage Patch, but without being “preachy and didactic,” so she decided tell the story from the perspective of the garbage island itself – “the perspective of something that has inherited a problem that it hasn’t created, but still has to live with it.”
I’m Not a Plastic Bag is specifically focused around environmental activism, with an educational supplement in the back, done in collaboration with Nick Mallos at the Ocean Conservancy, that explains that “the Garbage Patch does not appear as a giant floating landfill…but rather a trash stew…While there are areas of dense debris, much more common are seemingly barren swatches of ocean full of broken down debris…” The supplement is filled with photos of beach cleanups and entangled wildlife, but there are no photos of what the North Pacific Gyre actually looks like – which is to say, like regular ocean with tiny, nearly impossible-to-see bit of plastic.
When I asked Allison about why she chose to portray a solid trash island, she laughed and said “I have pangs of guilt sometimes – is this [the island] problematic? I hope not!” She went on to explain:
I was in the story trying to figure out a way to visually communicate & make it [the garbage patch] a character, something that [the reader] could communicate with and be inspired by science. I hope that the fact that it’s so whimsical communicates that it’s not real, just inspired by the real thing. I think it’s similar to the way we draw the sun, with triangle rays. It’s a visual trope that talks about something real. At the time when I did this story it was very much focused on emotional stuff…I hope the fact that’s it speaks to both emotional ways and scientific ways give it a more balanced view. You’re totally right that myths and conceptions can be tricky and hard to balance – whether more people know about it and know about it in the correct way, and if that matters down the road.
Set on an environmental disaster of floating trash and plastic trapped by Pacific Ocean currents, the series follows CHAS WORTHINGTON-thrill-seeking heir to one of America’s largest oil fortunes-who throws his plush life of wealth, power and pleasure aside when he decides to settle the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch and develop his own fledgling, independent nation upon it.
Chas will have to survive in the junk and waste-strewn dead zone, battling the elements, deadly marine life and animals mutated by the pollution, along with other threats which might challenge him for resources, including hostile island natives and even the United States Navy. He will build his new country, forge treaties with other ones and fund development and transformation of his own plastic island which recent estimates put at about twice the size of his home state of Texas.
Harris was kind enough to sit down with me in July at San Diego Comic-Con (even though he saw my cranky muttering about the “garbage island” on Twitter) and talk to me about Great Pacific. While I promised him I wouldn’t give away any of the plot points, I can tell you that it looks super fun – who doesn’t like a giant octopus? Check out this preview video for a sense of the art.
I asked Harris to explain why he chose to set his comic on the mythical trash island. “I find it to be fascinatingly horrific on a large scale, and I’m floored by how many people have not heard of it,” Harris said. “I just found it fascinating that this has been going on for decades, getting worse and worse.” Harris saw his science fiction series as a “license to be fantastic…and to shine perhaps a hotter spotlight on this than might be warranted. When I get to the underpinnings of this, I’m no less awed in the most disgusting way.”
Harris hopes that people would be just as horrified by the reality of the Garbage Patch as they are by the filthy plastic island portrayed in his series. He sees the garbage island in his comic series as equivalent to the mutating radiation of comic books of years past – a way to express fear about the way the world is headed. “It would seem to me that enough people aren’t paying attention to issues like this, so if we could make them pay attention to the term ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ I would hope there would be value in that that would bleed over into reality.”
If the upside to creating a garbage island is increased public awareness, what’s the downside? Potentially, it’s the creation of persistant misconceptions. For example, a recent study described in Discover’s 80 Beats blog (via Ed Yong) found that people are more likely to believe a statement is true when it is accompanied by a picture. So in this case, seeing the pictures of the island of garbage make people more likely to believe it is real, because it feels true. To make matters more complicated, another study found that correcting people’s misconceptions with factual information actually does very little to reduce their belief in “false or unsupported claims.” Once these misconceptions take root in people’s minds, they’re almost impossible to counter, no matter how much data to the contrary is out there, or how many lectures people hear from a dorky scientist lady in an Octo-Pi tshirt.
Because of all this, I picked up Andrew Blackwell’s “travel guide to the eco-apocalypse,” Visit Sunny Chernobyl, with a certain feeling of dread. That he had titled his chapter “The Eighth Continent: Searching for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” did not lift my spirits. Blackwell visited the patch in 2010 with the nonprofit group Project Kaisei, an organization dedicated to cleaning up the plastic. [Full disclosure: Project Kaisei partially funded the 2009 Scripps plastics cruise for which I was chief scientist.]
But then I read it, and it was wonderful. Blackwell has written the single best explanation of the harm done by garbage patch myths that I have ever seen. From the book:
[The search for a high concentration of floating trash] was the paradoxical symbiosis that can afflict any activist. You come to depend on the problem you’re fighting. That we were so focused on finding the Garbage Patch in a concrete and spectacular form was tragic—particularly because it isn’t a visually spectacular problem. As we would discover once we reached the Gyre, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch doesn’t actually look like much—unless you’re paying attention. The plastic confetti are invisible unless you scrutinize the surface of the water. And the millions of plastic bottles and laundry hampers and snarls of old fishing tackle are not clumped into a single mass. Yet the Garbage Patch is indeed a problem of vast scale and implications.
This conflict between the reality of the problem and its non-visual nature is at the root of the myth of the plastic island. We hunger for a compelling image to help us understand the issue. But depending too much on spectacular imagery can actually limit our understanding. We create islands where none exist, and then waste our time searching for them. We become Ahabs without a whale.
The mythical Garbage Island is dramatic and gloomily romantic. I get that. I love art and comics and science fiction, and I would hate to see them have to confirm to some humorless idea of factual correctness. But I remain unconvinced that reaching for people’s emotions with the siren song (a particularly apt metaphor in this case) of the trash island is worth promoting persistant misconceptions. Does portraying the North Pacific Gyre as an island of trash get to a a deeper artistic and emotional truth? Or does it just send more well-meaning people hunting for a non-existent garbage-Moby-Dick?
I’m Not a Plastic Bag, by Rachel Hope Allison. Published by Archaia Entertainment, April 2012, in partnership with JeffCorwinConnect. Link.
Great Pacific, story by Joe Harris and art by Martin Morazzo. Image Comics, upcoming November 2012. Link.
Visit Sunny Chernobyl, by Andrew Blackwell. Rodale Books, May 2012. Link.