The Great Pacific Plastic Patch

When I read about this assembly of plastic garbage, I was inevitably reminded of stories out of the saga “Erik the Red” or the Irish Legend of Saint Brendan. In other words, it has everything for being a modern myth, a contemporary fairy tale: A gigantic new island that appeared in the pacific ocean suddenly. It’s size is questionable. It is floating, so it’s exact position is also questionable. It is very hard to get to and it is dangerous.

Take for example this excerpt from National Geographic:

“Many expeditions have traveled through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Charles Moore, who discovered the patch in 1997, continues to raise awareness through his own environmental organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. During a 2014 expedition, Moore and his team used aerial drones, to assess from above the extent of the trash below. The drones determined that there is 100 times more plastic by weight than previously measured. The team also discovered more permanent plastic features, or islands, some over 15 meters (50 feet) in length.”

And a nameless Captain is quoted: “Fishermen shun it because its waters lack the nutrients to support an abundant catch. Sailors dodge it because it lacks the wind to propel their sailboats.”

So while islands like Tuvalu and cities like Jakarta are projected to sink beneath the sea in the next 100 years to join Atlantis and the many, many sunken islands and cities of our mythology, new and fascinating islands appear.

I wonder if the Great Pacific Plastic Patch too will become the stuff of songs and poetry in 200 years from now.

Fear of Drowning – Aquaman and the Fate of Atlantis

Last year author Ram V and artist Christian Ward published a new three piece comic book on the DC-superhero Aquaman. (I have commented on the Aquaman movie from the same year here and here.) The story is not really about Atlantis, acording to the DC universe the sunken kingdom of Aquaman’s mother. But in it Aquaman tells the story of the kingdom, as he says it was told to him by his father once. What makes this, one of countless variations of the myth, interesting to us today, is the role that the (suppressed) fear of submergence plays in it.

According to the tale, Atlantis was a swimmin city and the Atlantan people were blessed with a magic that helped them create their city and become powerful. This secret power could be accessed by magicians and kings but the power also accessed and read the minds of these rulers and eventually threatened to manifest their suppressed fears as well as their desires. “And which was the one fear that haunted every man, every woman and every child in Atlantis every day,” the text reads. “What if Atlantis were to drown?” (my translations from the German print version)

And of course this is what happens: Atlantis sinks beneath the sea level. It’s rulers manage to create an underwater habitat and thereby safe the population while also sending the magic power source, called “Dark World”, away into outer-space. The text concludes: “The mystery in Atlantis’ heart was both its creative force and its downfall.”

While the fall of Atlantis is usually used as a moral metaphor for blind greed and hubris, the Atlantan society created by comic author Ram V seems controlled and maybe obsessed by their ever present fear of the ocean. This is the portrait of a fragile society, one that despite all the powers and wonders it achieved lives a most perilous life, only waiting for the imminent disaster.

Life in Atlantis is essentially what Geologist Peter Haff termed live in the “technosphere” – an existence that is wholly dependent on technological solutions and utterly lost should these ever fail.

Dipesh Chakrabaty, who quotes Peter Haff in his book “The Climate of History in a Planetary Age” compares Haff’s “technosphere” to a much older text from 1955 by Carl Schmitt. Schmitt there distinguishes between a “terran” and a “maritime” existence, the latter being life onboard of a ship. Chakrabaty concludes: “If Haff’s argument is correct, that the technosphere has become a basic condition for the survival of seven (soon to be nine) billion people today, one could say that we have already made Earth into something like Schmitt’s ship.” (my translations)

Or Ram V’s Atlantis, I would add.

Chakrabaty’s conclusion is even more true for coastal communities. The existence of many of these communities rely on sea walls, dikes, pumps and other technical and architectural structures. It is intriguing to take Ram V’s tale of suppressed fears that become manifest and adapt it to the sensibilities and culture of coastal communities today. One is tempted to ask: How much Atlantis is in cities like New York, Bangkok or Jakarta?

“For now, perhaps more than ever before, the past is relevant to the future.”

In the introduction to his book “Worlds in Shadow” from 2022 Australian Geographer Patrick Nunn writes:

“The stories from Haida Gwaii and Aboriginal Australia neatly illustrate the three main sources of information from which we can today discover details about once-inhabited, now-underwater lands: science, memory and myth. Each can be complementary, meaning that when they are read correctly they may yield information that is unique. But, of course, if we are biased, even subconsciously, and demean or dismiss things like memory and myth because we do not know how to interrogate them, then we are likely to end up with an incomplete picture of the past. The purpose of this book is to try to rectify the situation, to demonstrate that each of these three information sources is potentially valid, something that gives a roundness to the past, a multidimensionality to history that personalises it and makes it more relevant to us today.

For now, perhaps more than ever before, the past is relevant to the future. In a world where we are confronted by global change that is as contemptuous of human endeavour and individual aspiration as it is dismissive of political borders and agendas, understanding how our ancestors were affected by comparable changes and how they overcame these is at once a lesson in coping as well as a beacon of hope.”