Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dig a Little Deeper

I've got a point, but it's going to take me a bit to get there.

Plastics are F-ing awesome!

I got into whitewater kayak well after plastic boats hit the scene and revolutionized the sport, but I have an appreciation for history and plenty of experience in composite sea kayaks and polo boats. Plastic kayaks are so much tougher and more durable, they hold up to abuse and allow for design innovation and mass production to serve more paddlers. They're cheaper, allowing more people to get into the sport of kayaking. They're lightweight - yeah, I know they're heavier than composite boats, but when you think about what they do and what they're expected to survive, they're remarkably light.

In the bigger picture, kayaks aren't really all that important to the world. But how about artificial limbs? Hip replacements? MRIs? Malaria mosquito nets? The way plastics have impacted the medical field and made our lives safer and better (and even just plain possible) dwarf any recreational use of the material. Little things, like blood storage bags that don't break when you drop them to lowering staph infection rates through use of disposables.

And for those interested in saving energy, using renewable sources and limiting carbon emissions: plastics make wind turbines possible, make planes and cars lighter and thus more fuel efficient, and can be used for insulation that limits the need for heating buildings with natural gas.

Mr. McGuire was right. There's a great future in plastics.

Plastics are evil!

There are some really bad aspects to plastic. The water bottles we all used to drink from contained Bisphenol A (BPA), which has been shown to affect hormone levels, increase cancer risk, and alter brain development. (And even if you've stopped using those bottles, BPA is everywhere and 90% already have it in our bodies).

Plastic microbeads are a huge problem in our waterways, eventually leading to the ocean and poisoning the entire food chain - the one we're on top of. Plastic's own virtues - its lightweight, almost indestructible nature - also lead to its dangers, breaking down to smaller sizes but never chemically changing to something benign.

We've banned plastic bags since they end up in landfills and will be there for thousands of years (even though we could very easily recycle them). Instead we use bio-degradable materials made from natural sources, like cotton or paper, which we farm or harvest, theoretically to regrow but often simply destroying the natural environment to produce.

Plastics aren't the issue.

Recently a few hundred kayakers took to the water to protest the launch of a Shell Oil platform destined for the waters off Alaska. A few days later, an oil pipeline burst off Refugio Beach outside Santa Barbara, spreading 21,000 gallons of oil into the sea. This is the area where I learned to paddle, paddling along the SoCal coast and out to the Channel Islands. But it could happen - and has happened - almost anywhere in the world, and disaster is disaster whether in your backyard or across the globe.

Oil is the main ingredient in plastic. About five percent of all the oil produced is used to make plastic. That oil is formed over thousands of years, consisting of biological agents (plants) which were made of carbon - carbon taken out of the air. Oil represents nature's caching of carbon, a cycle that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it safely deep beneath the surface of the earth.

But in digging up that oil we have an energy source. One that allows us to travel freely and cheaply, both halfway around the world to kayak in Antarctica, or to our local run just a couple hours up in the hills. It's made the world smaller, letting us get to know our not-so-near neighbors and move from one country to another. It's kept us warm at night and lighted the way. It's powered the electricity that transformed the very nature of society (including this wonderful internet that allows me to share my thoughts with you).

But as we all hopefully know by now, carbon in the air, in the form of carbon dioxide which is released when oil is burned or processed. affects the temperature of the planet as a whole. More plastic, more oil, more carbon dioxide, higher temperature. Higher temperatures = lots of problems.

What's the point?

The point is: it's not so simple. Those kayaktivists drove to the water in mostly gas-powered vehicles (or electric - likely generated by burning more fossil fuels and packed into a battery filled with toxic chemicals); many paddled plastic boats built from the very substance they didn't want taken from the ground. For all it's back-to-nature sentimentality, kayaking is a consumption sport, a privileged use of a limited resource that has real, negative impacts upon the world. It's a luxury.

I love to kayak and I love kayakers - hopefully that's obvious from everything I've written the past five years. The paddling community has a long tradition of supporting many worthy causes that respect the environment and our fellow man. But it's a small community and its needs are relatively unimportant for their own sake. Our hobby is part of the problem while our voices are calling for a solution. We are contradictory and hypocritical by our nature, though our hearts are in the right place and our desires pure.

Personally, I believe kayaking is a valid use of limited resources and the point of life is not to leave the planet unchanged and undisturbed, but to enjoy our time here in a responsible way that allows those who follow to do the same. I burn up carbon, heat up the environment, take short showers and recycle. I try to find my balance. But that balance is my own and I don't expect everyone to end up at the same point on the scales.

I think all paddlers - all people - need to recognize the complexity of our lives, even when we try to live simply. It's not about guilt or shaming; it's not about right vs. wrong. We all make many choices, conscious or not, and we all have goals, beliefs, and practical realities that make up our world. Each of us chooses differently, and those choices filter our reactions to each other. We all might be better of if we take a step back, consider the complexity, and even if we can't wrap our heads around it all, at least we can recognize that it's there and respect the decisions others have made. For all the talk of plastics, most of us are living in glass houses, so choose your actions accordingly.

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