Tell enough people you are an animist and someone will eventually present an everyday item as a kind of gotcha question. This pencil? That couch? Your running shoes? These are alive? These are sacred to you?
Animism isn’t a monolith of belief so there probably are people who do think common objects are alive or en-spirited. For me, I don’t know that it matters one way or another because the fact is that people behave as if objects are alive. Toddlers have love blankets. Their parents yell at cars and tell their computers to hurry up. I know someone who insists on washing second hand clothes multiple times before she can wear them. When I asked her why she does that she said she needs to erase the original owner. Those tendencies look a lot like animism to me. Whether things are alive or not we tend to construct relationships with them.
These relationships are not make believe or whimsical fantasy. These seemingly inconsequential objects exert real power over our world. In an extinction emergency I’d say our relationship with kipple is literally a life or death situation — of sacred importance.
A lot of people might think that animism is about finding a spirit animal or enjoying sunsets — that animism is all about making us feel better. I think animism is more complex than that. It can also involve negative emotions. And when I look at plastic I do have an emotional response: typically revulsion.
Aesthetically, plastic looks ugly to me. I do not like the garish colours and weird textures. I also know that plastic is a failed technology. Anything plastic can do, natural materials can do better. It takes a lot of energy to produce yet most is thrown away immediately. 90.5% is never recovered. Plastic can take a thousand years to break down and even when it does the particles left behind remain poisonous and embedded in the food web. By 2050 our oceans will have more plastic than fish. The fact that we are replacing life with garbage breaks my heart.
Plastic is by no means a trivial force on the planet. We have allowed this demon to take over our planet because it promised convenience. At a time when we are told we enjoy vast amounts of leisure. Something about this story isn’t adding up.
Treating ordinary objects with respect begins with asking basic questions. Ask Marie Kondo’s question, “Does this thing spark joy in me?” Do I want to invite this entity into my life? Do I fully understand its provenance? When this object reaches the end of its ‘lifespan’ (a telling phrase) can it be composted? Because any thing that cannot return to the earth gracefully presents a serious problem to solve.
How does one best respond to abomination?
I think we need to banish it with extreme prejudice and in the nicest possible way. Unintended consequences can result. When my city banished single use plastic bags at the grocery store a wonderful thing happened. Craftspeople rose to the challenge. My mother in law made quilted bags. I took up crochet. When I go shopping I meet other people with handcrafted bags. These bags have become conversation pieces that build community. Where before we would have treated each other as objects to pass by without even polite conversation, now we stop and mutually appreciate our efforts to make this world a better place. Our handcrafted bags are things that are loved. That love radiates and binds us.
We can use the power of words. Language is its own kind of magic. Plastic is a real life monster: something that has come from the earth but refuses to return. As plastic wants to replace life I name it Deathbringer. It is not welcome. Would you invite a vampire into your house? I will not pretend it is harmless.
Who are the worst offenders? Cigarette manufacturers, Coca-cola. Pepsi Cola and Nestle are the brand names most frequently spotted in plastic clean-ups. These companies earn unfair profits by off loading the costs of production onto the planet. Some new accounting needs to happen. Time is up: manufacturers and retailers need to clean up their policies and procedures immediately. Most have PR departments promising to work on the problem within the next 20 years. Let them know: that’s not good enough.
We can use the power of images. Greenpeace has a name and shame campaign going on right now. Take photos of plastic packaging, display them on social media and tag the companies responsible.
We all share one planet. Everything is connected. If humans are the only ones with power and agency then maybe we ought to behave that way.
mitsubachi spends a lot of time with bees and flowers. She has no time or love for plastics.