Riding the Plastic Fantastic – The artificial divide

Carrowkeel (stone circles, centre) is an ancient artificial structure that causes little disruption to the natural landscape surrounding it.

What is the difference between artificial and naturally occurring?

The simple definition is that artificial objects are made by humans, naturally occurring objects are in nature already (i.e. not man-made). The idea of artificial is often regarded as sub-par – when we see man-made lakes for example.

Petroleum-based plastics are considered one of the most “synthetic” of our artificial products (if “synthetic” was on a scale of one to ten…). The most common plastic, polythene (or polyethylene), is created from a petrochemical base mixed in labs and factories with other chemicals derived from various sources to create the final product. Human hands and artificial machines complete every step in the creation process.

The word “plastic” is used so often to describe a lack of authenticity – plastic is like an alternative for “real” things. That has certainly been fueled by plastic replacing so many other materials in production in the 20th Century, but would the same not have happened with bronze replacing stone during the dawn of the Bronze Age?

Bronze is a man-made substance. It is created by mixing two metals together (copper and tin). Like plastic it does not biodegrade. However bronze is far more robust than most plastic, and is far less susceptible to erosion. It is a metal, and can withstand harsh winds, rain, and other elemental batterings better than plastic can’t. Yet it is not seen so much as an “unnatural” or synthetic material. Just reading the word plastic will bring to most people’s minds a thing that is not natural. This is where I find a small hiccup.

My current art project looks at the history and future development of plastics as peak oil passes globally. Click for link to project images.

The petrochemicals used in making plastics are chemicals derived from petroleum, or crude oil. Petroleum is mined from within the earth’s crust, and is formed (basically) after millions of years of degradation of plant and animal waste. Petroleum is a naturally occurring substance.

In fact any chemical that is mixed with petroleum to create polymer plastics is also naturally occurring. We do not yet harvest any substance that does not occur in nature, unless moon-rocks can be considered unnatural.

It seems that when people mix two or more natural substances they become an artificial substance. Also, when people create something out of individual materials like iron, stone or steel, these also become artificial. As long as people have created it, it is artificial.

But why is there a distinction made between man-made and natural as if they are two completely separate things? I fail to see the distinction; people exist within and live as part of nature, so how can the artificial nature of things be important? This seems to be where the “fakeness” comes into play, and a separation is drawn between natural and artificial.

Many social wasps create nests by grinding up wood and mixing it with their saliva to create paper pulp. They then glue together building blocks from this paper to create structures that they can live in. Although the wood is a naturally occurring substance, it has been chemically altered by mixing it with saliva to create pulp, and this is the final building material. So rather than calling this a “natural” occurrence, under this system should wasp nests not have their own classification as “wasp-made” objects?

Recently Manhattan has recorded a trend of coyotes migrating to Central Park. The coyotes find their way to the park in the middle of the city without care for whether everything around them is made out of plastic, concrete, glass or steel. These are all naturally occurring things as far as a coyote is concerned, and although it will be as cautious as it would be anywhere in “the wild”, the coyote will not be thinking about whether or not the city is “man-made”.

Viral photograph, click for source

There was a letter to the editor posted in the NWI Times in Indiana where a local asked for the deer crossing to be moved as it was too dangerous at its current location (hard to tell whether this was a hoax or not, but we’ll run with it). Deer cannot see a road as a separate object from any other trail or dirt-track that they will cross, and although they will recognise a danger from it, why would they see it as a non-natural thing? Animals don’t seem to discriminate in the same way that we do – nature is nature and that is that. With the exception of obvious dangers, animals will treat artificial objects in the same way that they will treat any other object.

The plastic issue carries on into “concrete eyesores” and the apparently horrific sights of electrical pylons within nature, or oil wells consuming vast plains. I can’t be the only person who finds these things beautiful. That is not to say that design is not important – things can be hideously out-of-place in the wrong setting but that does not mean all artificial additions to the landscape are ugly. They form a part of a natural landscape that is being built whether or not we see them as artificial.

This attitude might be part of a post-Industrial Revolution backlash where people are afraid that we will run out of nature if cities keep expanding. It seems to be a rejection of the hoodoo materials of the 19th and 20th century – technology that we can’t collectively understand yet, so we choose to distinguish it as if it were dark magic. It is impossible to say whether these feelings were as strong when bronze was first used in tools and buildings, and whether their dark magic, which seems so simple now, was once considered ghastly and “plastic”.

There is a whole lot of nature still out there. I don’t know if I will ever be able to distinguish between the two, but to me roads and stones, polymers and plant-life, factories and wasp-nests and pylons and planetary alignments will forever be tarred with the one brush – natural.

All images in this post are my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact (contactmoonunderwater@gmail.com) for more information.

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