Books: Moby-Duck

Moby-Duck is my favorite sort of book to read – hard to describe because it does not fit easily into established categories, both educational and enjoyable, challenging me to think about things in new ways but not heavy-handed about it. It covers topics as diverse as the history of plastic, changing views of childhood, the history of Arctic exploration, oceanography, toy factories in China, environmentalism, and the business of maritime shipping.

Throughout, author Donovan Hohn skillfully weaves his various themes with the story of his own travels in search of the thousands of bath toys lost at sea nearly twenty years ago. He brings each scene to life, full of fascinating detail and interesting people, so that even the deployment of scientific equipment from a research vessel reads like an adventure. I doubt I’ll ever go to sea as Hohn did, either for pleasure or education (and certainly not as a job), but I have a much better idea what it is like now – which is one reason I am not likely to go there.

One thing you can’t miss as you read this book is Hohn’s concern about how human behavior is harming the environment. He touches briefly on issues such as global warming and nuclear waste, but primarily it is about plastic in the ocean. One thing I like about his approach is that he doesn’t lecture the reader. He tells what he has learned from his research and what he has seen for himself, and lets the reader draw his own conclusions.

I don’t generally read books by environmentalists. To begin with, I grew up associating environmentalism with my mother, and she was so fanatical about things that I tended to distrust whatever views she championed. For her, “natural” was good and “unnatural” was bad, and among things she opposed were a great many products and behaviors widely accepted in our society:

  • synthetic fabrics
  • clothes worn for reasons other than comfort and protection (she would have liked to join a nudist colony, but much to my relief my father did not go along with the idea)
  • antiperspirants
  • keeping pets
  • cut flowers
  • fluoridated water
  • pasteurized milk

The list could go on and on. Some of the things she objected to were true abuses, but despite quoting the maxim “Moderation in all things, including moderation,” it was not something she learned to apply very well herself.

So when I became a fundamentalist Christian as a teenager, and found that – unlike the church where I had grown up, which was socially and theologically liberal – fundamentalist churches tended to disdain environmentalism as “nature-worship,” I could easily share their disdain. Surely there were more important ways to improve the world than by bringing home other people’s discarded bottles to wash out and take to the recycling center, or by writing letters to legislators to support anti-pollution measures. And it was nice to be able to ride in a car – or even an airplane – and not feel guilty over the gasoline being consumed.

As an adult I have found myself gradually taking a more positive view of efforts to protect the environment. For years I have recycled cans, bottles, newspapers, and whatever else the community I am currently living in provides a means to recycle. I don’t know whether I have saved any birds by cutting up six-pack holders before putting them in the trash, but it doesn’t take much time, and maybe it does some good. I don’t contribute financially to any environmentalist groups, as I would rather support groups whose focus is on helping people, but those groups I do support do their people-helping in ways that are also good for the environment.

One thing I found interesting about Moby-Duck is that Hohn meets up with people who take rather different approaches to environmentalism. One man makes it his life’s work to remove trash from beaches in Alaska, collecting funds to organize beach cleanups. Another man sees such efforts as a waste of resources, and worse, a distraction from more effective ways to combat pollution of the oceans.

Hohn’s contribution, through this book, is to raise public awareness of the problems. How many of you, for instance, had any idea how many shipping containers are lost at sea every year? When Hohn first described the spill of the container that left 28,800 plastic ducks, frogs, turtle, and beavers adrift on the high seas, I thought of it as an unusual occurrence. But even while I was in the middle of reading this book, I came across this website while web-surfing (and not looking for anything related to the book):

10,000 Shipping Containers Lost At Sea Each Year

Imagine all the things that are manufactured worldwide and shipped by ocean in container ships. Among those ten thousand containers are everything from plastic toys to tires to computers to bicycles to refrigerators. The oceans are huge, which is why it’s easy for us to ignore this – and easy for the manufacturers and shipping companies to ignore, considering that those ten thousand containers are only a fraction of a percent of the total volume being shipped. But year after year it adds up, and researchers find a steadily growing plastic content in seawater.

I’ve heard, of course, of some dangers of plastic to wildlife. Birds get stuck in six-pack holders. Turtles eat plastic bags, apparently mistaking them for jellyfish. But Hohn points out that, real as such dangers are, plastic poses a worse problem because it adsorbs toxins such as PCBs. Marine animals pick up these toxins from the plastic, and the toxins then accumulate as they go up the food chain.

(Hohn does a good job of explaining what adsorption is, and PCBs, and bioaccumulation. I won’t attempt to. Just read the book yourself!)

One of the other interesting aspects of Hohn’s discussion of environmental issues is his treatment of industry-sponsored anti-pollution initiatives. Some groups with very pro-environment names turn out to be run by industries that contribute to a good deal of the pollution. By getting people to focus on post-consumer waste, such groups get good PR while deflecting attention from pollution caused by the industries themselves. The public sees clean beaches and feels positive about the improvements in the environment, unaware of growing problems far from view – such as in the middle of the ocean.

In the end, Hohn can only guess as to where all the lost bath toys ended up. But in the course of his quest to find them, he learned a great deal – about plastic, about the ocean, … and probably about the lengths to which he is willing to go in search of answers. Because of his quest and his excellent writing, the reader can learn a great deal too.


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