ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms

September 2009

Movies27 Sep 2009

I finally saw District 9 and was quite impressed. It’s the best Science Fiction movie I’ve seen since I can’t remember when. There haven’t been many good SF films recently: the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still was terrible (and I’m quite a fan of the original), and most other apparently Sci-Fi films out recently (even Star Trek) barely even qualify as hard Sci-Fi. Hollywood seems to have stolen our Science Fiction and replaced it with something called “Techno-Action” instead.

But then along came District 9. The premise is that an alien spaceship breaks down in the skies over Johannesburg South Africa, stranding a million or so insectiod aliens (“Prawns”) on Earth. The aliens are housed in a sprawling, fenced-in slums, fed cat food, and generally mistreated and reviled by the surrounding human community. “At least the government keeps them away from us,” says a woman early in the film. As the movie opens, the Prawns are about to be relocated from the slums to a nice new modern internment camp, and an ineffectual bureaucrat named Wikus Van De Merwe is put in charge of going door-to-alien-door serving eviction notices. Of course, for Wikus, things don’t quite go according to plan.

The thing that makes this movie great is the lack of conventional heroes. Wikus is kind of a drip and is never exactly brilliant, even in the course of his eventual heroics. More interestingly, the Prawns are not particularly exceptional either. They aren’t highly-evolved celestial travelers so much hapless passengers on a giant interstellar greyhound bus that had the misfortunate to break down in some out-of-the-way spot. The movie has a lot to say about racism, both overt and institutional, and what allows it to raise these issues so deftly is precisely that the Prawns aren’t particularly noble in the face of oppression. Rather than asking us to feel for them, we are instead encouraged to think about what our responsibilities towards our fellow beings are, even when those beings are ordinary flawed and brutish folk who we happen to not like very much. In other words, the Prawns are just like any real-life tread-upon group. Even better is that the movie manages to avoid delivering a heavy-handed moral pronouncement on the situation (that I really liked the ending is all I’ll say about that).

Definitely worth checking out.

Books and Musings06 Sep 2009

I just finished reading Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, and I recommend it highly. The book imagines that all humans vanish from this planet overnight (aliens, killer virus, the rapture, etc) and then investigates what would happen to the planet after we’ve gone. It makes for a good framework within which examine all the terrible things we’re doing to our little blue marble home and what it would take to clean up our mess.

To me, the scariest chapter is the one called “Polymers are Forever.”

“Except for a small amount that’s been incinerated,” says [research scientist] Tony Andrady […], “every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”

Most of it is in the ocean. The large pieces are clumped up in what is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the middle of the Pacific Ocean absolutely covered in garbage. Which is bad enough, but that’s only the big pieces. The really terrifying part is what happens to the small pieces. Plastic pieces don’t biodegrade, they just break down into smaller pieces of plastic.

The book quotes marine biologist Richard Thompson, who studies the accumulation of plastic in the world’s oceans. Thompson has discovered that most sea creatures happily eat “bite-sized” pieces of plastic, and then die if the pieces are too big to pass through their digestive systems. As the plastic bits get smaller, smaller animals start eating them and dying.

At what point would [plastic debris in the ocean] star to naturally break down—and when they did, would they release some fearful chemicals that would endanger organisms sometime far in the future?

Richard Thompson didn’t know. Nobody did, because plastics haven’t been around long enough for us to know how long they’ll last or what happens to them. His team had identified nine different kinds in the sea so far, varieties of acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride. All he knew was that soon everything alive would be eating them.

“When they get as small as powder, even the zooplankton will swallow them.”

We’re wildly irresponsible in our use of plastic. It’s one of the most indestructible materials we’ve invented, and we use it primarily to make disposable goods like packaging and grocery bags. It’s insane. As a species, we’re terrible at long-term thinking. We’re merrily destroying our home and poisoning ourselves, but it’s happening slowly enough that we can turn a blind eye to it in the name of short-term profit.

We ought to factor the costs of safe disposal (and by disposal I mean breaking down to base elements) of our materials into their cost. It’d drive the price of plastic through the roof and probably ruin the holy economy in the short term, but it might keep the plastic wrapper containing today’s breakfast from being part of breakfast tomorrow.