Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

As the title implies, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn, is a sprawling book about many things. It's about the "marginalization of animals" in modern society, about beachcomber subculture, about climate change, and about factory work. It's about the toy industry, the squalid factories of China, about the fascinating and unknown subject of container ships, and about Arctic expeditions through history. It's also about quests - some real, some literary, some imaginary. Hohn weaves threads of mini-histories into his unusual travelogue, using wide-ranging sources to weave together a rainbow of science, literature and popular culture.

At bottom, this book is about is how our disposable, consumerist world has poisoned the planet. Moby-Duck is perhaps the best argument for buying and using less that I've ever read. But it also shows us that the problem is systemic, and can't be solved at the individual level.

Framing the story, Hohn and his wife are expecting their first child. He has promised to be present at the delivery, and as the story progresses, this seems less and less likely to happen. Some readers may be offended by Hohn leaving his very pregnant wife behind as he travels the globe in pursuit of his research and writing obsession. (Personally, I am far more interested in his obsession than in his baby, but some readers may find this underlying thread selfish and irritating.) Of course, there are profound connections between the birth of a child and the degradation of our planet, as told through the story of an iconic childhood toy on a mythical global adventure.

This is an expansive journey of a book, and I followed Hohn every step of the way.

Here's an excerpt.
"There's nothing new around," he said. "Take Osiris. Even today, when the Nile floods, flotsam follows that same route. Not even pollution is new." He told me to think of volcanic eruptions, of the tons of pumice and toxic ash an eruption throws into the sea. No, when you studied the history of flotsam long enough you realized that only one thing was fundamentally different about the ocean now, only one thing since the time of the ancient Egyptians had changed. He took a sip of coffee from his mug, which was decorated with a painting of a cat. "See, pumice will absorb water and sink," he said. "But 60 percent of plastic will float, and the 60 percent that does float will never sink because it doesn't absorb water; it fractures into ever smaller pieces. That's the difference. There are things afloat now that will never sink."

. . . . "High-seas drift nets were banned by the United Nations in 1992," his version of the story began. "They were nets with a mesh size of about four inches, but they were, like, fifty miles long. The Japanese would sit there and interweave these for fifty miles. There were something like a thousand drift nets being used every night in the 1980s, and if you do the math, they were filtering all the water in the upper fifty feet every year. Well, they were catching all the large animals, and it clearly could not go on." . . .

According to Ebbesmeyer, those high-seas drift nets had not gone away, and not only because pirate drift netting still takes place. Before the ban, fisherman had lost about half their nets every year, and because the nets are made of nylon, which can last at sea for as long as half a century, those lost nets were still out there, still fishing. "Ghost nets," they're called. . . .

In Ebbesmeyer's opinion ghost nets may post a still greater danger once they disintegrate. While we were conversing on his patio, he handed me the oldest of the drift-net gloats. "Hold this a minute," he said. It weighed almost nothing. "Now put it down and look." On the palm of my hand, the float had left a sprinkling of yellow dust, plastic particles as small as pollen grains in which, Ebbesmeyer believed, the destiny of both the Floatees and of the ocean could be read.
Portions of this review originally appeared on wmtc: here, here, and here.

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