Q: What inspired you to write this book, and what role do you see plastic playing in the state of our environment today?
A: I work for an environmental organization, and over the years I kept coming across images and news about plastic waste and pollution that I couldn’t forget.
Plastic is so pernicious because it essentially never breaks down, and research has revealed the ubiquity of plastic pollution, in Arctic sea ice, in the deepest part of the ocean, and falling as an invisible rain across the entire planet.
It is also in us: scientists estimated that people eat and breathe as many as 74,000 microplastic particles every year. And new research in Italy found microplastic particles in placentas from healthy human pregnancies.
Plastic is an extremely concrete and chilling illustration of the fact that our entire system of capitalist profit and production is based on waste, but our technologies now span the globe.
It is not possible to throw things “away.” Whatever we discard—climate pollution, plastic waste, toxic chemicals—ends up returning to us through our planet’s vast circulatory system, of which we are a part.
Q: How did you decide on the book's structure?
A: I knew that I wanted the book’s structure to mirror what I was trying to communicate: that humans can no longer behave as if we are single individuals. Like trees, or fungus, or coral, we are ecosystems and webs, and all we do affects every other part.
I tried to achieve that by writing the book in brief sections that I interwove together—not in a narrative or chronological way, but more associatively and through juxtaposition.
The book’s structure asks readers to think about what a chemist in 19th century London might have in common with my grandfather, a World War II soldier from Illinois, and what both of them might have to do with the large plastic car part I found in my front yard.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: We live in a society so deluged with imagery and information that even the worst atrocities—children dying in cages on our borders, mass shootings—get lost in the landscape of noise.
I find it so easy to become numb, disconnected—especially when things feel overwhelming and hopeless. Those who benefit from the status quo depend on that numbness, in a way, to continue business as usual.
It keeps us from asking questions like “Shouldn’t corporations be held accountable for the plastic waste they produce, which will last essentially forever?” Our society functions by normalizing atrocity and denying crisis.
The book is, in a way, my own chronicle of shaking off numbness and locating hope. I find it in the friends and people I meet—nearly all women of color—who are leading struggles to stay alive and continue life in the face of violence, pollution, and destruction.
In the book I come to understand the struggle as an act of love that is very powerful:
“Love, aching love, for a wounded world that continues to hold and nourish us, love for an albatross obeying its ancient mandate to incubate a future life, even as blows rain down on it, love for the individuals who have blessed me with their friendship, a word that comes from the ancient root for “loving” (*priy-ont) friend: the present participle form of love, love in action, ongoing. It is this that comprises hope, the base condition for life, which means “to remain, continue.”
Q: As someone who's worked on environmental issues, what do you see looking ahead?
A: I think we are going to need a widespread, powerful, love-fueled struggle to achieve the transformation that is necessary to remain on a viable planet. Nearly all of the terms of our civilization—our economy, our way of life—must change. I see really awesome possibility in this.
As the great poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, this will require us to also change how we conceptualize solutions. Our fundamental solutions will not be technological, based on science, they will be based on our ability to feel, and from our deep felt sense, to act, to imagine a future radically different from the present.
Lorde wrote: “As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m returning to poetry. Plastic is steeped in nonfiction writing, in witnessing and recording.
I am going to a deep place now to plumb some of the emotional work that needs to be done, to navigate what it means to live simultaneously in deep grief for a world where we are losing so much, and to operate from joy and for love of all of it.
This is work poetry can do most powerfully and economically.
In the same essay quoted above, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Lorde writes: [Poetry] forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought….Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”
The human species needs a new architecture for our lives, and it is going to take a great act of mass imagination to achieve it. Under the sign of Audre Lorde and other poets and writers who are my heroes—Emily Dickinson, Kathy Acker, Susan Howe, Alice Notley, Claudia Rankine—I’m continuing to do the work of my small part.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb