The Ocean as Your Bathtub:

An Examination of Donovan Hohn's "Moby Duck"

Hadley Roach


            My final presentation was focused around Donovan Hohn’s 2006 “Moby-Duck or The Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood.”  The article is wide-ranging—its commentary varies from the philosophical to the scientific—but it centers upon the ever-growing synthetic waste patches in the oceans.  Brightly littering the piece are Hohn’s shocking discoveries about plastic’s unique ability to pollute the earth: loose drift net floats, commercial merchandise thrown from swaying cargo ships, and humanity’s general overuse and careless discard of synthetic material all contribute to the ­­one-million mile wide patch of virtually indestructible plastic floating in the North Pacific.  According to Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a beachcomber and oceanographer that Hohn follows throughout the article, “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 scary difference” (47).

            The article is also concerned with the psychology of human plastic consumption.  It traces the trajectory of a shipload of “Floatees,” brightly adorable children’s bath toys, on their journeys through physical oceans and the seas of cultural imagination.  Hohn argues that plastics have come to be associated with cleanliness, childhood, and ideals of white beauty. “Is it too much of a stretch,” he asks, “to see in the yellowness of a rubber duck a visual reminder of the well-fed, blue-eyed, yellow-haired Victorian ideal?”, Hohn is interested not only in plastic as a form of environmental degradation, but also as a reflection of cultural inequalities and eccentricities.

            While at times the creative energy of the piece seemed to spin out of control, I thought Hohn’s article captured one of the core themes of the ENVS2 curriculum—the fluid, complex relationship between “human nature, technology,” and endless consumption.  In his conclusion, Hohn argues that, “What’s most nefarious about plastic is the way it invites fantasy, the way it pretends to deny the laws of matter, as if something—anything—could be made from nothing; the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last” (61).  This ironic dichotomy, I think, also applies to technology as a human phenomenon.  The oxymoronic relationship between fantasy and wastefulness is typical of so many historic and current technological trends.  The plasticization of our material and psychological culture is one of the latest manifestations of that tendency, and one that, like so many before it, will be difficult to resolve.


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last updated 5/13/2008