Observations by a Citizen
The Gods of the Copybook Headings
Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem with this title a hundred years ago. It illustrated how the media editors, who choose how to word the headlines of their newspapers, work to get the greatest excited concern from their readers. You might enjoy reading it – it’s on the web. But you have to understand some of the terms, including the sequence of geological eras (Cambrian, Carboniferous, etc.), that were common knowledge among literate Englishmen in 1919. (Compare that to the education our kids are getting today…)
Nothing has changed, and it is because the media editors’ job is to keep us excited and reading or watching. This is so we can be exposed to ads, to pay the media investors – and editors. The question for us is, how should we, knowing this, judge what we are told as today’s “copybook headings” alert us to the latest fearsome threat to our survival?
The CBS morning news today reported the latest discoveries from laboratories in some university. Apparently, the world is choking to death on microscopic plastic debris. This pollution is found floating in the world’s waters, coating our landscapes, and … well, you get it. The sources are from all the plastics that we use, and that we throw away. But it’s not just garbage. When we wash our clothes, the micro-fibers separate from our polyester fabrics, and sluice through the labyrinth of the sewage pipes, ponds, and discharges, working their way to the oceans. When we drive, our tires slowly scrub tiny bits of tire material (it’s not all rubber) into dust that drifts in the air and along the roads. And so on.
The professor interviewed commented that we don’t really know if this debris is harmful, but we must be aware, and must stop generating it. Europe has already passed a law prohibiting production of “one-use” plastics. Why hasn’t America!? This will, I understand, include bottles and bags. Are they going back to glass bottles and paper bags? I don’t know.
But, in trying to figure out how to judge the possible danger, I start with a very skeptical posture.
My first thinking goes to past reports and warnings about plastics. We have been told for generations that plastics do not degrade for many thousands of years. They are, we are warned, not biodegradable. Like rocks and sand. OK, I think, but I left a plastic bottle of antifreeze out for a year, and it has broken completely apart. The sun and weather have crumbled it, slowly, into bits. So “bio” is not the only form of degrading. I conclude that, despite earthly organisms not reducing plastics chemically, sunlight and meteorological effects will break it into dust. If the interaction between a material and an organism is not chemical, then we only need to worry about the physical interaction. What is the hazard there?
I look back to the baby book I have, which contains the open safety pin I swallowed when I was 18 months old. Yes, it could have punctured something as it worked its way through me. But simple wounds can heal, absent a chemical effect.
The micro-plastic threat is probably worth watching, but only as a casual interest. We must remember, the media who tried worry us this morning are the same folks who tried to frighten us about the supposedly irresponsible design of GM pickups in the early 1990’s. Their approach was to film how the side-mounted gas tanks were prone to exploding in crashes. They set up crashes to show the danger. But the dang things didn’t burn or explode – repeatedly. So they altered the demonstration – by putting explosives in the truck, and then showing the terrible dangers. Fortunately, they were exposed – but only after the hysteria had its effect.
We need the “news,” but we must be wary of their message, because they have their own motives. As Kipling finished his poem, one hundred years ago: …
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!