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The Thaddeus Gazette

Paper Or Plastic?

(crosspost from Composing Graphics, my ongoing column in local music e-mag Victory Review Online)

It's a common assertion that Nature bats last. For all our numbers, we scurrying hordes of shaven apes are at best a sideshow on planet Gaia and at worst a verminous infestation. But while Mother has little more time to spend on us, her darling children, than on other darling children— beetles, say— we have a hard time not thinking of Her. This election year, while blue and red are still enormously important colors, increasingly the hue that intrudes into the national conversation is green.

Despite our innate beastly preoccupation with material things, social status and hierarchical power, the least unconscious among us have developed a queasy preoccupation with the balance of the complex organic systems supporting us in our blind acquisitiveness, an uneasy premonition that the endless conveyer of plunder-manufacture-consume-discard-wash-rinse-repeat might not be compatible with the natural world's ecology.

Imperfect though this perception may be, like any insight spawned of a human meat computer, it bears within it seeds of undeniable fact. The landfills are getting crowded and we need no ghost come from the grave to tell us that. Under the bald glare of inconvenient truth, the thinking person, guilt-stricken, seeks to mitigate their contribution to the mess by any means at hand. Typically, those means are trivial but symbolic. It is, for example, dubious that the recently-enacted ban on plastic grocery bags, laudable though it may be, will have any significant impact on current overall environmental deterioration. Electric cars pass the burden of emissions from gasoline to coal-fired electrical plants and the disposal of toxic batteries. Much of our recycled waste is simply shipped elsewhere to bury. And so forth.

Still, even symbolic gestures have their place as a means of communicating the importance of reduce-reuse-recycle in our litter-infested civilization. One finger in the waste-disposal dyke is better than indifferently regarding the oncoming tidal wave and cracking open another cold one, as long as the owner of that finger also possesses a loud voice and an eloquent message.

Into this admittedly bleak yet not entirely blotted scenario comes (for this column, at least) the ludicrously self-indulgent question of CD manufacturing methods. In the past few years a passion for a more natural mode of disc packaging has thundered into vogue in the recording industry, and a number of styles of mostly-to-entirely paper album covers have been developed, constructed and in at least one instance (the Digipak®) trademarked as alternatives to that grim spectacle of mercantile waste, the jewel case.

There's no question but that a hard plastic unrecoverable shatter-prone box is no way to run a railroad, however posh it might appear. It is a credit to the advertising world that proper promotion can render even incremental improvements to the profit mill of the music biz trendy and desirable, as has happened with cardstock cases. Most progressive acts and many independents now release in paper, the progressives for the swack and the independents, frequently, for the cost savings.

On the other ravening claw, what real difference is there between paper and plastic here? For years naturalists have raged against the overuse of paper and the clear-cutting, tree-farming and habitat destruction it instigates. Species extinction and despoilment of public lands have been laid at the feet of the gaping maw of the forest products industry. Simultaneously, the same critics have also decried the enormous damage done by petroleum products, both in their simple acquisition and in their use and eventual disposal, including the 800 pound invisible gorilla in the room, anthrogenic climate change. By this metric, it would seem that the whole issue is a devil's bargain no matter which way you turn.

Local singer/songwriter Alan Ehrlich eloquently summed up the problem in verse: Should I drill another oil well /Cut down another tree?/Plastic or paper/And it was up to me. That the indecisive supermarket shopper in his song is eventually bodily ejected from the store is no counter to the dilemma.

For the modern and up-to-date author of musical products, another alternative is increasingly rearing its own ugly head: downloads. The plastic content of a hard-goods CD release can only be reduced so far, even with the latest in shaped-paper trays for digi-style packs and celluloid shrink-wrap, what with that chunk of polycarbonate, the disc itself, still holding the center ring. Digital files, containing as they do no plastic or paper, would seem to be the environmentally friendly media du jour. It doesn't hurt that they're also increasingly the default as well — digital sales reportedly outearned discs for the first time in 2011.

But downloads carry their own baggage, albeit covert: the infrastructure of servers, carriers, the net, the international cell-phone industry and all the manufacturers of the necessary hardware to permit those light, fluffy strings of 1s and 0s to condense into compression waves in the air. Trying to calculate the sum impact of such a gnarly snarl of technospaghetti is a job for a wonk with a head as big as a computer and a computer nearly as big as the snarl itself.

The real problem here, and one that's ginormously bigger than some picayune graphic design issue, is systemic. With small steady strokes, peoplekind have painted themselves tighter and tighter into a corner of their own devising, the dependency on technology to provide, not only food, shelter and clothing, but nearly every other aspect of civilization as well. Tech, like fire, is a useful servant and a terrible master, but like any useful servant, it finds ways of making itself indispensable. Which, of course, makes it a master.

The uneasy alliance between humans and machines has fueled the bulk of our overwhelming successes as a species, but it now appears capable of also precipitating our most catastrophic fail. In the great scheme of things, though, our survival or self-destruction is hardly a matter of great moment. There are plenty more critters where we come from, just waiting in the wings for their chance.

Nature, as we may have previously mentioned, bats last.

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