Saturday, June 13, 2015

How Plastics Saved The Elephant

I ran across a Scientific American article on the history of plastic.  It reminded me how much history has to teach us and how much of it we don't know. 
Thai work elephants 1967-8
"elephants, the paper warned in 1867, were in grave danger of being "numbered with extinct species" because of humans' insatiable demand for the ivory in their tusks. Ivory, at the time, was used for all manner of things, from buttonhooks to boxes, piano keys to combs. But one of the biggest uses was for billiard balls. Billiards had come to captivate upper-crust society in the United States as well as in Europe. Every estate, every mansion had a billiards table, and by the mid-1800s, there was growing concern that there would soon be no more elephants left to keep the game tables stocked with balls. The situation was most dire in Ceylon, source of the ivory that made the best billiard balls. There, in the northern part of the island, the Times reported, "upon the reward of a few shillings per head being offered by the authorities, 3,500 pachyderms were dispatched in less than three years by the natives." All told, at least one million pounds of ivory were consumed each year, sparking fears of an ivory shortage. "Long before the elephants are no more and the mammoths used up," the Times hoped, 'an adequate substitute may [be] found.'"
 Plastics.  It's mind boggling to know that humans nearly wiped out elephants 150 years ago, just so they could play billiards!

The savior of the elephants?
Plastics freed us from the confines of the natural world, from the material constraints and limited supplies that had long bounded human activity. That new elasticity unfixed social boundaries as well. The arrival of these malleable and versatile materials gave producers the ability to create a treasure trove of new products while expanding opportunities for people of modest means to become consumers. Plastics held out the promise of a new material and cultural democracy. The comb, that most ancient of personal accessories, enabled anyone to keep that promise close.
There was even a contest to find a substitute for ivory so they could keep making billiard balls when the supply of ivory was gone.

The need for natural material to make combs almost wiped out the hawkbill turtle.  In fact plastics - first made from plant material and then from oil - saved a lot of creaturers.
Celluloid could be rendered with the rich creamy hues and striations of the finest tusks from Ceylon, a faux material marketed as French Ivory. It could be mottled in browns and ambers to emulate tortoiseshell; traced with veining to look like marble; infused with the bright colors of coral, lapis lazuli, or carnelian to resemble those and other semiprecious stones; or blackened to look like ebony or jet. Celluloid made it possible to produce counterfeits so exact that they deceived "even the eye of the expert," as Hyatt's company boasted in one pamphlet. "As petroleum came to the relief of the whale," the pamphlet stated, so "has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer."
 As the human population increases, we make heavier use of critical materials, up to the point that we may use them all up - and in the case of animal based materials, cause extinction.  If we are lucky, we find a substitute to give relief to those natural sources. 

But then we get dependent on the new material to the point of endangering the natural world again.   And the local humans who live in that now destroyed natural environment.

Our petroleum use, which saved the whale a hundred years ago, is now causing climate change.  Today petroleum based sports enthusiasts, like the billiard players, continue their dangerous games.  But the rest of us are guilty too.  We can't get free of our addiction to fossil fuel powered cars and airplanes and electricity.   Some, though, are rushing to create alternative sources of energy and finding ways to wean humans from oil. Meanwhile those companies that have gotten rich off of fossil fuels, are fighting any curtailment of the source of their wealth and we continue to buy their products to fuel our lifestyles which we can't imagine without fossil fuels.

And our search for other natural resources as well as our growing human population's encroachment into forests continues to make the survival of non-human species like the elephant and the tiger and millions of smaller, non-iconic species iffy. 

The whole article is fascinating and has lots more details.

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