The Future of Plastic: Drawing Lessons From Speculative Fiction

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

In late June, ELI co-hosted Moving Beyond Plastics: The Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Production, along with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and WilmerHale LLP. Planned by the Institute’s Women in Environmental Law & Leadership initiative, the event explored the environmental justice implications of continued production and disposal of plastics, featuring experts from the aquarium, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Howard University School of Law.

The panel got me thinking just how intimately plastic is woven into our lives. Everything from the smallest grocery item to the largest household good is shrouded in layers of it. Our reliance on plastics places a significant burden on the Earth, both because of disposal challenges and because plastics are derived from fossil fuels. And we are only beginning to understand the extent of their adverse impacts on our health. All of which motivates exploring ways to a better future.

Plastic Alien - photo by derekGavey / CC by 2.0 Deed
Photo by derekGavey / CC by 2.0 Deed

But what does it mean to move beyond plastics? Considering the extremely low rates of reuse in the United States—an estimated 5-6 percent—recycling is far from a panacea. And even if we do solve the recycling conundrum, a low-carbon economy still might not feature plastics in abundance. Yet the convenience plastic has brought to our lives makes not having it a tough sell. So, moving beyond requires us to do more than make adjustments to recycling and production—we need to rethink the very systems that have led us to this plastic-filled moment.

To envision a new paradigm, I find myself drawing inspiration from Octavia Butler’s novel series “Lilith’s Brood.” In Butler’s speculative fiction, an alien species arrives with humanity on the brink. Using new technologies, the extraterrestrials save humanity and give us a fighting chance to survive. The arc of the trilogy shows humans first confused by and hesitant about the new technology, which is different from anything we’ve known before. This is because our extraterrestrial visitors learned to use nature as a blueprint, adopting techniques like biomimicry, symbiosis with living organisms, and natural plant functions to create tools that work in harmony with their surroundings. It takes time, but eventually we adjust.

As we think about a truly sustainable future, Butler makes me wonder what systemic shifts are possible. Which nature-based solutions might we come up with if we let our imaginations run wild, even if they require a seismic shift in daily life. What about a global trade system that prioritizes flora because they are the building block of daily conveniences. Or systems of governance that intrinsically protect ecosystems like forests or wetlands by assigning values to their biodiversity and carbon sequestration.

I don’t have the answers, and speculative fiction is, of course, fiction. But the plastic-reliant systems in which we are embedded were human-made—and as with anything human, we hold the power to rethink, reimagine, and remake. That at least is not fiction, nor are any extraterrestrials needed.