Allison Cobb Talks With Brian Teare on Plastic: an Autobiography
Author: Brian Teare
April 22, 2021
Allison Cobb’s Plastic is so epic that it’s hard to know where to begin. Its composition spans over a decade of Cobb’s life and encompasses enormous changes in her own biography and family story. It documents her growth as an artist and maker, and includes the years when she wrote another book—After We All Died—in collaboration with the visual artist Yukiyo Kawano, whose family history indirectly intertwines with her own in ways important for their work together. Cobb’s capacious research covers the post-War period many environmental thinkers and scientists have called “the Great Acceleration,” during which we deliberately introduced nuclear radiation and plastic into the biosphere. The book’s intellectual and political allegiances shift radically from a respectful, if mournful, immersion in the patriarchal world of technology and science to a much more critical remove. I sit down with Allison Cobb to discuss her new book Plastic: An Autobiography and her process in writing it.
Brian Teare: Allison, thanks for taking a moment to chat with me about your new book. As I understand, by the time you travel to the Gulf Coast to meet with local environmental activists working against international corporate polluters like Dow, you’ve undertaken a feminist and anti-racist examination of your understanding of environmental history and injustice. Plastic is a reckoning with complicity, but it’s pretty clear you didn’t start out thinking it would be. At what point in the writing and research did you realize this book would include a reckoning with yourself?
Allison Cobb: I think it was the moment when I made a map of the book and realized that I had left nearly all the women out. I had unconsciously replicated the erasures in the patriarchal histories I was reading. I always knew that I wanted to document the effects of plastic pollution on communities—I had already traveled to the Gulf Coast to meet with activists. But the moment when I realized my own complicity in blanking out women—well, my first reaction was just a release of grief and anger, because in blanking the women out of the histories, I’d also been silencing and blanking out myself, my own feelings of grief and sorrow and rage about the state of our biosphere. I knew that I needed to first do the recovery work of locating the women in these histories; and second, to situate myself in these histories, to do justice to the full complexity of my privilege, my complicity, and my own experiences of silence and erasure as someone who identifies as female and queer.
BT: It is interesting how, by first focusing on the plastic car part that sparks its research, the book unconsciously replicates patriarchal history and its obsession with objects of technological innovation. And it’s moving, how you choose to turn away from the car part and toward other women in order to document their ways of critiquing and fighting against patriarchal history and technology. You articulate this commitment at the end of section II with the sentence, “It was the living, not the plastic, that drew me,” which prepares readers for your journeys into and conversations with Gulf Coast activist communities. This third section also marks a formal turn toward narrative nonfiction. I wonder if you could speak to how this ethical engagement with women’s resistance, and with activist communities, necessitated a shift in your writing, your aesthetics.
AC: Well, a few things happened. As I was writing about the history of plastic and drawing links from this technology to my own history, I felt the luxury and space to take my time, to kind of meander through this subject matter. I first visited Freeport, Texas, on the Gulf Coast in 2014. I went there because that is where Dow Chemical has one of the world’s largest plants for producing polyethylene, among the most common plastics on the planet. I met with Melanie Oldham, an activist leader. At the time, the community was focused on a company called Gulf Chemical that processed waste from refineries and had been spewing toxic and cancer-causing heavy metals into the community for years. The town is surrounded by various fossil-fuel-related industries, and they weren’t so much thinking about plastic. Days after I left, though, Melanie texted me to say that Dow had just applied for a permit to expand its plastics plant.
When I returned to the Gulf Coast in 2019, the plastic boom was already devastating communities, and threatening more. I felt the urgency and pressure to bear witness to this reality, which propelled the writing in a more linear and narrative direction.
That was the first sign of what was to follow: a $200 billion boom of new plastic plants being built all along the Gulf Coast, and in the Ohio River Valley and Appalachia, as oil and gas and petrochemical companies sought to take advantage of the cheap gas produced by fracking. The companies had seen the future: demand for oil and gas in vehicles will drop as electric cars take over the market, but demand for plastic is only projected to grow around the world. Producing plastic with cheap gas would give these companies a way to continue profiting at the expense of communities already suffering a very high burden of pollution. And this is at the expense of our global climate, because producing plastic also creates a large amount of climate-warming pollution.
When I returned to the Gulf Coast in 2019, the plastic boom was already devastating communities, and threatening more. I felt the urgency and pressure to bear witness to this reality, which propelled the writing in a more linear and narrative direction. I still wanted to draw links between this reality and my own, and with the broader historical and global forces driving our status quo.I hope I achieved that. I don’t think we as a society can solve these problems unless we understand their full scope and our own personal stakes.
Doubting our efficacy is not helpful—it saps energy and strength.
BT: All of us who write about environmental crises feel a certain urgency, the need to be of service—and yet, almost all of us who write about these crises doubt the writing’s efficacy as service. Which is why I was so moved by your commitment to Gulf Coast activist communities: you describe injustices, you document resistance, and you acknowledge your privilege as a white woman and outsider and your complicity as a consumer of fossil fuel. You point to some of the ethical risks of such a commitment, and you make it anyway under the sign of urgency and necessity and solidarity. I wonder if you could speak a bit more about putting this book in service to, and what that means to you.
AC: Doubting our efficacy is not helpful—it saps energy and strength. Capitalism may not value literary writing, in particular poetry, very much. The truth, though, is that as a published author and professional writer, I have cultural and social capital that can be of service. I learned that in a powerful way when I was writing my book Green-Wood, set in the cemetery of that name in Brooklyn, NY. I described the grave of a sergeant killed in Iraq. His family encountered that description, and it was of enormous importance to them as a memorial. Sergeant Joseph O. Behnke’s widow and other members of his family attended the reading I gave from the book at Green-Wood.
In this Plastic book, just bearing witness to the struggles of some of these communities may serve in a small way. Recent polling has shown that most white Americans remain unaware that Black, Latinx, and low-wealth communities suffer more from pollution, so any act that counters this ignorance may help. Beyond the book, I’ve been using my skills as a writer and researcher with experts from the East End of Freeport to conduct a series of oral histories among residents—who are all elders. They want to capture the legacy of this historically Black community that is being wiped out by the expanding Port, part of a response to the plastics and fracking boom. In these efforts, I follow the leadership and expertise of the community. I don’t impose my own views or suggest solutions.
I’ve come to believe that for any solution to be durable, our Euro-centric, industrialized societies must fundamentally transform our relationship to ourselves. This means rejecting the myth of individualism that has grown so toxic to our political, economic, and emotional lives.
BT: I love being reminded that naming itself can powerfully serve a community. And I also love how your book dramatizes a fundamental tension in a lot of environmental crisis writing: namely, how does the writer position themselves in relation to the larger culture that created the crisis? Do they participate in reifying big science and technological culture as the solutions to climate crisis? Do they critique these capitalist institutions whose cultural and economic power draws upon a long history of imperialism—and leave it at that? Your book is unusually honest in that it records a shifting of allegiances—you segue from the global crisis to the local level, siding with communities whose health, lives, and histories are extracted from the land like oil or gas. But, unlike so many other books, it doesn’t promise or propose any large-scale solutions to global crises. How did you come to resist the lure of offering solutions?
AC: I’ve been working on solutions for an environmental nonprofit for twenty years, and I’ve come to believe that for any solution to be durable, our Euro-centric, industrialized societies must fundamentally transform our relationship to ourselves. This means rejecting the myth of individualism that has grown so toxic to our political, economic, and emotional lives. This myth grew out of Enlightenment reforms and gained currency during the Industrial Revolution, just as capitalist modes of production and technologies like plastic began to take hold. Our global-scale crises of pollution, disease, and nuclear threat ask us to understand the reality that we are not individuals, but that we are networks and ecosystems—like trees, and fungus, and coral—enmeshed and interdependent, linked in time and space with all else. Proceeding from this knowing makes much of our contemporary culture and its waste feel…obscene, which is a word that originally meant “something that bodes ill, foreboding.” The one goal of Plastic is to embody and evoke—in at least a small way—that sense of enmeshed being.
It is desire, not despair, that will reconstitute the world.
BT: That acknowledgment of enmeshment is one reason I turn to and return to your work. It reminds me that there’s an ethics in what we turn toward. You “orient” yourself toward objects and people in ways that read to me as distinctly queer, full of desires both articulated and unarticulated, unexpected attachments that create powerful, painful intrapsychic conflicts. “Compulsory heterosexuality produces a ‘field of heterosexual objects,’” Sara Ahmed writes in Queer Phenomenology, “by the very requirement that the subject ‘give up’ the possibility of other love objects.” And I love how your work refuses to give up other love objects! Given that the ultimate aim of Plastic is one of expansive love —for that plastic car part, even — I wonder if you could speak to how your queerness guides your approach to writing about environmental crisis?
AC: It is desire, not despair, that will reconstitute the world. I learned this from others—from queer people and people of color. The writer, poet and journalist Irene Vázquez from Houston pointed me to an open letter from the scholar Eve Tuck, who is is Unangax, an enrolled member of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska. Tuck calls on communities, researchers, and educators to turn away from a “damage-centered” approach to documentation, in which all we do is record brokenness, and instead adopt a “desire-centered” approach. In this she follows the queer performance artist and scholar Craig Gingrich-Philbrook, who wrote that in his performance pieces he decided to stop documenting the hate and bashing he experienced as a queer person, which served mainly as “an advertisement for power.” Instead, he decided to depict what is beautiful in the lives of queer people, their intimacy and desire.
“Desire,” writes Tuck, “is not mere wanting but our informed seeking. Desire is both the part of us that hankers for the desired and at the same time the part that learns to desire. It is closely tied to, or may even be, our wisdom.”
…it is out of joy, out of a clear-eyed love for one another and the planet, that we can draw the strength needed to do the hard task before us: to re-imagine the world, a world that is not just an “advertisement for power,” but one that is more just, more equitable, and more abundant.
The power of queer desire, as you note, is that it opens radical possibilities for love objects, including a piece of plastic trash. Our survival, I believe, depends on this kind of love—on treating objects that our culture considers worthless, garbage, with the reverence and respect that matches their actual human and environmental cost. If humans really could feel and embody the true cost of a piece of plastic garbage, our entire economic system—based on waste and exploitation—would crumble. And that is the kind of radical transformation needed now.
I feel, as many do I think, a lot of grief about the state of our society and our planet. As I wrote this book, though, I came to understand that desire and joy are harder—and more resilient and creative—than despair. I learned this from community leaders and experts who live on the frontlines of pollution and climate change, who don’t have the luxury of despair. I learned that it is out of joy, out of a clear-eyed love for one another and the planet, that we can draw the strength needed to do the hard task before us: to re-imagine the world, a world that is not just an “advertisement for power,” but one that is more just, more equitable, and more abundant.
Plastic: An Autobiography By Allison Cobb Nightboat Books Paperback, 9781643620381, 352pp. April 2021