Featured image is a sculpture made from microplastics washed up by the Atlantic Ocean by Jason deCaires Taylor. https://www.underwatersculpture.com

It seems that each day brings new controversies and crises for polarized people to argue about on social media. It is hard in the face of such daily tragedies and outrage to keep in mind that the planet on which we have these arguments may not be a viable place for humans to live much longer.

I’m thankful for a beautiful piece of music that reminded me of this recently by my talented friend Neal Curran and his band Infielder. The song, called Corpus Christi, intersects themes of ocean pollution, the Eucharist, my home state, transubstantiation, micro-plastics, and fossil fuels (lyrics to the song at the end of the post). I would like to try and unpack a few of the ideas that the song provokes. But first go ahead and give it a listen.

I grew up in Texas and remember vacations to the Gulf of Mexico as a child where I had to get oil scrubbed from my skin after playing at the beach! My family today has also tried to make visits to the beach a part of our vacations. We have gone to Corpus Christi and Port Aransas a number of times for beach vacations and it was lovely! However, I distinctly remember another vacation where we followed the Brazos river all the way from Waco to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico in Freeport, TX for our vacation.

I didn’t realize at the time that Freeport is home to a lot of the petroleum industry. On our way to the beach, we passed gigantic facilities for processing petroleum. Turns out that Freeport has been home to Dow Chemical since 1940. In fact, Dow actually built the community, Lake Jackson, where we were staying that year for our vacation!

Photo of Dow’s Freeport plant from http://www.hydrocarbonprocessing.com/news/2017/05/fluor-begins-mechanical-construction-for-dow-chemical-project

In 1963 the Dow plant covered more than 3,000 acres and was the largest basic chemical processing plant in the world. Today it is Dow’s largest integrated site and spans 7,000 acres including more than 3,200 acres of waterways and pipeline corridors and houses more than 1,900 buildings across the site [1]. In 2017 after Dow merged with DuPont, they opened a new ethylene and plastics plant at the location. The Houston Chronicle reported, “The project includes a massive ethane cracker that separates a component of natural gas liquids called ethane, which in turn will provide the feedstock for some 1.5 million metric tons a year of ethylene, the most common building block of plastics. A large portion of an upcoming $4 billion expansion will go toward expanding the plant to 2 million metric tons a year, eventually making it the world’s largest ethylene production plant” [2].

So, this is where the raw material for all the plastic we use is processed and created.

© AL GRANBERG. SOURCE: NATURE, 537:488, 2016; SCIENCE, 347:768-71, 2015 [3]

Eat or Be Eaten
The Christian tradition of the Eucharist is one in which the consumption of the elements of bread and wine transform into the body and blood of Christ. One theory of this process is called transubstantiation, in which the substance of the elements is transformed but the characteristics you taste when they are consumed are maintained.

William Cavanaugh argues that the Eucharist transforms the gathered individual believers into the Body of Christ or Corpus Christi in Latin (The Social Meaning of the Eucharist). Cavanaugh’s book Being Consumed argues for the Eucharist as an antidote to consumerism. “The act of consumption is thereby turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it.” He then adds this quote from St. Augustine, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me” [4].

In contrast to this vision of the Eucharist, the ubiquity of microplastics in our environment means that although our consumer culture empties the products we buy of any meaning or substance, those same products are now having their revenge as we consume what we have discarded. “In the past few years, scientists have found microplastics in our soil, tap waterbottled waterbeer and even in the air we breathe. And there’s growing concern about the potential health risks they pose to humans” [5]. The consumer, who has no regard for the origins or substance of the things he consumes, finds himself transformed, transubstantiated, by his worship of this idol into the raw material which fuels this consumer religion.

This is the “unholy communion” in which we partake. As our awareness and understanding grow about this, there is hope in the last line of the song that “we’re losing faith in petroleum communion.”

Corpus Christi by Infielder

I wrapped up all my strange dreams in
Clear plastic memory
Safe for the next few centuries
Where the bad times that brought me to my knees
I’m not the only one who’s losing sleep

From the storm drains to the floodplains
And out to the Atlantic

Where the parts per million
Are easily forgotten
We’ll all partake in
This holy uncommunion

You’re banking hard on miracles
Like a biscuit forgets the mixing bowl
It’s as good as true for all you know
An endangered beast will die in its tracks
That’s water to wine that you can’t get back

From the sand dunes of the North Woods
To the smoke plumes of Corpus Christi

Where the parts per million
Are transubstantiated
We’ll all breathe deep in
This holy uncommunion

To the eye
It’s never the right place or time
It’s imperceptible

It’s beauty in its darkest form
Like a bombed out arts and craft store
We’ll make our way through the null and the void
We’ll do as anyone would expect
We’ll pick through the shit and take anything left

From the desert to the delta
And out to the Pacific

Where the parts per million
Are easily ingested
We’ll all partake in
This holy uncommunion
We’re losing faith in
Petroleum communion

[1] https://www.dow.com/en-us/about-dow/locations/texas/freeport/history
[2] https://www.chron.com/business/energy/article/DowDuPont-opens-massive-ethylene-and-plastics-12217420.php
[3] https://www.the-scientist.com/features/plastic-pollutants-pervade-water-and-land-31445
[4] Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009.
[5] https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/22/health/microplastics-land-and-air-pollution-intl/index.html

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